Friday, May 1, 2015

The pitfalls of author collaborations

I’m of the opinion that fiction writing is generally an individual task.

I came to this realization back in 1984, when I read The Talisman, a collaborative work written by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

The Talisman, it must be said, isn't a bad novel—and it’s held up well for a thirty-year-old work of fiction. However, both King and Straub were at the peak of their talents when they wrote it, and The Talisman paled beside the books that either man was individually producing at the time. The Talisman would probably have been much better book if it had been written by only one the two authors. While it was, once again, a not-bad book, it didn't measure up to the standards of Stephen King’s Cujo (1981), Christine (1983) or Straub’s Floating Dragon (1983).

In recent years, father-son writer collaborations have become common, usually with unsatisfying results. Jonathan Kellerman’s books are almost universally liked by crime fiction fans; but a recent collaboration with his son, Jesse, received so many 1-star ratings on Amazon, that its overall rating slipped to 2.6 out of five stars.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t read the father-son collaboration, The Golem of Hollywood. I should also note that the younger Kellerman may indeed be a competent writer. The problem is that the elder Kellerman’s novels have developed a distinctive “feel”. (Kellerman has written and published several dozen books.) The son, whatever his talents, is not the father. Collaborations between adventure author Clive Cussler and son Dirk Cussler have also been marked by uneven quality.

None of this means that writing cannot or should not become a family business. However, if a son (or daughter) decides to follow in the footsteps of a famous father (or mother), there is a better way to go about it. Rather than piggybacking onto the parent’s brand, the child (and the parent) would be better served by the child developing his own brand.

The best-known example in this latter category is horror author Joe Hill, whose real name is Joe King, as in Stephen King.

It would have been very tempting for Hill to launch his career by deliberately associating his work with that of his uber-famous father. Instead, he deliberately chose to publish under a pseudonym. This has earned him respect in publishing as well as in fandom circles.

I’ve read a few of Hill’s books: Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and 20th Century Ghosts. Frankly speaking, Hill’s work (so far) is not as good as his father’s work; he has yet to write a novel as distinctive and memorable as Salem’s Lot or The Stand. Nor has Hill achieved anywhere near his father’s level of fame and success. (Everyone has heard of Stephen King. Joe Hill is known only to dedicated readers of horror fiction.)

But Hill’s novels are pretty good, nonetheless. And if he does ever top his father (Hill is still in early middle age), no one can claim that he rode his dad’s coattails.

In the category of author collaborations, still more troublesome are the “author franchises”. Clive Cussler comes to mind here, as well as James Patterson and Tom Clancy. Clancy, who died in 2013, still produces new novels.

Tom Clancy is able to still publish novels, several years after his death, because they are now written by someone else. The most recent Tom Clancy book, Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect (A Jack Ryan Novel) was penned by Mark Greaney. The latter, living author is keeping Clancy’s characters alive and giving them new storylines.

This isn’t as unusual as it might seem. All of the Hardy Boys novels, which were published from 1927 to 2005, were published under the penname Frank W. Dixon—but were written by various ghostwriters.

Technically speaking, a ghostwriter isn’t a collaboration (though I dislike the idea, as it implies a formulaic and cookie-cutter approach to writing). The modern franchise writer is usually not a sock puppet penname like Frank W. Dixon, nor a deceased author like Tom Clancy. Most franchise authors are well-known and older (usually in their sixties or seventies) writers who rely on collaborations with younger, less well-known authors as a means of maintaining their output.

Clive Cussler comes to mind again here, as does James Patterson. Cussler has produced novels with a slew of collaborators—not only his son, but also Justin Scott, Russell Blake, and Graham Brown, among others. Patterson’s coauthors include Maxine Paetro, Marshall Karp, and David Ellis.

The usual technique is for the “franchise” or “branded” author to produce an outline. The collaborator then writes the actual story. A rough metaphor would cast the franchise author as the architect, and the coauthor as the building company.

Novels produced by this system can occasionally be good, but only rarely great. The committee approach may be appropriate and often necessary for projects in the corporate world. A creative work of art is likely to be better when it is the product of a single person’s vision.

Or to state the matter another way: A single individual can’t design and build a Camry; and a committee comprised of disparate individuals is unlikely to pen a great novel.

For the market that James Patterson is aiming at, however, good is probably good enough. Patterson produces multiple novels each year; and no airport bookstore or grocery store book section lacks at least one of them. Cussler’s titles can also be found in almost any venue where books are sold.