They say two heads are better than one.
To wit: countless covers for picture book, middle grade, and YA books carry the names of two authors. A few have many more. For instance, middle grade novel Best. Night. Ever.: A Story Told From Seven Points of View has (you guessed it!) seven coauthors.
Jen Malone, who served as coauthor and editor for Best. Night. Ever., says the book idea materialized when she and several of her critique partners landed at the same imprint. They originally wanted to write an anthology, but middle grade anthologies don’t sell very well. Instead, “our editor liked the idea of it being a cohesive novel,” Malone says. They agreed to a setting (a school dance), and each coauthor wrote chapters from a different character’s point of view.
While collaborative novels may present a cohesive storyline to the reader, there’s often a lot more happening behind the scenes before the book gets into readers’ hands. Read on to see how Malone and other coauthors generate ideas, write and revise drafts, and market their books collaboratively.
Malone, who’s separately coauthored middle grade novels with Gail Nall and Kristine Asselin in addition to Best. Night. Ever., says coauthoring as an established author can effectively connect each other’s fan bases. “The hope was that our audiences for our individual books would be introduced,” she says. “They might like how this character is written and seek out that author’s books.”
For Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, who were brought together by the same literary agent, the motivations are more artistic. Both have written books individually and coauthored picture books together, most recently Five Minutes. Scanlon says writing with Vernick helps up her game. “Each draft raises the bar so that as we pass them back and forth and back and forth, we dig deeper, we get funnier, more lyrical, more true and right,” she explains.
Scanlon notes that collaboration also offers her fresh perspectives, something she feels is important the longer you’re in the industry. (Her first picture book published in 2004.) “It is like getting an in-person audience with the muse,” she says.
Vernick says collaborations also better ensure that the writing gets done. “When you have that accountability to a writing collaborator, you don’t want want to let the other person down,” she says. Collaborating can also play to each author’s strengths. In writing Dear Substitute, their first picture book collaboration, “we came to a point where we said, ‘We need a poem here,’” Vernick recalls. “Who has that freedom to say, ‘Liz, write a poem about a turtle?’”
Friends and critique partners Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Shang cowrote a middle grade novel as a way to stay connected even when their lives got busy. “It seemed like the next progression in our writing relationship and friendship,” Shang says. “One day I said to her, ‘why don’t we get paid to hang out?’” The result of that collaboration was This Is Just a Test, followed by Not Your All-American Girl, a novel from the perspective of This Is Just a Test’s protagonist’s sister, coming out in summer 2020.
Collaborating on nonfiction research has its own perks. “We each were going out and finding resources, and sometimes we would find something that the other person hadn’t discovered,” says Sue Heavenrich, who coauthored the YA nonfiction book Diet for a Changing Climate: Food For Thought with Christy Mihaly. “We had two people looking out for books, people to talk to, places to go visit, and photos that we wanted to look at.”
Despite the perks of collaboration, the biggest downside is less money, since the coauthor royalties are split between collaborators. For picture books, the royalties are already split between author and illustrator. Then each agent takes their cut, and the author royalties are split even further. “But if that’s the trade-off for this really fruitful creative adventure, it feels worth it to me,” Scanlon says.
Choosing the right coauthor
Choosing the right collaborator is vital. “As long as this book is going to be in print, we’re going to have a relationship,” Laura Shovan says of Saadia Faruqi, her coauthor on the middle grade novel A Place at the Table. “It’s a long-term relationship when you have a book with somebody. Make sure you like the person.”
Shovan and Faruqi first connected through PitchWars, a program where authors and other publishing professionals choose a writer to mentor. Shovan was a mentor, and Faruqi applied to be a mentee. Shovan and her co-mentor didn’t pick Faruqi’s book, but they stayed in touch with her. Shovan pitched her agent on a book loosely based on her childhood about a first-generation American whose immigrant mother struggles with life in the U.S. Her agent suggested doing it as a collaborative middle grade novel. “Who’s your dream person that you’d like to work with?” Shovan recalls her agent asking. Shovan thought of Faruqi because she admired her writing and knew that Faruqi had a different immigration experience to draw from.
Their book uses dual perspectives: one from a Pakistani-American girl and the other from a half-British girl. “Our willingness to negotiate with each other really did mirror what the characters had to do as they become friends and support each other,” Shovan says.
Virtually every author interviewed for this article stressed the importance of choosing a coauthor who respects your input. “We try to be as egoless as possible,” says Jorge Lacera, who coauthored the picture book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! with his wife, Megan Lacera. “It’s always about the work. We’re just trying to make the best product that we can. [If we disagree,] we’ll both defend why we think something should move forward, and usually during that process, it’ll become clear what way to do it.” (Jorge Lacera also illustrated their picture book.)
Still, Megan Lacera admits to occasional hurt feelings. “I value his opinion more than anyone else,” she says. “If he doesn’t like something, I know it has to be better.”
Both people must feel ownership of the project, too. Mihaly and Heavenrich shared an interest in entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs. After several years attending many of the same workshops and participating in a critique group together, they worked up a book proposal about the environmental benefits of insect protein.
Diet for a Changing Climate started as a nonfiction picture book idea, then progressed to middle grade, and finally wound up at a YA imprint, with a focus on eating not just insects but also invasive animals and plants. “Both of us were invested in it,” says Heavenrich. “Sitting on the swing at a retreat eating crickets together really sealed the deal. We knew that we were definitely going down the same road.”
Mihaly says of their collaboration, “We were very comfortable critiquing each other’s work and taking one another’s edits. We trusted each other’s writing and editing to making it accurate.”
Many coauthors already have published books before teaming up with another author. Not so for the Laceras or for Charles Waters, who cowrote Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship with Irene Latham. When Latham came up with the idea for a dual-narrative poetry book about racism, she knew Waters’ work from poetry anthologies and asked if he’d be interested. “[She has] been my gateway into having my own book because I’ve been in about 23 children’s poetry anthologies, but I never had a book with my name on the cover,” Waters says.
When approaching Waters, Latham suggested they both write on the topic of racism. “Before we launched into this situation, let’s be sure it’s going to work,” she says. After getting Waters’ response with sample poems, Latham says she could tell “that he was quick, enthusiastic, and willing to be vulnerable and take risks. These were all really important as the editor was hot for the project yesterday, and we all knew the subject matter would require a special, trusting relationship. It just worked right from the get-go, and I am so grateful!” In fact, outside of their literary collaboration, Waters and Latham have become such close friends that Latham’s kids now call him “Uncle Charles.”
Communication is also key to a successful collaboration. Latham stressed the importance of “being able to communicate with one another and sharing the same kind of overarching goal. This is what we’re trying to do. Whatever happens in between, you can always come back to what you have in common.”
Mihaly adds that “if you think you don’t want to do [a] particular task, being clear and not letting anything fester is a really important thing to remember when collaborating.”
The business side of collaboration
While coauthors may be friends or critique partners first, it’s not enough to hash out plot points and hope the business side works itself out. “At the end of the day, it’s a creative collaboration, but it’s also a business collaboration,” Megan Lacera says.
Even if you’re writing with your spouse, she recommends discussing possible scenarios like if an agent only wants to represent one of you or wants to use a different illustrator. Both were deal-breakers for the Laceras, who eventually signed with an agent interested in representing their joint and individual projects. “It was important to us that they got our whole thing,” Jorge Lacera says.
Tara Luebbe, who coauthors picture books including Ronan the Librarian with her sister, Becky Cattie, says her family was concerned about in-fighting between them, but so far that hasn’t happened. “We haven’t had enough money to worry about it,” Luebbe says. She and Cattie share a literary agent who represents their joint projects. “When we queried, we made it clear that we would be one team and would not be submitting separate projects,” Luebbe says. “Our agent treats us like one client. Becky is CC’ed [on emails].”
However, many coauthors who’ve published their own books have separate agents. Shovan and Faruqi’s respective agents signed an agreement between themselves in addition to the contract the two authors signed. “It was important to set up the expectation early on that any communication was going to go four ways [between the two authors and two agents],” Shovan says. “Nobody would be left out of a thread.”
Faruqi points out that you’re not only working with your editor, agent, and coauthor but also your coauthor’s agent if it’s a different agent. “An author and their agent hopefully have a really great relationship, but you don’t know anything about my agent,” she says. “You have to work with that additional person, too.”
When Asselin coauthored middle grade novel The Art of the Swap with Malone, they agreed that “the most important thing for us is that we made sure our friendship was the most important piece,” according to Asselin. They didn’t want to fight about the book and cause a rift in their friendship, but “I think our friendship made the collaboration even stronger,” Asselin says. “Neither of us wanted to let the other down.”
Asselin and Malone wrote the first few chapters in between other projects and managed to land a book contract based on those first few chapters. “At that point, we had to get serious,” Asselin says. “It took us about 10 months at that point to get [our editor] something more complete.”
Asselin and Malone’s names appear in the book in alphabetical order by last name, which is fairly common in kidlit collaborations. “I do know other people and, if one is a very established author, that name might be listed first,” Malone adds. For instance, many of bestselling author Jane Yolen’s book collaborations list her name first, even though her last name falls at the end of the alphabet.
Collaborative books can take more planning than a solo project to ensure that everyone gets on the same page. For Best. Night. Ever., Malone and her coauthors discussed ideas on a Google hangout. “You’d come to the table with what character you’d like to write and what their conflict might be,” she says. “There were some that were too similar, but other people had three or four ideas, so we traded.” Then they used lots of notecards to figure out how the characters’ stories would intersect.
Plotters (authors who like to plan out the story and work from an outline) and pantsers (authors who write without an outline “by the seat of their pants”) do sometimes collaborate. Shovan also considers herself a pantser, so she’d never written from an outline. But Faruqi insisted on outlining the plot before writing a draft. “I would be pushing Laura,” Faruqi says. “‘No, we can’t just come up with things on the fly.’ I think it would have been much more difficult.”
Rosenberg and Shang live near each other, so they hashed out some ideas during walks. “I’m definitely a pantser,” Rosenberg says. “I’ve actually tried to write a few things with outlines, and they haven’t always worked out. If I know where it goes, the actual writing itself isn’t quite as compelling. When we were working together, we did not work with an outline, but we had a vague idea of our destination.”
Writing and revising
Many middle grade and YA fiction collaborations use chapters told from different characters’ points of view as a way to divide up the writing. That’s how Best. Night. Ever. was written. “If any issues arose in terms of storyline or not agreeing, there were enough of us and an odd number where we could take it to committee and majority ruled,” Malone says. “In general, we more or less deferred to ‘if it’s your character and your chapter, your opinion counts more than mine. You have more ownership over your character and her actions.’”
For Can I Touch Your Hair?, Waters and Latham also used dual perspectives, but sometimes they’d help each other when one got stuck. “If something’s not working, I’ll say ‘Irene, take a crack at my poem,” Waters says. “By doing that, she unlocks something. Then I’ll rewrite her rewrite.”
Waters and Latham also had periodic conference calls with their editor as the manuscript progressed. “We go through word by word, line by line,” Waters says. “If something doesn’t seem right or if for some reason we omitted a word that wasn’t on the page, [our editor] would stop us.”
Rosenberg and Shang tried writing with alternating perspectives but found it hard to stick to their own chapters. They wound up using a single perspective and took turns writing. “Somebody would start the writing and then hand it off when they reached a stopping place,” Rosenberg says. “Wendy started with it, and she’d pass it to me. I would edit and insert and put some of my own spin and then move the story forward. We wrote with a lot of overlaps.”
Luebbe says her and Cattie’s books have benefited from both of them participating in critique groups. “We each have critique groups in different places, so it’s interesting to get different groups’ feedback,” she says.
Rebecca J. Gomez writes picture books on her own and with Corey Rosen Schwartz. Their latest collaboration is Two Tough Trucks. “When we begin a project, we use Google Drive,” Gomez says. “It’s funny because usually we just brainstorm until we like an idea. We’ll jump into a document and say, ‘How should this story start?’ It’s back and forth. It’s hard to explain how it really works. It’s like we’re just trying to share a brain.”
For their nonfiction book, Heavenrich and Mihaly wrote the section on bugs together, since they’d both been working on that topic. Then one wrote the sections on animals and the other wrote about plants. “I would write a chapter and send it to Chris,” Heavenrich. “She would do some edits. We really worked trying to make it sound like the same person wrote it throughout. We found a together voice.” They both live in rural areas without fast internet connections, so they relied on email attachments sent back and forth rather than Google documents.
Once a collaborative book is published, having multiple authors to champion the book is a big plus. “Sometimes I have a hard time promoting myself, but I believe in everything that Wendy does,” admits Rosenberg. “One of the really nice things of working together is I can say I’m promoting her.”
Asselin and Malone have done Girl Scout events jointly and created a teacher’s resource guide together. They also shared the cost of bookmarks. “More often than not, school visits are separate because we can’t be in the same place at the same time,” Asselin says. The two both live in Massachusetts, but about 45 minutes apart, and they can’t always sync up their schedules.
Luebbe and Cattie take a similar divide-and-conquer approach. “We’re in two different cities, so that’s very helpful,” Luebbe says. “She’s got her own set of bookstores and her SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] chapter. Having two different spheres of people is helpful.”
Gomez says she and Schwartz do online promotions and giveaways jointly. While Schwartz tends to get more school visits, Gomez promotes their books through local independent bookstores and social media. “When you reach your end goal,” she says, “you have two people promoting it and trying to make sure that it’s a success.”
—Susan Johnston Taylor is the author of Ride Across Time, a fourth-grade leveled reader in graphic novel format. She’s also written for Boys’ Life, Dramatics Magazine, and other publications for kids and adults.