RISH: Let's see, where do I begin? Rish Outfield here, at the end of March/beginning of April, trying to write about my latest collaboration, with my buddy Big on a story for a contest that we tried to enter together. I use the word "tried," because--spoiler alert--it didn't end up working the way we had hoped when all was said and done.
I thought it would be fun to have both of us write this blog post together. That way, it would be like our collaboration, and we could perhaps create something unique, or at least mildly interesting.
Big, are you there?
BIG: I'm here. Sounds good to me.
RISH: How's it going?
BIG: Good, you?
RISH: I'm actually feeling like the floor of a truck stop men's room. That's why we're talking over the internet and not in person. But I figured I'd take advantage of the situation. Otherwise, we'd never write about this.
BIG: Why do you know so much about truck stop men's rooms anyway?
RISH: Every man has needs.
BIG: Sorry, that's beside the point, and I'm derailing the conversation. Go.
RISH: So, there was one of those pesky internet writing contests, and I got it into my head that I was going to enter it. Basically, there was a premise (just two words) we were to write on, and try as I might, I couldn't come up with a compelling story that went along with it. You hate that word, "compelling," don't you, Big?
BIG: It's a little over used. So, what did you do, Rish, I'm interested.
RISH: Well, I mentioned this to you, and how the ideas I was thinking of were just terrible. And you said, "We should write it together when we hang out on Monday," and I agreed.
But we didn't talk about it when we met to record our show. Why do you think that was?
BIG: We never talk about what we're supposed to when we get together. We're too busy eating BK Stackers and looking for good shipping boxes at Walmart.
RISH: Yes, I'm a box scrounger.
BIG: But later that week, while I was driving home from work late at night, out of the blue you called me on my cell and wanted to brainstorm.
RISH: Right. We just kicked around "what if"s during the drive home, and it's kind of like how when you talk to a counselor or a psychiatrist or a kidnapper, and you come up with thoughts you wouldn't have had on your own. Suddenly, I came up with a premise: a Science Fiction story done as a John Hughes Eighties movie. I started at the end, the way the boy would realize he loved the girl when it was almost too late, and rush to tell her, face to face. But this girl was going to be an alien.
Is that how you remember it? Because I've found that even though I experience things and write them down as they actually happened, other people who were there tend to remember them differently.
BIG: I remember taking the two words that they wanted us to base the story on, Last Contact, and trying to figure out why it would be the last contact. First Contact is a common thing in Sci-Fi, but what would make it the last contact? Well, the aliens would have to be leaving instead of staying. How can that be a story, and you, right away, came in with the John Hughes thing.
It took almost the entirety of my drive, but by the time we were done, we had something we both liked.
RISH: So, either your phone battery ran out or you got home, and you hung up, and I started to write the outline. We had to come up with the why and how of it all. Where did she come from? Where was she going? Questions that I pretty much answered instinctively, writing things down until I got to the end of the story--which was the genesis of it all.
What were your thoughts when you read that file?
BIG: I liked what you'd come up with. I took what you sent me, and tried to expand on it. I've been trying to improve the quality of my characters lately, by writing a good-sized bio on each of the main characters, so that's what I did first for our two main characters. Then I took your outline, and tried to parse it into scenes. Unfortunately, I think I took too long, because by the time I got it back to you, you had given up on waiting, assumed I'd bailed on you, and started writing it.
RISH: We had this idea--or maybe you had it--of doing a back-and-forth tennis match sort of thing with the story. I'd work on it one day, then you'd work on it the next day, then send it back to me. Was that how we did our first collaboration?
BIG: Yeah, that's how we did that "Spirit Of Christmas" story that we did last year...er, year before now. I thought it had worked well, so I proposed we do it that way again.
RISH: Oh, and I guess I have to say that that was not technically our first collaboration. Years ago, you had written a screenplay, and either you gave it to me or I stole it from you while you were passed out, and I completely rewrote it, adding in jokes and entirely new sequences, without ever consulting you. In my mind, it was the perfect collaboration, because I got to do what I wanted, and you had done all the heavy lifting.
I thought the script got really good then, and couldn't wait to shoot it. But it never got shot. I wonder if my fiddling with it contributed to that disaster.
BIG: Any project I was in charge of was always a disaster, so I'm sure it had nothing to do with it...or not all that much to do with it anyway.
RISH: One thing that I should have focused on, and didn't, was what the aliens looked like. Because you and I ended up having very different visions of their appearance, which I'm sure still don't jibe today.
BIG: Well, they changed even in the middle of the story, so who knows.
RISH: I'm not a good collaborator. I have been writing for MANY years, and so, I have grown confident that a story with my hand in it should go where I want it to go, even if that direction turns out to be a surprise to everyone else. Or to me.
You said recently that I was very much like Harlan Ellison, who is renowned for being a giant douchebag and incredibly difficult to work with. Wes Craven had him kicked off the set of a project they were working on, and Ellison calls him a stupid little punk to this day.
BIG: Not because you are a giant douchebag, but just because you don't like to have your stuff rewritten by others. That's not really Harlan's worst quality.
RISH: Well, I'm not really sure how to respond to that. If I had more confidence, I'd say it was because I know what's good and what works and I don't see the benefit of pretending the people who disagree with me are not wrong. I have no chance of a political career, I guess. Or any career at all, come to think of it.
But if there's anybody on our podcast that's gonna get hate mail or drive listeners away or upset people or get thrown off the set, so to speak, it's gonna be me.
BIG: Oh what a giveaway!
RISH: And since I'm the bad guy, I can go ahead and totally burn my bridge by saying that instead of expanding on my outline (as you later did), the first thing Big contributed was a character profile on the main two characters. And it horrified me.
Suddenly, the main guy, so easy to relate to because he was a Mary Sue or whatever those are called, became a jock, and a dude with lots of girlfriends. And became the kind of guy I hated in high school, and still hate, more or less. I guess I freaked out. You had made him you, and as you and I have discussed many a time, you would have been one of those guys in high school that put me in the trash can or whipped me with towels or told me you were going to kill me after class and then laughed about it to your brain-dead asshole friends.
I probably should've just dropped out of the project at that point. But I had this silly notion that, since it was my idea and I'd come up with the whole story, that I probably ought to stay onboard till the end.
BIG: Well, you found a way to live with it, and still wrote on it somehow.
RISH: I hear about all these other writers that collaborate with their friends, or with total strangers, or with a ghost writer (or the opposite of a ghost writer, which is a credit-hog, I guess), and I do not know how they do it.
BIG: But you did it.
RISH: Well, let's talk about that. Tell me about these character sheets, and how they've helped you in your stories.
BIG: Okay. Well, I've only done them with two stories so far. This one with you, and an earlier one this year. I've noticed in the past that my characters are too much like myself. Nothing different about them at all. So, I went through various books about creating good characters, and gleaned a bunch of questions that I could ask myself about characters so that I know them enough that I don't fill in their back story with thinly-veiled me.
One thing I figured with this story was that the character had to have a change of heart. The story was about this guy seeing the alien as a person and not a thing. So I wanted him to be kind of a jerk to begin with. Hence I made him an alpha male type guy. Someone who has always been on the outside of things would have an easier time accepting people who look funny. So that didn't seem like the right main character for the story.
RISH: Something that probably would've gotten brought up if we'd discussed the character in any depth. Sigh.
BIG: I guess that's not actually answering the question. How have they helped me. I felt, by spending as much time as I did on the characters with the first story I wrote though, was that it led me in directions that I'd never considered for the story.
And the story was, I felt, richer for the effort that I put into the pre-planning.
RISH: What are some of the questions that you ask yourself about the characters when you do this?
BIG: Well, aside from the obvious questions of who his family is, what his past was like, and that kind of stuff, one of the questions that I think is good to know about any character is what their biggest regret is among other things, because things like that will motivate the way your characters act.
RISH: Hmm. That's probably good advice for anybody writing a novel or doing a collaboration.
Okay, on with the countdown. In the time that I thought you weren't getting back to me--and that was, what, five minutes?
BIG: It was worse than that. I took several days, I'll admit.
RISH: --I wrote my own version of the opening scene. But then you surprised me by not only still wanting to do the story, but by having written your own opening scene. Any idea how close to the deadline we were by then?
BIG: By the time we started writing the story, we were about three weeks from the deadline, I think, maybe less.
RISH: Oh, I think we were there when we first had our conversation about it. But I don't know.
I had thrown in a little joke in the outline to amuse you, and you had actually incorporated it into that opening scene.
So, what to do about the two openings?
BIG: Well, I took yours, and did my best to meld the two. I have to admit that that was the hardest part for me. I was ready to give up and just say, go ahead and write the story. It's yours now.
RISH: After you melded the openings?
BIG: No, before. I just couldn't figure out how to meld them. It was too daunting. You had started it your way, and I couldn't figure out how to put the two together. I took a long time to finally write that. I kept opening the file on my computer, looking at it for a long time, then closing it without actually writing anything. But the pressure of it being time to give it back to you finally motivated me enough to type a few crappy words, and then send it back to you.
RISH: I did not know that.
Once we had gotten over that hurdle, we started to do the tennis match thing. One day I'd write on it, then the next day, you'd write. And it went fairly quickly then (I thought), except I often write long-hand, and found it a chore to type up what I'd wrote.
BIG: I felt bad, because I didn't feel like I was doing my part. You'd write a shload of words, something like a thousand or more each time, and I'd wind up getting maybe 250 in on my turn. My job and other responsibilities were making it difficult.
RISH: I found myself getting greedy, though. I'd come up with an idea when it wasn't "my day," and really want to write it down. Also, as you know, some days are less busy than others, or you have more imagination or creative spark, and other days, you just want to take a nap.
But the deadline was looming, which has always been strong motivation for me.
And the other thing was, I had a feeling-- Nah, screw it, I KNEW that this was a really good story. Sometimes you just don't know.
Or at least I don't.
BIG: Yeah, I feel that way a lot. I just don't know if my story is a good idea or not. Or more likely, I feel that it probably isn't a good idea.
RISH: And on this one?
BIG: I wasn't sure, but it seemed like a good idea to me.
RISH: Well, I felt like, if we could get it done in time, and send the mutha in, that we would do well in the contest, if not win it.
Some writers say that only non-creative turds work from an outline. But with something like this, a collaboration that's not face to face, I don't see how anybody could have finished it without it.
The deadline loomed--I think it was only two or three days away--and we only had two or three scenes left to write. I felt like we were going to make it.
BIG: And then we did our first word count on the story. The contest had a limit of 3500 words, with a few scenes still to write, we were at 10,500 or so. There was no way, whatsoever that we could enter it for the contest we'd set out to write it for.
RISH: Is that something you told me the second you saw it?
BIG: No, I actually kept it a secret, because I was afraid once you'd heard that news you would lose all motivation, and the story would never get finished...
RISH: You were wise in doing that.
BIG: ...but you did a word count like the same day.
Ah, and here's another thing I probably should have said before. I envisioned this as a movie, as a sort of John Hughes Eighties Sci-Fi movie (if there could be such a thing), and a movie is a SMEG of a lot longer than 3500 words.
I was a little disappointed, and I think I left the last bit for you to finish up.
BIG: Well, I did finish it up, but it was only because it was my turn.
I could tell that we weren't going to be even close to the right word count pretty early on, so I was already thinking of other places we could submit it instead. Asimov's, F&SF and various other mags out there take novelettes.
But yes, I typed in the last page or so, and we finished the story up.
RISH: How did it feel to type those two words?
BIG: It felt good, although admittedly, I never type those words. I've come to see the importance of them though, since I've read so many submissions where I get to the end and wonder if I was missing the last page or something.
RISH: I love those words. But I'm weird.
BIG: Well, I don't type them mostly because you never see them in a book of short stories. The story just ends when there's no more words.
RISH: What's kind of ironic--damn you, Morrisette--is that the deadline was April 1st. And on March 31st, they announced the deadline was April 15th. We could still enter the damn thing, if we wanted to try again.
I'm going to do another another pass on the story, once the bleedin' podcast is out of my hands. Maybe you will too.
BIG: I will.
RISH: But now that you've another collaboration under your belt, what are your thoughts on the story?
BIG: I liked it.
RISH: On collaboration?
BIG: I think with a few more tries, we could come up with a good system, and turn out some nice collaborations without so much struggle.
RISH: I'm glad you feel that way.
BIG: What are we going to do next?
RISH: I actually had an idea today that I thought might be kind of fun. But it may work better as a Broken Mirror sort of thing.
BIG: Cool, well, we'll have to find something.
RISH: But what about my Ellisonism?
Which is like Onanism, but less messy.
BIG: (sighs) Goodnight, Rish, talk to you later.
NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: The collaboration, "Last Contact," was eventually published over at Amazon (link), and podcasted on the Dunesteef (link here). It won the Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Short Story 2015.