Two Horror Writers Explain How Co-Authoring Made Their Novel Scarier

Sleeping Policemen seemed, at times, to come too easily. It was a joy to write—much of the seeming effortlessness fueled by the collaboration, that synthesis of friendship and creativity. It began as a notion—"Let's write a novel quick and mean and gritty"—that took shape, dark and dirty, through a string of emails:

Advertisement

"3 or 4 college students on a drunken joyride. They hit a man, killing him."

"They hide the body—and discover he's carrying a secret."

When the notions began to take on a life of their own, outgrowing cyberspace and the distance between Knoxville, TN, (Dale) and LaGrange, GA, (Jack), we met for a long, alcohol-fueled weekend to hammer out a definitive course of action. We talked character and motivation and plot twists. We drank a lot of beer, ate too much grilled meat, and deconstructed hardboiled tropes deep into the night. (One of our longest debates centered on the amputation of fingers. Sue Thompson, our protagonist's girlfriend, is held captive by the Pachyderm; to urge our "heroes" into quick action, he threatens to take a finger for every hour Nick and his friends are late. How many fingers, we pondered, should Sue lose? How many fingers can a person have lopped off before she loses her mind? A conversation only writers and maniacs would share.

Advertisement

Four days later we parted ways with a detailed outline and a firm set of rules for collaboration:

(1) Stick to the outline—which we didn't. Sometimes the muse blindsided us, luring us down darker paths. Characters took wayward turns. They made decisions worse than the ones we had planned. Once we killed a main character several chapters before the outline offed him. The ending took on a wholly different shape, far bloodier and less hopeful than our original intentions. We rolled with each twist and every turn, reveling in the surprises.

Advertisement

(2) No pranks or other silly stuff in the manuscript. We limited our attempts at humor to the tiny block of the return address, each of us receiving, for several months, manuscript packages from the likes of Theodore Bundy and Edward Gein, Esquire.

(3) Focus on quick turnarounds, taking no longer than a couple weeks with each chapter—which we failed miserably at, as the tides of heavy teaching loads pulled us both away for weeks at a time. We began the book by writing alternate chapters, but those chapters soon stretched into long stints, sometimes three or four chapters in a row before the other would take over for a long haul. (In some ways, that was the best part of the collaboration: the fact that the story continuously grew, sprouting words and sentences and entire chapters even as one of us sat idle, rewrote earlier chapters, or worked on another project altogether.)

Advertisement

Despite the Outline, despite the Rules, what the collaboration most fully drew from each of us was a game of one-upmanship. We wrote to impress, even to outdo the other. We painted each other into corners; we pushed toward extremes. In doing so, we tapped into avenues darker and more visceral and more violent than anything either of us had written by ourselves.

We had filled the outline with simple declarative statements: "Pomeroy forces Nick to retrieve his bullets." But as we sat solo at the keyboard, the collaborator hovering like a watchful shade, the muse would unloose her full fury. Simple stage directions became gruesome ballets, a danse macabre far bloodier than either of us had originally imagined: By the time Nick finished with Pomeroy's bullets, for example, "his hands were red almost to the elbow, and something had died inside him." Such surprises abounded. We simply hung on for the ride, heaping blood and carnage upon one another. We force-fed our characters—and each other—big, fiery chunks of Hell—and we loved every minute of it. We hope you will, as well.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Two Horror Writers Explain How Co-Authoring Made Their Novel Scarier

Dale Bailey

Jack Slay, Jr.

Illustration for article titled Two Horror Writers Explain How Co-Authoring Made Their Novel Scarier

Share This Story

Get our newsletter