Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to Write a Collaborative Story


I'm in print again!  Well, sort of.  "The Trains That Climb The Winter Tree" is a collaboration with the immortal Eileen Gunn.  So I'm half in print again.

And how did this story come about?  I'm glad you ask, because I have an extremely convoluted answer.

Chapter One:  Humble Beginnings

It all began several years ago when I tricked Eileen into writing a a story through the simple expedient of not telling her  that was what she was doing.  She and I were trading public posts on the Clarion West site during their annual Write-a-Thon, as a promotional thing, when she wrote something about feeling too guilty to write.  Back I wrote, something along the lines of:

Dear Ms Gunn:
Unable to write?  Even worse -- feeling guilty about it?  Fear not.  Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia has a program for that!

I was trying to jolly her into writing a story with me then and there, online.  But Eileen was too savvy for that.  She responded with what became the opening of the story:

Dear Sirs:
Ordinarily, I would not respond to an e-mail such as yours.  I am by nature a skeptic and, as a former advertising writer, consider myself well able to resist the transparent come-on of a carelessly written appeal to my baser nature.  Today, however...
Today I found myself wracked with guilt at how much time I spend goofing around.  Sunday is the end of my work-week and, as usual, all the chickens came home to roost:  I absolutely had to get a story finished and sent off.  And I did.  I didn't do much of anything else: just worry and plot and write, all day long. I didn't even call in a pizza.  Fortunately, I keep on hand an adequate supply of snickerdoodles, a nutritionally perfect source of carbs, fats, and cinnamon that will keep anxiety at bay for up to 24 hours.
But now, sitting here at midnight amid crumpled manuscript pages and snickerdoodle crumbs, I feel there must be a better way.
And your e-mail, which promises I could be lounging about on Sundays, taking the day off, doing the crossword puzzle, and idly staring at things without thinking of them, certainly caught my eye.
Can you really reduce my guilt to nothing, as your e-mail claims?  Is your service worth its unnamed but undoubtedly exorbitant cost?
Eileen Gunn

Back and forth we went, me reassuring Eileen in my best American Huckster voice that all her problems were over, and she inventing new stumbling-blocks on the sly.  At one point I wrote:

Dear Ms. Gunn:
You certainly are a tough nut to crack.  Not that we think you are a nut.  Absolutely not!  Yet crack you we shall.

Eventually, there was a short story's worth of give-and-take so I cleaned it all up and sent it to Eileen, along with an email beginning, "Congratulations.  You have just written a story."  Eileen did a final polish and added a grace note to the ending.  then we sent it out.

"Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!" was published in the September 2008 issue of F&SF.  As I recall, it took all of a week to sell.  Editors love having the chance to buy an Eileen Gunn story.

Chapter Two:  A Trickster Arrives in Town

Midway through the story, I referred to the blockbuster fantasy dekology that Eileen would soon be able to finish in a matter of months.  She replied:

How did you know about the dekology?  It has such a lovely synopsis: elves, mirrors, electric trains, trees that extend into the stratosphere and rain gold on those below, and Dick Cheney's evil twin.  NYT Bestseller?   Fowler and Lethem can eat their hearts out.  But I do not work on it. 

"Oh, Eileen," I thought.  "You and I are so going to write that story!  Just as soon as I've tricked you into writing the one you don't know you're working on."

Chapter Thee:  The Tables Turned, the Biter Bit

While Eileen was still reeling from the unexpected realization that she'd just finished a story without any conscious effort on her part (save for the improved ending and a few scattered enhancements in the final polish), I made my move.

I wrote the opening paragraphs of a story based on Ms Gunn's pocket synopsis of her fantasy dekology and emailed them to her:

It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors.  Everyone in the house was asleep.  Outside, the city slumbered.  Silent as shadows, the warriors went from room to room.  Their knives were so sharp they could slit a throat without awakening their victim.
They killed all the adults.
The children they spared.

I almost certainly chuckled as I sent it.  It may be that I cackled.  By now I was feeling pretty full of myself.  I sat down and wrote the first three pages of the story.

The next morning, I received an email from Eileen and discovered that she'd puckishly rewritten the story opening:

It was the middle of the night when the mirrors came out of the elves.  With a sound like the cushioned patter of an ice storm, the tiny mirrors fell to the ground, leaving a crust of glitter behind the marching elf-army.  They bled, of course, but the elven blood restored the dry land, undoing the effects of the drought, and moss emerged green from the ground in the troops’ wake. 

It is possible my shriek of agony, wrenched from the depths of my soul in the heart of Philadelphia, was heard by Eileen all the way out in Seattle.

Chapter Four:  Needless Complications

Eileen! I wrote back.  You've!!  Changed!!!!  The!!!!!!!  Opening!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's possible I wasn't quite as temperate as that.

Alas, Eileen had written the fatal paragraph and liked it and wasn't about to discard it.  So there was only one way to resolve the problem.  We agreed to write both stories simultaneously.

While we were each working on our own solo stuff, of course.

Chapter Five:  Twenty Years Later

Eons passed.  The dinosaurs died.  Glaciers covered the Earth.  Atlantis rose and drowned.  A man walked in Galilee.  The automobile was invented.

At last, Eileen and I finished not the first but the second of the twin collaborations, the one beginning with mirrors coming out of elves.  Because it was her opening paragraph, Eileen got top billing.  This time, it took three days to sell.  Eileen Gunn stories being, as I've implied, a prestige item among editors.

"The Armies of Elfland" appeared in the April 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.  We soldiered on with the story which began with elves coming out of mirrors.

Chapter Six:  An Unexpected Resolution!

The day came at last which no man could have predicted.  Eileen and I finished "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree."   That was approximately six weeks ago.  It contained almost everything that Eileen's synopsis had promised.  Elves?  Check.  Mirrors?  Ditto.  Electric trains?  You bet.  Extending into the stratosphere?  And then some!  Dick Cheney's evil twin?  You'd have thought that one would be tough but, naw, it was a snap.

The only thing we didn't have was the gold raining down on those below.  I'm a liberal.  I don't believe in the trickle-down theory.

Happily, I wrote an email to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at, beginning:

Hi, Patrick.  Eileen Gunn and I have just finished writing a story . . .
And without bothering to finish reading the email, without even waiting for me to send it, Patrick wrote back:

I'm buying it.

Did I mention how much editors want an Eileen Gunn story?

Afterword:  Please Buy Our Free Product

Yesterday in the email came a note from addressed to all registered users.  (It's free.  Basically, you register and once or twice a month you get an email telling you what new stuff is on their site.  Very convenient.)  It said:

As a holiday treat to our registered users, and to say thanks for being part of our community, is shaking like a bowl full of jelly to offer you our next story a whole week early. "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree," by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn, is shocking, lyrical, inventive, and, like the holidays, a little mad. It will appear on on Tuesday, December 21, but [registered users] can . . . log in and read the story on the site. We hope you enjoy it!

So there you have it:  Virtue rewarded, a talking dog, Dick Cheney's evil twin chastened, a corporate Santa Claus, a ripping yarn, and a jolly good time to be had by all.  Plus, because I wrote the first paragraph, I got top billing.

Sigh.  I love a happy ending.

Above:  The splendid illustration for our story was created by Gary Kelley.  Kudos!  And Merry Christmas too!



Eileen Gunn said...

You know, Michael, I have a very bad memory for things I say to people in the heat of trying to generate a clever reply. A *very* bad memory. Stuff comes out of my mouth or off my keyboard, and it’s gone from my brain. That’s a good thing, really.

So I’m not surprised that I am surprised to hear that I generated the list of fantasy memes that you quote above, “elves, mirrors, electric trains, trees that extend into the stratosphere and rain gold on those below, and Dick Cheney's evil twin.”

I wrote that list? Huh. I do remember saying “Fowler and Lethem can eat their hearts out” -- I say that all the time, to no avail whatsoever. But the other? I said that? That would explain a lot, actually.

I just checked my email archive, and, indeed, not only did I say that, way back at the dawn of time, but you reminded me when you sent me the beginning of the story. “Good news!” you said. “I've begun your dekalogy.” You sent me 600 words of pretty much untouchable prose and dared me to go on. Everything you say is true, even the rather preposterous accusation that I sabotaged the opening sentence and we had to write a whole 'nother story. Preposterous, but true.

But eventually, over the eons, I forgot that it was my idea. I wondered why you were insisting we write a story about elves. And mirrors. Jeez. Elves and mirrors. I thought you were doing it to torture me. And, fiendishly, you were making it irresistible – impossible not to enjoy it, impossible not to participate.

As usual, you were as patient as a saint and as relentless as the hound of heaven -- or is it the other way around? And now you remind me that the elves and the mirrors were my own idea. Lordy, lordy. How could I have harbored so unjust a thought, that you might torture me with elves?

What can I say? Except thank you, of course. And that I think the Swanwick brand on the stories may have had a lot to do with the alacrity with which they were snapped up. But, of course, as you are among the most modest of men, you would never harbor such a thought, reasonable as it may seem to readers familiar with your work.

And now I'd better get back to work on the other 9.9 volumes of the dekology....

Merry Christmas to all!


David Stone said...

I've seen angry Santas, naughty Santas, and bad Santas, but this is the first time I've come across an evil gnostic demiurge Santa(?)! What a great story.

Unknown said...

Now, of course, you have to make a third story combining the two versions, in which elves come out of mirrors and mirrors out of elves (would that be like Discworld, elves and mirrors all the way down?)

Eileen Gunn said...

Thanks, David!

Rich, I dunno about Michael -- he has an iron constitution -- but I may have to take a little timeout from the evil elves....

Happy new year to all!