STOP! Collaborate and listen! by Robin Mellom and Lindsey Leavitt
Lindsey: We are so honored to visit the Nerdy Book Club, a community I’ve followed since one fateful night in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2012.
Robin: A Vegas hotel room? *pops popcorn* Go on…
Lindsey: It was an NCTE party, which was just as cool as it sounds. Robin and I had quite a few late nights in Vegas, too, which is what we are here to discuss today. COLLABORATION!
Robin: Right. Much of our cowritten novel, THE PAGES BETWEEN US, was written in Lindsey’s hometown. But could we first do that wavy blurry motion they do in movies just when they’re going to a flashback? There’s also soft music typically. But this is a blog, so please use your imagination. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(that’s my flashback cue)
This whole thing, a middle grade novel told in letters, started when I had an idea. It was based on something I myself did in 8th grade…I wrote letters to my best friend in a spiral notebook. We passed it back and forth between classes and on the cover it said: HISTORY.
We were so boss.
Lindsey: Robin and I were kindred spirits in this way. I was always a bit of a historian, and kept every single arrow-folded letter I wrote through junior high. By high school, I’d moved on to documenting everything in my planner. My friends and I would write notes back and forth throughout. Here’s a page from my senior year. Yes, I only did a screenshot of the schedule because these notes are still too scandalous to share…
So when Robin wrote me a cryptic facebook message that followed with a pitch to collaborate, I jumped. Actually, I herkied.
Robin: Whoa, hold on there little miss historian. You’re forward flashing in this flashback.
Lindsey: You know I stink at time travel…
Robin: For this story, I knew the best way to get two distinct viewpoints and voices was to write it with someone else. Lindsey and I were “sort of” friends at the time. Meaning, we knew each other from conferences and emailed from time to time, but we weren’t besties. (Yet. Not to reveal spoilers here, but Lindsey and I ultimately became incredibly close friends and we plan to have our kids marry and I know that she has a serious infatuation with Nutty Bars JUST LIKE ME.) Anyway, I adored Lindsey’s writing style and her voice. She was the perfect person to work with. She was my only choice and I’m so thankful she jumped off with me and went on this collaboration journey.
Lindsey: There’s something in my eye. Oh yes, it’s tears. Thanks for all that, Robin. You are my wordsmith soulmate.
Robin: You are the wind beneath my wings.
Lindsey: Okay, Bette Midler, let’s stay focused. We started off with a simple idea–two best friends who have been torn apart by conflicting school schedules, who promise to document everything in their top secret notebook. I wrote the first letter that very night and sent it to Robin with the subject line “this is better” because we got frustrated with Facebook and loved the sheer luxury and comfort of email. So much, that we wrote our entire first book on this same email thread. Did you know there is a limit to how many emails can go on one thread? We learned this quickly.
Robin: It’s possible I have 850 versions of the book saved in a folder on my laptop. NOT like a boss…
Lindsey: What we didn’t learn as quickly was that there are easier ways to write a novel together other than cutting and pasting the whole thing over and over again into a word document. I share this at school visits and the kids blink back at me like this is the greatest No Duh process on earth. I once had a second grader raise her hand and ask, “Why didn’t you write your book together on google docs?” We inevitably DID use google docs (we’re actually using it to write this post together now), but didn’t learn of this strategy until our second book.
Robin: Sidenote: while we are writing this in google docs, we are simultaneously texting.
Lindsey: Side sidenote: Robin just burned her chicken and my kids had a fight over the karaoke microphone
Robin: Back to the flashback…our collaboration process was “exploratory.” By that I mean, we figured it out along the way. We both used to be 5th grade teachers and during school visits, we are often asked by teachers how to help students collaborate in their own writing. Our advice is to set up ground rules (we’ll get to that in a sec), create a roadmap for how to break it up into parts, assign certain tasks to each person, but then…be willing to throw all that away if a better solution comes along. Part of the creative process is allowing yourself room to be creative! So…the ground rules. Lindsey and I brainstormed and came up with a few:
Rule #1: Nothing is too precious. We gave each other permission to write over each other to strengthen a sentence or idea. If the other person liked it, we kept it. If not, we deleted and compromised. Usually her version was better than I could’ve imagined. Honestly, this forced me to write my best because I knew she’d be reading it daily. It was very motivating!
Lindsey: Rule # 2. Deadlines. We both had other projects going on, so we agreed to be breezy about this collaboration. We’d write each part and send it back with a date we would start working again. Sometimes, I gave Robin the week and I worked weekends and vice versa. Sometimes, Life would happen and we would set the book aside for a couple of weeks. We would also meet up 2-3 times for either a drafting or revision jam session. Again, the focus was on BALANCE. We helped each other out if one of us was on deadline for another project. But it always ended up being equal. It was effortlessly equal actually. For students, it may not be so effortless at first (but I wanted the RED notebook, teacher!), so offer suggestions before letting them problem solve. Note: listening to 10-year olds discuss meeting deadlines is crazy adorable.
Robin: Rule #3: Be flexible. We would discuss what the next letter would be, but there were times when we veered from the plan and suddenly entered new territory. For example, the backstory of why my character was so fearful of making new friends came from an incident in 3rd grade. That wasn’t in our outline, it just appeared on the page! That’s how writing goes sometimes…the characters take over. So we were like, “Cool! Let’s roll with that!” Lindsey then added details to the event and it became a much richer, deeper part of the story.
Lindsey: (side side sidenote: my son just walked in the room and said, “Hey, google docs! My teacher taught me about that.” SEE TEACHERS? Changing the world)
As this series took shape, we started to brainstorm ways our book could serve as a springboard for further collaboration. It’s been so gratifying to see how students have connected to this series. Some educators encouraged students to start a notebook of their own. At one school visit, students presented friend notebooks they’d kept for nearly two months.
Robin: We had no idea the students had done all that preparation and this surprise nearly busted my heart wide open. The kids let us read through some of their letters and they were SO heartfelt… full of their worries, their hopes, and–of course–what they ate at lunch. Teachers, having your students write back and forth is a wonderful way to get them to open up and develop their own personal writing style and voice.
Lindsey: The idea for our next book, IN THE SPOTLIGHT, actually ignited at a school visit! How’s that for collaboration? The sequel follows Olivia and Piper as they participate in their schools Battle of the Books and accidentally become Youtube stars in process. The girls must learn to channel their very different talents to accomplish a shared goal. MORE COLLABORATION!
Robin: You are really driving that word home, aren’t you?
Lindsey: I stay true to my themes
Robin: I thought you were only true to Nutty Bars. I’m impressed, friend.
Lindsey: Almost as impressed as we are with the growth of this wonderful community. (see how I tied it altogether there, Robin?) If you’re at Nerdy Camp, hope it’s extra campy, and if not, feel free to hang with us online. Just name the google doc or email chain…