© Eric Beetner & JB Kohl 2010 all rights reserved
For our guest post here at Murder By 4 JB Kohl and I decided to go about it much in the same way we wrote our novel – by email. You see, we've never met face to face. Never even spoken on the phone. We live on opposite coasts, write at opposite hours and yet somehow we made it work. Quite effortlessly I might add.
For our debut novel, ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD (Second Wind Publishing) we took the approach of two different first-person narratives for our story of revenge and double dealings amid the crooked boxing world of 1939 Kansas City. I would write a chapter about the ordinary guy sinking deeper into quicksand of his own making, and then she would write a chapter about the detective on his trail and also trying to outrun his own past. We used our outline as structure but also built off what the other had written until we had a novel. One that people sure do seem to like too.
Even after all this time there are still things we don't know about each other. Our refusal to meet at this point has become a slight superstition. We haven't explored the details of our writing process either. We just let it flow. Time to do a little bit of digging.
Eric: So, I was struck by how effortlessly – sometimes gleefully – you delved into the seedier side of things. My chapters had more of the out and out violence but you added some of my favorite details in the whole book: an old man's flaccid penis dribbling urine down his leg, a guy getting splashed in the face by a ringside spit bucket, a crone-like old woman with cat s*** down the back of her legs. Does anything make you squeamish?
JB: I remember reading THINNER by Richard Bachman (Stephen King) when I was in high school. This gypsy puts a curse on a fellow and he is covered with pimples . . . the man rubs his hand over his face and there is "the sound of ripe pimples breaking wetly open." Yeah, that made me squeamish. I still remember it after all this time. As far as anything in real life . . . I have a real issue with oysters--the booger of the sea. Other than that I'm a rock.
So now it's your turn, Eric. You masterfully described a scene of violence involving a deadly shotgun blast delivered by an unexpected character. The scene is gruesome and dark and it created one of the more vivid pictures of Ray Ward in my head. Do you have to psych yourself up to write a scene like that or are you comfortable diving in and putting it down on paper?
Eric: Oh I have to constantly censor myself for fear of going way too dark. Scenes like that flow all too easily out of me. It scares my wife. It just doesn’t bother me for some reason. In screenwriting class during college I had another student pull me aside after one class where I read a section of my script and he told me if he was in the theater he would have walked out. And that was just over a guy cutting off a woman's thumb with a steak knife.
You know you were free to tone down anything too extreme, right?
Y'know I, like all writers, struggle sometimes with motivation. One of the best things about our collaboration was the way it was a kind of forced motivation. With someone else waiting on my pages it was a great spur to the side to get off my ass and write. I think it's one big reason we finished so quickly. How long did it take you to write THE DEPUTY'S WIDOW (JB's first published novel)?
JB: I guess it took me about three months to get a rough draft and another six to get it to where I felt it had a chance of being published. So nine months roughly. And I changed story lines two or three times when I was getting started as well, so that took some time. The final ended up being quite different from the rough draft.
So let's talk about characters . . . We don't have what I'd call a "femme fatale" in our book, but we do have a "femme" :0) . . . what was your inspiration for Glenda?
Eric: Well, I think we needed a woman in there to soften it a bit. It is a very hard edged story so I think having a female somewhere in there provided good balance. But then again she turns out to be such a tough dame maybe it didn't soften it too much. I wish I could take credit for her nickname though. That was 100% you and I think it is brilliant. (you'll have to read the book to find it. No spoilers here) I am glad we got to do her dialogue the way I wanted. She's got that jazz noir patter that I feared could go to parody but I think we kept it interesting without being hokey.
Here's one for you – it was important for me to keep Ray likable despite many of his actions. Same thing with Fokoli in your chapters which I think you did extremely well. He's a guy with a questionable past but he stays very sympathetic to the reader. Do you find Ray a likable character?
JB: I really liked Ray. What I liked most about him is that even though the book was written in first person narrative, an air of mystery remained around Ray. The reader is able to identify with his feelings and actions and sympathize with him . . . in addition, the reader wants to know more about him. You have a knack of giving just enough to the reader to make him/her want more. I always rate a book by the way I feel when I've finished reading. If I find myself thinking about the characters--maybe even feeling like I'm going to miss them now that I'm done reading about them, then the writer has done his job. I know readers probably feel that way about Ray when they close the cover of his story.
You are a good short story writer--and some of your shorter works, although dark, make me laugh. Do you try to be darkly funny when you're writing or does it just happen?
Eric: I think a dose of humor is essential to a story with a dark plot and actions. I love writing stuff that is morbidly funny but I cannot write jokes at all. A straight up comedy is not my thing. I've tried. Comedy is so subjective that I find it impossible not to second guess myself to death.
You don't really write shorts. Why not?
JB: I guess I don't write shorts because I take a long time to say the things I have to say. I seem to be unable to get what I want to say out there. I've written a couple of shorts over the last couple of years, but I find that I can't get a character across to readers in 20K words or less. I've tried to figure this out. I don't describe too much of the setting at any one time. I do tend to write a lot of dialog but mostly I think I have a tendency to work a character over pretty good and I'm not refined enough to do that in 2000-4000 words.
So which do you prefer to write: novels or shorts?
Eric: I guess the accomplishment of the novel outweighs the instant pleasure of the short. I like reading novels better (good ones anyway) because you get that lasting relationship with the characters. Presumably if you go to the trouble to write a whole book you are writing characters you like and want to spend time with so that part of the process is really fun.
Next up - our next book. How psyched are you to start writing together again? (please don't say, "not at all.")
JB: I'm completely ready to get going. I agree with what you said earlier about it being more motivating to write when someone else is depending on your pages. I also find that I miss the characters we created. It'll be fun to bring them back and test their mettle again. I think a good writing partnership is a rare thing and I'm not only thankful for our collaboration, I'm also amazed at how easy it is to write with you.
What about you?
Eric: Yep. Ready to get to it. New Year, new book. Let’s make a habit out of this.
First things first though is getting people to read ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD. I really think if a solid noir crime story is what you’re after you will really like this book. But then again, I am biased.
About the authors:
J.B. Kohl is the author of The Deputy’s Widow, published in 2008 by Arctic Wolf Publishing. In the spring of 2008, she read a short story by Eric Beetner and decided to pester him until he agreed to collaborate on something. Resistance was futile. And so, One Too Many Blows to the Head was created—to live and thrive in the dark alleys of 1939 Kansas City.
In addition to writing fiction, she works as a technical and fiction editor. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three children.
Eric Beetner is an award-winning short story and screenwriter. He and J.B. connected through his work with the Film Noir Foundation and he wrote to tell her how much he liked The Deputy’s Widow. From that simple correspondence came a bicoastal collaboration and a quickly finished novel, despite the fact that they have never met in person. Eric is also a TV and film editor, director and producer who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.
Interesting! I have always wanted to know how on the planet a writer collaborates successfully with another in a joint effort. Thanks for being on Mb4!
We were as nervous about it as you would think and both of us ready to say, "well, that didn't work. See ya!" but it just went as well as you could expect. We're both anxious to start the new one this month.
Well, you all are braver (or possibly less selfish) than me! I think I'd kill a co-author. :-)
Love the title of the book, and it sounds like great fun! I'll have to check this out - anything reminiscent of Stephen King scores points with me.
Best of luck on your continuing partnership!
Eric and JB: the only thing I successfully wrote with another author was a synopsis of her work. We sat side by side (in real life, no less!) and worked off each other's ideas. It actually came out very well, I was both surprised and pleased. I anticipated a tug and struggle with every sentence, but I was wrong. Kudos on your accomplishment, and the book sounds great! Off to check it out. ;o)
Maybe what worked for us was being on opposite coasts :)
Hi Eric and BJ. I think once you've been used to writing by yourself it would be difficult to work with a partner. I imagine you'd have to think in identical terms or kill each other trying. Ha! I'm not sure I could do it, but never say never.
All the best with your novel and many thanks for sharing your experiences with us!
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