Thursday, March 11, 2010

Partners in Crime: Max Allan Collins

Today I welcome Max Allan Collins as Guest Blogger on our Partners in Crime Series: Authors Who Write with Partners.

Max Allan Collins is one of the most prolific mystery authors. He's written novels, TV adaptations, graphic novels, plays, short stories  and so much more. He is the creator of Road to Perdition, Quarry, Nate Heller and much more. Read his biography HERE. Even if you think you know Max, you'll be surprised. He is known as "Mystery's Renaissance Man." Well deserved. He's collaborated on many projects. You'll love this Guest Blog.

COLLABORATION by Max Allan Collins

I sort of fell into collaboration, never expecting it to become such a big part of my writing life.

Way back in the late '80s, I talked my wife into plotting some "minute mysteries" for the MIKE MIST feature that appeared in the back of the MS. TREE comic book. I had run out of ideas. She did such a good job, I moved her up to doing rough drafts of the scripts. She took to that, and then -- when artist Terry Beatty was looking for a way to ease his workload -- I suggested she write short stories about the Mist character, doing the minute mysteries that way. She was was so adept at it, I was blown away. I remember saying, "Hey, this is good -- maybe too good...."

Marty Greenberg knew about Barb's MIST-ifying, and invited her to write a story about Tess Truehart, Dick Tracy's wife, in an anthology he and I were doing of original TRACY stories as a movie tie-in. She did such a great job, Marty started inviting her to write stories for his various anthologies, in particular the CAT CRIMES series. She did a fantastic job, and got great comments in reviews and from readers. I always read and edited these stories, with a fairly heavy hand (at Barb's request), and on one of them I said, "You've skipped a scene. This won't work jumping A to C, you need to write B, too." And Barb said, "Well, then, you write it." I said, "Okay, but if I write a big fat crucial scene, we share byline. That's the deal." "Done," she said.

After that we started actually collaborating on the occasional story, working out a plot together with Barb writing a first draft, skipping scenes now and then (action ones particularly) that she figured I would write better. "Why should I break my back on a scene you're going to rewrite, anyway?" she wondered. Good point.

This grew into extending the process into a thriller, REGENERATION, which was a paperback bestseller. We followed up with BOMBSHELL, a novel about Marilyn Monroe. This was sold to Five Star and was at one time one of their most successful books. We'd been noodling about doing a series about antiques, a mutual interest, and when my former Nathan Heller editor Michaela Hamilton (now at Kensington) wondered if I'd be interested in developing a cozy series for her, Barb and I stepped up to the plate.

The process remains the same: we plot together, Barb writes a draft, somewhat shorter than the word-length we need to hit, and I polish and expand. It's a fairly even collaboration but I would put Barb at around 60% to my 40%. Maybe 65% or even 70%; but I earn my half of the byline. We don't fight about anything. I consider her the lead writer, and defer to her wishes. It's a female point of view, and that makes it her call, once I've stated my case.

Except for not sleeping with him, my relationship with Matt Clemens is similar. We began doing short stories together a long time ago. The CSI novels were where we really got serious -- Matt came aboard as a researcher and co-plotter, and his contribution quickly grew to a similar format of our plotting them together (though the basic story idea has usually been mine) and then him writing a shortish first draft that I can expand to the proper, contracted-for length. Dialogue is a strong suit for me, and both Barb and Matt know that I will add a lot of that and rework much of what they've done. The difference, I would say, is that the ANTIQUES novels are Barb's voice, with me working in her voice on my contributions, whereas Matt and I seem to have a collaborative third voice. He and I have done 10 CSI novels (a number of which hit the USA TODAY bestseller list), 1 BONES, 3 DARK ANGELs, 3 CRIMINAL MINDS, plus he did major research and some co-plotting on my Patrick Culhane-bylined RED SKY AT MORNING. Now Matt finally gets cover credit on YOU CAN'T STOP ME, also from Kensington.

The Spillane novels are a different matter, though they are very much genuine collaborations. Each project has different challenges and the materials tend to differ from book to book, but generally what I am working from is about a 100 page fragment (double-spaced), plus plot and character notes. So the story is basically Mickey's, and I have a sizeable chunk of Spillane prose. In the forthcoming THE BIG BANG, I took those 100 or so pages and expanded them so that they would fill more than half of the novel, giving a genuine Spillane flavor to more than just the first four chapters. Because I am not just plopping Mickey's portion down and picking up from there -- rather, making myself part of the storytelling from page one -- that makes the eventual shift away from Mickey fairly seamless.

Working inside Mickey's draft -- expanding it, fleshing it out, inserting material, etc. -- is very standard collaborative approach, and doing the first half or more of the book in that fashion means that Mickey's DNA kind of grafts itself onto mine, so that (again) the final chapters read very much the same. This is one of the most rewarding projects of my career, and I cannot begin to describe what it means to me that Mickey -- the man who inspired me to become a professional storyteller -- entrusted me with the task of finishing his work.


Max Allan Collins said...

What a great guest column!

...oh wait, I wrote it. No wonder I liked it.

Marketing genius that I am, I neglected to mention that the new Barbara Allan collboration, ANTIQUES BIZARRE, has just been pubbed in hardcover by Kensington. The previous one, ANTIQUES FLEE MARKET, is a recent paperback from K, and won the best humorous mystery of the year award from the Romantic Times in 2009.

YOU CAN'T STOP ME by Clemens and Collins is out right now, and THE BIG BANG by Spillane and Collins will be out in May.

Thanks to Janet for this opportunity!

Janet Rudolph said...

No, thank YOU. You are so prolific, and so good! Truly a Renaissance man.

Mentioned this today at my panel at Left Coast Crime.

How do you find the time? Lucky for us you manage.

Max Allan Collins said...

People ask me this constantly -- "How do you find the time?"

There's an illusion out there that I am publishing constantly. I write steadily and have been blessed to be able to go from one project to another, for many years. What sometimes happens is that books pile up and a bunch are published in the same year.

I write at least six days a week, unless I am in full loaf mode, which means a week or two off between projects, if I can swing it. In a typical year, I probably don't work at my job any more or less than the average working stiff.

Another factor is that I rarely use pennames and, when I do, I make no secret about it (Patrick Culhane, Barbara Allan).

One of my heroes and mentors was Don Westlake, and I think my output is similar to his in quantity (if not always, alas, in quality).