Confessions of a Writing Buddy


Thirty years ago I was only the partner of a writer. Now I am a writing buddy. I have been one for nearly twenty years.  

Thank goodness we’ve no garage. It would take a lot of these to fill it!

There is a world of difference. Back then, my attitude was this. I was happy for her that she had a pretty full time job to do, just as I had. We could share the joys of our completed projects. Meanwhile we could coexist in parallel. It was pleasant, of course, to hear news of progress and occasionally to read and admire a finished chapter. No need to bother me with the details, any more than I bothered her with mine.

But after a while the sharing began to trickle over my imaginary boundary. That made me a little less enthusiastic… I’ve read this passage before… I’ve read this passage three times before. Why do I have to read and react again? Why am I being asked about the development of this character? How can I be expected to have a view on this plot device? 

Mind you, one thing I’ve always been good at is spotting typos, misspellings, and erroneous punctuation — within seconds of seeing someone’s piece of writing. But for some reason my helpful pointing out of these did not go down well. Something to do with their being trivial, and the point being to appreciate the originality of the scene.

We were heading for confrontation. Looking back, I can’t fully understand why reading and rereading a piece of creative fiction as it grew and unfolded felt so burdensome. I do know that long term grudging involvement in — even resentment of — someone else’s cherished project is destructive, to both participants. It certainly doesn’t help the writer’s creativity.

At some point something changed. An attitude shifted. It became possible to share in the detail of the writing process, as and when participation was requested. Gradually I entered the world of the story. The scenes became real. The characters became personalities: amusing, annoying, satisfying, but above all, familiar. We could discuss what so-and-so would do outside the scenes to be written. We could think jointly about their biographies: when they were born, what sort of parents they had, their earlier career.

I found I could also be a useful assistant, helping in the organizing of files and the archiving of older versions, something that can quickly become a nightmare. The next step was a memorably big job on the second book of the Mari Howard trilogy. The scene is set before the existence of mobile phones and texting. Husband is in Britain, wife in California. Faxes and phone messages go back and forth. It’s crucial that they must arrive, and go astray, at particular times. Solution: on a long roll of paper I drew up a table with the equivalent times in the two zones so that actions could be plotted in the right sequence. I could scarcely have been more involved!

The investment of attention and interest began to pay off. At first, it was the opportunity to point out where a character speaks or acts in a way that seems not quite consistent, or the details of an event are unlikely. It developed into the possibility of suggesting what a character might do or say, and eventually even a scene that could be introduced. I have limited skills as an originator of either story or character, but once deeply immersed in someone else’s tale, and acquainted with the characters as if they lived round the corner, it’s amazing what ideas one can come up with. They may or may not be used, but the fun lies in thinking them up, puzzling over and debating how some turning point in a story can be contrived.

As the third novel in the Mullins family saga takes shape, my writing buddy role has reached maturity. I can act as reserve memory for events in the previous two books. We can ruminate together over many of the characters as old friends. This one would be greatly disliked by his cousin: remember what a scandal he caused by his choice of lifestyle? The younger sister wouldn’t mind this the way the older one does, would she? And occasionally, on a read-through, I can make small scale changes to wording without consultation, confident that I know what is acceptable. I even extensively edited the most recent publication, a small book of short stories, called Life in Art and Practice.

When I think about my writing buddy role as it now is I feel it’s more faithful to my vows than my earlier attitude of ‘you do your thing and I’ll do mine’. And, arguably, it’s more rewarding than the role of football-match buddy.

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