Guest Post By Mark Williams: Urban Writing Myths and the New Renaissance

Mark Williams has been all over the bestseller lists, but you may not recognize his name. That’s because he is one half of a writing duo called Saffina Desforges.

Their debut novel Sugar & Spice was a smash hit in the UK, with the controversial crime thriller racking up 100,000 sales. They haven’t broken out yet in the US to the same extent, but the release of their second novel Snow White – the first in the Rose Red series – could change all that.

Here’s what Mark had to say about urban writing myths, working in a partnership, and his ambitious plans for the future.


They say being a writer is the loneliest job in the world. But in truth that’s just one of those many urban myths we writers have created about our craft to keep outsiders at bay.

You know the ones – we writers have no social life, no friends, and our own families are strangers. We sit alone in a garden shed staring at a screen or sheet of paper hopelessly waiting for inspiration to strike. We are grumpy, miserable, unsociable beings who prefer the company of fictional characters to real people. We even invent our own pseudo-ailments like “writers’ block” to make ourselves even more unapproachable. And not forgetting how writing is such hard work!

Of course it’s all bull. Every last bit of it. But there’s enough competition out there already without letting every Tom, Dick and Harriet know it’s actually the best job in the world, bar none.

So we have created this fantasy about being a writer. Okay, some of us might actually write in a garden shed, sure. And some of us might still use a quill pen. There are still a few surviving eccentrics. I know – I’m one of them! (Substitute a mud hut in West Africa for a garden shed in my case.)

But waiting for inspiration to strike? Be serious. It’s a struggle to find time to get everything written.

Unsociable? Surely the problem is getting away from our social life long enough to actually write. Try being a train driver, or a night watchman, or an accountant.  That’s unsociable.

Writers’ block? Just turn off the TV and get on with it! I worry about the day pilots decide they’ve got pilots’ block and planes start dropping out of the sky. Try telling your boss you’ve got “day-job block” and see where that gets you…

Hard work?  Sitting at a keyboard writing words is somehow harder than sitting at a till scanning a barcode on a can of beans? Try digging coal. Hard work is work you do because you have to. No-one is forced to write.

As for lonely…  Even before the advent of social media we writers fought a constant battle to pry ourselves away from the characters in our heads as they clamour to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Now, with social media, we can turn up for work in a vast e-office full of fellow writers, to share problems, offer advice, steal ideas  and generally have a great time. And unlike in a real office we can shut them all out with the click of a button when we’ve had enough.

Writing, a lonely profession? Be serious.

And that’s before we even give a thought to collaboration. No, not Vichy France. I mean co-writing.

Not for you? Unless you’ve tried it, how do you know? Fact is, everyone’s doing it. Okay, I exaggerate, but collabs are the new black, and in the new digital world it can pay off big time.

Is it coincidence that the three biggest selling indie novels on Kindle UK are co-authored? I refer to our very own Sugar & Spice and the two books (Killing Cupid and Catch Your Death) from fellow indie team Mark Edwards and Louise Voss.

One-offs? Take a closer look at indie sensation Joe Konrath and you’ll find many of his books are co-authored, and you’ll find many more writing teams out there. Some, like us, write under one joint pen-name, while for writers with an established name it pays dividends to have both names on the cover, doubling exposure at a stroke

But that’s just one of the many advantages of collaborative writing.

In practical terms you can have two heads coming up with double the ideas, the plot twists, the characters, etc. Two sets of eyes weeding out typos and plot holes. Two people motivating one another to progress the story. And both writers can work their own strengths and work each other’s weaknesses.

In commercial terms two people can write twice as fast as one. A 60,000 word novel suddenly becomes just 30,000 words each. Plus twice as much promotion.

Nor need a collaboration be limited to just two people. In television most successful series have teams of writers – up to twenty – working on a series, each contributing to maximise their strengths and downplay their weaknesses.

My prediction is this is the future for books in the digital world. Multi-authored books, especially genre series, with a half dozen writers sharing the workload and the royalties. When a paper book gave a 15% return that was never an option. But with 70% royalties available through epublishing this is just one more area where writers can innovate and succeed.

Take this example: Four writers work on one book of 60,000 words. That’s just 15,000 words each. But there are four writers’ minds and eyes bringing ideas, solving problems, making it work.

Of course, it also means sharing the royalty four ways. But hold on. A 70% royalty shared between four writers is 17.5% – More than the 15% a Big Six publisher will give you on your own for doing all the work!

And instead of taking a year to finish the first of the series and another year to get the next one out, you can suddenly be getting four books out in a year for the same amount of effort. Eight books in two years instead of two. And as we all know, what readers want most of all from a series is the next book as soon as possible. A win-win for writer and reader alike.

For our part we’ve just released Snow White, the first of the new Rose Red crime thriller series, and are now working on the next three in the series, with the second due out in November and the third in the new year.

In between these, we are busy on a jointly written chicklit mystery series, China Town, and a jointly written dark fantasy trilogy, Equilibrium. But that’s just the two of us. So the four writers working together idea is just talk, right?

On the contrary, we’ve also teamed up with two exciting new teen writers to write as a quartet to bring our readers a contemporary YA boarding-school series, St. Mallory’s.

And in case you hadn’t noticed that’s at least five different genres we’re crossing. Genre boundaries? That is just so 2010!

As I’ve said many times over on MWi, the digital revolution heralds a New Renaissance in literature and publishing, where the old rules, along with the old myths, no longer apply. Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch recently explored some great ideas for the innovative delivery of their books to readers, but the digital revolution is more than just about how we reach our readers, important though that is. It’s also about what new things we offer them to read.

Far from a tsunami of crap, the future holds a tsunami of excellence as writers experiment and innovate, unfettered by the shackles of the old corporate publishing box.

How far do you dare step outside the box?


Mark shares his thoughts on writing and the book business regularly on his blog (as well as having a constant stream of guest posters, showcasing many different indie authors).

You can check out the bestselling Sugar & Spice on Amazon US and Amazon UK. The latest release Snow White has only been out two weeks, and is already knocking on the door of the UK Top 100. It’s also available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Thank you to Mark for that fascinating post. I must say I’m looking at writing partnerships in a whole new light.

Note: This post was scheduled to run while I am on vacation. I will be too busy building sandcastles to join in the comment fun, but please be my guest.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

48 Replies to “Guest Post By Mark Williams: Urban Writing Myths and the New Renaissance”

  1. Mark, I want to know what happens when you have one viewpoint on the way the narrative should progress and your co-writer has another. When I co-wrote, along with 50 others on the Austenproject, I know I always had an idea of how I wanted my section to continue once I had given it up to the next writer. It never did of course, but fortunately it was all lighthearted and I was able to laugh at the amazing turns. But for a book to be published, that must surely be very different. How often do you skype, chatzy, email and generally un-knot the tangles. And retain friendships.

    1. Unfortunately the internet here in West Africa isn’t good enough to sustain Skype, so we just scream at each other through a constant flow of emails. I think 3000 miles is an ideal distance to have between co-authors! 🙂

      We do disagree sometimes, but most of the time we’re on the same wavelength. The key is respecting one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and never to take it personally when the other writer really hates something you’re doing. Write the abusive email telling them you always hated everything they ever wrote, but whatever you do don’t press send!

      Having co-written before in other media, and as a former creative writing tutor, I find it easy to slip into other writers’ styles and stories. (Which is also what a good editor will do.) But it’s easy to do. How many times have you beta-read a fellow writer’s work and thought, “If I were they I’d do this here and that there…”

      If you can find a fellow writer to share an idea, it’s worth trying. Between you you may come up with a new “voice” quite distinct from either author on their own, and new ideas for story lines quite distinct from what either might produce on their own.

  2. As one half of a cross-genre-writing duo, I agree completely. The key to a successful partnership (for me, anyway) is being able to leave your ego at the door and not be married to your ideas and words so much that you won’t allow another to influence them. I’ve met many writers who said they can’t turn their baby over to another.

    The biggest advantage of partnering for me, though, isn’t the cut in the workload (though that does make it easier to get through tough patches), but the accountability factor. For years when I wrote on my own, I rarely finished a book or even a short story. But having that other writer, the First Reader in many cases, really pushes me to deliver to keep up my end of the deal. I’m now working on my sixth book (though five of them are serialized monthly 100-page books) in the course of three months or so. I’d never have moved past the second draft on one of the books if I were doing this on my own.

    1. Spot on, David, on both counts.

      Writing as a team can only work if you write as a team. It’s not about exactly how many words each person writes per day, or who came up with the better idea this week. it’s about the end product. And driving one another to get that book finished and in the public arena is key.

  3. Great post, Mark. Agree with everything you said about collaborating. I’ve collaborated before — on an exercise book and a romance — but now my DH and I have collaborated on a thriller. The division of labor flowed naturally: We divide the writing but Michael is a better plotter and organizer; I shine at editing, revising and the startling plot twists neither of us think are going to work but do.
    Our political-medical thriller is called HOOKED and we hope to have it up this weekend.
    We enjoyed working together so much we’ve already planned a second thriller!

    1. Thanks, Ruth.

      For anyone wondering if that is THE Ruth Harris? Writing a medical thriller? Yes, you read right. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Hooked and can definitely say Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen need to be looking over their shoulders now!

  4. Collaboration is fun, if hard work. I remember when I first met one of those Teens Mark is collaborating with, I just about hated her.. okay dislike, hate really is too strong of a word. We were in a role play story together and I didn’t like what her character did to my character. Yet somehow when that particular character ran out of the story, I suggested a new one for her to pick up. And then with a nudge form another author we suddenly found ourselves out of the role play and into our own story… (That some day we will finish and do massive clean up on and perhaps publish… that would be awesome.)

    Just like everythign else in life, collaboration is about communication. As long as you are communicating with your partner, you can get through anything. Much like marriage I suppose, or any other relationship….

    Now speaking of Day Jobs, I really ought to get back to mine…
    :} Cathryn Leigh

    1. Dying to know which one it was!

      Spot on with the summary: collaboration is about communication.

    2. Whoopsie … y’didn’t really hate me though I hope? :'(

      Totally agree about the communication thing though 🙂

      1. No Spook I didn’t hate you. There is only one person I truely hate, but that’s a differnt story all together. Perhaps Mad at you, frustrated with you… You know how to through twists into the plot, but now that we’ve agreed there will be something of a happy ending I can take em! It’s what I get for making a character based upon shy teenage self. I’m a bit too attached. *grin*

        @Mark – See above, she identified herself. I have yet to do any sort of collaboration with Miriam, though I did help her with one story by baraging her with questions of why and how and who and what and all that.

        Communication makes the world go around smoothly, I think. *grin*

  5. I can imagine that writing with a partner can be stimulating, with the partners egging each other on and feeding off of each other’s cleverness. But writing by committee? Too many differing opinions might result in rounding off the sharp edges, sawing off anything risky, and producing something rather average.

    On the other hand, you’d probably find all the typos.

    1. “Too many differing opinions might result in rounding off the sharp edges, sawing off anything risky, and producing something rather average.”

      Possiby so, Marie – in which case it would be ideal for the trad publishers who only ever want to play safe. But I suspect too that a group of writers investing ideas rather than physical writing time have less to lose by taking risks. So could work the other way.

      But I agree – think committee-writing would really be ideal for formulaic series. Readers who buy series go back to them time and again because they want the comfort of knowing the characters and locations, the reassurance of familiarity and the certainty they will get the same safe style.

  6. “Try telling your boss you’ve got “day-job block” and see where that gets you…”

    I am so totally doing that tomorrow. BWAHAHAHA!

    I’d love to collaborate on something. Just don’t know what. Or with who. Or do I??? Hmmm … now THERE’S a thought.

    Thanks for jogging the old grey cells, Mark. 🙂

    1. Seeing as you’ll be unemployed from tomorrow if you do, Shea, you should have plenty of time to collab! 🙂

  7. May I jump in here? *ahem*

    Writing with another person (or two/three/four etc – you get the message) is nothing more than what a writer does every day. They listen to a plethora of voices in their heads’, distinguish between multiple personalities and let the story lead them wherever it is meant to go. Whoever shouts the loudest, normally wins.

    At the risk of this blog receiving a barrage of comments to the contrary, have you ever heard of a successful solo musical genius NOT collaborating with someone else? OK, they might not do it on their first hit (although most do) but everybody gets by with a little help from their friends and sometimes, the most amazing stories are borne.

    It’s like having a beta reader BEFORE the book is finished – and then some.

    You iron out the crinkles before you put the shirt on the board and sometimes, just sometimes, you don’t even need a board. Just hang it up and let them fall out.

    In the words of the great Michael Jackson ‘You are not alone’ (or if we are getting literary here: the great Kristen Lamb ‘We are not alone.’)

    For everything else, there’s Mastercard.


  8. First, I laughed out loud at your comment of, “We sit alone in a garden shed staring at a screen or sheet of paper hopelessly waiting for inspiration to strike.” That’s so funny :). I absolutely can’t wait to read the chick-lit mystery. I love the YA boarding school series idea. Funny, I’m wanting to write a YA series, and boarding school always comes to mind. There are just so many stories to come up with in boarding schools, right? Anyway, I think you are right on with collabs. I’m collaborating with my husband on a classic love story and I love his ideas and the fuel his suggestions provide to my creativity. Next year, my sister and I are writing a conspiracy bio-medical warfare novel. We started writing it this summer (but had to postpone writing because she’s getting married), and it was a lot of fun reading her e mails and her train of thought. I felt like between the two of us, we really psychoanalyzed our main character and created a huge back story. That was very fun! I know I keep saying “fun”, but I really think collaborating is just that, fun! And shouldn’t we have fun doing what we love? Great post.

    1. Lacy, your conspiracy bio-medical warfare story sounds like fun. And as you say, that’s what it’s all about.

      Delighted you love the YA boarding school idea. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we’re hoping to have the first book, St. Mallory’s Forever! out for Christmas. along with Rose Red book 2: Rapunzel.

      Love the idea of collab’ing with hubz on a romance novel. That could provide some interesting insights!

  9. Yeahhh for St Mall’s! Okay, so I’m failing at contributing right now, but hey, I don’t have a computer 😀

  10. Brilliant comments, one and all. I tend to be a snob about collaboration, and this has helped immensely in getting over my prejudiced.

    I still won’t do it myself. There’s something about writing a story by yourself that gives you power. When I write a story, it is MY story. I have a vision for it and I complete control of it. I do seek advice, but at the level of creation and decision-making I make the decisions. Otherwise it is not my story.

    Do you feel that co-authors trying to write a “deeper” fiction book would have more trouble making a coherent product? By “deeper” I mean intentionally exploring a theme such as love, death, civilization, etc.

    1. I’m a total control freak when it comes to writing. I gave up journalism because I couldn’t stand intefering editors rewriting my copy, and we don’t hand our novels over to editors for the same reason. I want my work to be my work and out work to be our work.

      When you co-write obviously there is a compromise to be made, but you know that before you start, and you choose a co-writer in the same way you would hopefully choose an editor – someone who shares the vision of the story, that you can work with on equal terms.

      To answer your latter question – it would depend on the writers involved. If both writers are looking to write a deep and meaningful study and both writers can work together as a team then I can see no reason why not.

      And consider this: almost every trad published book is anyway co-written by the author and editor, usually with the corporate editor having far too much say (mandatory suggestions) because the company is paying. Very, very few books are “all my own work” because the publisher wants a book to fit their criteria of wha will sell, which rarely coincides with the author’s original version.

    2. In collaboration, you need to agree with a story first. If it’s “your” story, then write it. But when you partner with someone, you’re sharing thoughts and story lines. You have to keep a seperation between the mindset of writing alone and writing with someone.

  11. You are inspiring all around, Mr. International (did you have to do a talent and a swimsuit competition to win your title, I wonder?) I’m working on a cozy mystery series with a friend, and it just happens that I, a singer/lawyer/redhead, am writing the dialogue for the redheaded singing attorney, while my wiccan intuitive pal is writing the part of the psychic sidekick. And it works for all the reasons you gave here… collaboration speeds up the writing and complicates the plot with double the imagination. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    But now I need the answer to this burning question: How the heck did you come up with the florid moniker Saffina Desforges??

    1. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
      Damn. Which I’d said that first!

      On names, we wanted a single pen-name that would stand out, be memorable to new readers, and rank highly on google. You won’t find many Saffina Desforges pop up on a google search, nor an Amazon search.

      Unless both writers are already established names (as Konrath / Crouch) then having two names might well be counter-productive, and a name like Mark Williams is easily lost in the crowd.

      I happen to live and write in gorgeous West Africa, and started out as an intrepid explorer (okay, a travel writer), while the eponymous Saffi is back in the UK. The international bit distinguishes my blog from others with similarly named authors.

      The swimsuit photos are in a secret location, closely guarded by local wildlife.

      A singing lawyer? Now that is scary!

  12. Wow, I’ve thought about collab’s for a long time, and yeah, this post is spot on.

    I love the beginning though, with the excuse call outs. It’s very easy to sit at a computer and find ways and reasons why you can’t get a thing done. Mostly because when we’re alone, we are our own worst enemy.

    Great stuff here.

    1. Thanks, Jim.

      You’re spot on about us being our own worst enemy. Especially if the writing is speculative and you have no idea if it will be accepted. So easy to find something more important to do short-term.

      Although we don’t work to strict word counts per person there’s nothing more motivating than having a few thousand words come back from the co-author while you’ve been making excuses and doing something else.

      1. I like your view of how to look at the split of words… “If I write 30k, my collab partner writes 30k, then, wait, hey, we have 60k now!” It seems like a simple thought but it never really ran through my head before! 🙂

      2. Hey Mark – thanks for replying to my comment.

        I’m in the middle of a collab project right now. We worked together on the storyline and then I took the beginning. I wrote the first 10,000 words – to set everything up – and then I passed it along. It’s a good system for us. A bit quiet, but it works.

        Another collab I’m trying to set up will be much more “hands on” between the two of us.

        I’m interested in the end to see which one I like better!

  13. I think most Big Six books probably are written by committee. The agent rewrites the book, then an editor, then a few more editors, and who knows how many assistants and high-school-student interns. Today I got a full ms. back from an agent, whose assistant requested a complete rewrite before the agent would even consider it for representation. This involved cutting the first third (making the book a 50,000 word novella) plus most of the interesting characters, and the plot, as well as all my humor and voice. She obviously had a book in mind and wanted me to write it for her. And toss my own. She needs a co-author. Or ghostwriter.

    One more thing pushing me toward self-pubbing, I guess. I do see a lot of benefits to having a writing team. After all, that’s what Patterson does. He just doesn’t put their names on the cover. But a lot of product, produced quickly, will establish a brand, which is the key to high sales. Also, with so many eyeballs perusing it, you probably don’t have to pay for editors or proofreaders.

    I agree with Sean about literary books. I don’t think they can be written by committee, any more than poetry can. But nobody makes money with literature or poetry anyway. (That’s the stuff we write in garden sheds–and yes, I’ve been one of those people.) Of course some people could argue that Shakespeare’s plays were written by committee, because so many actors put their stamp on the text before those folios got codified.

    I don’t know if I could collaborate with anybody on fiction. I’m collaborating on a non-fic book and a blog (Hi Ruth!) But if had to collaborate with somebody like that agent’s assistant, I think I’d take up a different profession. Maybe being an exterminator would be nice.

    1. Thanks, Anne! Nice blog, by the way.

      If deep stuff doesn’t sell, how in the world did The Dark Knight become the second-highest grossing film of all time? It’s not a book, but it has a screenplay, so I call it literature. Especially with the themes and sayings in that screenplay. I do understand what you’re saying, though.

      And it is nice to have lots of eyeballs. I wish I had rustled up more before beginning my WiP.

      1. Sorry. Different definitions of “deep.” I was talking about literary writers like Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen or Don Dellillo–people who publish in the New Yorker or the Paris Review. Even Franzen has to teach for a living.

    2. There are of course good editors out there who don’t do what you describe, but this just reinforces why I steer clear of editors, especially corporate ones. Another editor horror story for the collection!

      I agree a committee of writers could not produce literary fiction or poetry in its traditional form, but not at all sure that rules out lit fic collaborations between two or three authors together. I’ve got several lit fic WIPs which I’ve not managed to interest Saffi in, but I feel need the insight of a second author to bring to fruition.

      Sean’s point on this subject, below, is an interesting one.

      1. In fact Sean’s point was above, for some reason. 🙂

        Two points on Dark Knight – first, don’t confuse gross earnings with the number of people who watch a film / read a book. That just reflects the price paid, which is why as cinema ticket prices go up films continue to outgross one another, even though actual film-goers may be fewer.

        Trad publishers use this argument to diss indie ebooks. A book selling 1000 copies at 9.99 grosses 10k. A thousand ebooks at 99c grosses only 1k.

        A book at 99c that grosses 9k will have sold ten times as many books, but on the gross earning argument is still less successful.

        Dark Knight is hugely successul because it has a brand built up over almost a century, and draws heavily on the combined talents of decades of different writers, quite apart from those who actually wrote the screenplay for this particular version.

        What’s interesting in this genre is just how it can take a commercial subject and still explore literary themes supposedly beyond its genre. By coincidence my guest over at MWi today is a fellow writer of that genre, Marion G Harmon, who too manages to juggle literary finesse in a commercial genre, and is experimenting outside the box.

      2. I’ll have to check MWi out. Thanks! I had a feeling I was going to hear a response like this, but I figured it was worth bringing up the thought. I had pricing in the back of my mind, although no matter what way you cut it, Dark Knight was a splash commercially and culturally. It also got a lot of fuel from Heath Ledger’s death. Sensationalism sells even more than sex.

        I appreciate also the ability to make “commercial” genres explore deep themes. On reflection, I imagine that doing so could actually make the plot even better. Call it the shoot-for-the-moon effect. If you are trying to using the mechanisms of plot, dialogue, character, setting, etc. in order to explore a theme, you not only make a good story, but you keep making it even better as you try to make it serve the theme.

        That can backfire… but that’s what co-writing can protect you from, come to think of it. You’re persuading me, Mark.

  14. I was convinced on collaboration even before I asked questions on the mechanics of relationships. I’m even more convinced now. I’m essentially a fantasy writer who has begun writing hist.fict. I’m open to collaboration from anyone who wants a kangaroo-testicle eating partner who has a pet Tasmanian devil called Gisborne. And if you want to know about THAT little collection of “bon mots”, asked Mr.International!
    By the way, Mark, it seems lovely readers of mesmered think I’m actually flying to Africa to be interviewed by you. Maybe between us we can create good fiction, even if only on blog comment!

  15. Prue, let’s all fly to Africa! You can interview me there. I just checked out some photos of the Gambia and it looks gorgeous. Seriously, I’m almost ready for my close-up and the big red chair!

    1. Thrilled, Anne. Can’t wait! And please feel free to throw in some curly comment re your latest editing experience. Boy, do I relate to that one. And yes, if you fly, I’ll fly.
      Sorry Mark, (and by default David) just had some business to catch up on there.

      1. Rushing through my BRCQs too, Prue! Given some yet to disclose developments it might well be apposite to run Anne and my self consecutively. 🙂

    2. It is absolutely gorgeous!

      I finally came back with a “new” camera on my last UK trip and will be running a page on MWi dedicated to my adopted home and all the wonderful children here.

      It’s a seven day weekend. A two week holiday in paradise that never ends. And living proof that wealth and material goods are wants, not needs.

  16. “A win-win for writer and reader alike.”

    Winner winner chicken dinner. I think the (mostly) silent majority, ie. readers, are really going to benefit from the changes going on in the industry right now. Case in point- myself! I wanted to read The Help, but of course, the library is all out, the bookstore has closed in my area, and I don’t want to wait three weeks for it to be delivered from amazon. So I download it onto my kindle and I’m reading it within a minute. Happy happy reader paradise.

    Mark Williams, I’m wishing you and your writing partners all the best. I’m sure the US will catch on to your awesomeness soon enough. 🙂

    1. Thanks Summer.

      Your experience with library / book store / delivery is precisely why digital is the only future worth worrying about, both as a writer and as a reader.

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