The Two-Headed Killer   By Sarah E. Glenn


When Gwen and I show our book to other authors, the first questions we are usually asked are: “You wrote a book together? How did you plot it?”mmexcoverfront

Creative types often have problems working together. It’s like another cook in your kitchen or, worse, a boss that tries to micromanage you. You have your creative process, and they have theirs. This is true for even authors who married other authors; sometimes the choice comes down to writing separately vs. divorce.

Yet it does happen. Richard Levinson and William Link created great television together: Columbo, Ellery Queen, Murder, She Wrote, and many other popular shows. Sometimes they devised plots together (often under the pen name ‘Ted Leighton’) which scriptwriters would turn into a television episode. James Patterson is also known for co-writing, but he takes a top-down approach: he creates the characters and a detailed plot, which is then taken over by other writers.

In our case, short stories were relatively easy. We discussed what should happen, and then one of us would begin the writing. We took turns. I remember, while writing one story, saying to Gwen, “You need to invent something,” because we’d hit the point where the character needed to reveal his invention. Then, we both had to figure out how to use it to help resolve the situation. The dialogue was a breeze. It’s fun to write, and Gwen suggests comebacks I can play off of.  It was great fun to have another imagination to build a story with. The sum was greater than the halves.

Writing a novel, though, was a bigger challenge. One of our biggest roadblocks: writing style. Gwen is a true ‘plotter’, while I am a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of the pants). When Gwen sits down to write, she lays out her plot, then starts at the beginning of the book and produces the ensuing material in a linear fashion. She inserts scenes only when the story demands it.

I don’t do well with beginnings, since story openings invite a lot of second-guessing and, frankly, procrastination. Instead, I write the scenes that are the clearest in my head. It’s like a spider web: I fill the space between the scenes with the stuff that should precede or follow them. As a result, it can take me as long as 30,000 words to figure out what a novel is really about and force it into a logical chronology. Short stories are so much easier.

So, clashes ensued. We came up with the characters together, including ‘the crime before the crime’ and who the killer was. Gwen let me choose the poison because I love that sort of thing. I began the book because she was working on Concealed in Ash. I started with a crude sequence of events for the first part of the novel and worked with the scenes I had the strongest ideas for. Then, Gwen took over for a while and added more background to my work, plus she added the scenes between the scenes. So far, no problem.

I got back into the novel after editing a couple of anthologies, read over the previous text to reorient myself, and added further scenes. This was when the trouble started. I had this unfortunate habit of writing the scene where the killer was revealed to give myself a goalpost for the in-between narrative. Then, I wrote some critical clue discovery scenes between it and where Gwen left off.

This was a big mistake. Gwen started writing at the first gap and, through organic process, revealed a big clue that I’d set later in the book. I was unhappy that she hadn’t looked ahead, while she felt that certain clues would be discovered sooner with the technology available at the time. Then, I had a spark of an idea of how future trouble could be created with the information she’d changed. We discussed the new plot twist, and I removed and retooled the conflicting scenes as necessary. After that, I made sure to run ideas by her before I wrote them.

Gwen and I finished the book by using yWriter to coordinate the plot and firm up the chronology (which days the train ran, when court was open for arraignments, etc.). Even then, details cropped up that required retrofitting other scenes and adding new narrative.

I did the final edits to sand down the bumps. Some chapters needed more work than others.  Once the text was smoothed out, though, we had a pretty good product. Readers seem to appreciate the cultural details and the plot twists that started as accidents.

I’ve begun the sequel. We have the story mapped out in yWriter, and have agreed that if one of us makes changes to the plot, it needs to be changed accordingly in the master plot. I hope this will produce a good story more quickly, but how else were we supposed to learn?

gwen-and-sarah-fapa-conf-smallerGwen Mayo is passionate about blending her loves of history and mystery fiction. She currently lives and writes in Safety Harbor, Florida, but grew up in a large Irish family in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. She is the author of the Nessa Donnelly Mysteries and co-author of the Old Crows stories with Sarah Glenn.

Her stories have appeared in A Whodunit Halloween, Decades of Dirt, Halloween Frights (Volume I), and several flash fiction collections. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, SinC Guppies, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.

Gwen has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kentucky. Her most interesting job, though, was as a brakeman and railroad engineer from 1983 – 1987. She was one of the last engineers to be certified on steam locomotives.

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Sarah E. Glenn has a B.S. in Journalism, which is a great degree for the dilettante she is. Later on, she did a stint as a graduate student in classical languages. She didn’t get the degree, but she’s great with crosswords. Her most interesting job was working the reports desk for the police department in Lexington, Kentucky, where she learned that criminals really are dumb.

Her great-great aunt served as a nurse in WWI, and was injured by poison gas during the fighting. A hundred years later, this would inspire Sarah to write stories Aunt Dess would probably not approve of.

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6 thoughts on “The Two-Headed Killer   By Sarah E. Glenn

  1. Hi Kait! Gwen and Sarah what a pair of individuals you are. Gwen a former railroad engineer – I’m impressed. It’s an interesting concept about writing things with a partner and again I am impressed you do that. I know it has been done before both in lyrics and music as well as writing and there are many very successful examples of it. In dance you have the choreographer and the dancers using the music of another person to create ballets and in movies the screen writer, director, actors etc. Collaboration is an important talent for the arts. I wish you the best with your works together and individually. It was a fascinating post and I hadn’t thought about it until reading it. It’s always important to get feedback about writing and here you have it built in with two writers and editors.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting post, Sarah. Co-writing has to be a real challenge, IMHO. I have enough arguments/misunderstandings with myself while writing;can’t imagine “blending” with another writer. How do the two of you manage voice? I can see where “two heads are (can be) better than one” while tossing ideas/plot points around. But I can also imagine difficulties with the actual writing process. That you and Gwen are able to accomplish that is commendable. What’s that old saying? “Great minds think alike.” Thanks for sharing on MMO! 🙂


  3. I share Mike’s reaction — how cool, yet how challenging this must be! I was wondering the same thing — how do you give the book a consistent voice when all is said and done, so it doesn’t sound piecemeal or patched together? Does one of you take on the final step of polishing it, or after all of your work together, does the manuscript not need it? Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We play off of one another when we write. It brings a certain emotional tone to it; something that is from both of us. After the manuscript is complete (a back-and-forth process), I do the final polish on the MS and smooth the rough spots.


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