Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I did mention the giant angry testicle, right?

To quote Jeff VanderMeer:

There’s nothing like a little challenge to roil the blood and take over your life for a couple of months—all while not being able to say much of anything about it publicly, but, finally, I can announce that: Tessa Kum and [Jeff VanderMeer] have sold a monstrous, kick-ass, action-packed, insanely entertaining 35,000-word novella entitled “The Mona Lisa” to Tor editor Eric Raab for the anthology Halo: Evolutions–Essential Tales of the Halo Universe. Other contributors include Tobias Buckell, Brian Evenson, Karen Traviss, and Eric Nylund. Halo: Evolutions should be available in bookstores by November-December.

This post, this post, this, this and this, all refer to the time period in which I was working on that story.

'Monsterous' is indeed the word.

It kicked off when Jeff mentioned on a Facebook status something about writing a Halo story, to which I immediately reacted by demanding reading rights, because I heart Halo. One of the best games out there. The MC is the man, and Cortana is the sldkjflksjdfing bomb.

Shortly after having planted this familiarity in Jeff's head, Jeff realised that (1) I didn’t have enough time to do it myself and (2) although I had some familiarity with Halo, it wasn’t nearly enough to get up to speed in the condensed time period in which the story had to be written–especially considering an idea had to be pitched first, and approved by Microsoft..." I woke up one morning to find an invitation to collaborate in my inbox, which had a not too subtle subtext of Tessa: Get Out Of Gaol Free! Card.

To which my immediate reaction was, "Oh, no, not at all, that would be silly. I couldn't. I mean, a three week deadline from conception to final draft, that's just, that's, I mean, there doesn't exist a word in any language to express how ridiculous that is. And I've never collaborated before. Whoosh, that's a steep learning curve in a short time frame. That would take a lot of time. I can't afford that time. And, that's Jeff Fucking VanderMeer, I can't collaborate with him, I'm tiny grasshopper and he's a GINORMOUS grasshopper. It wouldn't work. And. It's only three weeks. I mean. Three weeks. That would just be silly."


So it begins.

This was followed by a mad scramble to come up with a story premise that would not involve too much in-depth research, given the time constraint, which turned out to be near impossible, as what exists in the Halo universe is exceptionally well mapped out. I have to give mad, mad, MAD props to all the peeps maintaining the Halo Wiki - that is some badass detailing you have going on over there. We were never given the official bible (something of a sore point, please, let me restrain myself from that rabid rant), and quite frankly, could not have got off the ground without the wiki.

Three pitches were submitted, one was accepted, and we were off. Jeff has posted an excellent account of the collaboration process here, which I'd encourage you to read if you're curious about collaborations at all.

This was my first collaboration. Prior to it, I had never given collaboration much consideration, other than to scrunch my nose up at it slightly. I don't play well with others in general terms, let alone when it comes to MY PRECIOUS ART OH GOOD LORDY LORD. Still, I wasn't to concerned about working with Jeff. I've ripped to shreds critiqued several of his novels and had him read some of my shorter pieces, so we already have a history of getting into each others' narrative mechanics, and dude, seriously now, it's Jeff Fucking VanderMeer, one of the best writers out there.

What did concern me was, quite frankly, me.


The first draft was entirely mine. I worked off the pitch we'd submitted to Microsoft, had the end scene clear in my head, and joined the dots in between. And it was gross. We'd established the protagonist in the pitch, but I could not get her to talk to me. The word count rose and the body count rose and I didn't have any sort of feel for her. She was nothing more than a plot device with a name. To get around it, to have someone who was an actual character drive the plot a bit, I created a second POV character. I didn't know her either, but at least her personality fell into place, and with that, the people she interacted with did as well.

This wasn't helped by the fact that I have to write my way through the story to figure out what happens where. It works for me, but is not time efficient, and that first draft was a rancid pile of lion diarrhea. It did not make logical sense or narrative sense, the pacing was shit, and the beats on tension were craptastic. And it's ugly. Rough as guts. It's a frame work in the progress of creation, and is not pretty to read.

But, I wrote a 15k first draft in a week, which is pretty damn impressive even if I say so myself. It involved staying back in the office after work to do so, to remain free of distractions and give me the extra motivation (if you focus, you'll get your quota sooner and can GO HOME), and I buggered my hands, but I did it. I wrote the final scene in the state library in one of my writing dates, and started dancing and clapping, much to the amusement of my comrades.

Which was great, until I realised that the next step was to send this utter piece of shyte first draft to Jeff Fucking VanderMeer, and Jeff Fucking VanderMeer wasn't just going to crit it, he was going to have to actually work on it directly. What if he thought it it sucked beyond salvation? That would be awkward, to say the least.

If I had balls, about then they would have shriveled up and dropped off.

No one sees my first drafts. They're first drafts! They're supposed to be shit, and that's okay because they're generally easy to fix and make unshit on my own, before anyone else sees anything at all. But this! THIS!

This is what collaboration is. Getting caught with your pants down and having to just. keep. going.

I sent the fucking thing.

Then I had a very big drink.

Which was followed by another very big drink.

Thankfully, Jeff found lots to work with, and I was not forced to ritually disembowel myself. In his post, he spoke of trepidation and nervousness on waiting to see what I'd produce, and the same was true for me.

What I found when I opened his draft, was FUCKING OARSUM.

It was still a shoddy piecemeal patchwork draft, but holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit! I cannot state enough just how gobsmacked I was by what I read. All the horror and mild writerly shame and horror and angst and horror that had been churning away in the hintermind was stomped all over by the FUCKING OARSUM Jeff had come up with. He utterly nailed our original protagonist, and holy shit, he made it worth reading. I remember getting ridiculously excited to the point of incoherence. The damn thing just popped. I wanted to read it, even if it was still sorta my story and I knew the ending and it wasn't finished. I mean, there was this one bit in there that creeped me out. I got goosebumps reading it, that's how brilliant it was (sadly, this section had to be cut).

This more than refuelled my enthusiasm. With the deadline gallumphing ever closer and the sequence of events suddenly clicking into place for me, I went at the next draft in a suicide drive. I spent a whole Sunday bashing my face on it till the early hours of the morning. Then I went to work. After 8 hours at work, I turned off my work computer, turned on my laptop, and spent another 5 or 6 hours bashing my face on it. Then I went home, and decided that it had to be done, now, NOW, and bashed my face on it till it was finished. I sent a 35k draft to Jeff at 3 o'clock in the morning, my time.

Which...look, I got the job done, but I really don't recommend doing it that way.

That was (I think) the last major structural draft. I could be wrong. We passed this thing back and forth so many times I don't know who wrote what when. There was some tinkering at the back end for a while, to make sure the climax was hitting the right beats, but I think the structure in this draft stayed through to the final (Jeff will correct me if I'm wrong).

This was followed by lower level tinkering until it was finally sent off to Tor. When I got up on a Saturday morning to find myself CC'ed on that submission email I burst into tears. That's just how much pressure I'd been putting myself under. Then I bought an ice cream (or two).

I learned a shitload about collaboration. Mostly, I think I learned that I was damn lucky to be working with who I was working with. Our strengths/weaknesses tended to cancel each other out: I could do bare-bones structure on the fly, but it was boring plain prose. Jeff tripped over sequencing, but damn he made it so good to read holy shit holy shit holy shit. It was a great weight off, knowing I could rely on him to make it OARSUM.

I think I was also quite fortunate to have my first go involve a franchise universe. It meant I couldn't get precious about anything, being as none of the darlings were mine. I've a tendency towards territorialism, which did perk its ears towards the end of things, when we got into turf wars over pronouns and personal preferences in sentence structure. The universe and the insane deadline didn't lend itself towards such vanities. There just wasn't time to get stubborn. Nothing was sacred. Nothing I had contributed was sacred, nothing Jeff Fucking VanderMeer had written was sacred, if it had no place in the story, it went. I'm not sure I've ever been so honest or brutal while writing.

(Well. Except regarding Henry. That was a hill I was prepared to die on.)

(Fortunately, I didn't have to die on that hill. I didn't even get to make a valiant stand. Had a list of dot points arguing my side ready to go, but Henry is just too awesome to be questioned.)

I can't emphasise the value of communication either. We must have written at least another...you know, I'm not even going to aim for a ball park figure, but a LOT of messages went back and forth. You should see the email folder I have dedicated just to this story. While I was working on a draft I'd shoot off notes to Jeff telling him of things I'd changed or cut and why, to what purpose, and he did the same for me. It gave each of us in waiting time to gestate what was coming, and be thus more prepared on what needed addressing. There was so much going back and forth it was probably a whole other novel just in story notes, but it meant there was very little room for confusion. We both knew what the story was doing at any one time, and there were no nasty "oh wait, hang on, I thought-" moments to recover from.

(We used Facebook for this purpose, so I could had access to all notes both at work and at home. Access; also important.)

Time zones worked in our favour as well, the story was never idle. Jeff would work on it, send it to me and hit the sack, which would land during my day, and after work I'd work on it until I sent it to him and hit the sack, which would land in his morning...at the same time, as Jeff pointed out, it meant neither of us had much in the way of down time. In fact, I think I had the advantage, having a day job. I had enforced Time Apart.

What worked best for us, however, was simply the fact that we shared the same work ethics and priorities. The only agenda we had was to get the story written and submitted in time, above all else. ("All else" included hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, back, eyes, sleep, appetite, stomach, family, friends, dishes, washing, grocery shopping, etc etc etc.) I trusted Jeff with the story, which sound pretentious, but isn't. It's a significant thing to find you're thinking of it as 'our story' unconsciously.

After submission came the editing process, which the deadline also made lunatic. Mostly, it involved me, the newbie, ranting and raving about WHY ARE THEY DOING THAT THAT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE and Jeff ignoring me and waiting for me to shut up and do what needed doing. I admit that each time the story came back for Yet. Another. Editing. Pass. My the pressure in my skull upped a notch. Submitted, yes. Editing, yes. But accepted? Yes, yes, I know. It is writing. We do it because we love it. IT IS ART OH OH OH. But I had done some terrible things to my health both physically and mentally, and the thought that after all that they could still turn around and knock it back kinda made my eye twitch. Jeff took all this with good grace, and bore all my capital letters and exclamation marks with stoic forbearance. In this aspect, he channeled Obi-Wan (or Palpatine, now I think of it), saying, "Patience, my young apprentice." I can't help thinking the whole 'patience' lesson went over my head. In this sense, our overlapping strengths and weaknesses extended beyond the narrative and into the meta-admin, and I seriously am lucky to have worked with him. In either an Obi-Wan or Palpatine way. Does that make me Anakin? Fuck, I don't want to be Anakin. Insert a better metaphor there, please. Jeff, dude, you're the one good at making things OARSUM, work with me here.

(There was one particularly bad day that involved a late train, getting locked out of work thus unable to print, having my tram take a ridiculous detour, having to wrangle the complicated state library printing system, sign up for a printing card, only having a $50 note to feed the coin machine, trying to find a way to carry $50 worth of $1 coins, wait in line, finally print, only to have the printer BREAK IN THE MIDDLE OF PRINTING, being told it couldn't be fixed, getting a refund, giving up, leaving the city and go out to my parents because that was the only other printer option available to me, counting the minutes on the train as minutes wasted that I could have been working on the story, getting there and having mum give me a hug, a cup of tea, and a piece of lemon meringue pie- which made everything better.)

The thing that caught us both out was the fact that we had written a 35,000 word "short" story. It's easy to forget just how long that is. More than once I sat down with a hard copy and red pen, only to look up hours later and realise I still wasn't done and this was taking far too long. Had to jettison working from hard copy in the end, just to save time.

It went back and forth between us so much neither of us can say with certainty who wrote what. Even during the final pass over the typesetting I was tripping across bits and pieces I swear I'd never read before. Disconcerting, but kept it fresh. Almost seems as if the story grew itself, and when it had achieved critical mass it didn't even need our direct input to write itself out.

(It also went back and forth so much that it was a mess of American and English spelling. This, for those of you also bridging regional spelling, is a Bad Thing. Keep it in mind, one of you change your language setting or something.)

(Some of it was deliberate. I infect the world with Australianisms.)

(Some of it was accidental. I don't know what's particular to Australia, I'm Australian, dammit.)

(No, seriously, 'stickybeak' can't be just Australian.)

(Same with 'torch'. You guys know what a torch is, right? That has to be just some bizarre mental gap in Jeff's head. It has to be. It's a torch for crying out loud!)

During this, I experienced a focus I have never felt before. I have never been so immersed in anything. It was all I thought about for weeks. I did nothing else. People gave up asking me what I'd been doing. I had nothing else to talk about. I wasn't distracted. I lived and breathed and processed nothing but that story, and it was just incredible. Exhausting, but incredible.

Yes, Gillian, Jeff, I saw that. Cheeky buggers.

It has been insane. I keep saying that, because it's the only word that is appropriate. Insane. And it's 5.15 am in the morning now, and I'm tired, and this isn't quite as coherent as I wanted it to be, but that's probably fitting.

I can't make a call on the quality of the story. I have no perspective on it. It was good enough for Microsoft, and that's about all I can offer you.

Regardless of quality, I'm damn fucking proud that we pulled off the feat alone.

Not long after final final final final FINAL everything was sent off, and we knew we were never going to see it again, Jeff dug up my very first email demanding to read his Halo story, and told me he could send it across if I was still interested.


Thank you Deb and Andrew for putting up with me during that time. Seriously.

Thanks Dave for giving us a little encouragement when we (well, I say we, I can only speak for me) needed it.

And above all else, thanks, Jeff. For, yanno, stuff.



  1. It's such a muddle in my mind that I can't really correct anything. All I remember is that we got to about 31k or 32k and then in the final edits got up to around 35k as we added nuance and worked on the descriptions in various action sequences.

    And thank you.

    Er, you might want to clarify that the giant angry testicle is a description from the story.

  2. Erm, that was JeffV. And my word verification this time was "stesse".

  3. I know what a torch is! ...but we definitely don't call it that here.

    I have no idea what "stickybeak" means, though.

  4. I'm going to mention this is in the carnival tomorrow, just because.

    When I need to check if something's OK in US Engish, I go to the Webster's. Most things are, surprisingly. Mostly true for Arkansas English or in New Hampshire, but if it works there, then it's not just Australian. That's the way I normally argue it, anyhow.

  5. I'm going to be buying so many books featuring you in the coming months! And then I'll have to lug them all along to Aussiecon so you can sign them. (They might even make me decide to leave one more of my KSR books at home!) Woe for my poor back. Woe! (But a small price to pay indeed, for autographs by the baddest motherfucking writer in the world!) :)

  6. ArthurMiller@OUSalesperson14/10/09 13:10

    Now if I can just muster up the courage to pick up a game tie-in book in public. It can't be as hard as the writing part sounds.

  7. Wow, that is completely epic. I am impressed, in that, "Holy crap, I would never do that," sort of way. But still, totally impressed.

  8. I sent you a congratulatory postcard, but from what I hear of the Ethiopian postal service, it probably won't turn up till you're back from the States. So in the mean time, let me just say: Bad. Ass.

  9. Major congrats and kudos!

  10. I really enjoyed reading VanderMeer's account and yours, as much as I enjoyed reading "The Mona Lisa" (hands-down my favorite story from the anthology.)

    I did have a question, though, that isn't really answered in either piece. You talk about the characters a lot... but I'm actually really interested in the Flood, or rather your representation of them. I've never really liked zombie movies and the like, so it's somewhat surprising that I've enjoyed the Flood in Halo and the various print adaptations. The Flood in "Mona Lisa", however, were perhaps the most "space zombie"-like we've seen them--especially given that methods of infection aside from a Flood infection form infestation were shown. Where did the ideas for this come from (I know among the diehard Halo fans whether or not the Flood can infect without the base forms is hotly contested before your story, and will continue to be.)

    Like I said, a great read, and I'm going to check out some of your other work when I have the chance! :)

  11. SleepyGlenn2/1/10 15:42

    Be proud! It's bloody fantastic!

  12. Actually, Flood infection methods was a point of contention for us too. I'm all for sticking to infection being solely the task of the infection forms myself, horrible little things. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this is something I can't go into detail on here.