Some people go to school and learn how to be a writer. However, that’s not what I did. I actually did my undergraduate degree in Psychology and English. For my graduate degree, I worked on my Masters of Science, but it was not science, per se. It was, in fact, Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations, in the faculty of Commerce. I didn’t complete my thesis, because in one of life’s great ironies, I hated writing.
After that, I worked for the City of Calgary in Personnel and then moved to Vancouver, to work for a major trade union. While it is hard to believe, I was a negotiator and representative for one of the largest unions in B.C. I hated my job and thought there had to be a better way to spend my life.
So, I quit my job and the profession I had trained for to open up a toy store. In 1987, I created Einstein's the Science Center, Ltd, which was a toy, game and book store. As part of the store, I started teaching hands-on science in the classroom at the back of the store. Everyone loved the store and it became a Mecca of sorts for kids who loved science and cool toys. Einstein’s even won an international award from Playthings Magazine for store design. We also won a prize for putting the star of Young Einstein, Yahoo Serious, on a float in a parade.
And how did this make me a writer? Well, one of the book representatives dragged a head honcho of a publishing company into my store. This person asked what was good and bad about kids science books and I told her I could do better than most of the stuff on the market. Convinced by my bravado, her publishing company gave me my first book contract. The books I wrote won awards, and more publishers hired me to write books.
Where does Leslie fit in? Through Einstein’s I met a wonderful woman named Vicki Scudamore, who became my best friend. Her best friend was Leslie Johnstone. Vicki knew both Leslie and I loved science and she match made us as writing partners. Now I have two best friends with whom I can play and work.
I started freelance business writing because my other friend, Maurice Bridge, got tired of me phoning him about story leads. Finally he told me to just write the things myself and he gave me my own column in Business in Vancouver. This was a great monthly job for about four years.
The column got me a weekly noon hour segment on VTV, where I was the “consumer expert”. This was a nice way of saying “ a woman who shops way too much”. This segment lasted till the noon news was canceled.
Flash to 2006. I spend my time writing and designing science books and kits. I also love to speak to kids at libraries, and schools and to teachers at conventions. This is a great way to connect with my intended audience and discover if the activities we have designed are cool and fun.
AN AUTHOR DUET
by Fiona Bayrock
As a general rule, writing isn't a group activity. Most of the time, the act of stringing words together is, as the saying goes, a solitary occupation. But every once in a while we find writers who combine their efforts to write books together. What is such a writing partnership like? How do co-authors successfully mesh their writing habits, styles, goals, schedules, and personalities to become a team? What does it take to share a process over which each writer is used to having sole autonomy? We sat down with award-winning Vancouver authors Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone to find out. After 16 years of writing over 50 childrenÕs books together, they have co-authoring down to a fine art.
Levine and Johnstone were experienced writers when they met; Levine had a few books under her belt, and Johnstone was editing and writing for a science teachers' magazine. Since the two began writing together, they've published childrenÕs hands-on science books with Sterling, Scholastic, becker&mayer!, John Wiley and Sons, Mud Puddle, and Silver Dolphin. Their titles include: Shocking Science, Sports Science, Bathtub Science, Magnet Power, and The Icky Sticky and Gross Fascinating Fact Book, as well as several SMARTLAB, Extreme 3-D, and Build Your Own books, to name a few. Levine and Johnstone share a knack for digging up cool, quirky science facts and activities, and then writing about them in a way that appeals to kids, parents, and teachers. As a result, their books have received nods from the National Science Teachers Association, ParentsÕ Choice Awards, and others, including two books shortlisted for the AAAS Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books (Backyard Science (2005) and The Ultimate Guide to Your Microscope (2008)). Over a million of their books are in print in more than seven languages. The partnership is a professional success whichever way you cut it. A personal success, too. After so many years and books together, they love what they do and love doing it together.
By day, Leslie Johnstone heads the science department at a large Vancouver high school, while Shar Levine takes on the public face of the duo as "The Science Lady" http://www.sciencelady.com In this recent interview, they talked candidly about their writing relationship and methods, spilling a few secrets of their success in the process.
How did you become writing partners?
Shar Levine: A mutual friend introduced us at a New YearÕs party. We sat up all night and talked about science. We had such a good time; it was like finding a soul mate. When I had an opportunity to write a new book, I phoned Leslie and said, ÒCan we do this together?Ó
Leslie Johnstone: We just kind of clicked...you know, the old L.M. Montgomery kindred spirit thing from Anne of Green Gables. Even so, we were friends for two years before we started writing together. I donÕt think we could have stepped in and started writing the very first day, but when Shar called, it turned out the timing was right. Doing that first pair of books was kind of scary because we didnÕt know how it was all going to turn out.
Shar: We ended up doing several books together within about two yearsÑSilly Science (1995), Everyday Science (1995), and Science Around the World (1996) with John Wiley and Sons, and The Microscope Book (Sterling, 1996). They all did well, and we had a great time writing together.
Leslie: And weÕve been writing together ever since.
So, whatÕs it like writing with a partner? Give us a peek.
Shar: Imagine traveling with your best friend, working with your best friend, gigglingÑitÕs such a joy. When I talk to kids I ask, ÒWho likes to do an assignment with their best friend?Ó and everybody puts their hand up. ItÕs fun to work together. And we just get each other, so itÕs very easy. For example, one time I was in the middle of a pitch to a publisher, free-forming some ideas, and this idea for a backpack alarm popped out of my mouth (it ended up as Build Your Own Backpack Alarm, Scholastic, 2006). Leslie went, ÒOh!Ó and you see this little light thereÑan ÒOh, I get that!ÓÑso when the publisher said, ÒTell me more about it.Ó, Leslie and I sort of looked at each other and proceeded to tap dance our way through it together. We do that a lot.
Leslie (nodding): If one of us starts a sentence, the other one can always figure out the finish the other person intended. ItÕs really quite remarkable.
Shar: Having a writing partner is also a great bring-forward thing for the odd facts we collect. (We find out all sorts of really weird things, which makes us very interesting at cocktails parties!) The extra brain is like having another hard drive. Leslie will remember something IÕve forgotten and vice versa.
Leslie: Invariably, if Shar loses something on her hard drive, itÕs on mine. Shar once sent me this thing about blue lobsters (I didnÕt know they came in blue!), and she said, ÒIÕm sure we can use this somewhere.Ó Years later, I was buying lobsters in Halifax and they had one in a tank, so I took a picture of it. Eventually, the blue lobstersÑand why theyÕre blueÑmade it into one of our books. For another project, we needed something on horseshoe crabs and I knew that weÕd written something about them in a previous book but couldnÕt remember which one. Shar did, and we managed to look back at what weÕd written before so we didnÕt repeat ourselves.
Do you have different strengths you bring to the partnership?
Leslie: ItÕs one of the main reasons we work so well together. SharÕs very good at making connections to things in kidsÕ everyday lives. Sometimes IÕll come at something from a very teacher/academic kind of direction and sheÕll go, ÒNo, no, no, itÕll have to be more fun than that.Ó, and sheÕll write something about skateboarding, or chewing bubblegum, or something, that would never have occurred to me.
Shar: Leslie is better at the hard science. (She hates the way I pronounce things in Latin!) Having different strengths and different weaknesses is beneficial. If you have two people who do the same things equally well, I think theyÕd butt heads more than we do.
How do you divide the work?
Shar: It depends on the book. Sometimes Leslie is busier and I can do more of a book, so IÕll take first stab and work out a rough outline for her input. And if IÕm busier, sheÕll do more of a book. Sometimes we literally draw a line down the middle. Or we might say, ÒOh, IÕd like to write this.Ó ÒIÕd like to write that.Ó We donÕt have an accounting of words or chapters or anything, though. We donÕt count up the number of pages and say, ÒAll right, I wrote 30 pages and you wrote 20, and now next time you have to write 30 and I write 20.Ó
Leslie: I remember we had two books at one point where Shar started one and I started the other. We each got as far as we wanted to go, traded books, and finished up each otherÕs book.
Shar: We know what the other is thinking. ItÕs like we share the same brain.
Walk us through some of the nitty gritty of how you work together.
Leslie: Because weÕve been doing it for so long we have our own little shorthand ways of doing things and can get through it pretty quickly.
Shar: I do lots of the pre-research. Often IÕll prep the stuff and get what we need together, and then when we sit down everything is roughly in component pieces. This goes with this experiment. This goes with this activity. This is the information we need for what weÕre doing here.
Leslie: But nowadays we donÕt even have to be together to write together because we can do it over the phone and internet. Sometimes SharÕs at her place in Hawaii and IÕm here in Vancouver, and weÕre writing a book together. We can literally email each other the document back and forth five or six times in an hour. So, [grin] I donÕt have to go to SharÕs and be subjected to her horrible dogs and she doesnÕt have to come to my house and deal with my chaos. (I actually do like her dogs, but IÕm allergic) Although we donÕt necessarily have to spend a huge amount of time together to do the writing, itÕs fun when we do, and itÕs certainly faster if weÕre working on a project with a really tight deadline to both be there and on two computers and able toÉ
Shar: Éliterally stand up, change places, finish our sentences, and go back.
How do you divide the business end of things?
Leslie: Shar is more contactable than I am, and I donÕt talk to people on the phone if I can avoid it, so sheÕs usually the contact person for contracts and that kind of thing.
Shar: Leslie digs me out when I yell at publishers.
Leslie (nodding): Basically, Shar acts as my agent, I buy her a bottle of champagne when we sign contracts, and it seems to work out pretty well.
Shar: As for royalties, we split everything 50-50. ItÕs in the contracts that way, so we each get a check and royalty statement from each publisher. ItÕs great being able to compare royalty statements: ÒWhat? You got a thousand dollars more than I did on that book? That makes no sense. We wrote the book together!Ó Thanks to that second statement, we know when to chase down a larger check.
Does having a partner help you through the negative aspects of the business, as well?
Leslie: WeÕve had publishers go bankrupt and not pay us. WeÕve had publishers be bought by other companies and change their mind mid-project in a way that made it impossible to continue. One editor added up to 14 exclamation marks per paragraph. Yes, it`s nice to have someone to drink with.
Shar: Having two perspectives is good. Like when we get an edit back, and I go, ÒOh, what the hell? I have no idea.Ó ItÕs really helpful to have that other person.
Leslie: Sometimes what Shar looks at and thinks is a terrible edit and way too much work to deal with and total chaos, IÕll look at and go, ÒNo, itÕs just this and itÕs this and itÕs this. ItÕs fine.Ó And she'll do the same for me. When one of us is having a bad day, itÕs nice to be able to say, ÒCan you look at this because I canÕt make any sense of it. ItÕs making me crazy.Ó
WhatÕs your biggest challenge?
Leslie: Time. I have a full-time job and three children.
Shar: Yes, time. We tend to write on weekends, in summers, and over Christmas vacation and spring break. We go skiing together. We take work with us in the oddest places and do whatever it is weÕre supposed to do during the day, and in the evening we find time to write a book.
Leslie: Sometimes. Sometimes we just go and have fun.
What are the essential components of your writing partnership that make it so successful?
Shar: Friendship and respect. Trust is also very important. We had one publisher who was mad at me and asked Leslie to write the book without me. Uh-uh...we wonÕt go behind each otherÕs back. ItÕs a partnership. Whenever I get offered something, LeslieÕs the first person I turn to. I would never, ever accept something without presenting it to her, and vice versa.
Leslie (nodding): We really respect each otherÕs abilities. We know the product we get when we write together is better than what we could do separately.
Shar: We have a style. We both think science should be interesting and fun and alive. Our books have a sort of, I donÕt know...a cadence, a rhythm, an energy.
Leslie: There are some sections of some books that we look at and Shar will say, ÒI wrote this.Ó and IÕll say, ÒNo, I wrote it.Ó and we go back and forth. You really canÕt tell most of the time.
Leslie: You also have to be able to tell the other person things they donÕt want to hear.
Shar: ...and be receptive to hearing those things. We put ego aside when we write. ItÕs not like IÕm right and youÕre wrong, or the other way around. WeÕve got a very close friendship. We can tell each other anything. But working with a friend can destroy the friendship. When youÕre writing with a partner you have to decide what's more importantÑthe book or your friendship. If I never wrote another book, it would be fine by me, but if I didn't have Leslie as my friend, it would be something I would always regret.
What happens when you disagree about something?
Leslie: If itÕs about the business, we usually discuss it back and forth and SharÕs usually right. If itÕs about the science, Shar always defers to me. I canÕt think of a circumstance where one of us really felt strongly about something and the other person felt strongly about it, too. WeÕve always managed to come to a consensus.
Shar: Yeah, just minor quibbling. And if thereÕs been a screw up, itÕs like, well, weÕre just not going to do that again.
What if one of you doesnÕt like something the other person has written?
Leslie: We separate the business from the personal. If she doesnÕt like something IÕve written, I donÕt take it personally. Usually I donÕt like it either. If Shar tells me somethingÕs lame, I usually agree with her. Sometimes when IÕm going through something sheÕs written, IÕll say to myself, WhatÕs Shar thinking here? WhatÕs she doing there? ItÕs not a personal thing, though. Of course, [grin] if somethingÕs brilliant, we both recognize that itÕs brilliant, so itÕs no issue.
Shar (laughing): Yeah, and that I wrote it. Seriously, though, the truth is none of our sentences are ever that important that we have to fight over the wording of it. Nothing is ever that critical.
Leslie: WeÕre only part of the process. Editors want to put their slant on things, too. So, rather than worrying about where the semicolon goes, or what three words weÕre putting at the end of that sentence, or whether itÕs this word or that word, in the grand scheme of things, itÕs better to just get it done, move on to the next thing, and not worry about it too much because often what you get back from the editors doesnÕt bear a whole lot of resemblance to what you wrote in the first place. We may argue with a publisherÑremember the exclamation marks?Ñbut thereÕs never an argument between the two of us.
Have you ever had a time when one of you had writerÕs block?
Shar: Sure. Often itÕs end-of-sentence block.
Leslie: ThatÕs where collaboration is very helpful. When you reach the point where you honestly donÕt know where to go next, you just send it to the other person and say ÒFinish this, please.Ó IÕll be reading something Shar wrote and itÕll say, ÒLeslie, add something in here about such-and-such.Ó Or IÕll write a paragraph and tell Shar, ÒThis is a bad paragraph. Please make it pretty.Ó
Have you ever had a situation where neither of you wanted to Òmake it prettyÓ, or there was something neither of you wanted to do?
Shar: When that happens we suck it up and we do it. For example, we know that on Saturday when I show up at LeslieÕs house at 10 a.m. with coffees for her entire family (and lunch!), that weÕre going to work through X number of hours on a project.
Leslie: Sometimes weÕll skip bits and move on to something else thatÕs not as irritating. It is work, though. I mean itÕs mostly play, and itÕs mostly fun, and it beats the heck out of your day job most of the time, but it is work. And sometimes when thereÕs work to be done, you just have to do the work.
Any final thoughts?
Leslie (grinning): Writing with a partner has added benefits. Both of our families think we work a lot more than we do. If we want to go shopping for an afternoon... ÒOh, weÕre working on a book. IÕm going to SharÕs to write.Ó
Shar (grinning): Sometimes we do a lot of work when relatives are in town.
About having a co-authorÉ
ItÕs kind of like doing the dishes. ÒIÕve cooked this time, you clean.Ó If you have a family, you know what I mean. You just work together. Give and take. ÐShar Levine
So, youÕre thinking of becoming co-authors.
- know each other well?
- like and respect each other a lot?
- enjoy each otherÕs company?
- trust each other?
- communicate easily and well together?
- have different strengths and weaknesses and complementary skills and abilities so that the product of your collaboration will be better than either of you could produce on your own?
- have compatible personalities and work habits?
- work well together?
- have similar writing styles? (If not, how will you mesh them?)
- have the same expectations of the time and effort involved and volume of work youÕll create together?
- what your collaboration will look like: how youÕll divide the work, whether youÕll work together or apart.
- how youÕll make creative and business decisions.
- how youÕll resolve disagreements. Will one of you have the final say over anything?
- how youÕll split the royalties. Include the percentage split in your contracts, and have publishers send individual royalty statements and checks to each of you.
- a time schedule (at least to start).
- leave your ego at the door. Be willing to put the project before yourself.
- donÕt sweat the small stuff.
- donÕt try to take ownership.
- itÕs a collaboration...that means give and take.
- have fun.