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Jason Starr | How Do You Co-Write a Book?

August 28, 2008

This is the question I’ve gotten most often over the past few years, since Ken Bruen and I published our first book together (BUST in 2006). Writing, obviously, is normally a solitary process and it’s hard enough to organize your own thoughts coherently, so people wonder how we can possibly do it when Ken lives in Ireland and I live in the U.S. and we write entirely over the Internet?

Like with any type of writing, I don’t think there’s any formula for how to write a book with someone else. The most important thing is that the writers need to have chemistry and share the same vision. We knew we had that part down–we both knew the books would have a nourish, darkly humorous sensibility. We were more concerned about the writing itself.

Ken and I have written three books together now and going into each one I wasn’t sure we could actually pull it off, but I had my biggest doubts before we wrote the first book. We had a bit of a head start with BUST because it was loosely based on a book I had previously written, but had kept in the drawer. The original manuscript had the basic plot of what became BUST, but we basically needed to do a page-one re-write on the material and make many changes to the plot and add a couple of new characters. While it was exciting and different to co-write, it was also terrifying because we had signed a contract for a book I wasn’t sure we could actually write.

The main issues were voice and style. Normally, Ken and I write in very different styles. Ken has a much more relaxed, stream of consciousness style than I do, and we have very different rhythms to our prose, and we don’t even write dialogue the same way. So we both knew that a big challenge was to make the book read as if one person had written it. We sent some notes back and forth discussing the plotting of the first few chapters, then Ken did his take on chapter one. It was great, but it read like one of his books. So I did my take, and by sending the chapter back and forth a few times we eventually created a new style, some kind of unholy union of our writing. It had the same darkness as our individual writing, but it was a lot funnier. Some readers have falsely assumed that since we co-write and have Irish and American characters that we must switch off writing chapters. But, actually, we write the same chapters at the same time and we both write the Irish and American (and in our new book THE MAX) the British and Greek characters. I love it when someone assumes that Ken wrote a line when I actually wrote it, or I get complimented for one of Ken’s lines. It’s an indication to me that we really got the voice part down.

My other big concern was the plotting. I was afraid that we’d want to take the stories in different directions and the plots would become confused. But it’s turned out that the plotting hasn’t been an obstacle at all; it’s actually been a strength for our co-writing. Normally when I write, I always think about the plot ahead of the characters; I need to know where the story is going. Ken is just the opposite, and he always starts with the characters first. So, in this way, our styles complimented each other. I could take the lead with the plotting and Ken could push the characters into new directions and we got–as Hannah Montana might say–the best of both worlds.

I think a collaboration either works or it doesn’t work. The advantages are that you can write twice as fast (it’s very cool to write 8 pages a day instead of 4), and it can also be very enjoyable if you’re writing with someone who is also a close friend. But I think the best co-written books are the ones that couldn’t have been written by the individual authors.

There are a lot of great writing teams currently at work today, P.J. Tracy, P.J. Parrish and the Todds jump to mind. Who are some of your favorite writing teams (past or present)? If you are a writer, have you ever considered co-writing a book? What do you think would be the major obstacles for you?

As I mentioned above, The Max, my latest novel with Ken Bruen (in what we are now calling The Bust Trilogy) is now on-sale everywhere. Check out and sign up for my newsletter to win free books (I gave away 10 books already this month). If you live in the New York City area, please join Ken Bruen and Jason Starr at the official THE MAX launch party at The Mysterious Bookshop on Thursday Sept. 4 at 6:30 pm. Alison Gaylin will launch her new thriller Heartless at the same event. Hope to see you there!

Jason Starr is the multi award-winning author of nine crime novels, including his latest novel, THE FOLLOWER (paperback on Sale 12/2/08 from St. Martin’s Paperbacks). He is also-co written three novels with Ken Bruen for Hard Case Crime, edited an anthology of horse racing fiction for Vintage Books, and written an original graphic novel which will be published in 2009. Visit his website at

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