Inside the Writing Life: What’s it Like to Co-Author?

By day, Leslie Johnstone heads the science department at a large Vancouver high school, while Shar Levine takes on the public face of the duo as The Science Lady. In this recent interview by Fiona Bayrock, they talked candidly about their writing relationship and methods. This is the second instalment of their conversation. You can read the first here.

So, what’s it like writing with a partner? Give us a peek.

Imagine traveling with your best friend, working with your best friend, giggling—it’s such a joy. When I talk to kids I ask, “Who likes to do an assignment with their best friend?” and everybody puts their hand up. It’s fun to work together. And we just get each other, so it’s very easy. For example, one time I was in the middle of a pitch to a publisher, free-forming some ideas, and this idea for a backpack alarm popped out of my mouth (it ended up as Build Your Own Backpack Alarm, Scholastic, 2006). Leslie went, “Oh!” and you see this little light there—an “Oh, I get that!”—so when the publisher said, “Tell me more about it.”, Leslie and I sort of looked at each other and proceeded to tap dance our way through it together. We do that a lot.

Leslie (nodding):
If one of us starts a sentence, the other one can always figure out the finish the other person intended. It’s really quite remarkable.

Having a writing partner is also a great bring-forward thing for the odd facts we collect. (We find out all sorts of really weird things, which makes us very interesting at cocktails parties!) The extra brain is like having another hard drive. Leslie will remember something I’ve forgotten and vice versa.

Invariably, if Shar loses something on her hard drive, it’s on mine. Shar once sent me this thing about blue lobsters (I didn’t know they came in blue!), and she said, “I’m sure we can use this somewhere.” Years later, I was buying lobsters in Halifax and they had one in a tank, so I took a picture of it. Eventually, the blue lobsters—and why they’re blue—made it into one of our books. For another project, we needed something on horseshoe crabs and I knew that we’d written something about them in a previous book but couldn’t remember which one. Shar did, and we managed to look back at what we’d written before so we didn’t repeat ourselves.

Do you have different strengths you bring to the partnership?

It’s one of the main reasons we work so well together. Shar’s very good at making connections to things in kids’ everyday lives. Sometimes I’ll come at something from a very teacher/academic kind of direction and she’ll go, “No, no, no, it’ll have to be more fun than that.”, and she’ll write something about skateboarding, or chewing bubblegum, or something, that would never have occurred to me.

Leslie is better at the hard science. (She hates the way I pronounce things in Latin!) Having different strengths and different weaknesses is beneficial. If you have two people who do the same things equally well, I think they’d butt heads more than we do.

How do you divide the work?

It depends on the book. Sometimes Leslie is busier and I can do more of a book, so I’ll take first stab and work out a rough outline for her input. And if I’m busier, she’ll do more of a book. Sometimes we literally draw a line down the middle. Or we might say, “Oh, I’d like to write this.” “I’d like to write that.” We don’t have an accounting of words or chapters or anything, though. We don’t count up the number of pages and say, “All right, I wrote 30 pages and you wrote 20, and now next time you have to write 30 and I write 20.”

I remember we had two books at one point where Shar started one and I started the other. We each got as far as we wanted to go, traded books, and finished up each other’s book.

We know what the other is thinking. It’s like we share the same brain.

This article excerpt appears with permission and was originally published in the 2011 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest).
This entry was posted in information books, non-fiction, writing process and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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