Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Collaboration in the Truest Sense of the Word

This ongoing discussion of collaboration with its many nuances has been very interesting to me. I think I may be the only one of our “potatoes” who has collaborated in the truest sense of the word by co-authoring two historical novels for children back in the 1990s.

The question my co-author Jacqueline Shields and I have been asked most frequently is “How do you manage to write together?” The answer is not simple. Writing together can be both easy and difficult.

It was easier in that…
1. During the entire process, we constantly edited our writing. We edited and revised so much that when we finally had a publisher, we were not asked to do any revisions on the first book and very few on the second. (On looking back now, I see many passages I think we should have revised. But what author doesn’t do that, even years later?)
2. We traveled together to do our research and to visit all the locations in both our books. We had two imaginative minds coming up with ideas. Working together was not so lonely!
3. We had each other for encouragement and to keep us at the grindstone. When one would get discouraged, the other would get us back on track.

It was more difficult in that…
4. Collaborating is almost like a marriage. Sharing a book is like sharing a child.
5. We had to learn to be completely honest with each other and that took time. When we first started BROKEN DRUM, I think we had different visions of what we wanted the book to be, and neither of us wanted to hurt the other’s feelings. After a month or so, I said to Jackie, “You finish the book on your own. I don’t think I can do this.” But several months later she called me up, not having gone any further on her own, and said, “Let’s try it again.” I agreed, but only if we were honest. Obviously there were some disagreements, but we became experts at compromise, we spurred each other on, we grew thicker skins, we learned to laugh at ourselves, and we are still friends.
6. We couldn’t write whenever the mood hit us—first thing in the morning, the middle of the night, or during those extra 15 minutes on a lunch hour. We had to arrange times to meet around our busy schedules, mostly on Saturday mornings. It took us 5 years to write BROKEN DRUM.
7. We have to split the income!

Our process took time to work out...

We learned to recognize each other’s weaknesses and to take advantage of each other’s strengths. Most importantly we got to know our characters thoroughly. We started with an outline so that we both knew the direction we wanted to go—what historical dates, events, and battles to include—which areas we needed to round out with fictional characters and events. When we wrote, we actually sat down together and each wrote in longhand, a paragraph or two at a time. Then we read both passages aloud, used what we liked from each, and meshed it together. It’s amazing how often we wrote almost the same thing. At the end, the manuscript was such a good blend that neither of us could say, “I wrote this” or “she wrote that.” I know some collaborating authors can manage to alternate chapters, especially when writing nonfiction, and then email the work back and forth for editing. But for us in our need to find a single voice for our character, literally working together in old-fashioned longhand worked best.

At the end of each writing session, I typed the blended work into the computer and printed out two copies. At our next meeting, we started with what we had written the last time—reading it aloud, listening to the flow, making changes, getting back into the right frame of mind, and moving on.

Collaboration proved to be a good way for us to break into the publishing world, and it’s something that some new writers might like to attempt—but only if you find the right collaborator. After our second book, it became important to me to move on with writing on my own. I had to be able to prove to myself that I had the ability and perseverance to write my own novel by myself. I will continue writing on my own, but I do still collaborate in many of those nuances already mentioned—with my critiquing friends, with my fellow writers, with my students, and with my editor.

Before I end this post, here’s some exciting news about Jackie’s and my coauthored books, BROKEN DRUM and REBEL HART: We have signed film options for both books and are hopeful that BROKEN DRUM will be produced either as a mini-series or feature film within the timeframe of the 150th anniversary (2011 – 2015) of the Civil War!



It has been said that a writer is a hermit. I am, during my first drafts written by hand. But as soon as the story gets into the computer, I print it and read it to my writing group. I am one of those rare writers who takes rough drafts to her group. The early feedback helps me learn what I need to delete and add. During the meeting I am there thinking, "They don't get it," but a few days later, I begin to agree. Maybe what they were trying to say wasn't at the sentence mentioned but around it. I respect my writing group. I must. They are: Eric Kimmel, Susan Fletcher, Winnie Morris, Pamela Smith Hill, Dorothy Morrison, Susan Fletcher, Nancy Coffelt, and David Gifaldi. Without them I wouldn't be where I am today.

Then the manuscript goes to the editor. My editor uses the old ways: A ten page revision letter that I don't read for days. When I finally sit to revise, I begin with what I agree and small changes. After I walk around the block several times, I tackle the huge issues. My editor says that she likes me because I always agree with her. Not quite true. But she's a seasoned editor and I believe in her judgement. She wants the best book from me.

You know that we don't get to collaborate with the illustrator. But as famous as David Diaz is, I have found errors. He knows that I talk about them. So, here I go again. In César he illustrated the teacher as a man. It was a woman. After I told my editor, David took the same character and put a dress on it. (At the time teachers didn't wear pants) But David also enhanced that book. He added a chaperon to the scene in which César and Helen were going out. That's what an illustrator does, enhance your story. For illustrator to do that, he/she needs freedom, not an author saying that she/he didn't see it that way.

I am lucky enough to be able collaborate with Marshall Cavendish marketing people. They treat me like a queen, and as you can see here, I tell the world how fabulous they are.

A writer asked me to collaborate in a book she's writing. I have written stories for anthologies, but writing a story with a friend scares me. Her friendship is more valuable to me than writing a book together. I declined her offer. That doesn't mean that others cannot collaborate in a story. It has been successfully done.

Now to my good news:

I am a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts fellowship. The money will allow me to travel to Europe to research Picasso.

Diego: Bigger Than Life is the recipient of a Pura Belpré Honor Award.



Collaboration is not always easy for me. When I was young, if anyone gave me a suggestion for one my stories or a piece of artwork, I would outwardly smile and thank them, but inwardly I'd be angry. I felt that if I incorporated any of their ideas, the work would no longer be mine, and whatever suggestions were offered immediately become off-limit possibilities.

Fortunately I've come to realize that there's nothing wrong with getting advice from other people. My editors and critique group members play a huge role in shaping what I write, and my stories are immeasurably stronger because of this. As I tell the kids I work with at schools, they, as authors, have the final decision as to what advice to use, and a wise author will incorporate ideas that make the story stronger no matter if these ideas were offered by someone else.

I sometimes feel badly that books list only the author and illustrator, and on rare occasions, the editor and art director, as creators of the work. So many other people have a huge impact on the end result, including the designer, the typesetter, and the copy editor. In my novel ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT, the proofreader saved me from many embarrassing mistakes, including the error of using humus when I meant hummus; without her careful eyes, my character would have been eating a dirt sandwich.

Yup, collaboration is a huge part of writing, and thank goodness for that.


Collaboration, how does (or should) it work?

In my earliest collaborations with authors, not only was I illustrator, but also designer, typesetter (letterpress type, where each metal letter is handset), printer, binder, and publisher (The Hale Press). My first project was a friend’s lengthy translation/retelling of Beowulf in couplets. I printed the illustrations as lithographs. I bound each of the 75 copies in cloth over boards, and we sold them to our friends. That was 1984. Then I moved to NYC to study illustration at Pratt. I continued making books with poets, and was even invited to collaborate with William Stafford on How to Hold Your Hands When It Rains for Confluence Press. I enjoyed working with poets. I was connected to their words. I knew the feel of each and every letter.

After Pratt I began work in commercial publishing as art assistant in the children’s book department at E.P. Dutton. I continued at different publishers until eventually I became an art director—a position that involves pairing newly acquired manuscripts with illustrators. The occasional slush dummy arrived with author/illustrator teamed up, but most often there was a weak link in these collaborations and a rejection letter was dispatched.

When I was offered my first picture book illustration assignment, I was already an art director for Four Winds Press. I knew that it was not typical for authors and artists to communicate during the illustration process. One author-friend thought that co-creators were kept apart to avoid discussion of discrepancies in advance payments. No! This is done to allow space for the illustrator to find their own visual narrative without a back-seat driver issuing directions. Here I would like to say loud and clear that I applaud this practice.

Many stories I’ve illustrated are set in other countries. My book advances never have been generous enough to budget travel. In several instances I asked the editor to allow me access to the author’s resources. This has always been fruitful for my research. When there is some kind of accuracy issue involved, I believe that an author should have an opportunity to review sketches and final art, however not directly, but through the editor.

Now I am an author. When I submitted early drafts of The East-West House, there was talk about having someone Asian illustrate my story. Ha! Now the shoe was on the other foot. I wanted my vision of my story illustrated. Of course I did create art, art directed and designed the book too. I sure don’t sound like much of a collaborator. The writing process certainly involved lots of guidance from my writers groups and my editor.

Currently, besides developing my own stories, I’m sketching stories by author-friends to pitch. We have advantages over unknown teams in slush piles because we have published work. The truth is I love, and have always loved collaboration, but I desperately need privacy to find my way. I believe many authors would like more input into the visual presentation of their words. Let’s get some dialogue going about collaboration (or lack of) between authors and illustrators. What is your experience?



Collaborations are tricky, but they make the work so much better. My collaborations with illustrators have birthed books that were deeper and funnier than I could have imagined. My collaborations with my agent have created new writing contacts, new ways of looking at ideas, and relief from contract negotiations, which I am decidedly no good at. My collaborations with my fellow potatoes on our blogsite remind me that writing is a team sport and that I need to pay better attention to my place in the line-up! And my collaborations in the master's program have brought new friends, fascinating studies, and the immediate feedback that publishing rarely provides.

So, hooray for collaboration. It makes the world we live in so much richer.

(L to R Gina, my new writing friend, Kelly, my agent, and me
at the SCBWI Conference in L.A.)



On of my goals for the new year is to say yes to more interesting things. This week I've been invited to the Governor's Mansion in Madison, Wisconsin to present Box Out to students as it is the January selection for high school students in Read On Wisconsin!
First Lady Jessica Doyle established this program to encourage reading among students of all ages and if you have a book coming out it is worthwhile to send it to the program for consideration:


Students from five schools will come to Madison for the program and some of them are from parts of the state where they will have to get up very early to drive all the way to Madison. I'm pleased to present to them and honored to participate in Read On Wisconsin!


We all imagine writing to be a solitary pursuit: one writer, sitting alone for hours on end, burning through their creativity with only their family pets to offer comfort and support. Sure, there are moments just like that. A lot of moments, in fact. But that's only part of the writing process, because writers can't do it all by themselves.

For me, the collaboration starts when I finish a draft of a novel ( or a picture book) and am ready for some outside feedback. I email it off to one of my trusty readers. After they get back to me, I revise more and send it to my next partner in crime, my agent Scott.

Sometimes he and I go back and forth a couple of times before he deems something ready to be sent off to an editor. For my first two novels, and now for my next two, that editor is Liz. And what we do is true collaboration.

Yes, I've got the story written. My characters and plot and suspense are all there. But they aren't ready yet. Not by a long shot. For The Compound, Liz and I worked for about 18 months shaping that manuscript until it was ready. Happily, The Gardener took half that amount of time, simply because of things I learned from her on the first novel. My hopes are that my two subsequent novels will take even less editorial revision time. But I always look forward to her having a hand in my work, because, despite all my alone time as a writer, I can't do it alone.