The Big Idea: David Sandner & Jacob Weisman
When two writers join forces… how does the work actually get done? David Sandner and Jacob Weisman get real on this topic, and how it was their collaboration on Hellhounds got done.
“90% of the work, 50% of the profits.”
I remember seeing that on t-shirts worn by two collaborating sf writers circulating at a con back in the day. It’s a joke, of course, but also a warning. Writers like to keep control over their work and collaboration can seem like trying to change drivers while the car is still on the road—likely to end in a spectacular crack up. Or maybe it’s just some atavistic memory of doing group work in school where the kind of perfectionism that makes a good writer meant they did it all, performing all tasks for just one grade. But I’m writing this to talk about my successful collaboration with my old friend Jacob Weisman on the publication of our novelette Hellhounds now available as an elegant albeit tiny book from Fairwood press.
Fairwood put out an earlier booklet, Mingus Fingers, which was well reviewed. (Our current work is a sequel, tracking the growth and trials of a figure whose magic comes from the music he plays; but each story functions as a standalone work, too, so you can start with either.) Paul Di Filippo at Locus Online kindly wrote: “The team behind this charming, low-key but powerful tale…blend their voices beautifully into an organic whole….” That made me think maybe we had something to say about collaboration. And we have a method I haven’t heard described anywhere else, so there’s that.
Mostly, in collaborations, one person writes one section and the other another. Trying not to get in each other’s way, I suppose, and avoiding the bruising of writerly egos. But then one can tell the difference between parts. The seams show. I have seen this issue handled by having different POV characters or a similar trick to “explain” the difference in style by embedding difference into the structure of the work. But that’s not how we do it.
For us, one of us sets to work. The other person gets to do nothing (and I enjoy twiddling my thumbs and still getting credit for “writing a story.”) When we send the work to the other person, they can do whatever they want. The writing can be pared, changed, or even scenes tossed. This only works because of trust. We trust that each of us is working to make the story work. When it comes back, the original writer can do whatever to the new material and the old. They might even bring something back from a previous version. These back-and-forths work themselves out. If someone brings something back, you think hard before cutting it again. And the reverse: if they cut your work again, how can you revise to keep what you wanted from what they cut? In the end, while certain things (like subject) tip me off, I often can’t tell who wrote what—because we both did everything!
The joke here is that we decided not to write this column collaboratively. Because it’s funnier that way. Still, after all this time, let me guess where he will begin: “50% of the work, 90% of the profits,” because, you know, someone must be getting all those profits. J?
Hellhounds is a sequel to Mingus Fingers, but both stories are prequels to an earlier story that we published in Realms of Fantasy back when Shawna McCarthy was still editing the magazine. David had started “Egyptian Motherlode” about an aging, obscure funk band on their final farewell tour and was either not sure about where it was headed or was looking for an excuse to rope me in – I doubt even he remembers which.
I added a much younger band of rap singers that joined the Motherlode on their ill-fated tour, at least that’s how I remember it. And the stories of both bands, through the push and pull of two authors taking the stories in several different directions before finally finding the way forward, plotted themselves extremely neatly.
Years later, when David suggested we write a novel together, I wanted to come back to this story since I thought there was a lot more to it hiding beneath the surface. To do so, though, we needed to create a backstory for the main character first, which is what we’ve done in these two stories. They can be read independently or as a duology, and maybe someday as part of a novel.
When we started on these stories we knew that the main character, Kenny here but later referred to as The Prophet, has a brother. We’d written very briefly about him in “Egyptian Motherload.” He’s written out of Mingus Fingers, but he’s the main character in Hellhounds. Lamond is one of our favorite characters in the book. He becomes the defacto leader of the band, but will never be its creative inspiration. He holds everything together for his brother and is Aaron to his Moses.
David and I, in writing this story, alternately get to play the role of the two brothers. For a time we each get to be the creative source and alternately we are also the one who provides support for the other. So, yes, 90% of the effort and 50% of the profit seem about right. But the entire process is 100% rewarding.