Lumberjacks are Okay: Collaborative Writing
(This text of this article formerly appeared on Breachzine, October 2018)
By Lee Murray
Teeth of the Wolf was released last month. There’s nothing special to note about that except that it’s a collaborative novel, the second in a series that I’m writing with my long-time Kiwi colleague, Dan Rabarts. The collaborative aspect intrigues a lot of people. They ask us what it’s like to write with someone else. Tell us about your collaborative process, they say. Is it harder? Then they laugh. Surely, it’s easier. It has to be. You only have to write half the book, right?
I try not to snort with laughter.
Here’s a little excerpt from Teeth of the Wolf, featuring brother and sister protagonists, Matiu and Penny Yee. This excerpt epitomises our collaborative process:
“What happened to my kitchen?”
“I had another toastie.”
“So I see.”
“Don’t start, Pen. It’s only a bit messy.”
“Well, clean it up, then.”
“Can’t. It’s a Friday. You know very well it’s not my dishes night.”
Penny rolls her eyes. “Don’t give me that. That roster was defunct years ago.”
“Can you do it? Please?” He pulls the puppy-dog face he used to make when he was trying to get out of the dishes back when they were kids.
Penny snorts. “Why should I?”
“Because I’m trying to work out where Touching the Sun have hidden Charlotte,” he says, immediately making her feel like shit.
Yes, this squabbly-yet-affectionate banter that occurs between the siblings on the page is how Dan and I negotiate our collaboration. Let me back up a bit and explain. Writing together was meant as bit of fun, a way to indulge our mutual love of things dark and twisted. So when we set out to write this collaborative novella-that-got-out-of-hand, we agreed to make it easy on ourselves, using elements from our own lives to inform the narrative. I drew on my science background and Chinese heritage to create uptight science-consult Penny with her fixation on method and rigour; and Dan called on his Māori background, a job in security, and his drama degree to conjure her adopted brother, brooding and dangerous Matiu, a matakite (seer) who flirts with the shadowy underworld. I have two little brothers, so one more wasn’t a problem. Dan has two older sisters. Well, you can see where I’m going here: by infusing some of ourselves into our characters, we also imbued those qualities into our process, creating a he-said, she-said style narrative where the two protagonists have to put aside their opposing ideologies and combined family baggage in order to solve a murder.
Like Penny and Matiu, Dan and I have a common goal, which is to solve the crime by the end of the book. Just as Penny and Matiu discuss options, sifting through them, choosing the most likely leads and following them up, Dan and I sift and discard story threads, elaborating on the ones which best serve our thesis. Like my character, Penny, I prefer to work methodically, to a prescribed plan. I’m all about lean prose with no embellishments. Like Matiu, Dan has an annoying tendency to charge off down dark alleys, initiate frantic car chases, and set off unexpected explosions. There will be adjectives. Fragments. And words like spooling. And while I love the flair that Dan and Matiu bring to the story, someone has to write us back into line!
But is our process typical? How do other collaborative teams operate? I decide to ask some colleagues who also write horror in teams. First up, I ping Michelle Garza, one half of the famous ‘Sisters of Slaughter’ horror writing duo. Writing with Melissa Lason, Michelle’s titles include Those Who Follow and Mayan Blue. And they’re sisters, so maybe some parallels exist between their real-life sibling collaboration and our writing-life one.
“Melissa and I started writing together when we were little girls just for fun,” Michelle says. “We’re twin sisters who grew up in a rural part of Arizona, no street lights, surrounded by desert, and it was a way of letting our imaginations run free.”
Just for fun. No street lights…
What about their collaborative process? Any squabbling?
Michelle replies, “Being sisters who have written together so long, we don’t really argue over plot or characters like some writing teams might ‒ but it’s a lot of fun to share the experience together, it’s just like we’re still children playing pretend.”
“When we write together we go through notebooks we keep containing story ideas for novel length work and short stories. We decide on a story we’re interested in and write an outline together, then we split up chapters and we usually see each other a couple times a week to piece it together and read it out loud to be sure it flows. We continue until completion and then I usually edit it before submitting it. Our outlines state the major plot points of the story but also allows a little wiggle room for us to ‘wander’ a bit.”
It seems there’s no squabbling with these two, but twins are known for being strange, aren’t they? There does appear to be some wandering off down dark alleys. Although the word ‘wander’ might be a euphemism, since the back-cover copy for Mayan Blue mentions uncovering ‘a gateway to a world of living nightmares…’
I widen the net, consulting next with husband and wife team, Matt and Debbie Cowens, well-known down under for their dark fiction, and the same scary duo who inspired Dan and I to consider writing collaboratively in the first place.
Debbie writes, “We’ve been working together on projects for years ‒ starting with card games where Matt did the art and we worked on game mechanics and writing together. We took a mixed approach to Mansfield With Monsters ‒ some stories I wrote and Matt redrafted, some he wrote and I redrafted, and one or two we talked about at the ideas stage, refined through conversation, and wrote while looking over each other’s shoulders.”
Personally, I think living in the same house as your collaborator is an unfair advantage, and writing at the same time, while looking over one another’s shoulders, is just cheating. Luckily, I don’t say this out loud.
Debbie goes on, “Matt and I have collaborated on a number of projects, and each time it’s a little different. For The Ward of Tindalos, it was an idea I had which I discussed with Matt, started writing, and then when he read through it he had some great structural ideas to contribute. He wrote a section, I rewrote it and some other parts, and we ended up handing off drafts for revision each day, or multiple times a day as the deadline loomed. Sometimes a draft would be a subtle nudge forward or a tightening up of the existing story, other times it would be a thrilling plunge into new story depths.”
Thrilling plunges, gateways to other worlds. I have to agree. Writing collaborations can offer up some electrifying surprises.
“One of the great benefits of my collaboration with Matt is the boost we get from each other’s enthusiasm, and the motivation that comes from seeing each other’s work. Once our efforts have been woven together it’s not always easy to untangle where a particular idea or approach came from so we tend not to try to tease out who did what after the fact.”
This seamless interwoven effect Debbie mentions is sometimes called smoothing, where the writing is polished until it appears to have been penned by a single writer. This is the opposite of my collaboration with Dan, since we each elected to take ‘responsibility’ for a single character, writing chapters individually and splicing those chunks together to create the final narrative. We even make a point of editing each other’s work only lightly in order to maintain two distinct voices that alternate throughout.
“Even when we’re writing separately we like to talk to each other about what we’re doing, use each other as sounding boards,” Debbie says. “That’s a more in-depth process when the project is collaborative.”
Finally, Debbie mentions that as well as short stories, she and Matt have collaborated on play and short film scripts at the school where they work.
I nod at that. After collaborating with Dan for several years, I didn’t think twice about asking him to adapt one of my short stories for radio. This is because with all the in-depth communication that goes into a collaboration, you start to create a kind of short-hand. We’re not exactly finishing each other’s sentences, but I was confident Dan would understand my intent for the story and had the skills to capture that intent.
Last up, I chat with horror’s funniest writer, four-times Bram Stoker nominee, no-time winner, Jeff Strand, whose titles include Cyclops Road and Blister. He has also written collaboratively with James A. Moore, award-winning author of more than forty novels across numerous genres. I ask Jeff about their collaboration.
“The biggest challenge in writing The Haunted Forest Tour with James A. Moore is that we have very different approaches to completing a first draft,” says Jeff. “Jim is a ‘get through the first draft without looking back; fix it when it’s done!’ kind of guy, and I revise constantly as I go. Plus, Jim is a much faster writer. So he’d take a plot thread and just run with it, while I was back tinkering with some detail from several chapters earlier. I’m used to typing ‘The End’ and being pretty close to the final product, so typing ‘The End’ on this one and having a gigantic mess left to clean up was a definite adjustment to my writing process.”
I roll my eyes knowingly. It takes me all day to write what Dan writes in than less than hour, but afterwards I might go back and fill in the odd missing word, whereas Dan will decide to add in a car chase. (Said car chase will inevitably end in an explosion, which poor Penny will need to mop up using science.) Definitely some similarities here.
“Jim is also a lot wordier than me,” Jeff writes. He adds a smiley-face emoji. “There was one section where I said, ‘Okay, I need you to write a scene where the lumberjacks go after the living trees,’ and he pumped out 5000 words. I said, ‘Aaah! That’s too long! It’s too big of a detour!’ but Jim wanted to keep it, so the book has a 5000-word lumberjack sequence!”
I smile because although he hasn’t said it in as many words, Jeff has hit the nail on the head. Good collaborations ‒ good writing ‒ stem from the quality of the collaborative relationship. It’s two little girls sharing stories in the dark under the sheets, or husband and wife creatives getting a buzz from looking over one another’s shoulders, a couple of quasi-siblings bickering over who’s going to clean up the kitchen… Or it might just be respecting your writing partner enough to keep a 5000-word lumberjack detour in your novel.
*Personal communications by kind permission from Michelle Garza, Debbie and Matt Cowens, and Jeff Strand.
Excerpt from Teeth of the Wolf, by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (Raw Dog Screaming Press)
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her titles include the Taine McKenna speculative thriller series; and supernatural crime-noir series, The Path of Ra (co-authored with Dan Rabarts). She lives in the sunny Bay of Plenty with her well-behaved family and a naughty dog. Find her at https://www.leemurray.info