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The Joy of Teamwork: Let's Talk about Collaboration

Mar 20,2015
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The Joy of Teamwork: Let's Talk About Collaboration

One of the reasons I like being a writer is that I get to do my work all by myself. (Almost. Not quite. More on that in a sec.)

When I was a kid in school, I hated group projects. I begged my way out of them whenever possible. “I’ll do twice the work,” I would plead. “Three times. Four. Only don’t make me collaborate, pleeeeeeze!” The truth was, I was a bossy little snobby-pants who didn’t like compromising. I didn’t want somebody else to miss a deadline and lower my grade. Bottom line: I didn’t play nicely with others.

Today, I enjoy the freedom and the autonomy of writing a book any way I please. But the flip side is the downer. I work 

Which is why, when my editor calls, or my agent, I pounce on the phone like it’s my high school boyfriend calling. (IF, let me hasten to add, I was still in high school. I would not want my high school boyfriend calling me now, bless his fuzzy heart and I wish him all the best. That is NOT a picture of him.) Those moments of interaction with my agency or publisher are messages in a bottle for this shipwrecked soul. “I am not alone in the universe!”alone. Nobody to chat with at the water-cooler. Nobody to high-five when we’ve made the sale or shared a win.  Nobody whose one plus my one made a lot more than two. And nobody who shows up to the office with donuts. The teamwork buzz that sports teams, musicians, and actors get from collaboration done right is just not there.

There’s a solution, of course. A buddy system. Creative collaboration.

Some pairs make magic together. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Beavis and Butthead. Other times, getting two artists to cooperate is like asking two cats to play patty-cake. Don’t wait around.

My sister, Sally Gardner, whom I’ve mentioned here before, is a brilliant illustrator and a wicked wit. I’d always thought it would be fun to do a project with her. So we cooked one up. We published a four-book series for younger readers with Grosset & Dunlap called Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys. It’s about a boarding-reform school for naughty boys that is actually run by kid-eating monsters. No education, just a fight for survival in each episode.

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To say that I wrote it and Sally illustrated it would miss the truth by a mile. This was a true collaboration, with every decision and every detail hammered out together. With lots of telling the other what they ought to fix. With a disagreement discussion or two or ten here and there along the way.

Let’s have a candid interview with Sally about what it’s like to collaborate on a project. I’ll play the celebrity news station host, and Sally will play herself.

Interviewer:  So, Sally, tell us. Did your sister Julie contribute anything at all to the Splurch project, or was it actually all you? We’ve heard you were the magic.

Sally: You know, it doesn’t even make sense to me to separate our contributions. Sure, Julie typed the words, and I scribbled the pictures, but that all happened after the fact. The fact being that we both stayed up way too late on too many nights laughing until tears and boogers flowed freely. If there was magic involved, it must have had something to do with missed bed times.

File 30184Interviewer: No, seriously. We heard that when you guys tried to sell this project, every publisher raved about the artwork, but thought the writing was pooey. 

(Julie removes her wig and fake eyelashes to add: That is 100% true. No joshing.)

Sally: Oh, please. Shut up.

Interviewer: But tell me, really. What were you thinking, agreeing to do four books with your little sister? You changed her diapers, right? Speaking of pooey …

Sally: Well. How much time do we have? I could tell you some things about those diapers.

Interviewer: Tell us what the process was like. How did you begin?

Sally: The process was something like this:

Julie: Let’s have the next book be all about squids.
Sally: NO. No squids!
Julie: Why not? Squids are great!
Sally: How am I going to show emotion on a squid?!!
Julie: Squids, squids, squids.
Sally: NO SQUIDS. I’m serious.
Julie: Squids, squids, squids.
Sally: (having a dissociative episode, rocking back and forth)
Julie: Guess what? The editor’s big boss accepted the title “The Trouble With Squids.”

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Interviewer: What was the worst part of it all?

Sally: Afterward seeing bright-eyed youngsters tell me they loved the books. Just kidding. That’s really nice.

Interviewer: Think you’ll do it again?

Sally: I’m trying to persuade Julie to do a new series, but every time I pitch her an idea, she says “Nope, can’t do it. I’m already writing a different book about that.” Seriously? You’re already writing a book about Heretic Space Pirates Destroying the Moon??

Julie:  I don’t know what she’s talking about.  

Interviewer: Well, that’s our time. Thanks for joining us. See you next week on Inside A Dog!

So, Insiders, I challenge you. I triple-dog-dare you. Find a buddy and see what happens if you try to write a story together. Or write-illustrate one. Or script-and-film one. One of the best tricks to summon your creativity is to form random combinations or pairing of ideas. Working with a buddy ensures that the ideas going into the hopper will never grow stale. If one partner tries to dominate too much, or is rudely critical of the other’s work, the collaboration probably not going to gel. Likewise if one partner never follows through and does some actual work, the collaboration will likely tank. But if you’re both enjoying yourselves, and your ideas can play off each other and build, you may be onto something. See how far it’ll go.

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Three Irrelevant Facts About Me:

  1. I like to think I’m such a word girl. But my husband wipes the floor with me at Scrabble. He’s got the Scrabble dictionary memorized, and knows how to rock all the triple word squares. I’m more interested in word-awesomeness than in points.
  2. I’m pretty much obsessed with Dr. Who, Marvel, Tolkien, Narnia, Dickens, Austen. And lots more which I am presently forgetting.
  3. I just pulled an orange juice cake out of the oven. It’s one of my go-to recipes. People love it. This fact is so irrelevant, it’s mega-sub relevant. Sue me. YOU try coming up with 24 irrelevant facts about yourself. Maybe my problem is that I’m SO relevant. 

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