The Magic of Middle Grade Writing Partnerships

We’ve all heard it said: Writing is a solitary endeavor. Hours in front of the empty screen or page, grappling with one’s own thoughts.

That is, unless you have a writing partner!

Like, say, middle grade writing partners Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, of the Spiderwick Chronicles books. Or Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson of the Peter and the Starcatchers series. Or  Nate Evans, Paul Hindman and Vince Evans of  the Humpty Dumpty Jr.: Hardboiled Detective series. Or the husband-wife team of Jon and Pamela Voelkel of the Jaguar Stones books.

Writing partnerships can be ways to not only beat the loneliness of the writing endeavor, but motivate you to meet deadlines, take more risks in your writing, and challenge yourself to push beyond your literary comfort zones. Writing partners can function like a mirror, reflecting back to you your own strengths and challenging you to address your weaknesses.

But how do writing partnerships work?

Well, I’m not sure how each and every writing partnership works, but what I can do is share here my own story, and that of my writing partner, Karen S. Scott.

Kari and I both grew up in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb outside of Columbus, and became friends in third grade. By the time my family moved away from Ohio, at the end of seventh grade, we were inseparable, more like sisters than friends. And it’s no surprise our friendship was very much based in our mutual love of stories and storytelling.

Fast forward twenty years, two marriages (one each), four kids (two each), graduate school, jobs, houses, lives… And the writing partnership fairy (The WPF to those of you in the know) strikes not once, but a magical three times:

WPF gift #1: Kari finds an old box full of letters from me as a twelve year old to her as a twelve year old. Like a movie, right? Embarassingly, they are addressed to “Rover” and from “Spot.” Don’t ask, I don’t actually remember why.

WPF gift #2: Kari is visiting her friend, Sister Kim King, the nun librarian (I know like a movie, right?), in New York City and we all meet. Over gluten free pancakes, I say, “Hey, we should write a book together.” At Sister Kim’s urging, Kari agrees. (*NB: if a nun librarian suggests you write a book, you best do it, k?*)

WPF gift #3: We start to write an epistolary book together – a book in letters. It’s terrible. Nothing happens. So we decide to write a different book together. Things happen! We write and rewrite it until we’re ready to kill each other! We get an agent!  (what happens next we’re still waiting to find out.)

But now you’re getting cranky, saying I didn’t actually answer my question about how to make writing partnerships work.

Well, true to partnership form, I thought I’d let you in on a few partnership secrets with Kari’s help. From now on, if it’s written in bold, it’s written by her.

1.     Who: Choose your Writing Partner Wisely.

A friend, a colleague, someone whose writing skills and temperament compliment yours, but most importantly, someone with whom you have fun and respect!

And certainly someone with a great sense of humor! Your partner should be honest – able to tell you honestly when you suck and when you shine. She should also be willing to hear the same sorts of things from you. It is a 2-way street. Sure…the occasional road block will get thrown in your way. I’d be grumpy or out of sorts and not really want to hear how my dialog was unnatural or how I’d forgotten totally about some huge plot point that I just dropped and let lie there (road kill of the writing process!). But having a partner who was willing to put up with the road blocks and plow through them with me was the best!

“It was an instant click…when we met… it was inevitable we’d be doing something together” Tony DiTerlizzi about his partner Holly Black.

2.     What: What sort of project

Kari and I began to write because we wanted to reconnect, but also because we were inspired by the letters she found. In the end, a letter based novel didn’t work out, but we were so committed to the writing process already that we kept going!

Yeah…that epistolary dream novel didn’t quite work the way we thought it would. But we were on a roll! We had a story to tell and wanted to get it out there. After the letter plan fell flat, we tossed other project ideas around. For a while, we thought we’d each adopt a character and write alternating chapters from our characters’ POVs, but that didn’t quite work the way we thought it would either. Did we give up! NO! Kept writing, kept thinking, kept dreaming and trying to tell our story together. Eventually, we found our footing and wrote an Indiana Jones meets Nancy Drew and they partay with Scooby Doo mystery together, working  as a team on every chapter (every line!) of the manuscript.

“I said I’m thinking of writing a prequel to Peter Pan… and his eyes went ‘what’?” Ridley Pearson about his writing partner, Dave Barry.

3.  When: Meet on a regular basis, But be Flexible.

There was a while there we ‘met’ every Sunday, but emailed several times over the week to catch up on what each of us were doing. Of course, other times, kids were sick, or work was busy, and one of picked up when the other one couldn’t follow through. A partnership is a good way to keep your writing on track, and not to let other priorities take over!

These meetings were the best. For me, they kept me on task, gave me deadlines to work toward, and kept me from doing dishes or laundry instead of writing. (I’m a great procrastinator …and will follow any shiny red ball that bounces through my field of vision if it means I can put off what I know I need to be doing!) I do think it helped make our partnership stronger, too, in that we both were willing and able to spot one another during tough weeks. There’s nothing like a partner who says, “I’ll take care of chapter 4! No worries!” when both of your kids are sick and your full time job just turned into a full time pain!

4.     Where:  Meetings in Cyberspace!

Even though we live in different states, we ‘met’ every week via Skype, and we often wrote online together using Mikogo and other online collaboration tools.

I work for a technology/software company, so I was familiar with online meeting tools and methods we could use to share our files and even our desktops to help with editing. It was sometimes a technology challenge to keep the different tools all running over our internet connections (some of them are “resource hogs”) but we managed. We could see each other via video on Skype, but would turn off the video and share our files with Mikogo – which allowed us to even edit the file on the fly together. Thank heavens for technology!

“We usually let the characters solve the plot disagreements.  Of all the possible things that could happen, only a few will be true to character.” Jon and Pamela Voelkel on their writing partnership.

5.  How: Splitting Up the Writing

Our Skype meetings were often to discuss plot and character development. And a thorough outline of the entire project was really useful since there were two of us working on the book. But sometimes inspiration happened and one or the other of us would ‘discover’ something unexpected about the plot or characters while writing. This was where the flexibility came in.

We would agree during our meetings on the goals for the week. I’d take chapter 3 and she’d take chapter 4, for instance. Once we had a solid rough draft of our “homework”, we’d send it along via email so the other could read through. We’d edit, red-line, cut, paste, cut some more, add chunks, comment like crazy when we really liked something (or really didn’t!) and generally tear up that draft.  Then we’d send it back and forth some more, each time adding more layers of comments and edits.

Typically, I’d say we’d send the “in progress” chapter back and forth more than a few times (heck—more than a dozen, sometimes!) before we’d agree to turn off the edits and take a look at the new version. I’d comment on Sayantani’s work; she’d comment on mine…often our comments contradicted each other, but in the end, we both knew the writing was stronger because both of our heads…both of our voices…both of our storytelling selves were present in the drafts. It was a good way to work.

“Most of the time when we disagreed about something, it would become a third thing that was better than either one of our positions.” Holly Black about her writing partner, Tony DiTerlizzi

In the end, our very own middle grade friendship, so central to who we became as adults, grew into a partnership. I, for one, feel like perhaps we were destined to tell stories for other middle graders. We were able to collaborate, negotiate, discover stories to tell together, challenge each other and laugh. A lot! And here’s a beautiful thing: We finished a book together! What else could you ask for in a partner?

Please help us add to our list of magical middle grade writing partners below — or leave some tips and advice from your own writing partnership!

[All covers above courtesy of indiebound. The photo of Kari and myself, circa 1980, is courtesy of my mom!]

One of Mixed-Up Files Member Sayantani DasGupta’s favorite things to do as a child was to read and act-out myths with her best friend Kari. (She was usually Artemis, and Kari Athena!) Many years later, Sayantani co-wrote “The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales,” and her middle grade collaboration with Kari is based on Indian myths. You can learn more about her mythical obsessions at her blog or website.

  1. Thanks all for the great comments – Kimberley I hope you do get back to that book – it sounds wonderful! Rosanne I’ll definitely look up “Click” sounds great… Happy writing all!

  2. I’ve always wanted to try this! Thanks for the great post.

  3. This is interesting and humbling. Maybe someday I will get to experience that partnership as well.
    Thank you for this great article.

  4. What a fascinating article, Sayantani – I loved reading it! You two sound like a great match and SUPER fun! Thanks for letting us peek into the process. With all the online tools these days, I’ll bet we see more and more writing partnerships springing up.

    I wrote a partial of a book with two local writing friends several years ago. We were all down in the dumps over our stalled careers (we all had books out, but were switching agents at the time and were orphaned by our editors) and one day while meeting for breakfast, we started throwing out funny story lines and characters based on current research we were doing, mixing it all up. We ended up taking notes, giggling like mad, and a fun MG story was born, each of us taking a character that would be a great foil to the others. Three thirteen year old girls. “On Location in Egypt: How I Met the Queen of Sheba During Spring Break” was born, but very sadly, one of our threesome passed away after battling breast cancer for 12 years, so the project got shelved, as well as the two of us left went on to acquire new agents and sell new manuscripts of our own. But I still think about that project some days. Maybe we’ll get back to it sometime in the future!

  5. Great post and love that pic of the two of you! I have tossed around the idea of partnering on a project and it seems as if it boils down to trust, which you two nailed. Best of luck on future books.

  6. My fav hometown writing team are the brother and sister pair Matt and Jennifer Holm. They collaborate on the Baby Mouse series.

    For another interesting collaboration, take a look at Click a book written by twelve authors and done as a benefit for Amnesty International. Each author took a chapter, building on past story lines and introducing their own ideas. Fascinating!

  7. Very interesting article. Always wondered about the process. Seems like a real adventure in writing with many rewards.

  8. great post. writing partnerships… hard work. I’m glad you two worked it out. I lived in Dublin btw. Not too far from Worthington!