Writer Collaborations: Death Match or Delight?

'Message for you' photo © 2011, Jacob Haddon - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Writers I’ve known (myself prominently among them) often argue with themselves. Should it be that character whose hand is crushed in the tractor? Would a flashback scene in the second chapter be too clichéd? Is the novel best set in Provence, or perhaps Peoria? These might be dodges to procrastinate from the writing (another habit that writers execute with vigor), but it’s more that there are a host of structural and textual decisions to be made in a story’s unfolding, and competing claims are made in an author’s mind when he or she attempts to commit to the page.

Add another writer into the mix? Clash of the Titans!

Or perhaps more accurately, clash of authorial sensibility, which is a broad cloth of past writing experience, favored author influences, writing intent/motivation—those and more, all the way down to critical compositional inclinations, like whether you are a writer that likes a verb to prance merrily away from its subject wearing flounce skirts of subordinate clause, plus taffeta layers of adverb and adjective.

Or one whose verbs are a clean shot. Bang.

Wedded to Another Writer’s Work

Thus, adding another writer into that existing goulash of conscious/subconscious deliberations, false starts and bloodshot-eyed writing jags (contrasted with two weeks of writing drought) seems an invitation to a wedding that’s failed before the vows are cast. Now, I’d never collaborated, nor really considered collaboration on any fiction projects. But I was aware that Johnny Truant and Sean Platt have been writing multiple fiction-series projects together for a while, and doing quite well, both in the writing and the selling of the writing. So, a model.

A little while back I edited an epic novel for a friend, Rick Wilson, The Storytelling Dentist. (He doesn’t call himself that, and deserves a much more eloquent tag that befits both his medical and writing prowess, but that’s all I came up with for the moment.)

Rick’s novel, which has the equally epic title of The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks, is a sweeping story that begins in WWII England and stretches into the 1960s. It’s soaked in brio, heartfelt humanity, sacrifice, skullduggery, romance, cowardice and glory—and all that’s probably just chapter one. So I’m quite familiar with Rick’s style.

In late January, I got this from him:
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”


Starting the Story’s Engine

Rick, who also has a talent and penchant for vivid character names, supplied some starters, one of which seemed to scream for the page: Pinky DeVroom. We decided to try alternating chapters. Here’s my opening story paragraph:

Pinky DeVroom, in his cups, stared into his brandy. His lips appeared to be having a complex argument, flexing and jutting without a clear rhythm. The argument’s fulcrum was the removal of the characteristic sneer from those lips, but the pivot was coming to rest: the sneer won.

The Shrub, just to keep you from dying of suspense, became the Prohibition-era speakeasy that Pinky, a Boston society-column newspaper man 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.

Rick is a history enthusiast, so he peppers some of his choice phrasings with interesting elements of the period, all of which cause me to caution him on making sure they serve the story. I’m also the one to try to constrain all the words in the world from escaping the corral: we’re already at 8,500 big bananas, so that’s already an upsized short story (that comes with fries); I’m trying to avoid adding any fatty dessert.

But I do want to ensure there’s a snifter of metaphoric cognac at the finish.

Bringing It Home, While Still Shaking Hands

We’ve rounded the corner on the thing, though at more of a trot than a gallop. It’s not proceeding briskly, because each of us must 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’s both coherent and compelling. And so it doesn’t seem like it’s being written by committee.

So far, so good. It’s a fun story, with playful language but some serious events. And we’ve pushed poor Pinky around so he’s almost at wit’s end—but we can do that: he’s just a character, not a collaborator. With your collaborators, you have to be much more subtle in your manipulations. Right Rick?

Any of you worked with another person in writing a story? Did everybody live?

Bonus: Fiction That Will Make You Quake

I made it to the quarter-finals of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. That doesn’t mean a whole lot, because that means of the 2,000 entrants in my general fiction category, I’m among 100 candidates. But it’s nice to get this far. If you’d like to read the first 13 pages of my new (unpublished) novel, Aftershock, you can download it for Kindle here. It’s set in the San Francisco of the 1989 earthquake. (No, I’m not going to say it’s rockin’ writing.) Reviews welcome!

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14 thoughts on “Writer Collaborations: Death Match or Delight?

  1. Pinky DeVroom. Oh my giddy aunt. I hope you’ll be including recommendations for matching libations for your readers. I’ll want to be sure I’m sipping the right stuff as I swirl to the shrub.

  2. I’ve collaborated on songs. Sometimes marvelous, often painful for various reasons.

    My collaborative goal with you is to outline a P. G. Wodehouse-style howler, and just have you fill in the interstitial spaces.

  3. Tom, for me it goes like this:

    For every “Oh no, I have to give up control!” there are a thousand “Wow, that’s so excellent, I never would have thought of that on my own!” Or is it “owns.” (I’m never sure if that situation calls for a plural or singular final word. Or even what it’s called, from a grammar standpoint. See? So much I can’t do on my own.)

    I suppose every writing partnership and situation is different. *Shrub*, though–you’d need a logarithmic scale to measure how much better it is than if either of us had tried to write it alone. And I say that as a person who is still in awe that I’m even working with a writer of your caliber in the first place.

  4. Joel, the Shrub libations companion shall have to come into existence. It’s gonna be tough, though. During Prohibition, here’s what folks had access to:
    -sometimes beer (but wine almost disappeared entirely, except for Communion and Jewish religious ceremonies);
    -rum smuggled in from the Caribbean by rum runners;
    -bad gin, made illegally in the US;
    -passable whiskey, smuggled in from Canada;
    -and, as Pinky well knows, brandy. Of questionable quality.

    Guess who was hoarding, and drinking, the good stuff?

    Industrialists, and members of the U.S. Congress. Just like today.

  5. Joel, at times Pinky is a bit of a blind filter for whatever poteen is being poured; he probably would have thought the moonshine (latest distillation is infused with vanilla bean and cacao nibs) that Alice and I made was 1875 Napoleon brandy.

    I would like to work on something that swizzles some Wodehouse whimsy though I have only passing familiarity with his work (meaning I’ve passed up most of it). For instance, I just read that his initials stood for Pelham Grenville—a sturdy moniker, but I think Mr. Wilson could have tarted it up a bit with more syllables.

  6. Rick, this has been a mirth-making exercise in bringing Shrub to life. The bowling of the scenes back and forth has been delightful in that it’s an even more condensed version of what so often happens in writing: doors open into rooms you’ve never seen before (even if you’ve plotted their height and handle), characters step out of the frames in which you’ve pinned them, and on.

    In getting a new scene from you after having sent off my own prompt, there’s always a surprise that’s kicked by the recognition of what’s come before, squeezed through a kind of anticipatory inaccuracy of what the other writer might produce. Good fun!

    However, now the tough part: bringing the baby home with all its arms and legs intact, and its heart beating bright: the conclusion. Still waiting for it to jump out of a cup of coffee at me.

  7. Here’s the first connection between Pinky and Bertram Wilberforce “Bertie” Wooster (originally spelled “Worcester” which may finally give you an indication how to pronounce that shire’s sauce but where was I?) the connection:

    Choose your hangover, at the official Wodehouse website:


    But two introductions are enough to hook most folks: the first J&W novel


    and the PBS series, starring a young and quite homely but spot on Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, and his then partner in crime from their Britcom “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” the inimitable Mr. Stephen Fry.

  8. Hey, TB. Congratulations for making it to the Amazon Breakthrough quarter-finals with Aftershock. May your very good story (the earth moved for me when I read it) break through, in, and out, break loose, break a leg and some hearts, but not break your spirit or the bank!

  9. Joel, I know that Jeeves and Bertie are immortal—probably because they were preserved in alcohol, from looking at that cocktail generator on the Wodehouse site. I hear the TV show was great too, and I love Stephen Fry. Funny that Hugh Laurie was in it too, long before his US tv fame.

    Thanks for the book rec; I am going the go to the woodshed, er, Wodehouse soon.

  10. Well, what a delight! Since I know Rick and possibly how you met, I just might read that one (and I don’t read fiction.)

    Maybe next, you two collaborate with Mr. Joel D Canfield. Would a threesome be utterly impossible? (I wrote this before reading the comments.) I knew you guys could do something.

    It’s great to hear about successful connections. Thanks for sharing the story. ( Even if it is an archive.)
    (Did you win?)

  11. Rex! Lovely to hear from you. Rick and I, slowly but not surely, are one chapter away from the first draft of the book. (Which means that it still needs a skyscraper’s worth of work.) But it’s been fun! Actually, I need to send him a note today on it.

    And nope, I didn’t win nuttin’ with that other book, which I have edited and reedited (and edited again). Maybe it needs some editing.

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