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Writing Collaborations (or, Whose Hands Are on Those Pencils?)

photo by Flickr's Kendra [1]
photo by Flickr’s Kendra

Sometime in 2013, I received this message from a friend:

Hey Tom:

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 [2] 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.

The original short story cover, illustrated by Alicia Neal
The original short story cover, illustrated by Alicia Neal

Shrub as a short took six months, Shrub as a novel draft—currently 96,000 words—took two years. Shrub as an editable book is now a slithering thing in progress. But how collaborations progress is what I want to talk about, because I’d never partnered on something of this scope before. The work did suffer from a fair amount of arrhythmia, because I lurch about in my writing in general, often working—or avoiding working—on several things at once, and Rick had his daily teethings to tangle with. But here’s what we did:

Psst! Trading Notes and Historic Notions

As mentioned, we alternated chapters, though we both had hands in any extended scenes. We didn’t write an actual outline at first, but a few chapters in, we did, one that usually had merely several sentences suggesting oncoming chapter plot beats and developments, and those abridged outlines only a few chapters out. We wrote several of those sketchy outlines as the novel progressed. But those were fundamentally just billboards with broad strokes: “Pinky in Elfred’s office, blunders in book discussion, distrust between two.” [Note: yeah, “Elfred”—it just fits.]

But those signposts became hand-painted works in our email exchanges, of which we had eleventy and eleven. Things like this:

When are you envisioning this scene taking place? Not long after Elfred told Pinky that Shakespeare was going to publish? My first thought would be that a new redeeming episode for Pinky/Elfred would happen after he’d gotten her letter, answered it in the paper, and then realized it was her, and then they have one of the trysts (all of them you suggested are good). But of course it could work earlier too, though he must have some kind of mini-redemption post-Stuvesant’s as well.

And this:

So, we have Unctual walking back to the banana caboose and perhaps discovering the break-in? Could Unctual actually be sleeping with them in the car, if it’s really cold? Would it be better if he were in an adjacent car, and hears the noise, or what? I kind of wanted them to break in, with a gun in U’s direction, saying “give us everything” and then they find out everything is bananas, literally and figuratively.

And this:

Ah, and I am currently obsessing over my use of handkerchiefs, when it is pocket squares we should be inserting into our characters’ suits. And not inserting—if Pinky is indeed a somewhat careless, non-natty dresser, he may often leave them out. I shall do a search on the document for the word ‘handkerchief.’ I’ll change references to ‘pocket square.’ For, as the Irish assert, “Always carry a pocket square to show, and a handkerchief to blow.”

The above is Rick, a history enthusiast, who told me he could research something for sighing-with-delight hours that might end up becoming a single sentence in the book. Thus, the Crash, 1930s Prohibition Boston, Telechron clocks, bartending advice manuals, United Fruit company, industrial lead poisoning, Shakespeare and Company’s publishing enterprise and yes, pocket squares (and so much more) all fell to the full attention of Rick’s research.

Oh—Rick designed a seating chart for a critical scene as well. And, I relied on him for the Yiddish too—I’m only good for an Oy vey now and then when I try to fix the plumbing.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what I did. Wait—I did pitch in: I helped in the spirits research by drinking good whiskey and pretending it was Prohibition rotgut.

Scene Splicings and Mushrooming Motifs

For some of the lengthy chapters, which might have multiple scenes, we split the scenes. And we’d leave questions for the other writer—highlighted in Word red—in scene areas that were dicey, or unclear, or better suited to the hand of the other. Because I wanted to believe I was important, I held the master document—the current chapter we were working on was emailed back and forth, and when we were happy with it, I added it to the softly glowing master. However, I’m putting the thing in Google Docs for the full collaborative edit after I’ve gone through the whole thing again, which I’m doing now.

Some of our palaverings were in working out timings and logistics, because we wanted fundamental historical accuracy (with occasional artistic license unlicensed, for spice), and there are a number of actual figures in the mix, so we tried to conform some events and people to the historical record, which occasionally squeezed how we wanted emotional vicissitudes to do their vicissituding. Speaking of emotional vicissitudes, my own marinations in winter depression (I am a SAD sack) seasonally slowed the process, but we kept the light on.

One of the greatest pleasures was when in the writing one of us discovered a motif that both of us were delighted by—there are multiple instances where Pinky’s hat is assaulted by the forces of fate, and that trope developed as chapters progressed.

We have some marketing ideas—website with a gallery of character images, some selected historical elucidations (speakeasy history and Telechrons come to mind), some outtakes that are fun but superfluous, a fabulous “how to bartend” manual from the period and more. Of course, the dang thing has to be edited, beta-read, burped and diapered. And we have to decide if it’s a-self-publishing we want to go, or have Rick sleep out in the hallways of various agents. I have to stay home and take care of my cat.

[Note to self: next time, collaborate with James Patterson, get the half-million advance, and send my keyboard on tour while I go to the Bahamas.]

Oh, Those Trivial Publishing/Marketing Matters

We’ve only had the mildest of disagreements—“Not sure about the Cackles reference though—that might be too literary for the moment; seems too manufactured to me.”—so much so that they could hardly be called disagreements. But we haven’t discussed a few things—money, for instance—that need to be discussed. Not merely royalty splits (I daresay that even my shabby math skills might be able to manage dividing up a piggy bank’s contents), but potential expenditures for marketing efforts and long-tail promotion.

And there’s a bunch of ancillary stuff that needs writing too: book description, synopsis, Amazon page, blustery, Trumpian declarations of literary supremacy and the like. I’ve even thought that I might put the book up on one of the crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarter, or a crowdfunding/publishing variant like Publishizer. [3] But those have various conditions and need research. And I haven’t even mentioned that to Rick, so he’ll read it here, and then declare that he’ll never fix my teeth.

Regardless of me being able to suck (through broken teeth) only gruel for the rest of my days, collaborating on a fictional work has been fun, instructive, challenging and rewarding. When Rick presented a scene that shone, my competitive demon shrieked—“He’s outwriting you, dunderhead. Get busy!” And that pushed me to make my scenes all the better. We’ll see what the final result is, but know this: Poor Pinky, we pushed that lamentable fellow to the brink. As for his hat, you’ll just have to read it. (By the way, if anyone wants to read a PDF of the short story, email me at bentguy@charter.net [4])

So, WU stalwarts, perhaps you’ve worked with another person in writing a story—did everybody live (possibly excepting your characters, of course)? Do you think it took your writing to places it wouldn’t have gone, in a good way? Any thoughts on how to better manage the logistics of such a thing?

About Tom Bentley [5]

Tom Bentley [6] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [7].