Sometime in 2013, I received this message from a friend:
In other news, an old college friend posted a phrase on Facebook, describing a large icicle that is quite simply a magnificent book title:
“Swirled all the way to the shrub”
I can’t let it go. Here’s a crazy idea: Wanna write a short story together, with that title as the jumping-off point? I don’t have a lot of time these days, so I’m not proposing anything at breakneck speed. Could be a hoot though.
“Swirled All the Way to the Shrub”
Rick, who also has a talent and penchant for vivid—if not preposterous—character names, supplied some starters, one of which seemed to scream for the page: Pinky DeVroom. Tom, being me, approached the idea with his usual gung-ho pessimism. (Think of your favorite negatives, like, “That will never fly,” “It’s probably going to rain,” “I think I’m getting a toothache” and others. Welcome to my mind.)
But Rick, having one of those wretchedly sunny dispositions, convinced me. I’d edited his tidy 240,000-word valor-and-shame WWII epic a bit before, so I knew he had solid writing chops. We decided to try alternating chapters and devroomed from there.
The Shrub, just to keep you from dying of suspense, became the Prohibition-era speakeasy that Pinky, a Boston society-column newspaperman frequents. The era is essential, because the story starts just short of the Crash of ’29, which torques Pinky’s world, along with most of the rest of the world.
Taking Pinky from Shorts to Long Pants
We rounded the corner on the thing, though at more of a trot than a gallop. It didn’t proceed briskly, because each of us had to mull the other’s additions, considering them in light of story tone, character development and the arc of the tale, and how best to move the narrative so it was both coherent and compelling. (And because of certain sluggardly tendencies on the Tom part of the equation.) And also massaging it so it didn’t seem like was written by committee, which is tricky, and which I’ll discuss below.
We ended up pushing poor Pinky around so he ended up almost at wit’s end—but we could do that: he’s just a character, not a collaborator. With your collaborators, you have to be much more subtle in your manipulations. Shrub-as-story came in at 13,000+ words (some of them good ones), and I was happy with the outcome.
But not Rick. Rick thought Shrub had all the basis of a novel. I quickly rushed out my standard equivocations (see above), though I didn’t use toothache, because in his business hours, Rick is a dentist. The man finally drilled through my defenses and we were off. Well, not exactly off, but we at least had good starting points: Our Shrub short already had some colorful secondary characters (that could be fleshed into two solid subplots), some prickly-protagonist personality issues worthy of expansion, and nascent conflicts and tensions that could hit your head like the sour moonshine served in The Shrub. [Read more…]