Adventures in Co-Writing

You're Invited cover high resHooray!!

Today’s the day You’re Invited, a new middle grade series about four tween best friends who form a party planning “company”, releases into the world!! I’m finding the next-time-around experience much like a second child’s arrival. There’s far less angst leading up to it, but no less excitement when the big day arrives. Part of what is making the fun:scary ratio tilt so strongly in the fun direction is getting to share the experience with my coauthor Gail Nall. We’ve fielded questions of all varieties about how the heck we write something as personal as a novel alongside someone else. Well, we have answers. This series ran on several blogs over a course of many days, but I’ve gathered all three here under one loooong post for your reading pleasure!

And here we go (caveat: obviously everyone’s experience with this differs slightly!):

Concept

Gail and I had been critique partners for about a year and a half before I approached her about co-writing this crazy “tween party planners” idea I had. I’d sold my debut, At Your Service, a few months prior and wanted to write more middle grade, but I also had a young adult novel (Wanderlost, HarperTeen, 2016) out on sub and thought co-writing could be a way to keep some skin in the game on the MG bookshelves, while devoting more of my time to building a YA list (somehow I thought co-writing would take half the time, but—duh, Jen!—that wasn’t necessarily the case).

Gail and I were both drawn to fun (and funny) contemporary stories about tween girls, so I hoped she would be excited about running with my idea. Luckily, she was! We’d also often joked that our writing sensibilities and sense of humor were so similar we could each finish each others’ books if need be. Our point was proven when we submitted sample chapters to our agents and even they guessed wrong when asked which of us had written each chapter. It also helps a lot that we love and respect each other’s writing and are friendly offline, despite living about ten states apart and having only met in person once for an hour. (At that point. We’ve since spent THREE whole days together at BEA).

Even though the initial concept for the series was my idea, I didn’t have much fleshed out when I approached Gail, and that was deliberate on my part. I wanted us both to have equal ownership over the books and our first plotting call was both of us tripping over each other with our “and what if…” ideas. We spent about an hour and a half on the phone coming up with some broad character sketches and a rough outline, then went off on our own to develop the two characters we’d each write (the book is told in alternating chapters from four friends’ first person POVs.) We sent each other character worksheets that described our two girls’ backgrounds and interests down to tiny details. Having those sheets as reference really helped us write the other’s characters into our own chapters and, after knowing these girls through two books, I now feel like I could probably write her characters’ chapters and I’d bet Gail would say the same.

Selling

A crazy thing happened between the time Gail and I first discussed this book and the time we wrote the proposal for it—Gail sold her debut middle grade novel, Breaking the Ice… to the same editor I was already working with at Aladdin. Talk about a happy accident! Having one editor who was already familiar with both of our writing made it much easier to sell our idea, but also helped us going forward because we both had relationships with Amy (Cloud, our fabulous editor) outside of our joint one. There was no feeling of “does my editor actually like my writing or am I just here because my cowriter dragged me in?” (note: Writer = Neurotic Maniac.)

More nitty gritty: our agents had a brief conversation ahead of time to decide who would handle submitting the proposal and who would handle negotiations and split those duties. When it was time to sign, Simon &Schuster basically divided our contract in half, so instead of signing one joint contract and having our agents separate the accounting, we each signed a contract that offered half the advance money and half the royalty rates. This way all monies were being evenly divided by S&S before being sent to our agents. This made it no-fuss for our agents through the life of the book. I’ve heard of other situations (anthologies, for example) where one author’s agent takes on the beast of a job of dividing all incoming monies among the contributing authors.

And just to keep things fun, now we’ll switch to Gail’s POV for this next section (see, we even write out blog posts together!):

Drafting:

We’d written the first several chapters in Word, emailing them back and forth. Once the books sold, we quickly figured out that this was really cumbersome, not mention confusing, with all of those drafts flying around. We decided to take a chance on GoogleDocs, so we both had access to the document at all times and always had a current version. Working off our outline, we wrote one chapter at a time. For instance, Jen would write a chapter and send me an email to let me know it was complete. I’d go in and leave notes and maybe adjust some lines of dialogue either of “my” characters spoke in order to keep the voices consistent. Then I’d start writing the next chapter. Meanwhile, she’d revise the one she’d finished based on my notes. Then we’d do the same thing in reverse for the next chapter. Co-writing is like having a built-in immediate critique partner. (And, for those of us who NEVER show our first drafts to anyone, this is a little scary)!

Credit: photoschafl Used under a
Creative Commons license.

There were pros and cons to this method. You know those days when the words are flying and you can just write and write and write? Here, we were limited to one chapter at a time, and it could be a week before it was time to write again. We had to learn to jump in and out of the story. However, we were revising a lot as we went and having another set of eyes on a chapter-by-chapter basis made it easier to spot plot holes and correct before they got really out of hand. Getting the forced distance allowed us to reread chapters with fresh eyes and our first draft was very polished compared to either of our normal first drafts. 

Having someone else equally invested and interested allowed us to brainstorm on the fly (often via text message) and that was really fun. While we had the outline, we found ourselves deviating from it on occasion. Sometimes, we’d plotted too much to fit in one chapter; other times, the scene took a course neither of us anticipated. For example, I’d get an email from Jen that might say, “Chapter done! But . . . I took the ending in a different direction because it felt more in character for the girls. Let me know what you think.” Nine times out of ten, we stuck with these new ideas, just like you would when writing on your own.

We also found that we were writing for a specific audience – each other — and anticipating how the other would react to a scene. I wanted Jen laughing on the other side of the screen, and that made me up my game. It also kept us moving along at a quick pace. No putting off writing that next chapter when someone is waiting on it so she can draft hers! 

Collaborating on scenes was not so different than working with an editor on revisions and I think we both tried hard to be overly polite in suggesting changes. The alternating four-person POV meant we really took ownership over “our” chapters and “our” two characters, and we each respected and preserved that. For example, if Jen changed one of “her” girls’ lines of dialogue in one of my chapters, she’d always mark it and say, “I changed this. Is that okay?” I did the same in her chapters. Making sure neither of us was steamrolling over the other was really critical. 

Credit to Elizabeth Pfaff. Used under a 
Creative Commons license.

My favorite part of drafting with a co-writer? All of those fun little comments we’d leave each other 
in the draft! Of course we left critically useful comments, but the best ones were those that started with, “LOL! This exact same thing happened to my friend when we were in Bruges in high school . . . .” Given that we couldn’t write side-by-side in a coffee shop, these sidebar conversations were the next best thing.

Um, hey, me (Jen) again to bring this home!

Revisions:

So far we’ve been a happy twosome, but here’s where we add in a third person–our editor. Luckily, we have a great one who earnestly uses words like awesomesauce, which is very endearing! When we get our edit letter, we typically read through it a few times together and identify areas we’ll each tackle. It’s a no-brainer if the note pertains to a specific character because whoever wrote that character will handle that revision. It gets trickier when the comments are broader and relate to an overarching storyline. We generally try to divvy those up as fairly as possible, discuss possible solutions together on the phone or via text, and then retreat to handle our own assigned edits. We work in GoogleDocs so that we can easily see what changes each person has made and can even work simultaneously in one document.  I won’t lie though, from my perspective, this is one of the more difficult aspects because it’s hard enough for me to keep a story straight and remember what I did and didn’t cut during revisions when there’s only one hand in the cookie jar. I find that I do full rereads more frequently than I do when working on my solo manuscripts, just to keep the thread of it all. Copyedits and first pass pages also take a bit longer than they do on single-author projects (at least for us) because we do them together on the phone. Copy editor queries that one person working alone would “okay” pretty quickly often get discussed and debated. But that’s okay. Because where this might take more work, the trade-off is more than worth it, especially when it comes to the next part, which is promotion.

Promotion:

It can be pretty “icky” to promote your own book, shouting out into the great wilderness about something that feels so intimate. BUT with two of us, it somehow seems more organic. I worry less about coming across as arrogant (which, trust me, I’m an author so… no) because I can praise all of Gail’s contributions to the story while glossing right over mine. Plus, I don’t want to let her down by not doing my fair share of promotion and publicity so that spurs me on during periods when I feel shy or (worse) “overpromote-y”, as I’ve so eloquently named it. Also, I should note, it’s exceedingly nice to share the cost of swag. Although we have a lot of the same friends in our online writing communities, because we live in different parts of the country (Kentucky and Massachusetts) we can cover a lot of geographic area between the two of us taking to the road separately in support of one book.  Also, if you thought one proud mama was a force to be reckoned with, just add in another. The whole world probably has a You’re Invited bookmark by now. Thanks, Mom(s).

In all, the experience of co-writing has been so positive I now understand firsthand why so many authors are embracing it. I hope I get to write a million more books with Gail and one day I may even cheat on her with another co-writer. Though she may have spoiled me…

2 comments

  1. How awesome! Congrats. I’ve co-written a YA contemp that’s in the query process now and it can be both a wonderful and daunting process. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 If you’re interested in a little promotion I’d be more than happy to help out. This month I started an author spotlight on my blog and I’m looking to fill spots in June. If you’re interested you can check out my author spotlight link (I don’t like to post links in people’s comments without permission) and send me a private message for more details. There’s also a link with my most recent spotlight for formatting. Congrats again!!!

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  2. Jen, reading about this process is wonderful for me. In fact, I just asked Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple about how they co-write and Heidi’s answer will be on Writer’s Rumpus on Friday! LOVED this post. It makes me want to co-write someday 🙂

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