As an undiagnosed autistic student in middle and high school, I dreaded the group project.
Assigned to work with kids who weren’t my friends, I’d first ask the teacher if I could do an individual project instead. When the teacher said no, I usually ended up in a group in which I did most or all the work in exchange for the other group members leaving me alone. The good thing about the arrangement is that for once, my classmates didn’t bully me because they were dependent on me, and I could believe for the duration of the project that they were my friends. The other good thing is that I had complete control and didn’t have to worry about their mistakes or missed deadlines — only my own.
My tendency to go it alone, to want complete control, or to struggle with miscommunication made me on the surface an unlikely collaborator or co-author. However, that hasn’t been the case. Over the past thirty years, I have: compiled two bibliographies with more than a dozen contributors; co-authored a reading textbook and a handbook on surviving a layoff or other drastic loss of income; and co-written a verse novel for middle grade readers and a biography of fifteen women filmmakers.
The last two of these are books published in 2022. Moonwalking, co-authored with Zetta Elliott, came out in April, and has received multiple starred reviews. Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors, co-authored with Tanisia “Tee” Moore, will launch on September 6.
For me as an autistic writer, collaboration has many advantages. Many authors say that every book is a learning experience, and that’s part of the excitement of writing it (as well as a source of uncertainty and self-doubt). My learning experience extends to working with both editors and other authors, whose styles may be very different from my own, but that is the way I build my repertoire in a publishing industry that can be very challenging for neurodivergent writers. Each of my collaborators brings something different.
I’ve known Zetta since 2008, and have admired her extensive body of work. In addition to picture books and novels for middle grade and YA readers, she is an accomplished poet, and when she suggested we work together on a middle grade historical novel in verse with two protagonists – each of us writing poems from the point of view of one of them – I agreed to give it a try.
I’d been working on a YA historical novel in verse, but I put it aside to write autistic 12-year-old JJ’s story. While Zetta’s protagonist, Pierre “Pie” Velez, has lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn his entire life, JJ is a newcomer. He and his parents have moved into his Polish immigrant grandmother’s basement apartment, because his father was fired in the failed 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, and his family has lost their suburban home.
Zetta encouraged me to experiment with the poetry, including the way the words appear on the page. There’s a lot of concrete poetry in Moonwalking, poems in the shape of pi, boxes, spray cans, and skyscrapers. JJ is obsessed with the punk rock band The Clash, and as he goes from listening to music to composing his own songs, the arrangement of words and stanzas come to resemble a musical score. Zetta inspired me to think this way about my poems.
Tee and I met when we were represented by the same agent, Jacqui Lipton. She connected each of us with Kara Rota at Chicago Review Press, who edited the Women of Power series featuring fifteen contemporary achievers in a variety of fields. Both Tee and I watch a lot of movies, and we joined forces to write Film Makers.
Our subjects include many directors of color and several who were born outside the United States. A fan of blockbuster franchises and popular TV shows as well as independent films, Tee writes in a breezy, accessible style that serves the book well, and I soon realized I needed to adopt her approach as opposed to my more scholarly style. In turn, I helped her to structure her biographies, which begin with a hook – a key moment in the filmmaker’s life -- and then present her life story up to that moment. With both of my collaborations, I contribute my skills related to patterns and structure, and my co-authors show me how to create an emotional impact.
Collaboration has helped me with promoting these two books, because I’m not taking them out into the world alone. I can rely on Zetta’s experience with the dozens of books she has published since her award-winning picture book for older readers, Bird, came out in 2008. Film Makers is Tee’s debut book, but she has already joined several debut groups and is as outgoing as I am reserved. She is comfortable making contacts and talking about our project.
Working with other authors has helped me surrender my desire for complete control, even though being in control is one of the reasons I starting writing fiction in the first place. I’ve also learned to trust my co-authors. They’re not looking to have me do all the work so they can get a good grade, or exclude me because they didn’t want to work with me but the teacher made them do it.
Over the years, I’ve discovered the extent to which publishing is a collaborative process, beginning with the editor and extending to the cover illustrator, designer, copy editors and proofreaders, and sales and marketing teams. My early years as a writer were marked by misunderstandings and miscommunications because I didn’t understand that at first. Working with other authors has provided me with an intensive course in collaboration, and enriched my writing, as well as my experience as an author.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is an author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers as well as a translator of children’s books from Portuguese and Spanish to English. Her middle grade verse novel Moonwalking, co-authored with Zetta Elliott and featuring an autistic boy newly arrived in Brooklyn in 1982, was published by FSG in spring 2022. It received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Horn Book and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection. Her biography of 15 women directors, Film Makers , co-authored with Tanisia (Tee) Moore, will launch on September 6, 2022 from Chicago Review Press. On November 1, 2022 Carolrhoda Lab will publish her YA historical novel Torch, which portrays an autistic teenager in communist Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion and is also a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection. Lyn’s previous post for A Novel Mind explored her process of writing a biography of autistic scientist Temple Grandin for the She Persisted chapter book series.