Column: Writing the Mythos: The Two-(Or More)-Headed Mythos Monster: Collaboration

In 1934, H.P. Lovecraft and his friend Robert H. Barlow poked fun at all their friends and acquaintances in a story called “The Battle That Ended the Century.” This hyperbolical fight scenario featured Two-Gun Bob (Robert E. Howard) versus The Wild Wolf of West Shokan (Bernard Austin Dwyer) and through the course of the story, the two authors mention everyone from Hugo Gernsback to A. Merritt. The whole thing was a hilarious in-joke shared with friends in an obscure mimeographed “fanzine” called The Acolyte #2 (June 1934).

Lovecraft would lead an authors’ jam with “The Challenge From Beyond” in 1935, a story featuring many of the biggest writers of Weird Tales with Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, A. Merritt and Frank Belknap Long (HPL had to fight to have Frank included because A. Merritt didn’t think he was famous enough). The story follows George Campbell on a cosmic roller-coaster as he goes from Lovecraftian terror to Howardian bravado. The plot is far from seamless, but it’s not likely that five authors would produce something without cracks. The final product appeared in The Fantasy Magazine #5 in September 1935.

Mythos fiction, as you can see from these two examples, has a long history of collaboration. How could it not? H.P. Lovecraft inducted the creations of his friends and inspirational authors into the grab-bag that is the Mythos. In other cases, while “revising” authors for pay, Lovecraft added Mythos elements to their stories. To him it was a fun game to be shared with his friends. So, why wouldn’t Mythos writers want to write stories together? Here are a few suggestions for modern Mythos writers wishing to collaborate:

Method One: Taking Turns

The oldest and most fun way to collaborate is simply to sit down together and take turns. Could be paragraphs, could be pages, you decide. The difficulty is how to get together. A more likely alternative is to take turns through email. Once the story is finished, each writer gets a chance to revise to their satisfaction. The usual rule about by-lines is: Whoever starts first gets their name first. I’ve used this method more than once with my old-time collaborator Jack Mackenzie.

Method Two: Revision

Another way, a very HPL way, is to have an author take a first draft they feel is not working, perhaps part of story that lacks an ending, and get another to revise/finish the tale. This is in essence what HPL did in all those “collaborative” tales, the stories he revised for a pittance. I did this with J.F. Gonzalez with our Mythos Western “The Man Who Had a Death Wish.” Jesus gave me a Western that didn’t quite gel and I added the second character, deputy sheriff Brett Hope, and the Mythos element. The final product was quite a different story but one we both contributed to equally. David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney used a similar method to write the Red Sonja novels (tangently Mythos), with Smith writing the first draft and Tierney the second.

Method Three: Two Characters

I call this the “Elmore Leonard Method.” Each writer has their own viewpoint character and writes only for that character. The story alternates between them. The two characters are in opposition, perhaps a Mythos cultist versus a librarian from the Miskatonic. The story shifts back and forth until the final confrontation. You may or may not want to agree beforehand which character will triumph.

Method Four: Outline and Expand

This one I call the “August Derleth Method.” One author comes up with the basic idea and draws a scenario from it. The second author writes the actual prose. Derleth took ideas from HPL’s Common Book and expanded them (perhaps poorly) into posthumous collaborations. This was how Fritz Leiber and Harry Fischer came up with the first of the Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories.

Method Five: The All-Out Jam

This one is hard to coordinate, but if you have a handful of writers, you can start them down a road then hand the story off and see where it goes. Someone will have to do the final edit once the story has reached its destination. This could mean a fair amount of revising to make all the pieces work together. This one is not for the faint of heart. I have attempted it once or twice, but they often fizzle out.

Whatever method you choose, there are some things to remember that will help keep your collaboration stress-free:

1) Be open to change – keep the final product fluid at least until the revision stage. If you become too set in your ideas, you might be better off writing your own story alone. What makes collaborating fun is coming up with something different than what you could by yourself.

2) Have some ground rules – agree ahead of time on byline, final revision and sales. What’s the point of having fun writing the story only to start fighting over final say? If you start with a clear idea whose name will be first (or if you want to use a pseudonym à la Ellery Queen), when the manuscript will be considered “done” and how the story will be marketed (if at all) then you may come back to collaborating again. If it ends in a fight, the experience will probably be your last.

3) Have fun – by not taking the material too seriously you can really enjoy the experience, allowing yourself to be creative and tapping into your sense of fun. Again, it helps to agree at the beginning just how silly you want to get. Are you writing a funfest like “Battle of the Century” or is it supposed to be more serious like “The Challenge From Beyond”?

Collaborating can be an enjoyable experience if you approach it with the right attitude. It can be a great way to get the juices flowing again if you are suffering from Writer’s Block or feeling like you need something a little more social than sitting in an office by yourself. Here’s an extreme case: One of the most famous Weird Tales writer couples was C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Supposedly, Catherine could pick up a story that Hank started the night before and finish it before he got up. Critics today still can’t tell where one started and the other left off. (I’m not suggesting that all married writers do this. Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett, the other famous writer couple, were quite happy to NOT collaborate during their marriage with one exception.) Whatever method you choose – including matrimony – I welcome you to try collaborating. Ultimately, it is a great way to learn new ways of writing from each other, or to identify your own unconscious methods. And besides, it’s fun!