Take Three Girls is a Young Adult (YA) novel about an unlikely friendship between three Year 10 girls thrown together through their school’s wellness classes. It’s also about feminism, family, love, sex and cyber-slander. We thought we’d have a little roundtable discussion about the process of writing the book.
What are some YA collaborations that you’ve loved/been intrigued by and what made you think you’d like to attempt one?
Fiona: I checked recently to see when we first talked about doing this book, and it was way back in July 2011. The idea emerged from a conversation, from something Cath said about a shared journal. So the book’s genesis was pretty organic. And even though I’d read and enjoyed books like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, it wasn’t that I wanted to write collaboratively per se, it was more that it would be fun to write something with Cath and Simmone.
Cath: I’d been struggling with my own novel for a while, feeling alone. And the idea of working with two writers that I love — writers that inspire me, writers that could teach me something — really appealed. I thought it would be fun, to see how a story rolled out of three people. I did love other YA collaborations like The Decoding of Lana Morris by Tom and Laura McNeal. I was curious about how or if collaboration changed a writer’s style. It didn’t change my style. But collaborating revealed parts of my process, brought them into sharper focus for me.
Simmone: I loved Dear Swoosie by Penni Russon and Kate Constable. It was written for Allen & Unwin’s Girlfriend series, and I remember reading about their process — they wrote it as a Google Doc after very comprehensive plotting, and they wrote it quickly. Sometimes writing can feel like drowning. At the time that Fiona, Cath and I decided to co-write, I was still going back-and-forth on a novel that ultimately took four years, so the idea of writing something fast and fun was really appealing.
What were your initial ideas regarding process?
Cath: I’m pretty sure I imagined us writing it one chapter after the other, a rolling document type of thing. Of course, writing a novel is a much more complicated process than this. One writer can take your character off in a direction you hadn’t planned. I hadn’t thought through how much plotting and replotting we’d have to do. I thought it would be much more organic. With hindsight, I know that’s not possible.
Simmone: I almost think that the way I get to know my characters is by a process of elimination — so it’s like only by writing the scene can I realise it’s wrong, and then write it right. This is fine if you’re writing on your own but when you are writing with others, I imagine it could get annoying and/or stressful. I, too, thought we’d have a rolling doc. My favourite thing about the process was the plotting and the moments where one of us (or all of us!) would realise something, or solve something, and we’d all be, like, Yes! Perfect! I know how great it is to experience those moments in my solo writing — to have them communally was very cool.
Fiona: We came up with a basic process that worked well. We each created a character, and plotted the story together. Then we went away and wrote chapters from our respective character’s point of view. So we had the energy and synergy of the story room, but retained our individual space on the page. Simmone and I had worked in TV and had some experience with collaborative plotting. When you’ve been working alone it’s such a light feeling to devise a story with other people; there are so many ideas and so many solutions. And we laughed a lot. The main thing we changed was that initially we thought each chapter would simply be told through three prisms — but that ended up feeling too repetitive, so we did a big redraft that involved more dovetailing than overlapping. I’d forgotten we ever thought we could do it as a rolling document. To get the manuscript delivered, we ended up having to write at the same time. It did mean that sometimes we’d written in different directions, but we just kept meeting and talking and refining, chapter by chapter.
Were there any unexpected aspects of the collaborative experience?
Cath: I hadn’t thought all the way through to the editing process, and how that would work with three people. One change in my document equalled a change in Simmone or Fiona’s narrative. That’s been challenging for me. And the unexpected result is that I’ve learnt a lot from Fiona and Simmone’s editing processes, in addition to their writing ones. I’m constantly aware of how much I have to learn when it comes to writing, and I’m always looking for new exercises and methods. But I haven’t done the same with editing.
Simmone: I’d heard horror stories about people who’d collaborated and never spoken to each other again. So my starting point was thinking there could be trouble. It meant that if I was challenging Fiona or Cath’s content/choices, I had to be clear and considerate in the way I did that. For Take Three Girls, we each had final say on our characters, so there were a few occasions where one of us would say, ‘Uh, no — would not wear that/say that/do that.’ I think if I had tried to write collaboratively at the start of my career, I might have found it hard to compromise or hear other people’s ideas, but luckily I’m now used to being edited and having my characters poked and prodded, and I know sometimes that having someone else’s perspective and input can make good work amazing.
Fiona: The unexpected thing for me was that it was so hard to schedule time when we were all free. It’s meant that we haven’t managed to have quite as many round-the-table chewing through of things as I would have liked. We’ve worked our way around it with emails, phone calls, texts.
What advice would you give to other writers thinking about collaboration?
Simmone: Make sure the person you’re collaborating with is someone that you can talk plainly to and that you have a good understanding of how you both work.
Fiona: Know that there are going to be frustrations — it comes with the territory of giving up creative autonomy, so make sure you’re working with people you respect, trust and like. Cath and Simmone and I decided early on that we would chuck the project rather than let the project harm our friendship. Set up a process that is writer-friendly. Be realistic about timeframes — if you are fitting a collaboration around everyone’s individual projects, it might take more time than you anticipate.
Cath: Write with people you respect. Write with people you can talk with honestly. Ditch the ego. Be prepared to learn.
Best thing about collaborating?
Fiona: Spending time inside the writing circle with two people whose work I love.
Simmone and Cath: What she said.
Cath Crowley is an award-winning author of YA fiction. Her novels include The Gracie Faltrain trilogy, Chasing Charlie Duskin, Graffiti Moon and Words in Deep Blue. In 2011, Graffiti Moon won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction, the Ethel Turner Award for Young People’s Literature, and was named an honour book in the CBCA Book of the Year.
Simmone Howell lives in Melbourne and writes YA fiction and non-fiction. Her first novel Notes from the Teenage Underground won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA fiction, and the inaugural Gold Inky. Everything Beautiful, a subversive romance, was a finalist in the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Best Writing. Girl Defective was a finalist in the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. On Twitter she is @postteen.
Fiona Wood was awarded the CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers, for Wildlife in 2014, and for Cloudwish in 2016. Her first book, Six Impossible Things, was shortlisted for the CBCA. Cloudwish also won the Indie Book Award for YA fiction in 2016. Her books have been on numerous other shortlists including the Gold Inky, the ABIA and the Ethel Turner Prize. They are published internationally, and are Junior Library Guild Selections in the US. Before writing books, Fiona wrote TV scripts.