Doing It With Someone Else: Collaborative Writing in YA Fiction

Writing often seems like a solitary activity. Yet recently I’ve noticed some of the most talented writers in Young Adult Fiction collaborating on books that are written together. Intrigued, I set my students a collaborative writing task – LTU undergraduates, yes, I mean you! – so I thought I’d better do my research first. What is it really like to write with someone else? I asked creative partners Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan, authors of We Come Apart; and Joanna Nadin and Anthony McGowan, authors of Everybody Hurts.

How did the project come about and how did you choose your writing partner?

Brian Conaghan explains that he and Sarah Crossan met when they were both shortlisted for the Carnegie medal last year.

BC: ‘I had an idea that I wanted to write a book in verse and I was a big fan of Sarah’s The Weight of Water. I was a bit tentative about it … and then one day I asked if she would be interested in collaborating. I had a rough idea of what I wanted the content to be, and - much to my surprise – she said yes.

Interestingly, Anthony and Joanna’s project had a similar start, as Jo remembers:

JN: ‘For ages I’d wanted to write a joint novel because I’d been reading Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which I adored. I’d written dual narrative myself and loved it but thought I’d really like to riff off someone else.’

Anthony had an idea that needed two voices, one male and one female.

AM: ‘It’s a love story essentially, a dark and twisted one, and I always wanted it to be told in two first-person narratives. I felt it needed a woman writer to do the other voice. I’d got to know Jo and I thought she was a particularly witty writer and she was the person to do it.’

I wanted to know how it works in practice. How do you actually go about writing a book with another person? The writers I spoke to all came up with vivid images to describe the process.

SC: ‘I write a chapter and he writes a chapter and we ping-pong it across to each other. We didn’t plan it. We left it to each other to decide what happened next.’

BC: ‘It was always going to be this creative game of tennis. She takes a character, I have my character. I write a scene and send it to Sarah blind, she reads it blind, and then just follows on…’

Jo and Anthony worked in a similar way, with a clear story arc but no detailed plan.

AM: ‘I had a rough idea of where I thought the plot should go, although I was always quite happy for Jo to twist it and pull it in different directions, but we had that framework there. And then I’d write a chapter and she’d write a chapter. It was a bit like a three-legged race: we roughly knew where we were going, it was just a question of making it synchronise.’

It was a bit like a three-legged race

But what happens when one writer is more of a planner than the other?

JN: ‘It was like playing a massive game of consequences. Each time - I don’t think he realises this – I would then plan the entire novel out, and then I’d write my bit and send it back. And then he’d send me his bit with another massive curve ball and you’d have to do the whole thing again. It was exciting and infuriating at the same time, but brilliant… one of the nicest writing experiences I’ve ever had.’

Sarah also spoke about the unpredictability of writing collaboratively and the effect it’s had on her writing.

SC: ‘It’s such an exciting process. You don’t know what you’re going to get, so it’s more spontaneous and impulsive. Brian is a writer who doesn’t plan ahead as much as I do. I’m a control freak, so it was really good for me. I let go a little more.’

All these experienced authors say that collaborative writing brought their writing to a new level, because they were writing for someone else in a very immediate sense.

BC: ‘There’s an urgency about someone sending you their scene. Your concentration level somehow really kicks in. You want to do a really good job on it and make every word count. I found it really engaging and quite a liberating process actually. It’s all about the quality and trying to get the scenes right.’

You want to do a really good job on it and make every word count.

JN: ‘It was terrifying, showing work when it’s in draft form to someone you admire … but it made me play to the best of my game. It made me very conscious of having a reader.’

Brian said something similar about working with Sarah, who has a slightly younger readership than him.

BC: ‘Whereas I just write and edit later, Sarah considers every word, and she considers her readership, and I wasn’t considering her readership. So perhaps my character was a bit more rambunctious in the language use than Sarah’s character, and we had to create a balance. There was a text message I got one morning, when we’d finished the first edit, and Sarah told me, ‘You have 25 f***s, 18 d***s, 4 c***s’. There was a smorgasbord of swearwords.’

Talking to these writers, I got a definite sense of how establishing these kinds of limits might work differently in collaboration. Jo describes how she felt about writing a sex scene.

JN: ‘I normally quite like writing sex scenes. I’m not embarrassed at all and I’m not prudish. But suddenly, cos I’m writing for Anthony and we’re both writing in the first person and our characters are basically having sex with each other, it became very exposing and it was very difficult. In the end we both rewrote it, so it was fine, but on the actual day of writing it felt very awkward.’

When I asked about any disadvantages about working with another writer, they appear to be mainly connected to practical challenges, as Brian says:

BC: ‘I think the downside for us was that we lived in different countries. And we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t sit down face to face. It’s only in retrospect, and at the time I didn’t feel it as a major problem, but I think it would have helped the process.’

In retrospect, Anthony also questions the method he and Jo used.

AM: ‘Personally I found the process much more difficult than I thought, more of a technical challenge. It was much harder to make the plot move along. I’ve got a couple of friends, Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart, and they have an organic way of doing it, I think. They talk about a project right from the beginning, and they discuss all the ideas, so it belongs to them jointly and they’ll roughly break up sections of the text to work on.’

Other writer teams include mother-daughter pair Perdita and Honor Cargill, authors of Waiting for Callbackclick here to read about their writing method – and friends Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil, authors of Black Arts and Devil’s Blood, who say, ‘We plan everything, then separate to write first drafts of chapters … the house style emerges through multiple edits. Dropbox is amazing for this.’

Jo and Anthony work in different ways and eventually that became an issue for them. Jo has advice for anyone working collaboratively:

JN: ‘Set a timescale: a maximum time that you are allowed to respond, like playing chess. I just wanted to get cracking with it. And it ended up being frustrating for both of us…’

AM: ‘Jo is fantastically professional - she’s always been very driven about deadlines and things. And I tend to be a bit more whimsical and work in surges, followed by periods of torpor. And that’s fine when it’s just me and the manuscript, but when there’s someone else there, I felt a bit guilty and anxious about that.’

Why should we dare to write collaboratively then? What are the rewards of working with someone else?

SC: ‘I do recommend it, especially as a break from your own individual work. Being a writer can be so lonely… It’s very exciting, because it’s so open. I would write something completely different. It’s your book, but you enjoy it more. I’m proud of this book in a way I’d feel shy of with other books. It’s not you taking all the pressure – any praise or criticism is shared.’

It’s very exciting, because it’s so open.

BC: ‘It was a lovely process and it was great to get the chapters back from Sarah cos you didn’t know which direction it was going in… We had such a laugh doing it. There was no arguing, no disagreement, no feeling of it being an arduous. Me and Sarah have become good mates. When I’ve got a problem with my writing, I’ll send her it and we bat ideas off each other.’

AM: ‘Essentially writing is quite a lonely business. So it’s very nice having that sense of collaboration and having another mind to work with. That was really fantastic. It certainly was fun, and it was wonderful working with Jo.’

It’s like a love affair, a brilliant love affair that has to come to an end, you know?

JN: ‘It’s like a love affair, a brilliant love affair that has to come to an end, you know? Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I will not regret a single minute of it because it has been so much fun. I’ve learnt so much about myself, about Anthony, about writing. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.’

A huge thank you to all my interviewees! I am a convert to this way of working. All I need to do now is find myself a writing partner!

Jo is the author of books including Joe All Alone, White Lies, Black Dare, Undertow and Eden. See for more information.

Anthony is the author of books including The Knife That Killed Me, Henry Tumour, Hello Darkness and Brock. See for more information.

Jo and Anthony’s book Everybody Hurts is currently under submission.

Sarah is the author of books including One, Apple and Rain, Breathe and The Weight of Water. Her next book is August Moon, coming in August 2016 from Bloomsbury. See for more information.

Brian is the author of the Carnegie-shortlisted When Mr Dog Bites, and his next book is The Bombs That Brought Us Together.

Brian and Sarah’s book We Come Apart will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2017. It’s a love story about Nicu, who’s emigrated from Romania, and Jess, whose home life is overshadowed by violence. Read more here.