By Sarah J. Maas (and Susan Dennard!)
Seven months ago, if you had asked me about whether or not I’d ever coauthor a book, I probably would have just scratched my head. It was something that SOUNDED cool, but seemed really, really hard to do well—not just the writing aspect, but also the emotional and business sides of it. Though I was fairly certain that if the right person came around, and if the right idea struck us, it could be a fun thing to do.
Enter Susan Dennard.
We’d swapped novels before—I had read Susan’s stunning debut, SOMETHING STRANGE & DEADLY, and she’d read both QUEEN OF GLASS and A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES (my “Beauty and the Beast” retelling). We both loved each other’s work, and had an instant friendship back when Sooz joined LTWF in October 2010, and had jokingly talked about one day writing a book together. The problem was that we didn’t have any idea WHAT to write.
Sooz Chimes In: If you think about it, it’s pretty daunting to come up with an idea two writers agree on. We’re all used to being 100% in control of our stories, our characters, and our worlds. Not to mention Sarah’s books are very different from mine—at least in terms of world or genre…
Then, one fateful day—February 8th, 2010—inspiration struck. We can’t yet explain WHY that date is so important, but let’s just say that a simple: “What if?” question turned into a “Holy crap…that’s an idea for a NOVEL!”
The thing is, neither Susan nor I had ever co-written a novel—and didn’t really know the first thing about it. We knew almost right away that the novel would be dual POV about two sisters. Which meant we each would be writing half a novel, essentially (though this actually doesn’t mean there’s any less work involved). But things like coming up with our world, plot, and characters—things like outlining and writing a synopsis…we had to figure out how to do all those things TOGETHER.
First rule about coauthoring a novel? Be flexible. Be open with your ideas, be open to suggestions, be open to learning how someone else’s creative process works, and what inspires THEM. And be crystal-clear when communicating.
Once we had a basic idea of our book (and by basic, I mean it was still “What if we wrote X?”), we began brainstorming. Every day. For a few weeks. We’d talk on skype, on gchat, over email. Most of the brainstorming went like this:
Sarah: So what if we did THIS?
Sooz: Ooh!!! That sounds so cool! But what if we did THIS?
Sarah: OMG. YES. And what if we added THIS?
Sooz: And then that could tie into THIS!
Sarah: Or we could go THIS route…
Sooz: Or THIS route!
Sarah: You are a genius because then we could tie it in with THIS.
Sooz: I know. And OMG—YES.
We even roughly outlined the first six chapters, but after weeks of brainstorming, we ran into a slight speed bump: when would this novel be set? We had originally envisioned steampunk, but given Sooz’s debut has steampunk elements, we were hesitant to also make ours a steampunk book. We both knew from the start that if this was gonna work, we’d have to be clear about what we wanted—about what was working for us and what wasn’t.
Sooz Chimes In: Like Sarah said, because SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY is an alternate history with gadgets and because I’m not allowed to write a new book that would compete with it, it seemed like our original envisioning of this coauthoring project wasn’t gonna fly. So I straight up told her, “My no-compete clause limits me. Would you be willing to look at different settings?”
And though it was frustrating to realize that our steampunk setting might not work, it was also a great sign that we were getting this communication thing down—we both felt that the decision to avoid the steampunk route was the right one. Without being brave enough to voice our opinions—and open enough to hear them—the project could have fallen apart right there. But then things like edit letters and revisions and other projects came along, and before we knew it, our little project got set on the back burner.
Weeks went by, and to be honest, we didn’t think of our little project all that often. But then one day out of the blue, one of us said: “So, I’ve been thinking about our little project…What if we set it in THIS setting/era?” And the other one said: “…Well, maybe not THEN, but what about a few years before…?”
What followed then was explosion of creativity that I don’t quite have words to describe. We had our setting, and our two heroines, and a villain—for the next few weeks, we built the world. The thing about co-writing a book is that you BOTH need to agree on EVERYTHING. In a hurricane of brainstorming, we built a world from the ground up—a world that we absolutely adored. One book became a trilogy.
Maybe we had it easy. Sooz and I come from the same geekdoms. STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, various anime…we loved the same novels. We knew, inside and out, the kind of sources we were drawing from, and knew our target audience. And because we were so familiar with the same things, it made getting on the same page way easier (example: I mentioned wanting a “That’s no moon…It’s a space station.” kinda shout-out moment, and Sooz knew exactly what I was talking about.).
But there comes a point when you can’t do any more brainstorming—when you have to bite the bullet and start writing.
Doing that—deciding to put words onto paper—was perhaps the hardest part so far. We decided to each take a character and write their POV in alternating chapters. After we’d write a chapter, we’d swap those chapters and read through them so we’d be on the same page about pacing and plot development. Initially, it felt like a game of chicken: who would be the first one to write their chapter? Worse: who would be the first one to SEND their chapter to the other?
Confession: Sooz is way braver than me and sent her first chapter before I sent mine. And it was so good that I looked back at the first chapter I had written and CRINGED. And then worried that Sooz would find my first chapter so freaking horrible that she’d realize working with me was a terrible mistake and suggest we not do it.
Sooz Chimes In: Sarah is being ridiculous. When she sent me her first chapter, I got chills…and then freaked out because I had already sent her mine and in comparison, hers was SO much better. I told her what I thought, and she laughed and told me how she felt—next thing you know, we were both feeling pretty confident about our scenes and chomping at the bit to get out more!
Second rule of coauthoring a novel? Embrace your belief that your co-author is writing better stuff than you—and writing faster and more of it. It becomes a powerful motivator.
Seeing Sooz produce such stellar stuff made me push myself. It kept me on my toes. It challenged me to write the very best that I could—it made me demand excellence from myself.
Sooz, like me, is a fast worker. We can both write well over 5k words in a day if we’re focused. Seeing Sooz churn out chapters made me not want to let her down—I wanted to match the quality and quantity of work she was producing. Best of all, these weren’t negative feelings—it was liberating. Inspiring. It was an adrenaline rush and a sugar high and like going 0 to 60 in 7 seconds. I woke up every morning eager to get to work, and went to bed every night dreaming of the next day’s scenes.
We finished our rough draft in two weeks. And then began the process of revision—which is a process that Sooz will talk about in our next article on co-authoring.
Third rule of coauthoring a novel? Have fun.
I keep telling people that this summer has been one of the busiest of my life, and it has. But it’s also been one of the most fun I can remember. Every day, I got to wake up and work (via skype, email, etc) with my best friend. We got to giggle about the guys in our book, or go on wild tangents about Boba Fett or my obsession with Ancient Aliens or the alien-raccoon-demon hybrid dwelling in my attic. Or one of our dogs would bark, and the other would bark in response, and we’d have to stop working for 5 minutes to allow our pups to have a doggie skype session.
We started off just writing this book for the hell of it. Just to have a grand time and write about some of the things we love and wish we could do. But it didn’t take long after we began writing before we asked another question….
“…What if we tried to get this book published?”
Sarah J. Maas has written several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012. She is repped by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency, and resides with her husband in Southern California. You can visit her blog here, and follow her on twitter.
Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.