What It’s Like To Collaborate With A Jerk – Newsletter 11/21/2023

Bruce Berls here. Jim Rowson and I wrote a book together named Uncommon Scents. It’s good! You should read it.
Jim got a bad deal.
His co-author was selfish and thought his words were so compelling and magical that they would emit a golden glow on the page and make the other words look like they were in a smaller font. Jim had to step back during the final draft. But it was far more collaborative than that description makes it sound.
It is rare to find joint-author credits on novels. Writing tends to be solitary. A famous exception is the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett on Good Omens: “They shared plot ideas over the phone and sent each other floppy discs in the post, competing to get to the best scenes first, footnoting each other’s copy and swapping characters and rewrites until neither was sure who wrote what and where the jokes came from.”
It sounds great, doesn’t it? Trading chapters back and forth until a seamless story emerges like a phoenix rising from two flames.
It’s tough to make that happen. Writing a story for yourself is hard. Melding minds to write jointly is nearly impossible.
Today there is really only one example that I can think of: The Expanse is a series of science fiction novels and novellas written by “James S A Corey,” a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Their work product is seamless. The collaboration process is so unusual that they just introduced a Patreon project where you can watch over their shoulder as they write a new novel.
Here’s how it worked for us.
Jim and I have known each other since high school. We became fast friends right away – in tune with each other’s senses of humor, sharing a love of science fiction during its glory days in the 70s, and being there for each other as decades went by – roommates, best man, bad influences, someone to laugh at each other’s jokes and provide comfort in hard times.
As we headed into the 2020s, the pandemic happened, kids occupied less time, and retirement was on the horizon for both of us. I had been writing Bruceb News for twenty years but it was slowing down. Jim was finishing his career at YouTube and would soon have free time for the first time in his life.
Each of us said at the same moment, “Have you ever thought about writing a novel?”
Science fiction lends itself to collaboration because it requires world-building. Stories might take place in a wholly fictional universe or a variation on our world in the future. Authors may have to create geography, a backstory about how the world has changed, flora, fauna, inhabitants, technology, different races. If there are spaceships, how big are they? How fast are they? How do they get from place to place? Do they have personalities?
Jim and I brainstormed for weeks about the world thirty years from now when augmented reality has been widely adopted. There is a convention in SF stories set in the near future – extrapolate from an advance in one specific bit of technology and write a story around that technology, but ignore most of the other things that might also change in the world.
We created a rich background for our imaginary tech company Arrgle. We researched how injectable nanobots might work, but not very deeply because we wanted silliness more than science. We talked about what life would be like if everyone had access to digital enhancements to vision and hearing.
But we didn’t try to guess how things might change in other aspects of the world as a result of, say, climate change or gene editing or bioweapons. The world has enough dystopian SF novels.
If it’s done well, world-building is nearly invisible. It makes a story feel rich if there are details that are presented organically, but SF novels fail if they spend too much time explaining how the world works. A novel is about specific people doing specific things. Part of the fun for SF writers is letting the world unfold so that it is comprehensible without long explanations. Jim and I tried to do that in Uncommon Scents.
Jim and I are both more comfortable outlining plots ahead of time. There are writers who create a novel by the seat of their pants, starting on page one without a clear plan and letting the characters determine where the story goes. In writers’ groups, everyone understands references to “pantsers” and “plotters.” We’re plotters.
So we plotted. More long conversations about the characters, the events, how one thing leads to another, how to get this character here with the envelope that gets mixed up with the other envelope that’s over there.
I wrote most of the words in the first draft. At every step, Jim was leaving comments, suggesting revisions, adding jokes, and keeping my digressions in check.
He tentatively suggested a few times that he write portions of the story. There were logical places where a different authorial voice would have worked just fine.
And I said, no, don’t do that, the words must be mine, the book will be cursed if you try to contribute, I am prepared to weep and gnash my teeth to keep control.
Jim is an extraordinarily generous person. I never actually had to throw a tantrum; it was enough to use passive-aggressive threats.
Much of what’s in Uncommon Scents came from Jim. But the snarky tone and the blame for the book’s shortcomings – that’s all me, because I’m a jerk as a collaborator.
Today’s reading comes from Uncommon Scents, an endearing novel from two young authors blazing across the literary firmament. BUY ON AMAZON
(In this scene, Barry is a software engineer with Arrgle working on its most important product, injectable nanobots that enable everyone to see augmented reality. His wife Tiffani has confronted him with evidence that he was seen with an attractive young woman at a local hotel when he was supposed to be out of town on a business trip.)
Barry put on his most serious expression and leaned in as if he was about to divulge secrets. “Sweetie, this puts me in a difficult spot. You know I can’t tell you about my work. But nothing is more important than having you trust me, so I’m going to tell you about a hush hush project.”
Tiffani couldn’t stop herself from looking interested. Barry went on, “I’m doing some programming on a secret research project. It’s ultra-confidential.” He chewed his lip. “Can I trust you to keep it secret?” Tiffani nodded, eyes wide.
He paused and looked up as if he was trying to make a weighty decision, nodded, locked eyes with Tiffani, tried to look honest and trustworthy, took a moment to congratulate himself on the quality of his performance.
“Okay, if you’re sure. The scientists have found that paranormal activity is real. Under the right conditions, people with AR nanobots can see ghosts. Real ghosts, not special effects. Kind of like avatars but nobody is on the other end, they’re just ghosts. It’s possible that this explains ghost sightings through history. We think some people were sensitive to ghosts before the bots were invented and now somehow the bots increase our visual acuity for the sacred plane.”
He wondered if he was putting it on too thick. Tiffani’s eyes were unfocused as she concentrated. “Are you serious?”
“Super super serious.”
“Wow.” She got to the end of her thought process and lit up. “My god, Barry, I knew it! But I never thought there would be proof. This is unbelievable.”
Barry thought, yup, ‘unbelievable’ is almost exactly the right word.