Our Lives in Words
Writing, editing, critiquing, publishing, marketing
Two authors collaborated to create our mystery novel The Clown Forest Murders. The younger A.C. Brooks drafted the tale of how psychedelic, mysterious, garish mushrooms in an upstate New York forest affect several characters. The older R.R. Brooks saw the Stephen King-ish story as a potential mystery. And that is what it became, with the mayhem in the small town (actually a city) of Norwich, New York. The novel unfolds from the viewpoint of Dave, who witnessed his brother’s killing but remembers nothing. His struggle to recover the memories that reveal the killer and allow him to function as a college student is the path to solving the mystery.
The authors of two different generations agreed on the major plot line and how to get there, but disagreed on character speech and reactions. Since much of the confrontation of the main character Dave with his emerging memories occurs at Princeton in the 90s, some issued may be due to different memories of, and sensibilities to, mores twenty years back. I argued for memorable speech and reactions, even if those were unusual and hyperbole.
Consider the Princeton roommate Colin. He is portrayed as a quick-witted, sarcastic student destined to go to medical school. His humor meshes with Dave’s. In the scene where Jennifer barges into the quad searching for the missing Dave, the quirky side of Colin’s personality is on display. Colin is in his underwear napping on the couch on a Sunday morning when …
Jennifer stomped into the room and growled, “Where is he?”
Colin focused. “Who might ye be seeking, fair maiden? A dragon-slayer? A king to grant your wish? A priest to hear your confession of debauchery?”
My co-author rejected the Colin response, but I voted for it, arguing it was consistent with the character’s wry nature, his humor, and his relationship with Jennifer. I liked the order of the questions, starting with the distant and moving to the intimate. The relationship between these two characters is further revealed later in the exchange:
She turned to the couch-burrowing Colin. “Speak. He’s made his getaway, so you can breach privilege. Where did he go?”
Colin murmured something. Jennifer picked a magazine from the coffee table, rolled it up, and swatted his shoulder as one would a misbehaving dog. Or pig.
Colin sat up. “That’s assault. There’s a University code against that.”
She rapped the magazine against her hand. “And that’s not an answer.”
“You are quite alluring when filled with righteousness,” Colin said.
Jennifer lifted the weapon. “Where?”
Jennifer’s swatting Colin is admittedly unlikely and hyperbole, but it reveals both personalities in a striking fashion. It stayed in the novel.
Later, Colin gives a medical opinion to his roommate Todd and says:
“He has a bloody whack on the back of his head, but his pulse is strong.”
“A bloody whack?” Todd said. “Is that the best medical term you can come up with?”
“I’m keeping it in simple layman terms. He’s been whacked and it’s bleeding. Thus, a bloody whack.”
Silly, but striking. So, being a co-author means having to resolve differences in vision about how a character acts and what he or she might say. The final judge of who is right rests with the reader.
Another point of disagreement between younger and older authors was the relationship between Jennifer and the hero Dave. Seen mostly from Dave’s point of view, what he has going with Jennifer is left undefined on the spectrum ranging from friends to lovers.
When Dave first meets Jennifer, he thinks she could be his “first college friend.” They share memories of growing up in Upstate New York, and Dave relates all his clue-revealing dreams to her and confesses his mental issues to her. So they continue to see each other and “hang out” during freshman year. At the end of the year, when Dave has academic problems, Jennifer concludes they are due to drinking, and she distances herself. Dave does not give up and tries to contact Jennifer unsuccessfully over the summer. Clearly they are at odds.
Early sophomore year, the pair keep their distance, and Dave wishes “Jennifer weren’t playing whatever game she had going with him.” When Dave finally seeks medical help, Jennifer invites him to have dinner with her.
After Colin overhears Dave hiding his trip to the murder site from Jennifer, Colin says, "So you can’t even tell your girlfriend.” Dave answers, “I’m not sure she’d my girlfriend.”
So what is the relationship, you ask. We mostly get Dave’s view of things, and his view of their status is uncertain and threatened by his shortcomings. He seems to want more. Only at the end of the book do we get an assessment from Jennifer.
Compromise is the key to dual authorship. Except where you cannot.