So I was pretty nervous, as well as excited, at the idea of co-writing a YA novel with someone else, even if that someone else was a good friend and someone whose writing I love and respect enormously. Actually, that's probably exactly why I was so nervous! But the Girlfriend Fiction series needed a title at short notice, and Penni Russon and I offered to step into the breach.
We ended up producing Dear Swoosie at record speed. We sat at my dining table and threw around some ideas, then refined them with lots of emails and phone calls, until we'd nutted out a proper chapter outline and worked out our respective characters: flaky, self-proclaimed psychic India for me; smart, brittle Poppy for Penni. We'd agreed early that the story would be written in two voices, in alternating chapters; but we didn't realise we'd end up with four voices, because the middle chunk of the book is an exchange of letters between the girls' two mothers, Sarah and Mandy, which we wrote parallel with the main story.
But of course, if you're writing about two characters who are thrown together and gradually become friends, you can't just write your own person. It wasn't till I sat down to actually write the first India chapter that it dawned on me that I'd have to write dialogue for Poppy too. Yikes! I was a bit scared of Poppy. It was daunting to put words into her mouth, and then offer up those words to Poppy's creator… Penni and I gave each other editorial control over each other's characters, in case we didn't feel comfortable with words or actions that the other writer had given them; but I don't think we ever needed to exercise it. Penni did chide me once (deservedly) because I had accidentally left Poppy out of a crucial conversation toward the end, and I corrected some minor technical errors in a tarot reading, performed by India but described by Poppy. But otherwise the process was very smooth.
I wrote the first chapter in a google document, and emailed Penni to tell her when it was ready. Then she would get back to me with any comments or questions, and then a few days later, there would be an email from her to say that her chapter was up. We wrote fast, because we knew that the other person was waiting; but we couldn't prepare too far ahead, even sticking to our chapter outline, because there were always little details about the way the other had resolved a situation, lines of unexpected dialogue, unanticipated poignant moments, that would affect how the next installment unfolded. It was a perfect mixture of surprise and security, knowing where the story was headed, but never knowing what the scenery would look like along the way (or what might jump out of the bushes!) In retrospect, it kept the writing very fresh; it kept us on our toes. It was almost like living out the story while we were writing it.
In keeping with that feeling, we found that we had to sort of stay in character during our dealings with each other. We almost stopped talking or emailing, except for Swoosie stuff. One day we went op-shopping together, and Penni pointed out that the clothes I'd bought really belonged to India (eg a long purple velvet skirt… now in the dress-up box! Oh well…) When Mandy and Sarah had their big falling-out, and we had to write each other emotional letters explaining why we couldn't be friends any more, Penni and I upset ourselves so much we had to jump on the phone to check: 'We're okay, aren't we?' My stomach churned; I didn't sleep well for a few days. It had all become a bit too real…
But overwhelming, my memories of writing Dear Swoosie are of how much fun it was to share the creation of the story, the making-up-ness, with someone else. I would check my emails twenty times a day to see if Penni had sent the next chapter yet, and when it came I would read it and double up laughing. When the whole novel was done, Penni and I feverishly planned a whole series of Swoosie sequels: India going in search of her long-lost father, Poppy and India travelling overseas, Poppy and India starting university, moving into a share-house…
Maybe we will still write them one day.