On Collaboration: Finding My Partner in Crime–And CAKE!
People often ask what my favorite thing about the publishing experience has been.
I always tell them that it’s the expression on my husband Navdeep’s face when he opened his hardcover copy of Tiny Pretty Things and discovered the book was dedicated to him. And here’s the thing: I can’t even take credit it for it. It was all my writing partner Dhonielle’s idea.
I met Dhonielle the first day of the first class of my MFA writing for children program at the New School. We were the chatty ones in class, and hit it off immediately. Eventually we started trading pages and telling stories, and often spent time discussing, over Patsy’s pepperoni pizza, how rarely we saw ourselves in the books we read as kids – especially the delicious, page-turnery ones where the heroine gets the boy (or girl) and still manages to save the day. So we decided to do something about it and created CAKE Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent. (More on that another day.)
To launch the company, we decided to collaborate on the first project, which turned into Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel, Shiny Broken Pieces, which hits shelves this week. Dhonielle had mentioned the (astounding) fact that she taught at a pre-professional ballet conservatory in her 20s, and wanted to write about the experience. I’m a Pretty Little Liars fan, and thought that cutthroat and killer mystery element would work well in that intense, fishbowl setting. Voila, a concept was born.
Turns out, Dhonielle and I were natural collaborators. We each have different strengths, which made working together fun and practical. She is all about character, starting from the bones out. I’m very plot-oriented. So the first thing we did was create character sketches, and then an outline – likely Dhonielle’s first, as she was a total pantser, though I’ve dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the other side.
Then we divided up the chapters – I took one character, she took another, and we both wrote the third, and started writing chapters. We created a google doc (probably the most painful part of the process, cuz google docs) and started compiling, editing each other’s chapters – and tweaking the outline when necessary – as we went. In the end, our drafts tended to be pretty clean, given this process. We tackled edits similarly, and as we got to final stages, we’d each do an individual pass on the manuscript.
Now that we’re on projects both together and solo, we frequently rely on each other still to work through story, publishing angst and dramas, and especially for pep talks. Because two brains are better than one.
A few things we learned about collaboration through the process of working on two-and-counting books together now:
1. Figure out strengths (and weaknesses). And learn how to use them. We know, for example, that D is awesome at filling in and making things pretty, while I’ll hone in on structure and cut, cut, cut.
2. Take advantage of having a partner. Struggling for four hours on the same stupid paragraph? (Just me? Sigh.) Skip and let your partner take it on. Dhonielle and I leave holes for each other throughout the manuscript. She hates kissing scenes, and writing some of the dance details would take me hours of research to her minutes. So we trade off. It evens out in the end.
3. Talk about process. One of the best things about having Dhonielle around is that she gets me. She’s knows I procrastinate, she knows I need a deadline (and that I don’t take ones I set for myself nearly as seriously). So she sets them for me, and then she pesters until I meet them. It’s a lifesaver. Me? I’m good at pep talks, marketing and shaking things up.
4. Like (and root for!) your partner. Dhonielle and I talk every day, sometimes like four times a day. She’s my work wife, my sister, and my kids think she’s their bud, not mine. We argue occasionally about work stuff, but we know each other well enough to always talk through it. Publishing can be a rough ride, so I can’t overstate how awesome it is to have someone so fully in your corner.
5. Be on the same page. It’s important, if you’ve decided to write with a partner, to know you have the same goals, timelines, expectations and – probably most importantly – vision. That way you don’t waste a lot of energy arguing about things like missed deadlines or whether the book should be paranormal or contemporary. And there’s a reason people so often compare books to babies. Gestation can be long and painful, and once it’s out there in the world, you’re linked forever. Make sure you get along – and that your relationship can survive the stress of writing (and publishing) together.
SONA CHARAIPOTRA is a journalist and author who’s written for everyone from the New York Times to Teen Vogue. The co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent, she’s also the co-author of the dance drama TINY PRETTY THINGS and its sequel SHINY BROKEN PIECES. She’s proud to serve as VP of content for #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Find her on the web at SonaCharaipotra.com, or on Twitter @sona_c
DHONIELLE CLAYTON spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She is co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — books for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. A former teacher and middle school librarian, she’s COO and Sr. VP of Librarian Services for the non-profit #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Dhonielle is the co-author of TINY PRETTY THINGS and SHINY BROKEN PIECES, and the author of the forthcoming fantasy series THE BELLES coming in 2017.