Antiques Chop Talk

March 27th, 2012 by Max Allan Collins

Right now I am in the home stretch of my draft of ANTIQUES CHOP, the seventh “Trash ‘n’ Treasures” mystery that Barb and I have collaborated upon. I should finish this week (and I better, because April 1st is the deadline) (no fooling). Nate suggested that, while I’m in the midst of it, I provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process.

Barb and I begin with a succession of business lunches where we first come up with the basic concept, and usually tie it to a title. The pattern of the titles are to have the word ANTIQUES followed by a punning word, and we have a list of these (continually growing). This time the title ANTIQUES CHOP sparked the premise (sometimes it’s the other way around), leading to the mystery revolving around an ax murder, an unusually gruesome crime for a supposed “cozy.”

We often look at “antique” crimes, which is to say crimes that occurred decades ago but are having latter-day ramifications. So I suggested we make an unsolved Lizzie Border-esque ax murder the centerpiece of the story, and wrote a faux entry about the crime for a non-existent true-crime encyclopedia. From there Barb and I began the back-and-forth process of coming up with a fairly detailed plot. We have to turn in a sample chapter and brief synopsis to our editor at Kensington (and get approval), so we have to have a firm idea of where we’re going before Barb gets started on her draft.

Barb works on that draft for probably six months, although that six months may stretch out to an entire year, because she isn’t always working on it – summers tend to be busy and that keeps her away from the work. Last year, for example, we went on a west coast book tour, plus there’s comic con and other distractions.

As Barb writes, I stay out of her way unless she has a problem or a concern about what she’s up to. Sometimes we discuss a plot point, and oftentimes we discuss it if she feels she has a need to deviate from the plot as originally conceived. Generally, though, I give her all the space she needs.

When Barb delivers her draft, it’s usually about 200 to 225 pages of doubled-spaced copy. My job is to expand and flesh out her draft, providing more dialogue and even more humor and generally apply what I laughingly think of as a more professional gloss. The end result will be 300 to 330 pages. I do my pass in a month or less, working hard and intensely, with Barb editing and suggesting revisions as I go (she reads it, and provides her notes, a chapter at a time). We do a lot of this over business lunches – just yesterday, on what was otherwise a day off, we discussed two plot points that needed shoring up in the chapter I just finished and the one that I will be doing today.

The final step is for me to spend a day or two re-reading the manuscript and marking up a hard copy with revisions, with Barb entering them in the chapter files. Then, common to all writers, we ship it (by e-mail these days) and hold our collective breath, hoping for a delighted response from the editor. On this series, we’ve been lucky to get that response pretty much every time. Occasionally there are rewrites, as on ANTIQUES MAUL where the editor felt the murder occurred too late in the mystery, and we reshaped the book so that it happened virtually on page one and then flashed back.

I said “final step” above, but of course there is much more to do – there will be a copy-edited manuscript to check, and at least one round of galley proofs. We tend to trade off on these assignments, with Barb doing the copy-edited manuscript and me reading the galley proofs. We divide the work that way because (a) I hate the copy-editing stage, since the Moriarty of my career is the Intrusive Copy Editor Who Stalks Me Under Various Names and Guises, and (b) Barb is thoroughly sick of the book by the galley proof stage and is content to leave that step to me.

Do we squabble? Not much. Hardly at all. I may get testy if, as I’m moving forward in my draft, Barb indicates (and she’s always right) that I need to go back and make a few fixes in a chapter that I had considered finished. This occurs, on the rare occasion that it does occur, early in the morning before I have had a chance to become fully human. Let’s just say, first thing in the morning, I’m more Quarry than Mallory.

So there you go. That’s how this particular flavor of sausage is made.

* * *

It’s gratifying to note that I received such a warm reaction to my defense of the film JOHN CARTER – which, let’s face it, was fairly shrill, since the premise of my piece was that anyone who didn’t like the movie was an idiot. Not only did my piece receive more comments than usual, a number of blogs provided links and made favorable comments on my take on this beleaguered film.

I am pleased to say that the early reviews on LADY GO, DIE! are coming in and, so far, are all favorable. The book received a very nice write-up in the often tough Publisher’s Weekly.

And there was a very gratifying (and I think perceptive) review from one of my favorite contemporary crime writers, Bill Crider, at his blog (perhaps the best mystery fiction blog out there).

Similarly, Ron Fortier – another strong contemporary scribe – has written a LADY, GO DIE! review that appears at several blogs, including his own Pulp Fiction Reviews.

The Brandywine site continues to work through the Nate Heller backlist, and this time FLYING BLIND is discussed.

QUARRY’S EX has picked up several, slightly belated (favorable) reviews, like this one at Books Are For Squares and this one at Pulp 300.

Here’s a thoughtful new look at the film version of ROAD TO PERDITION.

And here’s a guy who says he’s addicted to my books. I have to wonder if he discovered Nate Heller through the Amazon reprint series, who essentially gave TRUE DETECTIVE away (for under two bucks) for a while there. You know, the drug dealers really had something with their “first one’s free” approach.

M.A.C.

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2 Responses to “Antiques Chop Talk”

  1. Joe Menta says:

    I always wince a little when you talk about being happy when an editor approves your ideas, drafts, etc. Also bugs me when publishers decide what cover art will grace your books, against your better judgement. Just curious, have you ever considered dropping traditional publishing and just selling directly to your many fans, via e-book technology and Amazon’s author-controlled print imprint (and other print arrangements like it)? These methods will allow you to make all the decisions and keep most of the profits. Writers like J.A. Konrath (a great mystery/thriller writer but definitely still very much in your shadow, Max) is really raking it in now that he dropped traditional publishing and- with a little help from formatters and artists- just puts his print and e-book titles out himself.

    Of course, people are only hearing his side of the story about why traditional publishing arrangements are now outmoded, unfair to writers, etc. You seem to be happy still working within that system, so maybe a future post topic here on your site can give your perspective. I’d love to hear it. If you related the “good” side of traditional publishing, maybe then I’d stop getting annoyed whenever I hear about publishers shooting down your ideas and preventing you from continuing series that you’d like to continue, and I’d like to read, too.

  2. Great comment, and I will indeed write an update on this topic soon (thanks to your nudge, Joe).

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