People are always asking me how author collaborations work, and I always tell ’em the same thing: This is private property, you son of a bitch! Get off my land.
Not today. I’ve set aside my shotgun, ordered the snipers on the roof of my compound to stand down, and I mean to answer the collaboration question in earnest.
So here it is. A journey into the lair. A look behind the curtain. A peek at what lies beneath this juggalo face paint.
I figured I could approach this thing like Socrates: Ask someone else a bunch of questions and make them answer it for me. “The easy way,” Socrates called it.
Today, my cowriter E.M. Smith will be doing the heavy lifting while I sit back with some fruity looking alcoholic beverage, Socrates style, peppering him with questions and taking all the credit.
And hey, if this effort fails, I’ve got a big old jar of Hemlock tea waiting in the fridge. “Pain go bye-bye juice,” Socrates called it. Riding with Socrates, you either kill it philosophically or die, so it’s basically a win-win.
Anyway, here goes. Let us peel back our literary skin and give a good long look at the innards of the writing process of our latest book, Silent Night. (Fear not. No spoilers.)
Tim McBain: The Loshak books have always started with the three of us discussing an idea, batting it around a bit. Then I write a loosey-goosey outline of about 15,000 or 20,000 words, and you sort of take that and run with it, yeah?
EM Smith: Can you give me a minute? I’m putting away my sniper rifle since we’re apparently NOT defending the compound now. You know what, it’s fine. It’s not like these are complicated weapons that take time and effort to assemble and disassemble.
So yeah, basically after we’ve figured out where and how we want the story to end and who the new characters are going to be, you go through and structure that into the beats, kind of envisioning what each chapter and the book as a whole is going to look like. Having the beats or outline is kind of like having a roadmap of the story, so once it’s ready for me, I can write along and stop off wherever looks cool, but ultimately I end up in the place we agreed to meet, so the three of us aren’t writing three different books.
Tim: I don’t remember very well. Did we diverge from the outline more than normal in Silent Night? I remember we had a lot of stuff that wasn’t fully fleshed out, especially toward the finale.
EM: Silent Night was an interesting one because we had all these threads we wanted to bring together from Loshak’s story with Jan and Spinks and the Kansas City conspiracy, but we ended coming at it from the perspectives of certain side characters. Which was cool, but it also left us a lot of wiggle room. And wiggle we did. Especially the closer we got to the end. We diverged now and then from the outline throughout, but the finale was where we finally just let go and let the story take control. So much had been building up as we worked on it that I think letting the outline go was definitely the right decision there, and the ending turned out even better than expected because of it.
Tim: I felt like you really went for it with the killer chapters in Silent Night, and he seems like a really distinct character among our pantheon of murderers. The first draft was probably the goriest thing we’ve ever committed to the page, which is saying something. Some of that got cut, but the character kept developing from the outline to the first draft to the second draft, and I think the end result stands out. Was it difficult to get in the head of a mass shooter? Is it upsetting to splatter and sever and plop with such ferocity?
EM Smith: On the one hand, nobody likes to think about what kind of carnage someone with an automatic weapon or grenade can cause in a crowded public space. The death spray is scary because it’s random. One person might get their kneecap blown out, another might be killed instantly, and someone else might not get hit at all, not because of skill or caution, just because of dumb luck. What’s worse, all three variations could end up being from your family or group of friends, which would be devastating. So trying to accurately imagine a massacre of that scope is pretty disturbing.
On the other hand, I think what makes our killers (and the killers you and Lex write about in Darger’s books) different from cookie cutter serial killers in the genre is that there’s an underlying element of humanity. A lot of writers try to show how inhuman their killers are, to sort of hold them up as something we can all look at and say, “That monster is nothing like me,” and feel better about ourselves. We try to figure out what makes our killers human. To show that if not for this part of their philosophy, where they took their anger or self-pity or self-indulgence too far, they wouldn’t be much different from the rest of us. Hopefully that makes them into sort of a cautionary tale for anyone who might be heading down the same road, or at the very least a reminder to all of us that there’s a better way.
Tim: So once the first draft comes back, I do a kind of bossy editing pass. I try to put my stank on it. Punch it up. Add my voice a bit so I can later take credit for the whole thing and feel like it’s true. Weirdly, these books get quite a bit longer from first draft to second draft, which is the opposite of the norm. I’d say they grow by 10-20%.
EM: You wouldn’t know it by the length of these interview answers, but my writing kind of tends toward brevity. By the time I’m done with the first draft, I think we’ve got something kind of like a watercolor, where there are the basic images are there in the foreground giving you an impression of the rest of the world, but not going into major detail. In the second draft, that’s usually where Tim takes things from basic watercolor to blockbuster-quality Feature Presentation, adding in all the explosive special effects and scenery and drug trip choreography.
Tim: Bottom line: LT Vargus basically does fuck all. Does that sound about right to you?
EM: That’s the word on the street.
Just kidding. In all honesty, a lot of the hilariousness in Loshak stories comes from Lex, along with delicious and weird foods. If what I do is the watercolor of Loshak, and Tim makes that into a feature-length movie, then LT is our Danny Elfman. She adds atmosphere and suspense and feels and stuff that it’s even harder to quantify. She’s also pretty great at writing victim interviews.
Tim: I kid. LT does her own bossy editing pass. Adds her own stank. Takes her sweet time about it, too. I bash through as fast as possible. She is much more the tortoise to my hare. In any case, by the end, we’ve all put quite a bit of ourselves in there. The narrative voice becomes its own, separate from any one of us individually.
Tim: But I will say that I’m always shocked at how much Loshak feels like Loshak even from the first draft. We’ve never edited his voice or characterization at all. It always just seems to come out right. He has evolved over the course of the series, and I think he feels like a shared character of all three of us now, but he felt right immediately when we started working together. Felt just like the guy who’d been Darger’s mentor in that series. How did you work that bit of magic?
EM: There was a lot of Loshak to work with right from the beginning because of how you guys portrayed him in Darger’s series. I feel like he was a fully fleshed out individual from Violet’s first book, someone who went on doing his own thing and existing even when he wasn’t around her, instead of some cardboard cutout thrown in whenever she needed another character to bounce ideas off of. By the time I came to the party, he already had a developed headspace and voice and motivations ready to go, so it was kind of like all I had to do was climb into the empty Loshak-shaped mech armor and take off running.
Tim: I get the sense that you approach writing in a more cerebral way than us. You are focused and thoughtful and detail-oriented, and it comes through in a sort of meticulous devotion to character details that often catch me off guard. For me and Lex, I think writing is really intuitive. The less I think about it, the better I tend to do, but I get a sense that it’s a little different for you, in a way that I find impressive. I’m always like, “Oh, I see how this thought tracks with all the other details you’re setting up to show how analytical Loshak is.” A good example is Loshak’s series of social experiments in bringing donuts to meetings and seeing what people pick, trying to predict and read personality traits into it and so forth. That is an awesome way to express that side of his character, a blend of curious and analytical. Stuff like that makes me feel like I’m lazy, to be honest.
EM: I kind of get sidetracked with things like that sometimes because I like characters so much that I always want to delve deeper into their tics and thought processes. Having an overall story with a beginning, middle, and end is great, but to me the investigation and murders are all just vehicles to explore more about Loshak and the supporting cast. It’s fun to see a situation they’re facing, like walking into a conference room full of strangers, and figure out how that particular character would try to shape and understand their surroundings. Spinks reacts to it differently than Loshak. The police chiefs and sheriffs and detectives they have to deal with react differently from either of them. Put a hundred different people in the same situation, and you’ll come up with a hundred different responses and motivations and ways of seeing the exact same thing. I think that’s cool, so I like to write about it.
Tim: One other thing I’m always surprised by, as we work on the Loshak books, is the way the relationships seem to develop. Whether it’s Loshak and Jan, Loshak and Spinks, or even new characters in Silent Night like Vince and Frank (who made me laugh really hard), the relationships all seem to take on a life of their own and become this really endearing thing for me. I find them striking and going unexpected directions. I always end up really invested. Is it like that for you? Or is there anything that surprises you like that?
EM: Loshak becoming such a ladies’ man. That surprises me every time it pops up. And I think it keeps surprising Loshak, too. Spinks definitely eggs it on in Book 2, probably because of how uncomfortable it makes Loshak, but I lost it and almost snorted coffee everywhere when I read Into the Abyss and Prescott started telling Darger about Loshak’s Academy days.
That’s maybe the coolest thing that comes out of writing all these books in one shared universe, that they get to play off each other and develop into something bigger and more complex. In a way, the Darger and Loshak series are developing a relationship in the macro while all these character relationships are growing in the micro, which is pretty fun to be a part of.
We’ve also got news on the audiobook front! Take Warning and Night on Fire are now available on Audible! Woo!
-Tim & LT