Eric Del Carlo Guest Post–“When Is the Right Time to Collaborate?”

There certainly are periods more auspicious for collaboration than others. Perhaps a fledgling writer with a few sales under her/his belt gets the opportunity to collude with an older established author, with a contract already on the table. Or perhaps one writer conspires with another writer of equal worth to tackle an elaborate novel, one requiring, say, a scientific proficiency one of the two can’t fake and the other can supply readily.

Those are occasions of natural authorial magnetism. Two halves come together. The collaboration may or may not be successful, but the scenario is sound.

But soundness does not always figure into the strange, wonderful, unnerving alchemy of collaborative fiction writing.

Let me take you through my own unique experience.

In the early Aughts of this century my father Vic, then in his seventies, got hit with a stroke. Major but not catastrophic. Call it 6.5 on the neurological Richter: structural damage, but we can rebuild. I was living in pre-Katrina New Orleans at this time; hadn’t been back to hometown San Francisco in years; I went out there to see Vic.

Now, to dial it back further, my father and I had throughout my youth shared a love of all things genre–science fiction, horror, thrillers, etc. Actually, I was picking up the baton of his devotion, which he had carried all through the rise of sf, from the pulp era on. I knew he had always wanted to be a professional writer, and though it had come to nothing for him, I took up that predilection as well.

So I visited my father in San Francisco and was stunned to see how quick his recovery from the stroke had been. We caught up, talked movies, rewired those bits of our relationship frayed by absence and time. I returned to New Orleans.

Oh, something else: I myself had expressed an interest in writing from about age seven on, and Vic had encouraged me. We had traded ideas, talked through plots. Essentially, we were two amateurs workshopping stories off each other as best we could. In my case, by my thirties I’d racked up a decent amount of sales and had even coauthored two fantasy novels with the late Robert Asprin, who I knew from an adjacent barstool in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

When I was back in the Big Easy, a thought occurred to me. An idea. An intrigue. Wouldn’t it be cool to collaborate on a book-length project with my father, who, to date, had only a single short story sale to his name?

Well… sure. The man’s just had a stroke. He’s in his dotage. He’s an under-published writer who never had the chance I’d had to develop the craft we both loved so much.

Thing was, though, I’d always liked Vic’s work. He had shared his short story efforts with me. And however fragmentary and unpolished some of them were, his concepts were exciting. He had a good ear for dialogue, a keen sense of characterization. For decades he’d been on the cusp of breaking through into true professionalism. Personalized rejection letters from editors confirmed this.

But now he was in the third act of his life, still recovering from a traumatic physiological event. So the time was ripe for a literary undertaking of this magnitude. Right?

In hindsight I am reminded of that bit from the film Dog Day Afternoon. After the bank robbery goes hopelessly awry, the head teller fixes Al Pacino with a withering gaze and says, “He don’t have a plan. It’s all a whim. ‘Rob a bank!'”

That was about how I proposed it to Vic. I called him up and said, “Let’s write a book!”

Well, I did have one good idea. Actually, it was his idea. In the Eighties, when I was still in high school, my father had written a short story entitled “The Golden Gate Is Empty Again.” It was a moody little piece wherein the Golden Gate Bridge had magically and inexplicably disappeared one day, with hundreds of people on the span. The tale was told from the viewpoint of a man whose father was on the bridge during this terrible event. After a few minor plot machinations it emerged that this character’s father was himself responsible for this act of magical terrorism. Further, the bridge reappeared at the end of the story according to the nature of the time-sensitive spell that had been cast. Seven years had elapsed since the bridge’s initial vanishing; it returned to our world for seven seconds, then winked out again–not long enough for the protagonist’s father to drive clear of the span.

That story had emotional impact. It wasn’t perfectly assembled. Vic got good responses from editors at the magazines he sent it to, but none bought the piece.

Twenty years on, the original manuscript was gone. No yellowing sheaf of papers remained, no file on a computer disk. But I remembered it. Vivid details had stuck with me. I thought it would make a very serviceable framework upon which to build a novel.

The phone call I placed went something like this:

“Dad, you remember that story of yours about the Golden Gate Bridge disappearing?”

“Yes.”

“I think we should collaborate on a book based on it. You write the father’s backstory up to his disappearance on the bridge, and I’ll write the son’s viewpoint as he returns to San Francisco years later seeking answers to his father’s mysterious, possibly magical past. What do you say?”

It didn’t take much or any convincing. My proposal was an out of the blue, back-brain impulse. Vic’s acquiescence was just as instinctive. Though I’d had some professional success in the field, I had no plan what to do with the novel once/if it was done. Nobody was clamoring for a book with Eric Del Carlo’s name on the cover. I didn’t know if urban fantasy–the category this book would belong in–was “hot” or not. Honestly, I didn’t care. This was a throwback to the old days when my father and I would talk into the night about plot structure and the necessity of sympathetic characters in fiction. It harkened back to avid analytical discussions, conducted in McDonald’s booths, over the merits of C.H.U.D. or Class of 1984 or whatever just-released low-budget movie we’d seen that evening.

Those were treasured memories. Now, here, was an opportunity to revisit that period, one which had permanently infused me with an enthusiasm for creative writing.

But could we do it? Could we really write a book together? The only outline we had was the memory of an unpublished short story lost to the dust of time. We knew how the novel would end. That gut-punch finale from the short story was perfect. We need only flesh out the particulars, lace in some subplots. We would be working on semi-independent storylines, in different time frames.

Perhaps we wouldn’t trip each other up as we proceeded.

Like a chess game, somebody had to make the opening move. The first chapter fell to Vic. He wrote it up and emailed it to me. I read it. It was a dynamic opening, a birth scene, introducing the character I would be writing in my own alternating chapters. Vic’s work established his own viewpoint character. The prose was solid, the tension palpable. And he even dropped in a hint of magic.

Here was the person who would eventually–somehow–be led inextricably to causing the supernatural disappearance of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Okay, then. My turn. Vic’s chapter ran about ten manuscript pages. That’s not long for a chapter, but it’s enough to communicate a chunk of material. I started out my half of the story with my character, now a grownup, arriving in a near-future San Francisco and visiting the solemn site of the Memorial, where the yawningly empty Golden Gate lay, that watery entry into San Francisco Bay. My much-conflicted character acknowledged that his father had been on the bridge when it vanished.

So those were the opening moves, a couple of very respectable pawns-to-king-4s. Now would come the real test. Could we keep it moving? Could we sustain thematic coherency? Our individual storylines had to advance at similar paces, even though Vic’s chapters would cover years and mine only days. I waited with some trepidation for my father’s next installment. Would it be weeks?

Had that first chapter just been a fluke, a momentary burst of writerly zeal?

Nope. He came back with another polished chapter within days. Which meant I had to respond in kind. We were off and running.
Now this isn’t supposed to be a synopsis of the book. We moved our separate timelines forward in a convincing manner. When he introduced a character in the past, I could follow up on that person in the present. As events happened to the younger incarnation of my character, I incorporated the consequences into the adult version. Conversely, when I dropped something into my time frame that was useful, my father would do some reverse engineering and provide foreshadowing.

It became a duet. The subplots we’d each created flourished. We could still work independently, but a greater grander interdependence had arisen. We both worked on the wholeness of the story, playing off and absorbing one another’s style and ambience. Our voices remained distinctive, but there was symmetry here and an increasingly sublime cohesion.

Also, weird stuff happened.

Vic dropped in a reference to the nascent sf novel Earth Abides in one of his chapters. I just happened to be reading that very book at that very time. He introduced a character we both ended up using prominently in our respective halves. Reading his description, I remember thinking that this woman’s eyes would probably look like Michelle Pfeiffer’s. A paragraph later he made that explicit comparison. Then there was the lemon scones thing…

Well, suffice to say something that seemed genuinely magical was happening with our book about magic, and about a father and son.

Over the course of a few swift months we finished the novel. Eventually it found a home via Charles Zaglanis with White Cat Publications, which has released it in ebook and paperback. Initial feedback has been very good. Whatever else, it will serve as a document of what will surely be the most joyful professional collaboration I’ll ever experience.

But was it smart for Vic and I to write a book together? On paper, hell no. It was the endeavor of madmen. You can’t hope to collude on an intricate, character driven novel without an anatomizing outline. A person doesn’t wait until he’s in his post-stroke seventies to make his push at being a novelist. No one does that. I was foolish to suggest it.

Yet we did it. The time was all wrong, but the magic was just right.

 

About the Author

Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Perihelion, and is upcoming at Analog. His novels include the Wartorn books (Ace Books), co-written with Robert Asprin, and The Golden Gate Is Empty (White Cat Publications),¬†which he wrote with his father Victor Del Carlo. Find him on Facebook for questions or comments.

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