Cowriting a Novella as a Mother-Daughter Team

Cowriting a story is a beautiful sort of alchemy – taking the best instincts of two creative minds and sifting out the less helpful elements to create something uniquely wonderful.

It's a process not entirely unlike writing a story by yourself. You still have to keep the hallmarks of a good story in mind, crafting enjoyable characters, plot twists and turns, and settings. But embarking on this path with another writer brings its own set of challenges and joys.

For the past while, I've been cowriting a contemporary novella with my mum, Susan. Now that we're a good way into the rough draft, we thought we'd open the virtual door to our writing studio and give you a glimpse into the cowriting process!

One thing that's been interesting from the start about our cowriting journey is what we both brought to the table. Mum has a captivating sense of whimsy and an eye for sensory details that breathe life into otherwise bland settings. I have a knack for escalating tension and more experience generally with writing longform fiction.

Neither of us were certain how this journey would unfold, only that we were excited to find out!

How did it feel to embark on this process?

TORI: I was excited but also nervous. I enjoy a lot of independence when I'm working on creative projects and was worried that I wouldn't be able to shift gears well enough for it to be an enjoyable process for us both, or that I would be fighting the urge to "take over" – I hated the idea that you would feel creatively hampered, especially because I know how much you have to offer.

Thankfully, that fear hasn't come to fruition! I had in mind from the get-go that this was a different sort of adventure than my solo projects and that has made it relatively easy to approach it differently. I've found a lot of joy in working on this collaboratively and embracing the freedom in a new-to-me creative boundary!

SUSAN: I went into it with great enthusiasm, and a little bit of trepidation. I didn't want to 'disappoint' you in any way, and I knew it wasn't something that I could, or that I wanted to, start and stop, which is something I do all too often.

I felt confident that we could be flexible enough to collaborate well, but it's been interesting to see how things have evolved (in a good way) in that regard. I was excited to start but I truly had no idea how rewarding this would be.

The delights of pre-planning!

TORI: Since we already knew the story idea we wanted to pursue, the first thing was deciding how the cowriting process would work.

While planning the story, before doing any actual writing, we felt comfortable with freeform collaboration, with a nudge from me here and there to guide the process, based on past experience.

Once we started writing the rough draft, we decided to trade off after every scene, with the flexibility to go a little further before handing it back if one of us was particularly inspired and "in the zone".

On subsequent drafts, we plan to swap things around and work through the scenes the other person wrote, filling out sparse areas, getting more detailed, adding a new writerly perspective. In theory (we're not there yet!) this will both progress the quality of the draft and begin to blend our individual styles into something more cohesive.

Revisions will be a collaborative process, something we'll figure out specifically once we get there.

Early on, we also did copywork of each other's past writing. We both chose snippets of scenes from different stories we've worked on and handed them off, then did the copywork one day at the library.

The copywork exercise reminded me how visual your writing is, how I can really "see" what's happening in my mind – it was a fantastic icebreaker! I haven't felt the need to do this again yet, but I still have the scenes just in case.

What was the experience of doing the copywork like for you?

SUSAN: I loved the copywork exercise. I was very familiar with your work, but copying the writing helped me sink into your writing and refamiliarize myself with it. It was a great way to loosen up, too, with none of the kind of pressures inherent to the writing process. I liked sitting at a table by a window in the library, and then settling into the writing. The time flew by as the writing flowed onto the page.

Now that the rough draft has begun, how are things going?

TORI: Better than I expected (and I expected it to be fun, with some tough moments)! My enjoyment of rough drafts has been growing slowly the past few years, and something we keep coming back to with this project is to approach this process as though it's a joy, not a burden. It doesn't always work, but it's a welcome reminder nonetheless!

Our plan to swap scenes back and forth has worked out beautifully. We're both getting a chance to introduce different characters to the story, and we've each had a mix of hectic scenes and softer ones.

SUSAN: Sharing pieces of the scene we're working on has been helpful and fun. We can do a "What about this?" if we're stuck on a point, or sometimes we'll just say, "Oh, I love that bit!" I like going back and forth with the scenes, and I also like planning out the outlines together.

TORI: We each did our first scenes more or less solo, but after that we realized it was helpful to collaborate on planning the upcoming scenes, sharing ideas on what needs to happen and what could happen. We're still each taking creative ownership over the individual scenes at this stage, but having the opportunity to detangle some of the potential issues and explore possibilities together beforehand has been super helpful!

SUSAN: Brainstorming the scenes together, as a precursor to outlining them, just kind of happened. It's super fun and extremely helpful.

TORI: I've also been thrilled to see your confidence blossom from the first scene you wrote to now. I've donned my dusty "writing coach" hat a few times along the way, and the more you put things into practice, the dustier that hat gets! It's the coolest thing to see writing concepts "click" as you motor along Rough Draft Highway. 😉

SUSAN: I've been delighted when a couple of the suggestions you've offered have led me to incorporate something into the scene I'm writing, and I've looked at it and said, "Oh, there we go, that's much better!"

TORI: How are you feeling about the rest of the rough draft? The further we go, the more I feel momentum build, and it feels like it's getting more solid and "real", like it's coming alive! We're really doing this! We're crafting a story together!

SUSAN: I've felt myself getting bogged down at times, but I think it's starting to gather steam and I like that!

Any tips for hopeful cowriters?

SUSAN: We found it helpful to get out of the house, leave other worries aside.

TORI: And share ideas and thoughts while on a walk!

SUSAN: And if we could find dogs to watch, that was a bonus!

Also, don't be precious or rigid about your ideas. The more flexible we are, the more fun we have, and the more the ideas seem to flow.

TORI: And on the other side of that, if there's something you feel strongly about, speak up! There have been times where one of us has voiced a definite preference, and sometimes it still wasn't right for the story we're wanting to tell together, but other times we've been able to find a way to work something in, even if it's different than the other person originally envisioned.

I also created a two-column chart for us to follow in the beginning, with all the planning and pre-drafting tasks we needed to work through. I loved ticking things off the list as we went!

SUSAN: The list had mutual tasks and individual tasks. Tick, tick, tick. All of a sudden, things were really moving!

Final thoughts from the both of us!

While cowriting won't be the right choice for every person or every story, absolutely follow your heart if the idea of cowriting intrigues you! Choose your cowriter(s) wisely, embrace the unpredictability, and have fun. It's a creative journey like no other.

Helpful Resources & Works Cited

"Introducing the Find the Write Spark Challenge": a fun intro to the wonders of copywork!

"How to Overcome Writer's Block in a Unique New Way": an idea tailor-made for those times in the cowriting process when you need a hefty boost of encouragement.