Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Interview Out of the Shower

The boys over at A Beer for the Shower have a new book out. It's called The Missing Link, and it looks like this
(but you can't open it here. You  have to follow the link over to Amazon to do that). In an effort to get to the bottom of what it's all about, I had a small chat with the boys, Bryan and Brandon. Yes, I made them get out of the shower for it; they were getting a little pruny, anyway. I think the coloration was due to the fact that they used up the hot water weeks ago. After waiting for them to sober up a bit, here's what followed:

How did the two of you meet, and how did you discover your mutual desire to write?

Interestingly enough, we've known each other since elementary school. However, neither of us knew the other to be a writer until we brought it up about 5-6 years ago. We'd both always been writers but never really talked about it with anyone. After that, we started critiquing each other's work and eventually decided, just for kicks, to collaborate on a novel. We found that we worked together really well, and the rest is history.

Well, that's pretty cool, then. I guess you know each other pretty well considering how far back you go together. What kind of writing partnership do you have? For example, in the partnership of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis (who created and wrote Dragonlance among other things), Hickman is sort of the creator and Weis is the writer. I'm not sure how far into plotting Hickman goes, but I do know that he created the world and the characters while Weis did the actual writing. However, in the collaboration of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett on Good Omens, they split up the writing chores so that each one of them wrote particular scenes/characters. Prachett wrote most of the material revolving around the kids while Gaiman wrote the angels. Do you have a particular method?

We don't quite fit any of those pairings. While we do both create our own characters that we tend to gravitate towards initially, the writing is all split up 50/50, and all characters are fair game. We've written together long enough that we can find a unifying "voice" when we're writing, so that characters/descriptions don't sound different from scene to scene. Plus, when you want high quality writing, you quit kissing each other's asses really quick and learn to say, "Look, that scene could have been written better," or "I think that character probably wouldn't do that." If either of us were stubborn or selfish about our writing, I'm sure we'd probably be butting heads constantly. Thankfully, that's never been a problem.

So, if you split it up 50/50, do you plot it all out ahead of time or do you just work on it as you go and see where it takes you? And what was your inspiration for The Missing Link?

When we first started out, writing our first collaborative novel The Dead Don't Play Slots, we shot pretty much from the hip. It was our first time writing together, and most of the time we were just trying to make one another laugh. It was like running through the forest with a blindfold on. It's funny as shit watching the other guy bash his face into trees, but ultimately the story winds up aimless, bloody, and disoriented. Basically, our story structure was horrendous, and yet we still somehow managed to get an offer from a major publishing house on the manuscript. The deal fell through, but we learned to pay a lot more attention to structure. With The Missing Link, we definitely plotted the story out ahead of time. It's still a bit hectic, with our multiple-storyline style, but definitely much improved. We usually do a broad plan for about 1/3 of the novel at a time, and then just fill in the gaps as we go. That way, we have a solid goal, but are able to let the story take whatever turns it needs to without being on a choke collar.

The inspiration for The Missing Link was twofold: Beer and cell phones. We do most of our story idea spit-balling in bars. When we were trying to figure out what to do for our second collaborative novel, I think we just looked around, saw something annoying, and ran with it. Most of our work together is crassly satirical, so we draw our material and characters from whatever social dumbfuckery seems to be ripe for ridicule at the time. 

Okay, before I get into questions about the book, what are each of your favorite books and what would you say are the books that have been the biggest influence, first, on you, and, second, on your writing?

Bryan: I've got 2. What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the first novel that was serious, and touching, but also made me laugh. I think that helped me realize that you can write humor into a novel without having to be like a Dave Barryish, "What's the deal with guys standing next to each other at a urinal, huh?" 

Also, the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Even today, in the world of 'I can't sell it if it's too unique and doesn't fit a particular genre' (Um, cough, agents) I love that something this strange and this unique, even for a Stephen King book, is so wildly popular. I mean, a cowboy travels through multiple universes and picks up a schizophrenic black woman, an 80s heroin addict, a dead 11 year old boy, and a talking badger as they seek out a big tower. Can you imagine trying to pitch that to a literary agent in this market? You'd probably be laughed at, and yet, look at how well received it was by readers. 

Brandon: That bastard stole The Dark Tower! Alas, I have to say that Stephen King is one of my biggest influences and has been from childhood. In my solo efforts, I write a lot of horror fiction, but I also do a lot of dark fantasy. It would be a three way toss-up for my favorite novel: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Shining by Stephen King, and (in the humor realm) A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore.

Hmm... now, I have to admit that I've never read any Stephen King. Not that I've meant to not read Stephen King; I've just never gotten to him. I do see the Dark Tower series pop up on a  lot of lists, though. And, as a total aside, Brandon, have you read Anansi Boys? It's even better than American Gods.
Neither of you mentioned Lewis Carroll, but he was clearly an influence on, at least, part of The Missing Link. How did that come about?

Bryan: We can no longer be friends until you read some Stephen King. Actually, King gets a bad rap for being a generic horror writer, but all of my favorite stories of his have nothing to do with horror. Also, I can assure you that while Lewis Carroll did "influence" the story, it's hardly a flattering comparison. Carroll writes a flowery, goofy tale that is extremely nonsensical and at times hard to follow. This, more than anything, is why we felt it made for a perfect embodiment of the Internet, because we imagine if someone got trapped in the Web, it wouldn't be a happy place full of endless knowledge, it'd be a madhouse full of clashing thoughts, misleading information, and more than anything, nonsense.

Brandon: I have read Anansi Boys and pretty much all of Gaiman's stuff. I liked American Gods because of the depth, seriousness, and Gaiman's unparalleled usage of archetypal mythology. Anansi Boys was really great, too, but was definitely a humor novel. Even if loosely related, for me they existed in two completely separate worlds, as well as genres.

I didn't really get "humor novel" from Anansi Boys, but that's probably a conversation for another time.
I do agree with you about Carroll, though. I always felt the Alice story lacked something because of the lack of a plot. Maybe it was the lack of a plot. From that standpoint, I'd have to agree that it is a great parallel for the internet; it, also, lacks a plot.

Which brings me to "World of Battlecraft." Another confession: I've never played World of Warcraft (I know! I know!); although, I did play EQ2 for a while, so I "got" what's going on there (and really love your idea of trolls. heh). What brought that into your story?
[And I promise I'll get some King at some point. I'm just trying to get through this towering stack of books I already have before delving into an author with a library like his.]

Brandon: As for The World of Battlecraft, that was all Bryan's doing. He's a closet gamer geek.

Bryan: Actually, that would be my wife, whom Molly is based on. And how can you have a book about Internet addiction without online gamers? The two often go hand in hand.

Admittedly, to get the feel for the book, I joined my wife in gaming for a bit... and wow, it's so easy to get caught up in the game and spend a whole day clicking your screen in vengeance as you blow other people up with magic. And, more than that, it's a social experience. It's amazing how many friends she's made just purely in this game, that talk to you and help you out and get mad when you accidentally lure a troll back to your camp and he kills everyone (that happened ONE time).

Closet gamer, huh? I can't imagine there's much light in there to see with.
Sorry... couldn't resist. We'll stay away from my gaming habits for the moment. Especially since they are pretty much restricted to Farmville and have been for a few years, now. 

Looking at your views on Gaiman and Carroll, how comfortable are you with "The Missing Link is like Good Omens meets Alice in Wonderland"?
Also, have you had to deal with any criticism about dealing in stereotypes?

Hah, I'd never really thought of it that way before. I don't know if I'd ever be comfortable comparing anything of mine to Neil Gaiman's. It might even be a smiteable offense. Not going to risk it.

We haven't really met with much criticism about dealing in stereotypes, either in the book or the blog. In the novel, I do feel like our characters are much more "caricatures" than "characters," but that's something we did intentionally. The stereotypes are definitely obvious, and we use them to not only deliver jokes, but to exaggerate the fundamental in our own warped version of satire.

Knowing that you guys have been seeking traditional publishing for a while, now, how do you feel about going the non-traditional route?

Well, there's always this stigma that you're "going it alone." You don't have a big multi-million dollar corporation backing you; all you have is yourself. But is that really so terrifying?

Firstly, what DO you get when you have a multi-million dollar corporation backing you? From what I've heard, most authors are still responsible for marketing themselves. I mean, I'm not going to drop any names, but we have a few friends who are authors under big publishing companies that are selling fewer books than we are, simply because the publishing companies are doing nothing to promote them. Without bragging too much, we'd like to think we've done a pretty good job of promoting ourselves through our site, and that steady readership is really helping to get our book out there.

Secondly, all we were doing, while waiting for traditional publishing, was exactly that--waiting. Days to hear back from queries. Weeks to hear back from samples. Months to hear back from full manuscript reads. I could go on, but you've heard our horror stories. Now--no more waiting. Our book is out there getting read, and by going through Amazon, all rights remain ours should a traditional publisher see what we're doing, see our potential, and express interest.

I have to emphasize that we are NOT against traditional publishers. I'm preparing to show my whiteness here, but it's like the old rap adage, "Don't hate the player, hate the game." The problem isn't the people. It's just the way things are done, and we're finding our way around that

For example, almost every rejection we've gotten from agents stated, "I loved this book, it was funny and well written, and it was a really hard decision, but I think it would be too hard to market, so I have to pass." So instead, we're doing the marketing ourselves and showing them it CAN be sold. Again, it's nothing to stop the presses about, but in our current state we're selling consistently higher numbers than small name authors working directly under the Big Six of publishing, so we have to be doing something right. And once we can snowball some momentum and get a solid, respectable sales number, I think we'll have some serious leverage in the publishing world.

I'm not sure that I'm not against traditional publishers, at this point. I think they need to change their game, and, until they show us they're willing to do that, I'm kind of just against them. Which is not to say that I would turn down an offer, because, frankly, we could use the money. However, it would have to be a lot of money. But I digress...
This next question is kind of obligatory, but that's not why I'm asking it. I'm asking it because I'm curious as to how the two of will answer it in particular. So, yeah, I want an answer from each of you:
Boiling down all of your experience with writing so far, what is your best single piece of advice to writers?
Actually, let me split that up:
What is your best writing advice (just to help people get the writing accomplished)?
What is your best publishing advice (for once people have a manuscript they feel is ready)?

Bryan: So I have one answer for both of those: write for yourself. It sounds simple, and it sounds stupid, but I see so many people look at an agent's website: "Currently looking for: a dark YA fantasy about werewolves with a touch of humor." And then they say, "Okay, maybe if I want to be sold by an agent I should write that!" Ummm, no, that's not what you want to write, that's what an agent wants written. Instead of catering to agents, write a novel for yourself, and then find the agent most likely to want your type of novel. Imagine spending a year writing a novel you're not 100% into, and then sending it to said agent, just for them to say, "Oh, I don't want that anymore! Now I want a romantic epic fantasy where the main character is a 20-something woman." When it comes to what's "hot," agents change their minds like they change their underwear... which, if they're like me, is at least once a month.

Brandon: Bouncing off what Bryan said, I agree that you have to write from the heart. If you try to write to some kind formula, or better yet borrow and butcher previously successful story ideas, it always shows through in the reading. You have to write for you and not for the prospect of future fame. Being unique and bold is what caught the attention of agents and editors for us in the past. To answer the first part of the question, all I can say is you have to establish a writing routine. Plant your ass in the chair. Type. Rinse. Repeat. The more often you write, the easier it becomes to stay in routine. And the longer you go procrastinating, the harder it is to start again. I think I first heard that in Stephen King's On Writing, which even if you're not a fan of his work, is by far the best motivational book on the craft that I've ever read.

Yeah, I keep hearing that about the King book, but, from everything I've read about the way King writes, it's not the way I write, so that has made me less inclined to read it. Maybe, when I'm finished with my current projects, I'll take a look at it.
Let's flip that last question around:
Of writing advice that you see on blogs or in articles or in books or wherever, what is the thing that bothers you the most? The thing that makes you say, "That's stupid!" or "How could anyone listen to that garbage?"

Bryan:  Probably what makes me cringe the most are these two things:

1) "That sounds great!" (when it clearly doesn't). 

You don't have to tell someone "you suck," but if their writing needs work, you aren't doing them any favors by giving them the idea that it's perfect as it is. Don't be afraid to critique. Just say it nicely. And on the other side of that, as a writer, if you ask, "What do you think?" and someone says, "It's good, but you could use a little work with ____," don't get your panties in a twist. You asked for advice, so take it graciously.

2) "Oh, just keep trying, you'll sell it eventually!"

Now before everyone gets out their pitchforks, let me elaborate--in most writing circles, there's a guy who's "been working" on a novel for 5-8 years. It's long, it's been edited 400+ times, and no agent will touch it, so he keeps rewriting it constantly. And yet, rather than try and work on something new, he keeps beating this dead horse until he's all worn out on writing and gives up completely. 

I say don't be afraid to move on to another project if you've given your current project a valiant effort and it doesn't work out. Hell, with a novel I'd been working on for 3 years, I was almost on the verge of becoming "that guy," but one day I decided to sit down, write something completely different, and it landed me a huge agent. Only after was I able to see that the original project I was tangling myself up in wasn't right for me at that moment, and really, I was just scared of 'trying something different.' Change is good. And hey, if it IS a genuinely good story, just save it for when you're published. Then you can dig it up and give it the readership it deserves, with your name standing behind it.

Brandon: I once heard a Creative Writing professor profess that "editing is vastly more important than writing." The point she was trying to make was that no matter how bad something may seem after you've written it, it can always be made better with careful, laborious editing. This isn't so. Editing is hugely important, to be sure. But, no matter how much wax and upper arm strength you have, you just can't polish a turd. Some writing is just plain bad. I think there comes a point where, like Bryan said above, revision becomes an exercise in futility. If you have to spend five times as long giving a chapter a facelift than you did writing it, you're addressing the wrong problem. You need to work on being able to convey your thoughts more clearly, not hatchet a piece to death until it no longer has a natural voice.

Yeah, I think sentences, paragraphs, chapters can be made better through editing, but you can't edit a bad story into goodness. When you start "editing" the story, it's no longer that story but some new story you're turning it into. I do have to say, though, as much as you are correct about knowing when to move on, I also get really tired of seeing people that write something, send out a few queries, get rejected, and immediately toss it. If that's all the faith you have in your work, you'll never have any success.
To wrap things up (before I get on to my review), what is the work you are most proud of, both individually and collectively?

Brandon: Individually, I'm not too keen on the solo novels I've produced thus far. I think it will be in my will to burn those after I die. However, I'm pretty proud of (most of) my short stories and novellas, of which I've done about 60. They're mostly all horror, and I kind of miss writing that stuff. I don't know if I'll do much horror in the future, since my currently developing solo novels are all semi-humorous satire. Collaboratively, Bryan and I have written a lot of stuff together, but I'm most proud of our current work-in-progress, titled The Dead Don't Play Slots. Our overall writing is much better than in The Missing Link. Not to say that TML is bad, it's just that as a writer you never stop learning and honing the craft. Practice makes perfect practice, or something like that.

Bryan: I'll definitely agree that The Dead Don't Play Slots is my favorite collaborative story, which is saying a lot because I love The Missing Link. The Dead Don't Play Slots was picked up by Random House, for God's sake (until our deal fell through), so that has to say something. As for individual writing, the project I'm most proud of is Demetri and the Banana Flavored Rocketship.

Fun story: when I first pitched it to the high-profile agent that picked it up and later screwed me over, the story was only 1/3 done. But he wanted it now now now, so I lied and said, yes, sure, it's done... I just need to "clean it up" a bit. Then I went home, locked myself in my room like a hermit, and wrote the entire thing in a week and a half. And it ended up landing me that agent. I think I'm proud not only of the story, but that the whole project snapped together so seamlessly that even writing it in 1 and a half weeks wasn't just 'slapping' it together. It's all high quality writing from start to finish. So take that, NaNoWriMo! (Note: I do not recommend writing entire novels in a week. This was just a very extreme case)

Is The Dead Don't Play Slots something we should expect to see on the horizon any time soon? And, Brandon, what about a collection of your horror stories? Bryan, I'm not even going to ask about why anyone would know the flavor of a rocketship; is that one available anywhere so I can find out?

Brandon: At this point, we're in the process of building something that's going to shake up the publishing world, hopefully in a big way. Can't comment on it much more, at the moment. Meanwhile, we're both trying to juggle a lot of projects right now. Hopefully, The Dead Don't Play Slots will be release ready in a few months. I have short stories in print journals like Crow Toes Quarterly and The Foliate Oak, and in e-journals like Ray Gun Revival, but haven't put much thought into releasing collections any time soon. Honestly, I don't think the quality is consistent enough for pro-level publication, so I'll probably hold off for a while.

Bryan: The title is actually based on the main character, who is a failed (and very terrible) children's author. The book is also, unfortunately, unreleased, and since we don't want to release too many books at once, will remain unreleased for now. But I definitely want to put it out there at some point. If you enjoy my strange sense of humor, you'd like this one. It's basically a love story between a man and a blowup doll, and while on the surface it sounds like a ridiculous gag for a plot, it's actually a sweet story with a lot of heart, and yes, it actually did make my agent cry. And when I think of how much my agent screwed me over on this book, I cry too.

Well, Bryan, I think you know that I like your sense of humor. It's why I read your blog and am enjoying my read of The Missing Link. I'm just sort of assuming that y'all have a similar sense of humor, or does that all come from Bryan?

Bryan: We both definitely share the same sense of humor, however I'd probably say that Brandon's gravitates a bit more toward the clever and mine is a bit more of the random, out-there, nerdy type of humor (like the great Sir McAffery). But I think it meshes well.

Before I get into the review of the book, I do want to say that I love the character concept of Sir McAffery. Especially him being modeled on the klutzy knight from Through the Looking Glass. That's just awesome. So... any last words before I get out my red pen and grade your term paper?

Before you whip out the red pen, we only have this to say: I have years of practice turning an F into an oddly shaped A, so I can re-word anything you say into my favor.

Example: "This is not well written! I would rather take a blast from a shotgun directly into my face than ever read their writing again."

Andrew Leon of Strange Pegs calls The Missing Link: "...Well written!" And "...A blast!"

[Note: There is a review to go along with this; however, the interview is rather longer than I realized (since we did it over days, and it didn't seem so long when we did it), so I'm going to save the review for the next post. That should be up tomorrow or Thursday depending on how things go. I hope you all enjoyed the interview. It was a lot of fun to do, and I enjoyed chatting with these guys. Hopefully, next time, I can get them to wear actual clothes instead of sitting around in damp towels dripping all over the furniture.
Thanks, Guys!]


  1. Writing a book together must be both challenging and a blast. And full of bloody trees obviously.
    Publishing is a strange business indeed.
    Wishing you two success!

  2. I agree that Stephen King's "On Writing" is one of the very best writing books out there. I also loved the Dark Tower...

    A great interview. And any book that's inspired by beer and cell phones sounds like one I should check out.

  3. "But, no matter how much wax and upper arm strength you have, you just can't polish a turd."

    That is the best thing I have heard on editing for a long time.

    I'm not sure I could ever writer collaboratively on that level, though sometimes I think I'm going to have to give my husband a co-author credit for all the help he gives me in my writing.

  4. I agree with a lot of what they said, including about "American Gods" being better than "Anansi Boys." I thought the first book was a lot deeper while Anansi seemed a lot slicker and lighter; in my review I think I compared it to shows like "The Odd Couple" and "Two and a Half Men."

    I'd second what they said too about not trying to write for what an agent says he/she wants. I mean I read a list from a prominent agent of what he said he wanted and it was pure garbage. And worst, like they said, by the time I wrote anything off that list, he'd be on to wanting something else. I'm fast, but I'm not THAT fast.

    Though it's funny after all this I have no idea what their book is about, so I guess I'll have to wait and read your review.

  5. BTW, there was already a movie about a love story of sorts between a man and a blow-up doll called "Lars and the Real Girl" about five years ago. Pretty good movie, if a little predictable. And you could probably throw "Mannequin" into the mix too.

  6. Stephen King has influenced just about everyone. This is a great interview. I'm LOL'ing at Grumpy's comment.

  7. Great interview! It's always interesting to read how writing partners work together toward one vision.

  8. Holy crap, are these guys for real?! Who in the hell decides to use a cheap-ass 8-bit Nintendo graphic for a cover? Pssh.

    We must thank you sir, for you are a scholar and a gentleman. At least you were until you decided to interview us. But, hey, a scholar's still good!

  9. Great Interview! I am listening to the audio book of Stephen King's On Writing and I am really enjoying it.....although as you know I am a huge King fan.

  10. This was the most entertaining interview I've read for a long time (though I feel a little left out, not having read some of the books mentioned~ must remedy that!).

    My favorite line has to be from Brandon: That bastard stole The Dark Tower!

    I'm forwarding a link to this interview to a friend of mine who will also love it!

  11. Have to agree on everything said about King. Sorry, I'm still a fan. But I'd read the earlier works first (DT and Shining, for certain).

    Entertaining interview. I've already got this one on my Kindle, recommended by Deb Courtney. Looking forward to it!

  12. Glad everyone enjoyed the interview! I'm sure we'll be hearing more, much more, from these guys!

  13. I agree that it was a great interview... I used to visit their blog when it was new and sort of fell away as they got more and more popular. Actually, I think I many have been their follower number 1. I know, a huge achievement.

    Anyway, they always struck me as bright and very good at writing. You've already posted your review so I'll pop on over there see what you thought.

  14. wow... Is that anything like being patient 0?

  15. Was interesting to hear how you collaborate. I like the Dark Tower & Neil Gaiman, too. Best of success on the novel.

  16. Excellent, excellent, excellent! Oh did I say excellent btw?! These guys rock.

  17. Thanks for doing this interview with the B&B from ABFTS! I'll place thosee creative writing tips in the 'ol noggin'.

  18. Brandon is right, albeit in a crude way, some people just can't write. However, I bet somewhere out there, there is a person with a fetish for polishing poop.

  19. Barb: I hear they use actual rocks, too.