Middle Grade Writers Read Middle Grade Books

author interview, craft

Advice on the Art of Co-Writing

Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester (Henry Holt & Company, 2018)

Guest Post by Mae Respicio

Truth: the act of writing is a solitary one. It’s just you, your idea, and your voice hashing it out on the blank page. I love the magical moments that can come from this process, but I’ve also wondered what it might be like to tackle the feat of writing a book with a creative partner. My guess is that co-authoring has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. But instead of pondering about what it’s like, I’m excited to talk to Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester about their co-writing process. Their new middle grade series, LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), debuted with its first book on February 20, 2018. The series is about a band of orphan avengers, a cursed stone, and a horde of zombie outlaws; Booklist calls it an “action packed series starter. Part western, part zombie flick, this pits scrappy, resourceful kids against some menacing villains―always a recipe for success.”

MAE: A huge congratulations to you both on your book’s debut! (YAY!) Can you tell me how your series came to be? I’d love to hear more about your decision to develop the idea together.

BRAD: Legends of the Lost Causes began, really, as a short story concept in my head several years ago. I woke up one day with an idea of a dark outlaw in pursuit of an ancient relic. That was all. The short story never happened, but the seed always stayed in the background of my mind, waiting for its moment to start growing. The idea took on new life after I met Louis and we started swapping fiction ideas. I told him the basic premise and he just started listing off the coolest concepts. In other words, I knew I had just found a writing partner.

MAE: That’s awesome, it sounds like it was meant to be. So you discovered your writing partner, but how did you figure out that you’d be creatively compatible?

LOUIS: We were both graduate students attending Oklahoma State University. We met a few times in creative writing classes and became casual friends. Then one afternoon, we were at a friend’s birthday party and had an opportunity to talk. During our conversation, we discovered that we both wanted to write exciting adventure stories. We met a few more times and came up with the initial plotting for Legends. Our story was so intriguing to us, even after I moved across the country to Idaho, we continued to work with each other online.

MAE: Thank goodness for technology! When you’re writing together you’re combining your imaginations and experiences—how does that work? It seems like it could be challenging to discover your book’s voice when you’re throwing two different writers’ voices into the mix.

BRAD: For us, it’s all about “layering.” One of us writes a block of prose, and then the other gets the opportunity to layer his own voice and style over it. Think of two painters working at the same canvas, using the same colors. My eye may be different from Louis’s, but we both know what we’d like the general portrait to look like, so our paint strokes work to achieve the big picture. Since we already have very similar textures in our respective writing, the book’s voice—filtered through our main character, Keech Blackwood—arrives naturally through this back-and-forth exchange.

MAE: I love that analogy of two painters working the same canvas. And what does your drafting process looks like? Is it similar for editing? 

LOUIS: We start by discussing the story and writing out a loose outline. Then we take turns drafting each chapter. For example, I write a chapter, then send it to Brad, then he reads through it, makes some changes and adjustments, then writes a new chapter and sends it back. My next step is to look at the edits on my first chapter and then make changes on the next, and so forth. So, we’re always editing and always writing new material.

MAE: What’s been the most surprising part about collaborating? Did you tweak your process after you wrote the first book in the series?

BRAD: To me, the most surprising part about this collaboration is that we really haven’t had to change our process at all. We both just have good mutual instincts about this particular story and series. It feels like true lightning in a bottle. Sometimes one of us may come up with a concept the other isn’t in love with, but we don’t have to stop the story to redirect attitudes or methods. We can keep on rolling. If we’ve tweaked anything at all, it’s the physical space where we write. We started back in 2010 swapping ideas and drafts via email, but when we discovered Google Docs, our world got a heck of a lot easier.

MAE: You make it sound easy! For our readers who are considering co-authoring, what do you think is the most important thing for them to consider first?

LOUIS: Understand that you’re not in complete control and be okay with that. You need to be open to suggestions. Without a doubt, your partner will want to adjust something you’re not planning for. When you first hear a new idea, you’ll want to say no, but a good collaboration needs to listen and try to understand your partner’s inspiration. If you can remain open, what you’ll discover is that the story can surprise you. It can open up in ways you would never imagine on your own. Of course, being flexible can be painful at times, but Brad and I have made a bargain. We’ve agreed to make Legends of the Lost Causes and this continuing series a story that we both love. So, if I write something that I think is cool, but he doesn’t care for, then I have to be okay with him cutting it. And vice versa. At times it can be a painful experience to hear that your partner doesn’t care for something you wrote, but we’ve discovered that together our writing is more exciting and better realized.

MAE: That’s great advice. What’s up next for you both?

BRAD: Well, Louis and I will finish up this four-book contract, of course. After that, I have a smaller, more intimate Southern folklore concept I’d love to write. And then—the sky’s the limit! We do have ideas on ways we could spin the world of the Lost Causes in new directions, so if our publisher finds potential in it, we may just do that.

MAE: Thank you for sharing your insight… I’m excited to see your book out in the wild! Brad and Louis will be at the 2018 Children’s Festival of Stories in Denver, Colorado, March 16-17, and make sure to check out LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES in all of your favorite bookstores and libraries!


Born and raised in Arkansas, Brad McLelland spent several years working as a crime journalist in the South before earning his MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma State University (where he met his writing partner, Louis). A part-time drummer and singer, Brad lives in Oklahoma with his wife, stepdaughter, a mini-Aussie who gives hugs, and a chubby cat who begs for ham. Visit him online at www.bradmcbooks.com.

Louis Sylvester is an English professor at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. He teaches creative writing, film history, and ethics. Together with his wife, they own over 1,500 tabletop games and run gaming groups and attend board game conventions. They have two dogs. The smart one is named Cake and the one who cuddles is named Muse.

Mae Respicio is author of the upcoming middle grade novels THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT (debuting 6/12/18) and BEACH SEASON (2020), both from Random House Children’s Books. She lives with her family in the suburban wild of Northern California, not far from the ocean and the redwoods. Visit her online at www.maerespicio.com.

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