Mark and I have been writing together for over 10 years and we have never had an argument, or any sort of significant disagreement about anything, in our writing or outside of it. (I am SO hoping this doesn’t tempt fate.)
I think we’re both pretty proud of this. We have an unwritten rule that we never take offence at anything the other one says about our respective chapters in the books – not there is any need to the vast majority of the time, as we have evolved a ‘third’ writing style that is different to our solo styles and on which we agree almost completely.
BUT – there is a but – if there is one thing that we could potentially come to blows about it’s the thorny issue of how much sex, violence and swearing there should be in our books. To put it in perspective, if I had ever written them solo, there would be little or none since I’m essentially a) squeamish when it comes to violence, b) disapproving of extreme and repeated bad language and c) not a huge fan of anything more than the occasional artistically-necessary sex scene in a novel. If Mark wrote them solo, I suspect in comparison the narrative would make Tarantino’s scripts look like Mother Theresa writing poetry about fluffy bunnies.
In fairness I’m sure this is a dilemma that many writers wrestle with – how far to go. It depends on various factors – the sort of books you enjoy as a reader (again, Mark and I have fairly different tastes), the types of relationship you are writing about, and the novel’s themes.
I’m not a complete prude and, somewhat ironically, have been told by all editors I’ve ever worked with that I’m extremely good at writing sex scenes, which is pleasing. If slightly worrying. Mark is too, so we tend to split the writing of those between us (NB: although whenever we give talks, I always claim that Mark writes all the sex and violence, and I write all knitting-related scenes. This is not strictly true.) However, he is definitely better at writing violence! I actually can’t think of a really violent episode in any of our books that he hasn’t written.
As for the swearing, our process around that does make me laugh. Mark uses swearing like punctuation, and I go through his chapters with a red pen, removing a good portion of the f words, and he is completely banned from using the c word!
I’ve thought about it, and there are three main reasons why I feel the way I do about violence and swearing in books.
1) I have a fifteen year old daughter, and don’t want her reading that stuff. She doesn’t yet, not being a keen reader, but her friends are starting to read our books, and that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
2) As I said before, I don’t really like reading novels with a lot of violence and bad language in them.
3) I’m a practicing Christian, and whilst I accept that since I’m writing thrillers a certain amount of immorality/swearing/sex is expected, again I feel that it’s only acceptable when it either develops characters, moves the plot forward and is not gratuitous. My heart sinks when our editor writes notes in the margin saying things like ‘OPPORTUNITY FOR SOME SADISM HERE?’ or ‘GOOD PLACE FOR A THREESOME?’ But I’m not writing Mills and Boon, and I need to accept that. Ultimately our goal is to write the fastest-paced most exciting thrillers we are capable of, and sometimes I need to set aside my own personal qualms. Obviously we can’t write a book about a serial killer without violence in it, and commercial novels without any sex in them are very unpopular with publishers…
A certain recent trilogy involving the colour grey has raised the bar too. Now we’re debating whether we need a little bondage or other deviant sexual practices. Mark recently wrote that our psychopath went to a sex shop and purchased some ‘pasties’. Our agent Sam and I had a very hilarious discussion over lunch about it, when we admitted that neither of us knew what they were except that they probably didn’t involve cheese and onion, and had to Google them. Which was quite an eye opener for us both.
It’s a tricky balance to achieve, though. Mark’s kids are all too young for him to worry about the ‘unsuitability’ of our books – perhaps in ten years time I’ll be the one letting rip as my daughter will be fully grown up, and he’ll be writing prudish little notes saying ‘MUST WE?’ in the margins! But in the meantime it’s still a little problematic. My daughter happened to look at my phone’s internet browser shortly after I’d Googled pasties, and was horrified when she saw the results, as was I at the knowledge that she’d done so.
Still, at least she’ll know what they are if she ever does read the book…