The Siamese Twinge

a dialogue on collaboration
with Kevin Smith

DAVE: The first problem Kevin and I found in collaborating was that each secretly expected the other to do most of the work.

KEVIN: Tell me when you've reached 2000 words and I'll take over.

D: The second problem arises from the need to smooth over the joins between one's own exquisite prose and the ill-considered paragraphs of the lout one is working with, subtly meshing the intricate cadences of style and sense into a perfect and harmonious whole.

K: Dead right dere, boss.

D: Quite.

K: A further consideration (in order to advance one's own writing career the better) is the necessity of giving the impression that one is mainly responsible for the entire piece, and that one's collaborator provided only the odd subtle preposition or definite article; or semicolon. One method, startling in its simplicity, is actually to write almost everything, allowing merely the slightest interjection –

D: But –!

K: However, this runs flat up against our first problem.

D: It is also essential, of course, that the two authors continually think along the same lines, or else you end up with immense clashes of ideas, as well as arguments about the workload.

K: A second way to establish predominance is contribute the Heavy Ideas, and leave the development and word-churning to one's associate. Dave ...

D: As the story goes, Jerry Pournelle had written a really terrific novel called The Mote in God's Eye, but felt there was something missing, so he went to see his good friend Larry Niven and said: 'Larry, can you put in some aliens?'

K: Do you think it would be a good idea to tell the people the methods we've actually used for collaborating?

D: There are things Man was not meant to know – but if you insist: you had written the remarkable, and not unfunny, Alcain Saga ...

K: While you had produced the amazing, and mildly humorous, Mac Malsenn mini-epics ...

D: ... and we thought it might be quite fun to bring the two together: mighty-muscled, hairy, very stupid Barbarian King and mighty-muscled, incredibly clean-shaven, super-competent Cosmic Agent.

K: We sat around in Dave's room at Oxford with a lot of beer and bits of paper, scribbling down scenes and ideas when we should have been reading physics books.

D: From time to time we'd discuss plot developments – i.e. the best way to fit our independently conceived scenes and ideas together. The rest of the time we'd drink the beer.

K: Actually, that part of it was relatively easy. The hardest bit was deciding on a title. Nothing seemed suitable, until we had the bright idea of using an appropriate anagram. An anagram of what? Considering the origins of the story, it had to be an anagram of 'The Miscegenation'.

D: Thus was born 'Then Time Is No Cage'.

K: The writing of the sequel to this story, 'The Case On Time's Encoding' (an anagram of 'The Second Miscegenation') was a little more problematical. Term finished and Dave went home to Newport, me to Loughborough. Obviously, a different collaboration method was required.

D: We chose the 'two page' method. I would produce two typewritten pages, send a copy to Kevin, and he would produce the next two and send them to me. No hints were allowed in accompanying letters; the follow-on had to be 'blind'. This produced some curious results.

K: For example, throwaway lines from one were developed at length by the other, while major themes were dealt with and discarded in a couple of words. As time went on, of course, the plot diverged more and more until half a dozen plot lines of significance were running at once – these being the few survivors.

D: And naturally, neither of us could resist the temptation to leave the other an impossible cliff-hanger – in mid-sentence preferably – to see how he would get out of it. I'm still trying to forget the section which ended: 'He continued to transmogrify ...' We kept the turnaround time very short. Within three days of sending out the two pages, the next two would arrive back.

K: Fortunately the holiday finished before either of us was harmed permanently, and we were back at Oxford, able to compare notes again. If I might digress a moment, it occurs to me that two typed quarto pages would contain about 800 words, which quite coincidentally is A.E. van Vogt's magic number of words between plot twists. Well, it sure as hell keeps the action moving.

D: You merely sacrifice coherence, tight plotting and a few dozen other literary virtues.

K: I can't deny it. It's a good job we were only trying to be funny. We quickly realized that the 'two page' method might be excellent for getting things going, but would never in a million years draw the loose ends together – not to the satisfaction of both of us, at any rate. We had twenty pages, and a half dozen more of combined, concentrated effort should see it out, we thought. Twenty-four pages of combined, concentrated effort later, we were able to type 'The End'.

D: There you go, grabbing the credit again. I typed that dynamically original phrase.

K: You even got your poxy name first on the title page, come to think of it.

D: Only because I typed that page too. Which brings us to the all-important question of priorities: basically, the simplest way is to put the names in alphabetical order, especially if your name is Langford and the sucker's is (say) Smith.

K: This is the sort of intensely personal and idiosyncratic question which can only be solved by the collaborators' stepping outside to exercise their knuckles for the next bout of typing. Let us turn with an immense effort to other forms of collaboration.

D: The 'two page' system is merely a long-range variant of the 'hot typewriter' approach, whereby X (whom for the sake of argument we shall call Frederik Pohl) is chained to the machine until he's churned out the agreed number of pages. Then Y (who for the sake of argument might be termed Cyril Kornbluth) takes his place until his quota is made up ...

K: Then we have the 'missing link' collaboration, in which X (probably A.E. van Vogt) writes a story containing large gaps which he feels his talents are unable to fill properly: the ever-helpful Y (quite possibly Harlan Ellison) then manufactures a suitable literary Polyfilla to occupy these spaces. See, to choose an example entirely at random, 'The Human Operators' by van Vogt and Ellison.

D: With the 'fossil reconstruction' system, X (who is dead, and tends to be Doc Smith, Robert E. Howard, or Edgar Rice Burroughs) contributes a discarded plot outline, a trenchant sentence or a useful syllable; his collaborator (who goes under various names – 'hack' being the one which most readily springs to mind) expands this into several volumes of appalling trash which sell depressingly well. A carefully chosen dead collaborator can be an excellent asset to the young author; I myself have this trunkful of undiscovered H.G. Wells plot outlines....

K: The simplest form of collaboration has X writing the first draft and Y tarting it up. This can be a cunning idea if X happens to be dyslexic, and even more so if Y does not. Generally, however, if X (say Dave Langford) actually feels energetic enough to finish the story he won't want Y muscling in on his efforts.

D: Agreed. It's writing words which takes it out of you, and statistics show that one has to write fewer words if someone else supplies some of them.

K: Such timesharing can be taken further: it has been known for several writers to evolve a brilliant book outline from their pooled talents, knowledge, imagination and beer – and then to assign a chapter or two to be written by each collaborator.

D: It has also been known for such a group, called for convenience W, X, Y and Z (or for short, Langford, Smith, Allan Scott and Diana Reed) to go away and never set down the merest semicolon of their immaculate concept.

K: [Weeps into beer, guiltily.]

D: An unusually easy – and unusually unlikely to succeed – form of collaboration is one where the very form of the story requires a certain formlessness.

K: You've been reading Chesterton again.

D: What I mean is, the collaborators agree on a beginning, which we shall call x, and an end, which for convenience may be termed x + f(x,t) ...

K: Will you stop that!

D: The point is that the middle is designed to require numerous scenes which can come in any order and cover a wide range of topics without need for close continuity, the important thing being their cumulative effect.

K: What idiots would adopt such a grotesquely unworkable and conceptually ludicrous approach to collaboration?

D: We did.

K: Oops, so we did. I was trying to forget that one ... our only serious collaboration.

D: A serious shaggy dog story, actually. (It's much easier to collaborate on a vast joke or send-up, as witness the success of Earthman's Burden, The Incomplete Enchanter or The Mote in God's Eye.)

K: It began with some mysterious alien craft arriving; it ended by tying all the reader's expectations into an intricate knot, and then holding aloft the sword of revelation to slash through this double reverse Gordian Knot ... and going away without actually doing so.

D: But in between, all manner of arcane speculations about the nature and purpose of the aliens were required; a cast of billions reacted to their strange doings in what could have been several hundred scenes, but was ruthlessly cut to a few dozen when we got tired of thinking up new gags.

K: And as you said, those in-between sections could come in any order.

D: I still can't tell who wrote what (although I recognized the good bits as being mine).

K: I know the feeling. By that time we'd abandoned anagrams; it was time for that ancient recourse of the hack, a title which was a quotation.

D: Oh my God. Yes. We looked through every volume of verse in the Langford library and unearthed a line from Swinburne: 'Nor loosening of the large world's girth'.

K: It had one advantage – when we took the story to a Pieria workshop, everyone was so bemused by the title that the time left for justifiable 'pissingon' of the story was quite limited. This is a useful tip for attendees at writers' workshops.

D: Afterwards you sliced the story from 8500 words to 5000, discarding all the best bits –

K: The excessively silly Langford bits –

D: – in the process. You changed the plot; you altered the title to the almost memorable 'Stick Insects'; and then, poor fool, you sent it to me for copy-typing.

K: So when you'd reinserted your ludicrous pet scenes and submitted the thing to Ken Bulmer, it's not surprising that he sent it back with the speed of a striking sex-crazed strooka (to borrow a simile of his).

D: Persistence being a vital attribute of the professional writer, few people will be surprised to learn that Kevin and I at once gave up on that story.

K: Common sense may also have had something to do with it.

D: I suppose we should include a stern moral for the benefit of Focus readers: collaborations between relatively inexperienced, lazy and drunk writers are undertaken in the hope that each can get away with doing less work, but in practice you can't get away with the resulting sloppiness.

K: Loathsome and unthinkable though it may seem, each partner in a collaboration will probably have to work harder than if he or she wrote the same number of words alone.

D: Realizing this, Kevin and I were swift to give up the whole idea of combined effort. Nothing, we swore, nothing could make us join forces for another literary piebald.

K: Nothing at all. Follow our example and you too can abandon amateurism and sell to some of the lowest-paying markets in Known Space – as we did once we gave up writing collaborations.

HAZEL LANGFORD: Have you finished that joint article for Focus yet?

D: Rats! You just blew our cover.