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Writing Together

gm-tuttle

 

 

 

 

 

by Lisa Tuttle

Writing has been described as a lonely business. Most writers actually like it that way, thank you very much, but still there is that restless urge to share which leads to collaborations, shared worlds, theme anthologies, and round-robin stories. If fantasy and science fiction writers are more prone to this than writers in other fields, maybe that’s because we’ve long had the habit of meeting up for conventions, conferences and writers’ workshops. I think of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Clare Claremont and Dr Polidori gathered together in an Italian villa in the summer of 1816, challenging each other to write horror stories. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the most memorable result; yet I can’t help wondering what a Byron-Shelley collaboration might have been. Then I remember a roach-infested apartment in Austin in the summer of 1973, where Bill Wallace, Joe Pumilia and I wrote a horror story together. We thought it was brilliant, but didn’t manage to find an editor to share our view.

Then, in my early twenties, a lot of my friends were writers, either hopeful of getting published or already “neo-pros” (as I was), with a story or two in print. Howard Waldrop and Buddy Saunders (who collaboratively wrote a whole novel, 1999: The Texas-Israeli War) hosted the first “Texas City Writers’ Workshop and Neo-Pro Rodeo” in 1973, and even more collaborations emerged from that. Put two or more writers in a room with a typewriter, and one of them would start a story and challenge another to finish it. Or, story ideas would emerge in conversation, and, rather than argue over whose claim was superior, we’d agree to share. I wrote (and we subsequently sold) several stories with Steven Utley; Steven wrote stories with Howard; Joe Pumilia collaborated with Al Jackson… and away on the other side of the country, at a convention in Philadelphia, it appears that Dean Koontz and I attempted to write a story together, now lost in the mists of time.

I also became friends with George R.R. Martin in 1973. Given the general atmosphere, it’s not surprising that within a few weeks of our first meeting, George was proposing that he and I should write a story together. The lure for me was the prospect of writing a different kind of story and breaking into a new market — I had the magazine Analog in mind, since George had proved he could sell there, and I’d never written anything remotely like “an Analog story.”

Since George was living in Chicago, and I was in Syracuse, N.Y. , then Houston, then Los Angeles, we kept in touch by letter, and it’s possible to trace the history of the early days of our collaboration through those letters. This might be interesting for readers who want to look behind the scenes at how Windhaven came to be.

George offered a couple of “idea germs” from his files — no characters, no plot, no scenes, just the beginnings of something he thought might be worked up into an SF story. He sent me two; this was the one I liked best:

An ocean planet; the only land is small, scattered, rocky islands, a few big enough to farm on. A ship crashes. It’s a Cordwainer Smith-Arthur Clarke kind of sail ship, with immense metal wings, never meant to land. There are survivors, but they become primitive in a few generations, as there is no metal for a technology. However, the immensely strong, immensely light cloth-metal of the sailship sail has survived. Since the ocean is wracked by storms, volcanic activity, and is very dangerous to sail (dinosaurs?!), the early survivors, who still had some tools, cut up the metal cloth into glider-type one-man wings. They fly on strong storm-wind currents, from island to island. The wings are handed down. Familiy heirlooms. The flyers, naturally, are glamorous figures. It’s dangerous, they’re the only ones who travel, etc; much more exciting than the drudgery of growing food, etc. Conflict. Maybe twins in one family. A primogeniture tradition, but now, who gets the wings? “On the Wings of Storm” sounds like a nice title.

I responded:

Oh, I’ve got it. How’s this. For the “On Wings of Storm” story (and incidentally I don’t like that title, it sounds like a comic book or a soap opera or (heaven forbid) a gothic, so let’s try to get another, okay?) The tradition would likely be (you mentioned primogenture) the wings going to the eldest son (unless he were absolutely unfit to fly). So, a family in which the male children have been still-born, died in infancy, or not born at all, so there is only the one girl-child and her parents are getting old — not likely to have a son, so they must train her to carry on. She’s maybe 11. She gets to fly, fantastic. Her mother gives birth again, a son who lives, and she dies giving birth. So the girl has to kind of take over being a mother, but goes on learning to fly because they don’t expect the boy to live. But he does, and grows up healthy, and the day is going to have to come when he learns to fly. In fact, as the father is probably a doddering old wreck by this time (the tough life on this planet ages them all quickly) the girl does much of the teaching, just as she does more flying now than the father and has begun to look upon the wings as hers. But they are the father’s — he is going to give them to his son when the boy is old enough and skilled enough and the girl has to watch her whole life coming to an end — she simply doesn’t want to give up the air to raise babies and cabbages with a farmer husband. She may reach a point where she thinks of killing the boy, but he is almost as much her son as brother and she loves him, while hating what he is forcing her to become. I don’t know how it will end, but it don’t look too bright from this end, George.

I’m not sure about the women not flying …in most matters in this society the men and the women are equal — they’re all for the most part subsistance farmers…they grow what they can, and they gather bird eggs, hunt birds, gather mussels, crabs, do some fishing, I don’t know what all… I doubt there are any animals on land, just air and sea creatures. In matters of inheritance, the women rank with younger sons. There is no reason why women can’t fly, it’s simply inheritance laws, and the mystique of flying keep flyers as an in-group, initiating only their heirs into the privilege. The girl has belonged to this world and so is going to have to give up her closest friends as well as her wings to her brother.

This is all pretty much off the top of my head…How many flyers to an island? For that matter, how many people?

Let me know what you think…

George’s response to this was enthusiastic, and my ideas sparked more in him:

We should work out some cultural reason why the wings can’t be shared — otherwise the reader will just mutter something like “why don’t they take turns?”

More planet culture. Look, instead of the flyers being the only communication between islands, let’s say they have boats, too. Fishing boats at least, maybe ferries; all wind or oar powered, though, since there is no technology. The flyers are still the glamour-boys, though, as they’re much faster. And the seas are full of dangerous animals. Also frequent violent storms, which a skilled flyer can use to his advantage, while the ships are wiped out. The flyers maybe have built a lodgehouse or something on a rocky island that can only be reached by air (high plateaus like Devil’s Island so no ships could moor); a transfer-point for goods and messages, a resting place. We can use it as a symbol of the flyer-society our heroine will be denied, since she’ll be totally cut off from it without wings.

Endings. I can think of a bunch. None of them completely satisfy me. One, she could give up the wings, try to reconcile herself to it. The moral would be “sometimes you have to give up dreams.” Pfagh. I just wrote that in “Fast-Friend,” and I’m not sure I believe it. Too damned grown-up and realistic. Alternatively, she could fly away. Just take the wings and go, run to some other island where a flyer would be appreciated, where here origins aren’t known, where she won’t have to face her brother and father. That’s better, but I still don’t like it much. Three, a variant: she just flies off over the sea to die. Death is better than life without wings. Four, wings get damaged and broken so nobody can have them (cheat! Cheat!). Five, it turns out the son didn’t want to be a flyer. He has some other dream, and is just being pushed into flying by his father’s expectations. Six, she kills the kid. Seven, she finds some way to build another pair. Eight, she kills a second flyer to get an extra pair. Nine, she becomes a nun and flies with the aid of a giant hat.

I think I like numbers 2,3 and 5 the best. But I’m very receptive for improvements. Suggest away.

Titles. Hmmm. Maybe “Stormwings”? Or “My Brother’s Wings”? Or “God is My Flock-Mate”? Or “The Winds Are Not For Me”? “Stormfever”? “Flying Fever”? Something like that. How about “The Secret Storm” or “Death-Duel in a Stormy Sky”? (That’ll teach you to call my title soap-operaish or comic-bookish, even if it was…)

I replied:

I’ll start on “Stormwings” (or whatever) maybe tomorrow… I am really interested in it, as I am in nothing else that I have in mind to write. As for the ending, I think I like Number 5: the boy doesn’t want to be a flyer at all, he wants to be (perhaps) a writer or storyteller or the equivalent (a singer? By the way, do they have books? Printed or only hand-written? ) And is actually terrified of flying (which the girl has never considered — to her, it is inconceivable that anyone could fear this, the greatest thing in the world) but has been learning because it is expected of him and nobody ever asks the son of a flyer if that is what he wants to be, too. When he admits his feelings to the girl they work something out — perhaps they go away together to another island where she can be a flyer and he can do his thing and there will be no shame attached to either of them…have to work this out…

I’ll start writing on it and see what I can get done, then send it to you for suggestions, additions, improvements and we’ll carry on like that. Okay?

I like “Wings” for a title, but unfortunately Vonda [McIntyre] already used it. Well, we’ll see what developes. Search poetry for ideas.

Five days later I had written ten pages and sent them to George with this:

Your turn now. Take it from here, and of course feel free to make any changes you like in the existing part (and if I don’t like them I will only rip out your guts with my teeth).

I’m feeling very good. I haven’t felt so happy writing a story for some time — also, it all came very easily (up to the point where I stopped, which is as I was about to introduce Coll).

You will notice that I changed my mind about having the law of inheritance be to the eldest son. That’s so Old Earth, and I kept thinking of Vonda grinding her teeth, so I decided better it should have nothing to do with sex-discrimination.

Feel free to change any names of persons places things.. I especially have trouble with what to name local animals…a sea monster is a sea monster, but what would the locals call it that would be obvious without requiring an explanation to the simple reader? “You bellow like a sea-bull” says someone — which isn’t exactly what I wanted, but alternatives like “a pacu” or “a glbzzk” sounded ludicrous. I don’t really like the name Flan and I don’t know why I used it. (It is a Spanish dessert, is what it is — the same thing that you had for dessert at that Greek place, only of course the Greeks don’t call it flan) If you have a better name you can insert it. Also, I realized after writing him in that the character Tor has no purpose and doesn’t even say anything — I put him in as company for Gina, I guess, but we really don’t need him.

Let me know what you think about this…please write some more…you can finish it if you like and then send it to me for additions and excisions. I think Coll is going to hand over the wings to Maris on his coming-of-age day, but I haven’t worked out all the ramifications of that — you are welcome to (she said kindly) — I will certainly let you know if I object to anything.

A few notes to explain the above: I liked and admired the writer Vonda McIntyre very much, and shared her feminist convictions; however I hadn’t yet learned to be as brave and straightforward about feminism as she was. As in this letter to George — instead of just coming out and saying I was fed up with stories that perpetuated the old-fashioned patriarchal systems I despised, I wrote as if my chief concern was Vonda’s reaction to a fictional sexist set-up. What I felt then, and still believe now, is that if science fiction writers couldn’t present a plausible, sexually-egalitarian society, what hope was there for changing the real world?

At this point we were both thinking of this as a short story — probably under 6,000 words — rather than the novella that “Storms of Windhaven” became; we certainly didn’t conceive of it as the beginning of a novel. Hence, my concern about having included an “unnecessary” character like Tor. “Extras” clutter short stories to no purpose; but they add richness to longer works. “Storms of Windhaven” is full of examples of bits of local colour and extra characters which, while they might at first have seemed disposable, became more important later on, even suggesting later story developments..

George’s reply to my opening soon arrived:

Oh, wow. Yes. You should be happy. I love it. This is going to be one hell of a story… I can see it now. I hope they make twin Hugos, so we won’t have to pass one back and forth. Really.

In other words, I’m enthusiastic. I just got your mss today, and just finished reading it, and I can hardly wait to go on. It was invigorating just reading the thing; one of the nice things about collaborations. The writing seems tremendously fresh and strong and vivid, minus my typical stylistic quirks that would’ve dotted it if I’d done that part. Ah, but this is going to be good.

But enough raves. Idea time, so I’ll talk about the story. Animal names I think I can handle; I’m pretty good at that. The best way to handle it, I think, is to avoid naming things gizzuks and smerps, and to run together real words and use them in context in such a way that they’re self-explanatory. Besides, human colonists would never name anything a gizzuk. Thusly I have stories that feature windwolves and tree-spooks and rock-cats and plains devils and such. One idea for your sea monster — how ’bout calling them scyllas? Or has that been done? Something like that anyway…

I mostly love the section you sent me; only a couple changes I’d like to make. For one thing, I’d like to expand the opening flight scene — have Maris in the air for say, two pages, instead of two graphs — with more description of sea and sky and such. I don’t think we’ll lose the reader; the concept is exciting enough to be a narrative hook. The names are mostly okay, but I really hate Flan, which reminds me of Spam somehow, which is not a proper association. Of course, naming characters after Greek foods is a long-established tradition. Silverberg has written about men named Metaxas (Up the Line) and Roditis (To Live Again) both of whom are really Greek wines….still. How about Lind? Dorrel? Or anything but Spam…

How are you at poetry? A scene has come to mind… A singing scene, of course. Two ballads are performed. One, an old traditional epic, tells of the fall of the sailship and the fashioning of the first wings, thus sneaking in a bunch of background while giving us a good feel for the legends and culture of the planet. Then after the Singer has finished, young Coll takes the guitar or whatever and does a song of his own composition…an ode to the joy of flying. Maris completely misinterprets the song, reading in it an echo of her own lust for the sky, missing the obvious love with which Coll sings. Yes,yes,yes…but how shall we write it? From a distance, only describing the songs? Or close up, giving the texts? I’m terrible at poetry, but if you’re good, maybe you could take a crack at it and write two songs.

Just make sure the ode to flying doesn’t begin with “Off she goes, into the wild blue yonder…”

I’m also going to try to do some more detail work on the wings, in terms of description of their construction, wingspan, etc. If I can figure it all out. We can give the planet low gravity, but the wings would still have to be pretty damn big. How big are hang-gliders, anyhow? I’ll have to look that up — I think I saw a photo in Time.

In any case, I will do something on it, a lot I hope, and bring it with me to L.A. If there’s an extra typewriter there we should be able to whip through the final draft while we’re together, I hope.

I replied:

I’m DELIGHTED you love the story as much as I do and will look forward to seeing whatever you may have done or will want to do when you reach L.A. Change Flan’s name to Dorrel, okay?

I can’t write poetry… I could try, I suppose, to write a song, but dunno if it would be any good.

I agree with you about extending the opening scene with Maris in the sky — I thought of that myself, but I rarely do extended descriptive writing so I decided to leave that up to you. (I figured you’d mention it.)

Together in L.A., we wrote and discussed more of the story, but didn’t manage to finish writing it, although we were agreed on how it should end, and had started to think we might want to write more stories set on the same world. We got excited by the idea that they might eventually make a “fix-up” novel. After George left, I wrote him a letter which included some details about glider-flying (I’d done some research), outlined an idea for “the second story in our series” which was to feature a wingless former flyer who builds himself a wooden glider (this story, which would have changed our fictional world rather dramatically, was never written) and inquired,

By the way, what’s the name of our planet? If you get any more information on it (from spirit voices from Jupiter, or wherever) be sure to let me know and I’ll do the same for you. As for a title, how about “To Give Up The Sky” or “The Taste of Flight”? So, okay, now it’s your turn to make suggestions.

When I’m done with it, I’ll send the story to Chicago.

Somewhere along the way — whether it was George or me or the spirit voices from Jupiter no letter records — our planet got named Windhaven. When I’d finished and George had made any additional changes he wanted, he took the story (still without a firmly agreed upon title) to a Turkey City down in Texas. According to his report, everbody there loved it, so I showed it to Ben Bova, editor of Analog, when I met him during his visit to L.A. Since he’d already bought stories from George (although not from me) I had high hopes he’d offer to buy it for his magazine straight away.

He didn’t.

Although he thought it had a great beginning, and he loved the world we’d created and the story situation, Ben said it was too talky, and the ending was far too weak to be satisfactory. As he quite reasonably pointed out, Maris won too easily. There was no conflict in our story. Maris wants the wings and Coll wants to give them to her, and, as it turns out, nobody really minds. But no tradition worthy of the name would collapse so easily. And if there was no powerful tradition, no real opposition to Maris keeping the wings, then what was the story? If we re-thought the plot — basically went back and made life a lot more difficult for our heroine — he said he’d like to see it again.

I don’t have any letters recording our first reaction to this; probably George and I talked about it over the phone. I know we saw the justice in Ben’s objections, but still felt we had a good story and rather resented having to rework it. We decided we’d beef up the opposition to Maris as non-flyer-born being allowed to keep the wings, show that she really had a fight on her hands, and then give her a powerful argument to let her win.

I wrote a new final scene and sent it to George. He replied at length:

I’ve read over your rewritten talk scene, and thought about it.

Lisa, it’s not going to work.

Oh, the scene is fine enough, very well written, but I don’t think the story would hold up very well structurally if we went that way. As it is, we’ve got structural problems. Garth and Dorrel, who are dominant characters early in the story, really don’t do anything of permanent importance, if you stop to analyze the plot. Barrion, who will become a really major character if we try to introduce this jealousy angle, isn’t introduced until page 20. Of a 30 page story. The dramatic confrontation — the conflict — will be Maris and Coll and Barrion trying to change Russ’s mind, and any such scene is bound to be a lot of talk, no matter how we write it. That’s one of the problems with the story as it now stands.

The Woodwings song is a very nice thing, but I’m worried about that. We really can’t have Coll writing too many songs, unless we want to turn it into a hootenany. If we use the Woodwings song, we’d have to cut the song about Raven. And without that and its effect, then Raven and that whole flashback has no dramatic purpose. We’d have to cut that.

Also, I don’t know if the party scene has any dramatic purpose at all, with the way we’re doing this story now. We’d have to cut that, with all the songs, etc.

You realize, of course, that everything above is rationalization. My real reasons for objecting so loud is that I wrote in Raven and I wrote in those songs and I love them and dammit I don’t want to take them out. They’re pretty. I’m proud of them. They’re part of the reason everybody at Turkey City loved the story, I think. But I don’t want to leave them in if there is no function to be served — that makes them just debris from an earlier story that was going in a different direction, and some sharp-eyed readers are bound to notice this.

So. Now that I’ve gotten you all depressed, I’m going to cheer you up (I hope) with some new, exciting proposals that will hopefully make the story better than ever, and get us both enthusiastic about it. Look, we both hate rewriting, right? Especially on this story, which we think we’ve finished, right? And we (plus the Turkey City people) like what we have now, although we agree about what Ben says, too, right? So: I propose we keep nearly everything we have now, but save the story by lengthening it. Considerably. A novella, Lisa. Maybe 18-19-20,000 words. It alone can be a good chunk of the novel version, and it stands a good chance to win Nebulae or Hugos, since this will be damn good and there aren’t that many novellas published. Even bad ones.

And ours will be dynamite.

So. First of all, look at pages 14-15. Particularly at Dorrel’s speech that begins on the bottom of 14, and Maris’ answer to it. That’s the focus of the new idea. We assume that Maris knows — has known, for a long time — that Coll wants to sing. But both of them are trapped by tradition, by law. A stupid tradition, since bad flyers die each year, and the number of wings grows less. Eventually the system will destroy communication unless it is changed.

We let the first 20 pages stand exactly as is (I’ve made your corrections already)… and start rewriting, briefly, where you did: the sand-candle talk between Coll and Maris. But not the re-write that you have now. Instead, a conversation that fully reveals to the reader that both of them want Maris to fly, Coll to sing. But both don’t know how to do it, both are bowed by the weight of tradition, of which their father is a symbol. Don’t mention Woodwings here; we can keep the original.

On page 21, we resume after the scene change (“The week went on forever…”) and keep all that, intact, all the way through the party. We keep the singing pretty much as is — delete only Maris’ thoughts about how this proves that Coll wants to fly, instead substituting thoughts like “He sings the way I fly — with love,” etc Finally, when he does Raven’s Fall, Maris is resolved. He has given a song to the world, a beautiful new song — it is not fair that he should be denied the life he wants, she the one she wants, etc., because of stupid tradition.

So, we’ve kept nearly the entire story.

But start the expansion from the point where I had Maris run away. Everything after that gets junked. Instead we substitute a rewritten scene much like the one you did out in LA, the one Ben read: a wing presentation rite, etc. But Coll does not refuse the wings or give them to Maris — he’s only a thirteen-year-old kid, trying to do what’s expected. He takes them dutifully, if without joy. The party adjourns to flyer’s cliff for his first flight. It is a very clumsy flight. In landing, he tilts, a wing hits the ground, a strut shatters (damage, yes, but easily repaired — it’s only a small tragedy, more embarassing than anything else). But Coll rises white-faced, terrified, crying…Coll blurts out something that shocks the party (I don’t want your wings), Russ gets stern, and Coll, frightened, backs down… Then Maris steps in, makes a speech about how everything is going to fall apart if they keep giving the wings to bad flyers, about how it’s people like Woodwings who should be given the right to fly, not people like Raven (we work in both stories), etc. Coll takes heart from her stand — he stands up and gives her the wings, renounces them, defies his father.

Suggestion: we can use Coll’s speech from my original ending in the sand candle scene, and his renunciation from your ending in this landing beach scene. This is the Law of Conservation of Prose And Avoidal of Rewriting.

Going on to outline (in two more single-spaced pages) the story we could write, George concluded happily,

This way the story becomes so incredibly tight… All those lovely songs…become important. Garth and Dorrel and Barrion all advance the plot substantially, but Maris is the heroine, Maris solves the problem. We’ve hardly got a loose end left.

And nearly no rewriting — just about everything we have now is prime stuff that we can keep. A lot of new writing to do, of course, but I’m enthusiastic about that now, and I hope you are, too. Instead of chewing up the story like used gum…we get a better, longer story…

As for the title, George suggested, and I approved, “The Winds of Change.” But when Ben Bova bought it for Analog he renamed it “The Storms of Windhaven” — which we had to agree was better. Ben also came up with the perfect quote for an epigraph:

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you long to return.”
– Leonardo Da Vinci

It’s a quotation which I think applies to fiction writing quite as much as to flying.

Shoe Inside
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