What is it like to write a novel with someone else?

07 August 2015

By Louis Greenberg

For those of you who may not know, S. L. Grey is not one author but two. Sarah Lotz is a novelist and screenwriter, with several crime and thriller novels under her belt. Louis Greenberg is a writer and editor, who has master's degree in vampire fiction and a doctorate on post-religious apocalyptic fiction.

We sat down with Louis Greenberg to find what it's really like to write with someone else.

Sarah and I met online at bookslive.co.za, which at the time was not only the internet newspaper about South African books, but also a forum where writers could chat, joke and commiserate together. The social functions of the site have been taken over by Facebook and Twitter since, but the site was important in introducing several writers to one another and allowing us to work together.
In 2009, I commissioned a collection of short stories, Home Away, from authors I only could have known through BooksLive, and Sarah was among them. She wrote a zombie story set in Botswana. Later that year, my family and I went on holiday to Cape Town, and Sarah hosted a party at her house, which is when I first met her in person.
A few months later, Sarah came up to Johannesburg for a crime fiction seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand, where I was studying for my doctorate. We had a few drinks that afternoon and discussed our mutual interest in horror fiction and decided that we should write a novel together. Because she grew up with an affinity for zombies and I had an academic interest in vampires, we considered a South African zombie-vs-vampire mashup before the idea of The Mall grabbed us. I had just resigned from my job as a book marketer and was cobbling together a living from web design and fiction editing, and it’s only because of this freedom that I was able to say yes to the idea.
Living in different cities, we established our working routine straight away. We wrote The Mall in alternating chapters from two different characters’ perspectives, emailing them across when we were done. Coming from a scriptwriting background, Sarah was used to verbal brainstorming sessions, but I much prefer written notes to speaking on the phone, so we’ve done the bulk of our plotting through email exchanges ever since.
As we worked, The Mall began to feel like a game of exquisite corpse (or consequences, as it's called in the UK), you know that game where you draw the head then pass the paper over for someone else to draw the torso and so on. It was a lot of chaotic fun, both of us trying to leave our characters in more and more difficult positions, leaving comments like ‘write your way out of that!’ in the margins.
Now, while we try to be a bit more deliberate about our plotting, we always refer back to that original sense of fun when we write. We ask ourselves: are we having fun, and if not, why not? We believe that spirit of fun and speedy energy comes through in the writing. When I write by myself, I try to remember that type of energy and urgent pace and try to get it into my draft, but it’s harder to replicate when I’m not writing with Sarah.
We’re currently writing our fifth novel together – House Swap – and we’re still sticking to our trusted methods. Sarah moved to the UK a year ago and it hasn’t really made much difference to our process. My best writing hours are 8 a.m. to noon, while the children are away at school, and Sarah prefers afternoons and nights. (She got the business of child-rearing out of the way earlier than I did so doesn’t treasure her sleep quite as much.) But somewhere in the world, there’s always an S.L. Grey novel being written.

The S. L. Grey duo's fourth novel together, Under Ground, is out now.

Read the first chapter




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Under Ground