The Chaotic Joy Of Co-Writing A Series

About a year ago my business partner and fellow indie author, Sim Alec Sansford, messaged me asking if I had ever considered writing a book with someone else. The answer was no. It had never occurred to me and I have always wondered how on earth writers manage collaborative writing projects. It just seemed far too complicated and not at all something I would ever want to try. Sim had an idea for a book and wondered if I would consider writing it with him. I think if anyone else had asked me I would have given an instant no. But Sim and I get on really well as business partners at Chasing Driftwood Writing Group and feel the same passion for writing and for our characters. I’d read some of his work and he’d read some of mine, and I had to admit, it felt like we could possibly pull it off.

So, I agreed. I figured, at the very least it would be an interesting experience and one I could learn from! Little was I to know how Sim’s tentative request and fledgling book idea would snowball!

Roughly a year later, we have completed two books in a paranormal YA series and we are currently racing towards the finish line of the final book in the trilogy. We never set out to write a series, but we soon realised that’s exactly what it was becoming.

I’ll probably blog again when the books are finished and I’ll spend more time telling you about them, but for now I just wanted to write about how the whole process has worked. Because it’s worked in a really strange and unexpected, dare I say, chaotic way!

So, as you probably already know, I have a certain process when I write a book. It goes a bit like this:

I get a character in my head who grows and grows until they get so real and so noisy, I have to start writing it down.

I start a notebook and start adding the ideas for a story, and it’s the character suggesting the ideas, not me.

When I’m able to start the book, I plan out a certain amount of chapters, write all my character bios, and get going.

I do any research along the way, as and when I need to. The first draft normally takes me about three months then I will spend probably about a year doing further drafts, edits and rewrites. By about draft 5 or 6 I will send it to beta readers and then do another rewrite/draft depending on what they said. Eventually it will go to my wonderful editor and proof-reader, then back to me for another round and then finally I will start to organise the publishing process.

Everything goes in the notebook, so I can have it there handy as I write and can jot down future ideas for chapters and scenes, character info and more. In my head at least, it’s kind of an organised process. It might look messy to anyone else, but it works well for me.

Writing books with another author has been so different!

We started off with good intentions and I even started a little notebook of ideas and character bios so we could keep track of who was who and so on. I also started writing chapter outlines to send back and forth so we could keep an eye on what we had written and ideas we had coming up.

All of this fell by the wayside though as the story took control!

Somehow, and I am really not sure how, we have managed to write almost three books in a year purely by swapping messages with each other on Facebook!

Initially Sim had a vague idea and we started creating a character each. He wanted to write the female character, Darcie and I wanted to write the male, JJ. I’m not sure when we decided that they would have super powers, but we did! I wrote the first chapter purely by instinct and luckily it seemed to be what Sim was thinking too. He quickly responded and off we went. Mostly it has been a really fast process, with us swapping chapters most days or every couple of days. We both work and write our own books too, so I am surprised we got so much done. We did keep each chapter fairly short and snappy and ended most on cliff hangers to set up the next chapter, so I guess we helped each other out a bit there! We really didn’t get too stuck too often.

Every time we read the other’s chapter, we would send a message asking what ideas would work in ours so we didn’t mess up the flow of scenes. We would both suggest stuff that could happen and with every chapter we wrote, more and more of the story unfolded before us. We got really excited and our messages reflect this! Once we got going, there was really no stopping us. We whizzed through the first two books and inevitably our original ideas grew more complex, we introduced more characters and storylines and sub-plots.

I think it’s fair to say that we are both totally in love with these characters we have created and the world they live in. We have created a strange little town called Fortune’s Well, which is loosely based on Sim’s childhood home of Dorchester. I recently visited Dorchester and was so excited to see in person some of the locations we have used in the books!

To start with we were both a bit nervous when writing the other person’s character into our chapter. But as the story grew and the characters evolved, we both felt we knew JJ and Darcie equally. Now I think it just feels natural to write both characters and we don’t feel we have to check with each other that we got their mannerisms or speech right.

So, the usual way I write books kind of fell aside and our original plans for writing these books also got left behind. Somehow we just muddled our way through using messages. I’m surprised it worked but there you are, we are nearly at the end of the trilogy and both of us are so excited to share it with everyone when it’s ready.

It’s been a really refreshing and fun addition to my writing life. Most evenings I work on my current WIP, but if I get sent a chapter from Sim, I will read it, digest it and then respond as soon as I have an idea. This way we have both managed to carry on with our own work as well as our co-writing project. Our series is so different to anything I have written before (paranormal, kids with super powers!!) and that’s been really exciting as well. We both love YA but I normally stick to gritty realism, so to dip into supernatural/paranormal/super powers territory has been the best fun ever. I really love this series and these characters and it’s inspired me to try these genres more in the future.

It’s been crazy, unexpected, exciting, challenging, messy, and above all else chaotic, but I have loved every moment of it. So much so, that we have already decided to work on another series together when this one is finished. This time its based on an idea I had that came from a short story I wrote. I think that if writing together worked once, there is every chance it will work again!

I will post about these books another time but for now, here is the blurb Sim came up with!

In the town of Fortune’s Well a dangerous storm is brewing, and two unsuspecting teenagers are standing right at the heart of it.

For JJ Carson, life has not been easy. His father is dead, his mother arrested for the murder, and he has been forced to live on the farm with his alcoholic uncle, Henry. Just when things could not get any worse, JJ discovers his living situation is not the only thing that makes him different from the other kids. A dark, swirling mist has made itself at home inside him and it is slowly changing him from the inside out.

Enter Darcie Duffield. Beautiful, popular, and incredibly misunderstood. Darcie is sick of the status quo and wants to make a difference. After a chance meeting with a strange boy at the river she becomes tangled in a web of lies and deceit as she tries to help save him from the darkness lurking within.

Why is this happening?

Where has it come from?

And why is Darcie the only one who can see it?

Writer’s Block is Really Your Friend (and you should listen to it)

Writer’s block is a horrible term I don’t even like to use. I think most writers hate the term and loathe the reality. We dread getting writer’s block but what does writer’s block even mean? How does it feel to be ‘blocked’ and what, if anything, is the ‘block’ trying to tell us?

I am very fortunate because writer’s block is not something I usually suffer from. I tend to have too many ideas, and too many projects on the go and my main problem is not enough time to do it all in! But recently the dreaded writer’s block struck and in fact I now realise it was with me for some time.

So, what is writer’s block? I think it can manifest itself in different ways. There is a block to ideas, when a writer quite simply can’t think of anything to write about. These writers tend to have big gaps between writing projects while they wait for the muse to show up again. There are blocks that happen mid-flow – one minute you are tapping away at the keyboard and then suddenly it all runs out. Your mind goes blank and you cannot conjure up the next words. There is also what I call plot blocks. Basically, you get stuck. You don’t know what to do next with the plot. Maybe you had it all planned out but now can’t figure out how to do it, or maybe you were winging it from the start and just ran out of steam. I’m not sure what type of block is the worst but I am more than familiar with the dread of sitting down and staring at a blank Word document.

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

The block I’ve been suffering from was none of the above, not really. My current work in progress is a four book YA post-apocalyptic series. I had the idea a few years ago and it had to wait its turn. During that time I started a little notebook of themes, ideas and character bios. I always knew this one was going to be a challenge. I love the post-apocalyptic genre as you might already know from my post here: https://chantelleatkins.com/2021/07/02/post-apocalyptic-fascination/. From the start, I had this feeling that the series was a good idea but someone else would be able to do a better job with it than me. I don’t normally feel like that about my book ideas. I’m usually hugely protective and obsessed with them so I would never consider offering or suggesting the idea to someone else. But this one niggled from the start.

I started book one about a year ago but had to keep stopping to get other books finished and published. I was initially quite surprised with how well it went. The first chapters flew out of me effortlessly and were exactly what I wanted. I genuinely think the first few chapters of book one are excellent and I’m proud of them. It got harder after that. It became a slog!

And that’s the difference between these books and my others. Aside from my YA dystopian The Tree Of Rebels, all of my books follow a familiar pattern. I get the character first, they suggest the plot, back story, dilemma and so on. It builds in my head and everything flows from the characters until my head gets so noisy it feels like it will explode. By the time I get around to writing it it almost writes itself because I know it all so well. It’s not hard. It’s fun. It’s addictive and exciting. I normally cannot wait to sit down at my desk and tap away. Sure, I get stuck here and there and some parts are trickier than others, and first drafts are always a clumsy affair, but I still love it and believe in it.

With these books it has been hard work. I’ve forced myself to write a chapter a night most nights and with that work ethic I have managed to write the first two books and even get them to fourth draft stage. I am now nearing the end of the first draft of book three. I know what will happen in book four so it is all getting there. But it is so painful! When I say I force myself, I really do. I stare at the screen for ages. I nearly always get distracted by my phone, checking social media or emails or playing a game. Because it’s hard and I don’t like it being hard!

The trouble has been not understanding why it has been so hard and the other day I finally worked it out. As I mentioned earlier the only other book I had this trouble with was The Tree of Rebels. And there are similarities with this series – The Tree Of Rebels came from a concept first. I had the idea and then built the characters around it. The other similarity I only just realised was that I started writing that book and this series with an audience in mind. I knew The Tree Of Rebels would be a YA dystopian. It was great knowing that because then I’d know who to market it towards. Normally it’s a struggle to figure out what genre my books are! With this series, I knew it would be YA post-apocalyptic and with both The Tree Of Rebels and this series I wanted to aim them at 12-14 year olds. That’s the younger YA age bracket to my other books. I have some books aimed at adults and some aimed at 14 years and up. With The Tree Of Rebels I wanted to write a book my children could read at the time and with this current series I wanted to write a book the children who attend my writing clubs could maybe enjoy…

And that was the trouble! That was the block! When I realised it was like this light bulb eureka moment! Now I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out!

Having the idea before the characters was a problem but the main problem was deciding who to aim it at before I even started writing. It’s like having someone watch over your shoulder the whole time and it totally changes the experience for me. I start thinking about what elements are expected in that genre and what things are suitable or appropriate for the age group. It ruins the process. I feel like I am writing a book to order, writing for someone else, and that just doesn’t work for me.

I realised that the age group was a real problem. There is a big difference between books aimed at ‘tweens’ and books aimed at older teenagers. I didn’t feel I could swear in this series and it’s just not as gritty or hard hitting as my other books. It’s just not me.

But all that is going to change. Once I figured out what was causing the writer’s block I made a decision. I’m now going to aim the series at the older YA audience and I am going to do what I normally do. Let rip, let them swear, go as dark and gritty and edgy as I like! I am going to write these books for me and no one else because that is the only way it works for me.

It’s amazing but since I realised all this, the chapters have started flowing again. It feels different. It feels exciting and a bit naughty! I have already wandered into darker territory. I am going to finish book three in this vein and carry on into book four. Of course, then I need to go back and rewrite everything I have done so far. I do think that was partly what prevented me from admitting what was wrong – knowing how much work I’d have to do to correct it! But I’m looking forward to it now. There will be more character development, some extra chapters and lots of rewriting in each book but I think it will all be worth it. And I will keep one thing in mind the entire time until these books are ready to publish – I am writing this series for ME. I am writing the books I want to read.

That should work!

And I suppose the moral of the story is always listen to writer’s block because it’s just trying to tell you something. For that reason, writer’s block is actually your friend. You just need to figure out what it’s telling you.

Do you ever suffer from writers’ block? If so, what kind? And what do you do to push through it?

New Book Babies

It might sound a bit odd when authors compare their books to babies, but I think it sort of makes sense. You spend years putting the work into a book, moulding it, shaping it, nurturing it and encouraging it to grow and evolve at the right pace. And then at some point, when it’s ready, you let go of it and release it into the world. It’s similar to child-rearing in that way. Plus, authors are so connected to their books and often so in love with their own characters, that it just feels right to call them your babies.

Just lately I’ve been releasing a lot of babies that were cooking for a long time, so it felt right to blog about it. My blog posts for a while now have been taken up by wonderful guest posts. More on that and where it’s heading next another time! But for now, it’s really nice to climb back behind the driving seat of The Glorious Outsiders to update you all on my new babies.

Over a year ago I released the first in a YA trilogy, A Song For Bill Robinson. Here is a post I wrote at that time about where the idea for the book originally came from and how it later grew into a trilogy. https://chantelleatkins.com/2019/11/08/10-fun-facts-about-my-new-book/ After releasing the first book, I continued working on the second and third books, but I was also finishing up The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series – another mammoth amount of babies! And because Emily’s Baby finishes with a cliff-hanger, I decided I would hold back its release until the third book, The Search For Summer was also ready. I planned to release the final two books within a month of each other and that’s exactly what I’ve done.

If you are interested in a dramatic, gritty YA series about an unsolved murder, a neighbourhood feud and a self-destructive teenage singer, then A Song For Bill Robinson and Emily’s Baby are available now in ebook and paperback and on multiple platforms and The Search For Summer is available to pre-order and will be released on Friday 30th April.

It feels really good to have another series completed and released. Obviously writing a series of books is a huge challenge and extremely time-consuming and there is always a massive feeling of relief when the final one is out there!

At the same time, you feel a bit strange and a bit bereft. The characters have been with you for so long by this point that you feel lost without them. The good news is I am already in the middle of another series of books, plus I am co-writing a series with author Sim Sansford. So that is more than enough to keep me busy!

My new book babies are a YA post-apocalyptic series of which I have just finished book two. There will be four books in this series. And the series I am co-writing is a YA supernatural series and there will be three books.

After all of that I will be looking forward to writing a standalone book! And funnily enough, I already have one on the go. I’ve written some chapter outlines, character bios and some very rough chapters for a standalone which is actually a spin-off book from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series. Two brothers are introduced as secondary characters in the final book of the series and I enjoyed writing them so much, I decided to give them their own book. I can’t wait to share news of that with you in good time.

But for now, it’s back to the massive book babies and getting another two series complete and released!

I hope I did my job the best I could and I hope they do well out there!

Indie Author of the Month – Sim Alec Sansford

It’s time to celebrate another indie author and this month I am welcoming Sim Alec Sansford to The Glorious Outsiders. Sim was one of the masterminds behind last years very first Blandford Literary Festival – a fantastic literary event I was honoured to be a part of. Sim has also just released his debut novel, Welcome To Denver Falls. Here, Sim tells us how it feels to finally be a published writer, how music is a massive inspiration and how supportive and welcoming he has found the writing community to be.

  1. Tell us about your latest release. What is it about and who is it aimed at?

My latest release is my debut novel, Welcome to Denver Falls.

The story follows photography student, Harper Andrews, who leaves the comfort of her college campus behind, and ventures to the mysterious town of Denver Falls. Plagued by haunting dreams and unsettling visions, Harper faces a race against time to unlock secrets of the past in order to save her future.

There is a lot of suspense and a little romance, but it is really a tale about friendship and self-belief. That’s the message I hope resonates the most with readers.

2. Tell us about your publishing journey so far.

My first experience with publishing was in November 2019, when I published my first short story, The Storm, online. Growing up, as a young writer, I found it difficult to know where to turn for support. This prevented me from sharing my work. In early 2019, I heard about a local writing group in my town and decided to put my fears and anxieties aside. I took my short story along with me, and the reaction from the other writers was an incredible confidence boost. I was fortunate to make some great friends who ultimately talked me through the process of publishing my work online. It was a mountain to overcome the fear of sharing my work but, it is most definitely the best thing I have ever done.

3. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

To be completely honest, I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to write. There was something about books that I found absolutely magical and I knew right away that I wanted to be part of that magic. Whether I was writing, editing or even publishing, I knew someday, somehow, I was going to be part of that world… and I guess now I am, and that’s a really amazing feeling.

4. What is your typical writing day like?

To sum it up in one word: emotional.

I don’t think I have experienced anything else in my life so far that can cause such a whirlwind of emotions. For the most part, my writing days are pretty exciting. I love nothing more than escaping into the mind of my characters and quite often they will end up surprising me by taking things in a different direction than intended. Then there come the nagging thoughts… that sentence doesn’t sit right… But if that character does that it will change this?… Does that sound like something they would say?… How would a reader respond to this?… And so on. On a good day, I can just sit for hours typing away on the keys and before I know it the story has written itself. The trick is to not sweat the small things, just write. The rest comes later in editing.

5. What is your writing process? (how do you plot a book, come up with characters, find motivation etc)

Usually, it starts with an image. Just a quick snap shot or a short scene played out in my head. Quite often triggered by music which is something I rely on quite heavily when I need to set the tone for a story or a character. My latest release began as a small scene in a daydream; a young girl in a forest alone, then a man appeared and asked her if she was lost. It was only a small image, but from that I found myself asking a hundred questions… Who is this person? What is she doing in the forest? Is she good, evil, both? Where is the forest? Who is the man? What are his intentions?…

From there I slowly map out a plot in my head and create a playlist of songs that help capture the mood of the story. These songs then help me add new scenes, be it by interpretation of the lyrics or the way they make me feel. I tend to map most things out in my head starting with a beginning, middle and end. For the rest of the story, my way of expanding plot is just to write. I see where the story takes me and slowly over time new ideas and characters are added.

6. What has been the most positive thing about your publishing journey so far?

Definitely the connections I have made with other writers, readers and creatives. I have met some incredibly talented people that I am proud to call my friends. Their knowledge and experience have been invaluable to me and I am able to provide them with new perspectives that perhaps they have never considered. It really is a fantastic community to be part of.

7. What has been the most negative thing about your publishing journey so far?

Being self-published comes with a lot of challenges, mostly financial. Without the push of a major print, it can be expensive to promote your work, and it is often disheartening if you spend a lot of time and money on an ad campaign that returns few results. The important thing to remember is one new reader is one more than you had before. You have to stay positive and stick at it.

8. Who is your favourite character from your own books and why?

Of course, I love all of my characters, but I have to say that Abigail Millar is my favourite. She first appeared in my book, The Willow, where her story serves as a prequel to Welcome to Denver Falls. It was actually only after I had written the book that I realised just how much I had in common with her. While I have not ever made three wishes on a creepy willow tree in the middle of the woods, she really resonates with me. She’s strong and determined, and I love that.

9. Where do your ideas come from?

Most of my ideas come from music. I am a big fan of reimagined songs and love the new (often creepy) twists that the artist put on them. Bands like Until the Ribbon Breaks, and Denmark + Winter do this particularly well.

10. What can we expect from you next?

Currently, I am continuing the story of Denver Falls in the form of a second book, and a weekly series on my blog titled Welcome to Denver Falls: Soul Mate.

Though I do have a few old projects that I would love to bring to life. Particularly a supernatural dystopian romance I have been working on since my teen years. I have an eclectic group of characters in that story, and I’m positive readers will love them as much as I do. However, for now, my focus is on Denver Falls.

11. Tell us three facts about you.

I would be completely lost without music.

I’m a little bit psychic.

I value friendship over everything.

12. What is the best advice you could give to aspiring writers?

JUST. DO. IT.

I waited far too long to put my work out there for fear of the reaction… Are my stories any good? My characters compelling? Will people steal my ideas? Do I need to stick to a word count? What if I never get published? The truth is, the only person standing in your way is you.

Pick up the pen. Grab your phone or computer. Whatever you have to do, but just start writing. Don’t worry about the end goal too much, just enjoy the journey.

Writing, like life, is all about growing and changing. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. It is your world and you’re in control.

Thank you so much to Sim for joining us on the blog today as our Indie Author of The Month. If you would like to find out more about Sim and his work his bio and links are below!

Born and raised in the county town of Dorchester, Dorset, Sim began scribbling away stories on scraps of paper since before he can remember. He spent a lot of his childhood on adventures walking the dogs in the woodland surrounding Thomas Hardy’s cottage with his family. Something about the cottage and ‘the man what wrote stuff’ who had lived there sparked a fire inside him, it was from there he began to focus on writing more seriously. 
In 2012, Sim signed up to Open University to study Creative Writing alongside working full time. He isn’t quite sure how he made it out alive, but he graduated with honours and began using the skills he had acquired to edit and redraft old work. 

http://www.simalecsansford.com
Twitter.com/simsansford 
Instagram.com/simeon_alec
Facebook.com/SimAlecSansford