It’s a chilly night in Melbourne and children’s and young adult fiction writer Zana Fraillon is trying to write dialogue for her character. She’s stuck. Instead of making more coffee, she’s hitting up Twitter for some ideas. It’s a hive-mind moment.
Fraillon posts asking her writer buddies for help: “My WHOLE book relies on me discovering the next line.”
Of that night back in 2019, Fraillon says: “I was working on a novel, and I was having a plot problem. I’m not big on social media but I posted a question on Twitter to all the writers out there, asking, if this is the situation, where can I go with this?”
Another writer replies. It is Bren MacDibble posting from a much less chilly night in Kalbarri, Western Australia, a breezy coastal town with the dazzling aqua-blue Indian Ocean on one side and the edge of the desert on the other. She has an idea. What if a character says: “We all know what happened. Our plane wasn’t the only one to fall from the sky that day.”
MacDibble’s wasn’t the only response, Fraillon says, “but it was fantastic. It sparked all these ideas for another project in my head. So I said – half-jokingly and half-hopefully: we should collaborate on something.”
So began the process of co-authoring a novel by two multi-award-winning authors who had never met and who lived more than 3,000km apart.
We’re chatting on Zoom from three locations and two time zones. It’s a fun and lively catch-up for them because these two authors rarely talk; instead, they share ideas via Twitter DMs, using short, punchy sentences, capital letters for drama and lots of ellipses for thinking time. “We are writers – that’s how we chat,” says MacDibble, laughing.
“It was real brainstorming,” Fraillon says. “The ideas were coming so quickly I couldn’t type fast enough to say, ‘and what about this, what about this?’ And Bren was doing the same thing. The plot for the story evolved really quickly in one session, but then we continued to throw around ideas for a few weeks before heading off to write on our own.”
The result is The Raven’s Song, a story centred on two young characters separated not by distance, but by time: one lives in our present, the other in a walled-off community 100 years in the future. It’s an adventure story for young readers set in a post-climate change, post-pandemic world.
“It is about how we are connected through time and what kind of ancestors we are going to be,” says Fraillon. “How can we ‘ancestor’ better? The stories and the objects we pass down and how we look after the Earth now will affect people who live after us.”
The manuscript itself wasn’t written on Twitter. Fraillon, 41, and MacDibble, 56, agreed to write a chapter each in the voice of their character and went away to write their chapters up to the point where the characters met. Then they combined their chapters alternately into one word document and sent that back and forth every few weeks via email. They never phoned each other to chat – all communication was via Twitter DM while working across different time zones. There were no word limits or timeframes.
“We knew, for example, that a character would discover a raven’s body and it would later release a disease,” Fraillon says. “That idea came from a news piece about an ancient deer that was uncovered due to melting permafrost and it was carrying anthrax. This was mid-2019 and a pandemic seemed such an absurd idea. We were looking for an event that could derail a society in a modern-day world not knowing it was about to happen.”
They had been writing for nine months when reality came to meet the plot in the form of Covid. The private messages turned to panic.
“JESUS. NO ONE is going to want to read our bloody pandemic book after this!” posted Fraillon in the early evening on 2 April 2022.
“Can we write it with a happy ending?” replied MacDibble.
“We had a crisis of faith thinking nobody would want to read a story about a pandemic because here was a real one and it’s not fun any more,” MacDibble says.
But they kept going and took it slowly, writing about 10,000 words each before showing it to the other writer. “It didn’t feel like we had a deadline and because there were two of us, I didn’t have the self-doubt and crisis of confidence that I normally have. Bren was always there,” Fraillon said. “It was like having two brains.”
After writing the same number of chapters each, “we slotted them together and it just worked, it was incredible”, adds MacDibble.
Fraillon admits to being surprised by how easy it was. “Honestly, I thought we’d be doing huge amounts of editing to make it all work, but it all came together almost perfectly.”
By the time it came to a final edit, Covid had Australia in lockdown. Fraillon endured the world’s longest lockdown in Melbourne, with a 5km radius limit and an 8pm-7am curfew. “It was such a bizarre thing to live through, but going through it, I was recognising that now I really knew what my character was living through. That sense of isolation. Of not being able to rely on the support networks you have always had. That utter terror of getting sick,” says Fraillon, who homeschooled during the lockdowns and later became seriously ill herself.
She says she felt a sense that this was something we might not get through and many people didn’t. “For a long time, it felt almost wrong to write about it, but at the same time, I also felt an urge to get words on paper, to find a way to make the situation somehow bearable.”
Then, as travel restrictions eased, Fraillon and MacDibble finally met at a lunch in Melbourne with their publisher in August 2022, three years after they started working together.
How was that? Kind of awkward?
“Not at all,” laughs Fraillon. “We chatted so much online that it felt like old friends meeting.”
The two writers are still on Twitter and still calling out to the hive mind, asking for “weird things, fun things”.
MacDibble says she hopes children will use The Raven’s Song to explore ideas of what could come next in the future. “It’s really not fair to write books for children warning of environmental issues,” she says. “It’s adults who need to move right now. But children do need to be able to talk about the issues in a safe space and fiction offers that space.”
Her only regret is making the characters “vaguely vegetarian”.
“Pushing a vegan agenda is never popular with adults,” she says, “But I think the kids would have loved it.”