I think I knew from the start, instinctively, that I did not have the right temperament to work in Hollywood. This was a frustration, as I loved movies. But I feared the overtly collaborative nature of the process would not be compatible with my desire to hold tight to the reins of my storytelling.
Novels allow for one person to control not just the narrative but its execution.
When I finally was recruited to write a film, in 1993 – right when I was desperate for work in the wake of my dismissal from the Dick Tracy comic strip – I learned my instincts had been right. I may discuss in more detail at a later date my experiences writing The Expert, which became an HBO World Premiere film in 1995. Let’s just say I bridled when I handed the director the 29th draft and he immediately told me what he wanted in the 30th.
But that experience was positive enough to encourage me to go back home and try to make films myself with the hungry home video eye in mind. That, too, I will describe in more detail one day (probably), but directing several of my own modest films – particularly the two Mommy movies, the first of which became a Lifetime movie, the sequel a chain-wide purchase by Blockbuster – taught me the value and even joy of collaboration.
Of course, by definition, filmmaking is collaborative. I believe in the auteur theory – that the director is the author of the film, at least if that director supervises every phase from pre-production through editing. But unquestionably the raw material is the work of many hands.
I became a director by necessity. I was initially producing, having raised the money in my small town, hoping only to see my screenplay faithfully followed; but a disagreement with the original director thrust me into his chair. The premise of Mommy is a reversal of The Bad Seed (the great William March novel from which the play and film were adapted): a young girl slowly realizes her perfect mommy is a sociopath.
The first scene I directed was a crucial one. Mommy has just shot her lover, who was in her daughter’s bedroom warning the child about her mother. She has settled on a living-room couch to prepare the traumatized child for the inevitable visit by the police. I had written the scene with Mommy coldly calculating in her manipulation of little Jessica Ann. But Patty McCormack – the original bad seed herself, playing Mommy – brought a touching, emotional aspect to the scene, highlighting genuine love between mother and daughter. The words were mine, but Patty found a richness in them, and a human undercurrent, I hadn’t imagined.
That taught me immediately just how collaborative the moviemaking process was, and how much the writer could benefit from the interpretation of a really good actor.
You hear all the time about the cast and crew on a film becoming a family, which is a reflection of just how deeply collaborative the process is. After decades of working alone in my office, a demented hermit guarding his words (ask any copy editor who ever worked with me), I began to relish the interaction between talented people, from my easygoing director of photography Phil Dingeldein to my irascible assistant director Steve Henke.
From Henke (gone now), I learned that a good director is first to arrive on set and last to leave. I learned to know the names of everybody on the crew and chat with them throughout the day. I learned a big part of my job was putting out fires. And I learned when a production is over, the sense of loss is similar to the empty nest syndrome – the circus has left town and nothing remains but the faint fragrance of peanuts and popcorn crushed under foot.
We drew a lot of crew from the nearby Quad Cities, and I enlisted as a production assistant a student from my class at a summer writing program at Augustana in Rock Island. Matthew V. Clemens was a promising young writer who had quit his job driving truck to make a career out of freelance writing. He already had a relationship researching and doing some writing for techno-thriller author Karl Largent, who taught at that same summer program.
Matt’s wry sense of humor resonated with me and I asked him to join the crew. I’m not sure what his exact capacity was. He was on all four of my indie films and when asked what Matt did, I would say, “No one knows. But he’s great at it.” Seriously, he was a jack of all trades – including unit publicity manager – adored by everyone and capable of motivating the surliest among us.
Matt wrote several articles about our production that were placed in national magazines. When I was approached to write entries about Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane for an encyclopedia of popular fiction writers, I hired Matt to write a rough draft of the Fleming piece while I worked on Spillane. He did a great job.
Shortly after that I had an offer to write some stories for a couple of anthologies to accompany a noir tabletop game. I asked Matt to write a rough draft of one story while I wrote the other. We plotted it together, as I recall. That story, “A Pebble for Papa,” came out well.
When I had the opportunity to do some short stories and a series of novels for a new company, I again enlisted Matt, as the workload was otherwise unrealistic. The premise behind this new publisher seemed poorly conceived, but – frankly – they had deep pockets, so we played along. The premise? Action adventure and mystery novels with sex scenes – in the manner of the adult westerns so popular at the time – but always involving a man and wife.
Matt and I both felt most married people don’t fantasize exclusively about their mates – after all, one would hope that wouldn’t be necessary. But that element came into play and we wrote two short stories about secret agent John Sand and another about a Nick and Nora-style couple in Prohibition days.
We also plotted and began a novel about the Sand character, the conceit behind which was that he was the real-life spy James Bond had been based on. Additionally, he had married a rich woman not unlike the woman who marries Bond, and dies, in (SPOILER ALERT!) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Despite the fun, tongue-in-check concept, we played it fairly straight, both being Ian Fleming and Sean Connery fans. We were perhaps a third of the way into the book when our publisher went belly up.
The book went into a drawer and we promptly forgot about it. But our collaboration had taken hold and we did more short stories together. We enjoyed each other’s company, and made each other laugh, and would cook up our plots at restaurants having drinks and/or appetizers.
During this period I was doing a lot of movie tie-in work. I did a pair of original novels for NYPD Blue, but mostly was writing novelizations of films. When I lost the Dick Tracy gig, my agent had sent word out that I was available for that kind of thing. After all, my novelization of the Warren Beatty movie had done very well.
I was lucky and became, for a time, “hot” in a niche market nobody respected. My agent wanted me to use a pseudonym, but I refused. I felt it would keep me honest, using my real byline, and anyway, what was the downside of being the author of Saving Private Ryan and Air Force One?
When I was approached to write original novels for the new surprise hit TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, I almost passed. I had never seen the show (admittedly, it hadn’t been on long), and I was swamped with other work. I called Matt and asked him if he’d seen the show. He had. He and his wife were fans. So I took the gig, after Matt agreed to come onboard as a researcher and to develop story treatments with me. He set out to make friends with local cops and connected with the Bettendort Iowa equivalent of Gil Grissom.
Matt’s story treatment, from our plotting session, was so thorough and professional I brought him on as co-writer. He did not receive cover credit but was always lavishly and openly credited inside the books. Initially, it was tricky because the show did not have the standard “bible,” and the CSI team was under-characterized, the emphasis very intentionally on the forensics and cutting-edge tech, not the people. Matt and I – individually – watched the VHS tapes we’d been provided and took detailed notes of anything any character said that might indicate who they were, what they were interested in, or where they might live, or...anything. Anything at all.
We wound up with our own bible.
And of course the characters quickly got fleshed out on the screen, as the public warmed to the actors and, anyway, animated shots of bullets traveling through kidneys can only go so far in building viewer interest.
The first book, Double Dealer, was – like the show itself – a surprise hit. A very smart editor at Pocket Books looked at the traditional tie-in cover with the cast standing in a row and repackaged the first book, setting a format that would continue on through all subsequent entries – design-oriented covers with a forensics aspect that resembled real thrillers, not cheap tie-ins with a lunch-box look. The strategy worked.
The books got on the USA Today bestseller list and sold very well indeed. For the first five years of the show’s run, I was the sole tie-in writer for the series, working with Matt on the majority of the projects, which included novels, graphic novels, jigsaw puzzles, and video games.
When I was approached to write novels for the Dark Angel TV series, I again called Matt – I’d never seen the show, but he and his wife had. (The same thing happened, much later, with Criminal Minds.) On Dark Angel I followed a path I’d gone down with NYPD Blue – I watched the pilot episode and then wrote a novel leading into that. Essentially we did the origin of Dark Angel. When the TV series was unexpectedly cancelled, we resolved the season cliffhanger in one book and in the next brought the show’s overarching storyline to a conclusion.
So, essentially, Matt and I wrote the first and last episodes of Dark Angel.
We also did a Bones novel before the show was aired so the tie-in could be on sale concurrently – in that case, neither of us had seen the show, as it didn’t exist yet.
Having worked on CSI inspired us to try a forensics series of our own, sharing byline. We did two John Harrow (TV host of Crime Seen!) novels – You Can’t Stop Me and No One Will Hear You – for Kensington. Though the first book was successful, a misjudged smaller print run for the second got the series prematurely scuttled.
Next up came the Reeder and Rogers trilogy of political thrillers, which were bestsellers for Thomas & Mercer. Matt co-wrote Supreme Justice (with the usual elaborate thanks within) but on Fate of the Union and Executive Order he again shared byline.
Matt and I often worked these plots out sitting in a restaurant booth discussing various grotesque murder methods and cackling over one outrageously tasteless plot twist after another...with patrons viewing us with wide eyes in pale faces.
Coming full circle, recently we were looking for something to do for Wolfpack, who specialize in action suspense. Matt happened to run across the unfinished John Sand novel and we finally, all these years later, finished it (Come Spy With Me) and wrote two more (Live Fast, Spy Hard and To Live and Spy in Berlin), enjoying ourselves immeasurably. Wolfpack also published Murderlized, a collection of our collaborative short fiction.
Our collaboration has lasted probably twenty-five years and the number of books tallies up to 30-plus and as many short stories. We’ve had very few bumps in the road. Why?
Every collaboration is as different as one author is from another. Matt and I work in much the same way my wife Barb and I work – plot together with my co-writer taking the first pass and me the next. In both cases my co-writer gives me a shortish version of the book, leaving me room to expand scenes, particularly dialogue. The glue is that we like each other and respect each other’s contribution.
Working with Barb as successfully as I have is unusual, particularly with a married team. And many collaborations break down over the years. I have collaborated on a few projects with people I would not care to work with again (and they probably feel the same). The two gifted cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who together were Ellery Queen, apparently did not like each other at all. They, however, had a successful partnership to say the least, with one plotting the story and the other executing it.
I suppose some teams write the way they did in old Hollywood movies – one at the keyboard, the other pacing and smoking a cigar and verbally rat-tat-tatting. I have worked in a room with a collaborator before and didn’t like it much. For me well-defined roles are key in a collaboration. And someone has to have the final say. With Matt, I have the final say but I am not unreasonable about it. With Barb, she has the final say, but she is not unreasonable about it.
In Hollywood, writer’s rooms on TV series are the rule. Such set-ups issue forth some outstanding material – Breaking Bad, for example. But sometimes the scripts are camels – horses designed by a committee.
Why collaborate? The reasons are sometimes practical, other times artistic. Barb and I enjoy working together and, initially, she needed my professional input. Matt came on board because (a) I was overworked, and (b) he was familiar with the TV shows I’d been asked to write about.
As it turned out – and this may surprise you – I have learned I don’t save much if any time writing with a collaborator. At best I’m saved research time, though most of my research-heavy projects I’ve done alone (Matt helped on USS Powderkeg). Usually, it takes as much or even more time, working with another writer. So why the hell do it?
Synergy – two plus two equals five, or better yet, sixteen. Together you are able to produce a book neither writer could have produced alone. A third voice is created. That’s why Ellery Queen hating himself worked out so well.