Writing The Engelsfors Trilogy Together, by Sara B Elfgren and Mats Strandberg (guest article)
We hardly knew each other – but the ideas we had were too good to resist. So we took a leap of faith, in the same way you do when you fall in love with someone and move in together, even though statistics tell you that a lot of relationships end up in break-ups and heartbreak.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe how incredibly naïve we were, sitting in a café in Stockholm, deciding that we were going to write together – not just one book but three books that we decided were going to be 500+ pages each, with multiple points of view and long story arcs. Or maybe we weren’t naïve; maybe we were megalomaniacs. Either way, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
When we are writing this blog post, the first two parts of The Engelsfors Trilogy (The Circle and Fire) have been published here in Sweden. We are working on the third and final book, The Key. The response to the trilogy has been overwhelming. The books will be translated into 20+ languages, including English.
Working together is wonderful. Writing can be one of the loneliest jobs on Earth, but we have each other. Our ideas get so much better when they bounce them back and forth between us. If one of us is tired or despairs, the other one can help with pep talks and take-away dinners. We get to share the joy of success, or having written a really good sentence, with someone who is equally involved. Plus, we always have company when no one turns up at a book signing.
We are lucky and we know it. It has made us realize even more how badly things could have gone. Because writing together is also really hard. You have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. Sometimes you are going to disagree on major issues in the book. You are going to be locked up in a room together editing for days and nights, sleep-depraved and sick of the whole thing.
We often get questions about writing together. How does it work? And how do you make it work? There probably aren’t any universal answers to these questions. But here are some of the things that we have learned.
1. You don’t have to be friends
We weren’t friends before we started writing together. This may have made things run smoother, since we didn’t share a common history. These days however, we know a lot more about each other than some of our ‘real’ friends do. Writing YA fiction has forced us to talk about our own teen years, our innermost fears and our views on life and death. But we rarely socialize. Talking about work on the phone ten times a day is enough. We are looking forward to hanging out once the trilogy is finished, though. So if you have a gut feeling that you could work well together – be brave and go ahead and try. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t – but if it does, you’ll have an amazing time.
2. Make sure you share the same vision
Firstly, discuss the practical stuff. What does it actually mean to work together? Do you share the same views? We are, for example, both extremely detail-oriented. For us, it would be a nightmare to work with someone who is not. Not to mention what a nightmare we would be to the wrong partner. These things are important to talk about before you start working together. Think about what potentially annoying traits you have, and tell your partner about them. Try to ask the right questions about him or her, get answers on issues that are important to you.
Also, talk a lot about books, film and tv shows that you like and dislike. We bonded over things like our love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Carnivàle, Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Prep, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But we also bonded over things we didn’t like, for instance certain character clichés in the YA genre. Make sure you have a common ground.
We also share some important views on life. Our goal is to write books that entertain, but your personal opinions on for example ethics are always going to shine through. Make sure you can agree on them.
It’s important that you share the same vision for the book, and that you agree on that what’s best for the book always comes first.
3. Get to know your story and your characters
When the book is still just an idea, the air is full of possibilities. Make the most of this period, before the hard work begins.
From the beginning we decided what would be the main conflict in every book. That gave us a sense of security, and inspiration.
We discussed our characters thoroughly, making lists of their different traits and their home situations. We even made playlists for them with what we guessed were their favourite songs. We had fun. We fantasized. You can’t, and probably shouldn’t, decide on everything about the characters before you start writing but it’s great for the process to know basic things about them and have general ideas about how they relate to the other characters.
4. Agree to agree
When you begin writing, have lots of meetings to talk to each other often and in detail. Make sure your mental hard drives are in sync. We decided early on that we were both going to agree on every line in the books. Nothing, not even the smallest detail, is ever going to be ‘Mats’ thing’ or ‘Sara’s thing’; everything should be ‘our thing’. This means that we can’t start blaming each other afterwards if we make mistakes or have regrets. It also means we have to ignore our pride. It’s hard to kill your darlings but even harder when your partner kills them. We never try to win an argument just for the sake of winning when we disagree on something.
5. Don’t be afraid to compromise
Compromising has gotten a bad rep. It makes you think of a situation where no one is really happy. What we have found is the complete opposite; when we have two completely different ideas, one of us either convinces the other or thinks of a new option. These ‘compromises’ have, in retrospect, become some of our favourite parts of the books.
6. Find your method
When we wrote the first book, The Circle, it completely took over our lives. We called each other in the middle of the night, we sent text back and forth, editing and re-editing ad nauseum. Perhaps this was a necessary part of our process, for us to find our common language. Before we started working on the seconde book, we realized that we had to set some rules. For instance, no work-related calls after 6 pm, only emails.
Our process has evolved into this: we have meetings where we break down four chapters and discuss in detail what happens in them. Then we write two of these chapters each, switch texts with each other and edit without mercy. When we get our chapters back, we read them and then discuss them, until we find a version that we both like. Sometimes we take breaks and get a rest from the text. Then we read from the beginning and edit. Once we have a first draft, we go back and edit the whole thing from then beginning, over and over.
7. Be generous but not self-effacing
Don’t try to count how many words you each have written. Statistics aren’t going to show if you share the same work load. There are weeks when one of us have too much stuff on their plate, personal problems, or other work. It all levels out in the end. If you do feel like you are taking more responsibility or have to save the other one’s sloppy writing one time too many, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Don’t let it simmer until it becomes really infected. Be prepared to take criticism – in fact, be happy for it because it means that your partner cares enough to want to solve the problem. Always question yourself: do you pull as much weight as the other one? Honestly?
8. Don’t let the sun go down on an argument
We all have bad days. You are going to have arguments, mostly about stupid things that only seem important when you are over-worked and sleep-deprived and the concept of a social life seems a distant memory. A bad mood is okay – for a couple of minutes. Let it out. Then make up and say you’re sorry. Don’t let your partner be sad or upset for a second longer than necessary.
9. Don’t forget your pom-poms!
Work, especially the editing process, consists of a lot of problem solving. Finding flaws and fixing them. Make sure you give each other credit. Show appreciation. A partner with boosted self-confidence and energy is also much more fun to write with.
10. Take care of the boring/scary stuff
If you get published, hire a lawyer to draw up a contract regarding copyrights to all things related to your book/books. It’s not at all fun to think of all things that can go wrong in your working relationship but it’s a huge relief when it’s done. As improbable as it may seem when all is fine and dandy, bad stuff happens. The world is full of examples of bitter feuds that could have been avoided. Save yourself from worrying by taking care of these things once and for all.
The Engelsfors Trilogy website: www.worldofengelsfors.com
The Engelsfors Trilogy is a #1 bestseller in Sweden and is being published around the world.
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