Monday, 16 March 2015

Collaborative Writing by Abie Longstaff

In the Winter edition of The Author I saw an article by Terence Blacker called 'The seven habits of highly ineffective authors'. His final no no was this:


I totally disagree with him. In fact, the instant shaking of my head as I read his point made me realise how much I like to collaborate. All authors work differently; I know plenty who do work better alone: they get inspiration from long walks, from listening to music, from living inside their own heads. I'm not one of these: I'm a talker. I like to think aloud, chatting through my plots and characters with friends. I've always enjoyed this part of the process and I find the act of verbalising my story, and of having others question me on it, forces me to formulate it properly and to ensure the plot (in terms of action and emotion) makes sense.

I brainstorm with editors, with my husband and with fellow authors (Jane Clarke, Saviour Pirotta, Rebecca Lisle and I recently had a fantastic joint session talking through plots and characters). I like hearing what other people have to say and I like thinking about their book issues as well as my own.

Once I've written a first draft I often do manuscript swaps with authors (we do a monthly one here at picturebookden where any denner can send round a draft for comment), I show it to my agent and to my editors.

Funnily enough, it's not that common for picture book authors to collaborate with illustrators. Sometimes I don't ever meet my illustrator and the editor acts as a go-between. On Fairytale Hairdresser, because it is a series, Lauren Beard and I do talk through issues and plots and I love hearing her ideas on the text. When we were making the Snow Queen Lauren and I met up for coffee. She said; I'm thinking Russian-ish, I said; I'm thinking blue and spiky, and we ended up with this jointly inspired look:

Recently I've heard a number of authors talk about more major scale collaboration: Sarah McIntyre and Phillip Reeve jointly authored the wonderful 'Oliver and the Seawigs' and they spoke at the Society of Authors about how enriching the experience was. Lee Weatherly and Linda Chapman talked at a conference about writing the 'Sophie and the Shadow Woods' series together and I know many other authors who write, or plot, with another person.

For me the phrase 'to be any good as an author you have to be on your own' just doesn't ring true. Where Blacker is right is that the final decision has to be mine, and I have to stand or fall based on it. But for me, listening to others makes my books deeper, richer and better.

What about you?

7 comments:

  1. I've collaborated with illustrators on picture books several times and have always been delighted with the results. We usually work up an idea together, exchanging early drafts and character sketches, and then take it to a publisher when we're both happy with it. Several books have started with me asking an illustrator if there's anything they'd love to illustrate but have never been asked to and – if it's something that I'd enjoy writing about – I try to write a story that allows them to do that. If you can tap into an illustrator's natural enthusiasms like this, it always shows in their work.

    Ed Eaves and I have a picture book coming out in May that was written around a set of outrageously souped-up vehicle models that Ed had made for his degree show at Uni more than a decade earlier. Ed had long wanted to do a picture book along similar lines, but the opportunity had never arisen. So I wrote a race story, 'The Silver Serpent Cup', featuring similar vehicles. The book was picked up by OUP, Ed has excelled himself in the illustrations, and it's been a joy to work on from start to finish!

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    1. Interesting that you submit ideas to publishers with illustrations by somebody you chose. I've always been told that authors shouldn't do this as 'editors like to make the decision who illustrates a text'. I've never really questioned this, but obviously it isn't true ;-) How annoying to have been unthinkingly wrong all this time. . . ;-)

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    2. I wouldn't say that I chose the illustrator, more that we chose each other. I've only ever done this with illustrators that I've worked with before, after a publisher has put us together. So the illustrator and I already know that we can work well together. Interestingly every time, I've done it, the publisher that originally put the illustrator and I together has turned down the new project and we've had to take it elsewhere.

      And we don't always find a publisher. I wrote "The Treasure of Captain Claw" because illustrator Steve Cox was keen to do a submarine book. After that was published, we were both keen to a spaceship book next, but we couldn't find a publisher for that project. And before Vanessa Cabban died, she and I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a home for a book based on the characters of her two dogs.

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  2. I agree with you, Abie. How can you tell what works and what doesn't unless you try it out on a trusted reader? And why wouldn't you want to bounce ideas around with generous souls who will spark new possibilities in you? I think it's the generosity of most children's book creative people that makes this job such a joy.

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  3. The writing part I carry out on my own. I scribbled down notes in one of my many note pad or tap ideas into the notes app on my phone. Once I'm happy I have a 'working' plot I get writing. It's only once I've got something down on paper do I firstly encourage him-in-doors to read, once I have his feed back and made tweaks I share with my trusted colleagues on The Picture Book Den. I then submit and keep my fingers crossed.

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  4. This sounds like a very old-fashioned view and one that assumes authors only do one type of book - a novel with no illustrator or designer involved. Sharing first drafts with a couple of trusted friends or fellow professionals is a very useful thing, provided they are honest and positive. (The wrong person might be a disaster, though, so that's worth thinking about). Stephen King is interesting on this in his great book 'How to Write'. He uses 3 or 4 trusted people to read his drafts and if 2 people mention the same point he acts on it.

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  5. I loved that session, Abie! It's fun to bounce picture book ideas around. I like to work collaboratively with editors, too.

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