We recently received an email asking if it was permitted for writers to enter a joint submission into our competition. The answer (for those who may be similarly inclined) is yes, but we were intrigued as to who wanted to do that, and how easy it might be to work on a piece with another writer. So we reached out to find out more. Let me introduce Alice, and Mary:
InkTears: Tell us about yourselves, and how you started writing together?
Alice: Mary and I met at the age of four on our first day at primary school. Our writing in those days was somewhat limited. For years we lived just a few streets apart, and saw each other almost every day. Then, when we were fourteen, Mary’s family moved away. We kept in touch – in fact we spoke on the phone for an hour a day, every day, until we found ourselves studying English together at Oxford. I was at Christ Church and Mary was at Corpus Christi, the college next door.
We’ve been writing stories together for as long as we’ve known each other – I still come across ‘plays’ and ‘novels’ that we wrote as children hidden in drawers or inside books. For some reason they’re all about murder – we had a big Agatha Christie phase. More recently, though, we wrote a radioplay that was performed and recorded at the Beacon Arts Centre by Toasted Fiction Theatre.
Mary: We haven’t done any formal writing courses yet – we’re fresh out of University and are finding our feet, trying to write as much as possible. Recently we wrote a short radio play exploring the anxieties of pregnancy, which was recorded in front of a live audience and should be available as a podcast on iTunes soon!
INKTEARS: What made you decide to do a joint entry to OUR contest?
Alice: We rather like the InkTears idea of ‘short fiction for busy people.’ We love reading fiction, but we know a lot of people who say they don’t have the time. So we talked about the competition together, and came up with the idea for a very short ghost story with a twist!
Mary: I guess we’re quite lucky really – we’ve been pretty inseparable since we were four and writing is something we’ve always done together. It would never have occurred to us (well, to me at least!) to enter separately.
InkTears: How does the process of writing together work?
Alice: This question is harder to answer than you might think, actually. We talk so much that it’s easy to forget who came up with the initial idea, because by the time we put pen to paper we’ve reshaped it together into something different. Unfortunately, we can rarely work in the same room, but we use skype and talk on the phone, and tend to email a bit of work to each other every day.
Mary: I moved about eight years ago and since then we’ve not spent very much time in the same place. It’s taken a bit of getting used to, but we’ve found the best way of writing together is what we call ‘Scene and Swap’ - one of us drafts an idea for a scene and then sends it to the other, who edits it and discusses ideas or alterations. We’ve found it’s a really nice way to work because you both feel involved with every part of a piece – also it’s great because when you come to a dead-end with an idea you’ve always got a fresh pair of eyes to look at it.
InkTears: What about editing? How does that work?
Alice: We normally have a long skype call and work through the piece – Mary tends to read it aloud (she’s the better actor!) and we stop and make changes as we go. We’ve found it useful to delete anything during the editing process that we’re even slightly unsure about - we never miss it once it’s gone.
Mary: Editing is a little trickier actually – it involves lots of small decisions, which are quite hard to make if you’re not in the same room. Normally we just skype for an afternoon while we work it all out. I think it’s really nice to make those decisions with someone else – on your own, you can get bogged down with self doubt, but working with someone else means that you always have access to a more impartial perspective.
InkTears: When is a piece finished? (Who has the final say!)
Alice: Mary and I used to be the kind of ‘essay crisis’ people who need a deadline and work right up to the 59th minute of the 11th hour, but recently we’ve been getting better at finishing with enough time to relax. Somehow we can just tell when a piece is finished! We’ll edit and edit until eventually we both realise there’s nothing left we want to change. So far we’ve always reached that point at about the time.
Mary: No one has the ‘final’ say! Normally we reach a mutual point of satisfaction and you can just feel it. I think actually that working with someone else makes it much easier to feel ‘finished’ with something, because there’s someone else there to support you if you have doubts about your own work.
InkTears: Have you ever had a disagreement in your joint work?
Alice: No, we’ve never actually had a disagreement about our work! We’re very similar people with similar work ethics, so there isn’t that much for us to argue about.
Mary: The only thing I could imagine us falling out over would be our work ethic – we both suffer from the perfectionist’s curse! We want everything to be perfect so much that the pressure gets to us and we leave our work till the last minute. Ironically, this often results in it being far from perfect. But because we both do it, we always understand. We’ve actually been getting much better at working to deadlines anyway because we wouldn’t want to let each other down.
InkTears: What’s the best part of writing with a partner?
Alice: It halves that nagging feeling of self-doubt – if your partner likes what you’ve written, it makes it a lot easier not to sit and agonise about whether you’re any good. I’ve also found that working with someone you like makes you a lot more productive. If I’m having a lazy day, the knowledge that I’m wasting Mary’s time as well as my own is a huge motivator to get something done.
Mary: It’s just more fun! Writing and reading don’t seem like solitary activities to me, because we’ve always done them together. It seems natural to me to write as a pair.
InkTears: What’s the worst part!
Alice: You’ve probably read reports about identical twins with their own private language - we can be a bit like that sometimes. Because we’ve been friends for such a long time we have our own little world of interests, reference points and jokes, which can be a bit of a worry when it comes to judging how other people will relate to what we write. The fact that we’re so similar makes it harder to know whether anyone outside our bubble will enjoy our work!
Mary: You have to split the prize money!
InkTears: Who would you like to write a short story with, if you had to choose another partner?
Alice: Sorry Mary, but I’d pick Hilary Mantel.
Mary: I think Rebecca is the book that’s inspired us most as children – so writing with Daphne du Maurier would be pretty amazing.
InkTears: Any tips for other people who want to write together?
Alice: Find someone who can be a friend as well as a writing partner.
Mary: I suppose you can only really work with certain people – you’ve got to find someone with a compatible work ethic and similar interests to you. I’d say the most important thing is finding someone whose opinions you respect as much as your own – you need to believe that the other person has something valuable to add, and that together you can produce something that’s better than anything you’d create on your own.
Thank you both so much for sharing your writing experiences. I've worked with some people who've been great editors before, but never co-written a piece. I feel inspired now, but also a little daunted. It seems like you've been such good friends from such a young age, and it's impossible to replicate that. The closest I've come to that experience is to write stories about the activities of my best friends, and have them read and comment on the stories - which can be entertaining and rewarding.
If you'd like to learn more about Alice and Mary, they have their own blog, Milk & Honey, where they match favourite books with the food and drinks that they think would complement them, as well as the season in which they think they should be read. It’s all about trying to cherish the experience of reading as much as possible. Take a look if you want to see why they match Wuthering Heights with Rooibos tea! https://landofmilkandhoney94.wordpress.com (although personally I'm off to read The Princess Bride with a slice of lemon meringue pie).