One of the gems I received in response to my offer to trade books was a thin volume named The Giant Squid in… Holiday Hijinx. It preyed on my love of underwater creatures, the antiquated absurd, and needlessly cruel narrators. I’d enjoyed the Ask the Giant Squid columns online for their uppercrust tone and sharp-beaked attacks on monkeymen, but it wasn’t until I read them collected that I began to appreciate the characterization and narrative tentacles twined through. I interviewed the writers(s) via the interweb mail service, mostly with Dave Nelson, about their “3-pronged writing attack” and publishing experience.
How does a 3-pronged writing attack work?
I took this to be a functional question, and so my answer is this:
Back when we started, Fritz (Swanson), Mojo (Morgan Johnson) and I all lived within a mile of each other in Ann Arbor, MI. We’d crowd around a single computer (usually in the apartment Mojo and I shared, where I slept in the dining room), start spitballing ideas, and then take turns typing and shouting gags at each other. It was sorta like the NYSE.
Then everyone moved: Mojo to SF, Fritz to Manchester (45 minutes west of Ann Arbor), and I to an apartment across town with my girlfriend, and then another apartment across town the other way, and then into a house on the remaining side of town (somewhere in the middle everyone got married except for Mojo, he will be getting married next year.) To facilitate the process (which could no longer hinge upon crowding around a single keyboard and yelling) I coded a rudimentary web-based program for managing our workshop. In the Wkshop we can collectively edit a given piece and view it as HTML, and all of the previous drafts are archived. Nowadays, a given piece is drafted by one of us and posted to the workshop. The others than come in and start making additions, subtractions, embellishments, etc. So, usually, in a 1000 word piece (most Squid probably average 1500 words, but I’m a terribly mathematician, so let’s presume that all Squid columns are 1000 words), about 750 of those words came from the original drafter, and the remaining has been added by the other two writers (or, realistically, the first guy puts in 750 words, the next guy knocks out 50 and tosses in a few hundred, and the final guy tweaks, edits, refines and occasionally spellchecks.) At one time we managed this catch-as-catch-can, and whoever called dibs on a given week got to do the initial draft. Now we take turns with the initial drafting (since we started, people have gotten real jobs and wives and babies and thus have a little less time to fantasize about a Squid President bombing the Vatican with nickels.) Since the Squid is weekly, this means we each have a given week, and the remaining two weeks are wildcards.
Also, from the start, pieces were (and still are) occasionally written by choosing a question, jotting ten-minutes worth of an answer, and then passing that chunk along to the next guy, each of us adding a few hundred words as quickly as possible and passing. Think “exquisite corpse meets hot potato.”
Fritz and Mojo took the question to be more about the results and experience of this approach.
Fritz’ opinion: “The main thing about a three pronged attack is that, if you are zen about it and don’t think about your own ego, the character comes alive much more quickly. The squid exists in a Turing test sort of way, because he does believable stuff that no one of us could predict or entirely explain.”
And Mojo’s: “I think the three-pronged attack works great for us, but might be terrible for other people. I think our mutual love and respect for each other makes this possible. Also the fact that none of us are traditional alpha-male types trying to force our worldview on the others. [Dave notes: “I’m a traditional alpha-male type, as well as a micromanaging megalomaniac. I have demanded folks address me as ‘Captain’ or ‘Lord Vice-Admiral.’ It is kind of neither Fritz nor Mojo to point this out.”]
Agreed with my distinguished colleagues 100%. The advantage of this approach, results-wise, is that you quickly wind up with a very psychologically rich and believable universe. Since characters have a set of creators (rather than a single creator) bossing them around, they also, of necessity, have complex motivations and pasts. Also, because there are often warring interests in a given piece, many columns wind up having very fully developed sub-threads. Example: Mojo might draft a piece where the Squid is answering a relationship question, and in doing so the Squid asks his lab assistant to go look something up. I might find myself wanting to talk about the lab assistant’s relationship with his dad, and so the assistant, in relaying the results of the search to the Squid, will tell a childhood anecdote about his father. Fritz, cleaning the piece up, draws the threads of the two lines back together and gives it a neat denouement in the last lines of the column. All of a sudden we have this nicely complicated piece that is about the advice-seeker’s query, and also about how the lab assistant and the Squid relate, and about the lab assistant’s personal and family life.
Also it’s a lot of fun, ’cause we still get to hang out, asynchronously across time and time zones. It’s like being in a weird jam-band, but instead of playing instruments, we all pretend to be a cephalopodic Mark Twain with a God Complex.
Oh, also, the vast majority of the questions we answer are indeed actual questions actually sent to the Squid by actual readers, which is sorta weird. I mean, often folks seem to be asking for real advice from a pretend Squid living in a lonely whiteboy’s fascinated/ terrified vision of the post-industrial urban husk of Detroit.
I see that it’s a print run of 60. How did this work out for you?
Well. We originally printed HIJINX as Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday Books for friends and family. As I recall, the print run was pretty cheap (maybe $300? Less than $500. This is more of a Fritz question), and done by a Canadian PoD company that was really swift and professional (in fact, the only hitch was that our crate of books got stopped by US Customs for a week.) The company we used was Hignell Book Printing and the books cost $478.50 for our run. Fritz did all of the layout, which Hignell accepted as a PDF.
These pieces have been posted online, correct?
Yup, although several pieces experienced substantial changes/ additions for the book. For example the end (chapter 5 of section 2), where Rob picks the Squid up on the beach in Georgia, was entirely new.
How’s the reaction to them online different than when you put them together as a collection?
Consistently folks seemed to find reading the Squid off a print page to be more enjoyable. This makes sense, as many of the pieces are long, and all of them a little glossolaliac. Also, these pieces originally ran at least weeks, if not years apart; having them gathered into one place gives a much more coherent and focused vision of the Squid, who tends to range around a little, topically.
Also, many of our friends wished the book was a little more beautiful as a physical object itself, that it was more of a book-art project (like Spork magazine, for example, or a lot of the stuff put out by McSweeney’s.) This Fall Fritz, his brother-in-law and I drove out to upstate New York and bought an antique Chandler letterpress, so . . . well, so slightly more book-artsy projects are on the horizon. We intend to release portions of the book we’re currently drafting, “The Curses of the Presidents,” as chapbooks/pamphlets/ almanacs/broadsheets produced on the letterpress.