I’ve always wanted to try collaborating with another author. First of all, I think it would be a lot of FUN (and if you’re not having at least a little bit of fun when you’re writing, you’re not doing it right!). But beyond that, I like the idea of working with someone else who is as invested in a project as I am, working together to create something that is bigger than either of us could have created on our own. Or at least DIFFERENT than it would have been had either of us attempted the same basic premise on our own.
Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams are both successful children’s book authors who have published many books on their own. But for the last seven years they’ve also been writing together. As collaborators, they’ve published 34 books in three different series: Goddess Girls (Ages 8-12, Simon & Schuster), Grimmtastic Girls (Ages 8-12, Scholastic), and Heroes-in-Training (Ages 7-10, Simon & Schuster). And they’ve got at least 12 more books coming!
I’m fascinated by how their partnership works, so I decided to interview them for this post. Thanks, Joan and Suzanne, for agreeing to answer all my questions, both online and in real life.
I know you guys met through SCBWI-Western Washington and you used to meet for dinner now and then to talk about your writing. But the initial idea to collaborate was Joan’s, correct?
Joan: That’s right.
Me: Which came first? The idea to write with someone else or the idea for Goddess Girls?
Joan: Goddess Girls started with a title and a series hook, born from my interest in mythology. The hook was to set the series in Mount Olympus Academy and base each book on a middle-school-age goddess’s myth, giving it a modern twist.
Me: I know Suzanne is great, but I want to know what is it about her that made you approach her about writing this together?
Joan: I had always wanted to write a series with a partner. Suzanne is organized, smart, sane, talented, and fun to hang out with. Plus she already had some great series under her author belt. So I popped the question about writing together. Thank Zeus she agreed! We developed the series as a team and every book is a collaborative effort.
Me: Suzanne, what was your initial response when Joan brought it up?
Suzanne: I was surprised at the offer. I’d never thought about writing with a co-author before. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes to say “yes,” though. From our long dinner conversations about our various writing projects, I knew Joan was both brilliant and hardworking. I felt certain we’d make a good team. We’d both had experience writing middle grade fiction series, liked writing for that age group, and had similar senses of humor.
Me: I understand you each sort of “take charge” of every other book. So, you start by discussing what the book is going to be about (by phone or Skype since you don’t live in the same area anymore). How long are these conversations?
Joan: An hour or more. Then if it’s Suzanne’s book, she’ll begin writing a long synopsis/outline. Including research notes, Suzanne’s latest outline (for Goddess Girls #20: Calliope the Muse, out August 2016) was twenty-eight pages long. Mine are usually about half that. We are usually writing two books at a time, so while Suzanne is writing her outline, I’m writing the outline for the next book. Then we trade and critique each other’s outlines.
Me: When you started writing together, could either of you have predicted you’d do THIS many books together?
Suzanne: Not a chance. J We feel incredibly lucky that our three series together have done so well.
ON THEIR PARTNERSHIP…
Me: What is the most interesting and/or surprising thing to have happened as a result of your working together?
Suzanne: Before we teamed up we’d both written solo middle grade fiction series. But none of those series had continued past the initial four to eight books contracted. So we didn’t anticipate our joint series would do so much better than our solo series or that we’d be working together for as many years as we have on so many books. Though we occasionally wish our schedule weren’t quite so hectic (okay, more than just “occasionally”), we are very grateful for how well our joint series have done. Some highs include the dozen or so foreign translations of Goddess Girls, and, recently, seeing an eight-book boxed set of Goddess Girls and a 4-books-in-one hardcover of the first four Heroes in Training in Costco. Oh yes. And the one Thanksgiving when a fan alerted us to a video clip that showed President Obama buying two of our Goddess Girls books (among several other books) as Christmas gifts!
Me: That is VERY cool! Congratulations! What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started working together?
Suzanne: Hmm. Not sure. It’s been rather fun to just go with the flow as the books in our co-written series have increased from contract to contract. Life is meant to have some mystery. Makes things more exciting!
Me: Very true. Can you both say something about how your partnership has allowed you to grow as individuals and/or as writers?
Suzanne: I think we’ve learned a lot from each other over the years we’ve been writing together. Joan says I taught her to outline, for example. Maybe I did…initially…but Joan has improved on the way we outline a story many times over. When I write now there’s a little voice in the back of my head reminding me of things Joan would suggest to make a story better. I try to pay attention to that voice!
Joan: I think it has helped me to narrow the focus of a plot more quickly. Because I know I’ll need to explain all aspects of a planned story to Suzanne–such as the major characters’ internal and external goals, motivations, etc.–before beginning a first draft, I’d better figure all that out before she and I talk. (And, yes, Suzanne did teach me the value of an outline in series writing, and I learned how to write them from reading hers. She could teach a class in outlining!)
Me: One final question: What is the secret to your successful partnership?
Suzanne: From the start we were determined to keep our egos out of our writing as much as possible and concentrate on doing what was best for each story. We’ve come to trust and value each other’s writing expertise more and more over the years. And while we’ve had a few tense moments (particularly when facing especially short deadlines) we’ve weathered the occasional storm just like you do in a good marriage. We’ve also kept our writing process fluid enough that it could evolve over the years, and we’ve become more efficient. We try to divide work as evenly as possible between us, but we don’t “keep score.”
Joan: We are similar enough that our writing blends well, but different enough to each bring something to the table. Brainstorming together feels effortless and always yields results. We’re equally invested in the characters, stories, and meeting deadlines. And while respectful of each other’s work, we’re frank when we see a problem. Our ultimate, all-important goal is always a great book. (Here’s a quick tip for anyone starting a partnership: Try to remember to use the words “we” and “our” instead of “my” when you discuss your work.)
Joan and Suzanne celebrate the release of two more books this month:
(Goddess Girls #17)
(Heroes in Training #10)
And…Joan has two new books of her own this month, too:
Thanks, Ladies, for a fun interview!
-Dori Hillestad Butler is the author of more than 40 books for children, including The Buddy Files series, the Haunted Library series, and the forthcoming King and Kayla series.