Can't Wait For the Next Episode?

So, I’m a teacher who just went through finals week, Edgar recently got full time at their job, and Alex has a full time job and just went through a major life change that I’ll let him reveal at his own pace. The point is that, while we all believe in — and are dedicate to — Broken Hands Media, we have other things going on and sometimes a week just sucker-punches you right in the teeth.

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Writers' Room and Recording Booth: The Headspace of Collaboration

(Edgar wrote an excellent piece on the cowriting process here.)

In many ways Perdition’s Teeth belongs to me — but I don’t consider any of those ways important, and everyone who took part in the process owns a vital piece of it. I would never have it any other way, and it is all of ours.

I’ve mentioned many times that it all started with a misheard lyric in the shower, but before it became a podcast, I ran it as a tabletop game. Edgar was one of my players, and regular guest star Erik Pitcock was another. From the very beginning, it was a collaborative story.

When we shifted over to making it into a podcast, Edgar became my cowriter, and we all agreed that they should be the director. I was playing the narrator, and I did not feel that I could write, act, and direct effectively. That’s more hats than I care to wear.

And all through the process, Alex was asking questions. Key, important questions, about what makes an audio drama an audio drama, about how it should function and come into the world, and while I was immovable on some things, being forced to answer the question of why things were being done the way they were was key.

From the beginning, Edgar and I were firm in the idea that everyone have a voice in the direction. We talked over each of the characters with each of our actors, we gave them our ideas, our outlines, and we took their feedback to make it work. This, I feel, is the lifeblood of collaboration.

When I was in graduate school — down in New Mexico, with the groundwork for this project being welded into my mind — I made a point to read widely, on a number of subjects. Two of the books I read that had a profound and lasting effect were from the 33 & 1/3 books on Slint’s Spiderland and Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones. Both of these books deal heavily with cowriting and collaboration, and both depict radically different ends of the spectrum.

Slint, famously, recorded the album Spiderland in two weekends. The first weekend was recording, the second was editing. Everything was a single take. To prepare for this, the members of that band devoted everything to preparing. They slept. They worked. They practiced. That was essentially it. They had long and involved discussions of the minutiae of each song. The book even noted that they spent hours debating the benefits and drawbacks of stroking upward on the guitar as opposed to downward.

Tom Waits, on the other hand, would get studio musicians to come in and would just begin describing what he wanted, playing what he had written thus far, improvising the rest, and allow the studio musicians and collaborators to slot themselves in as they wanted. It was a loose, improvisational style that lent itself to mutation and generated difference.

And so, between these two poles, you have almost the entire universe of collaboration.

My struggle, as a collaborator and, in a very real sense, as the creator, was trying to figure out how to work with other people productively. My struggle is that, while I dearly love Tom Waits, Spiderland is light years beyond Swordfishtrombones.

In the end, though, I couldn’t go with Slint’s approach. While Spiderland really is transcendantly good, the fact of the matter is that there’s only ever been one Spiderland. Slint broke up immediately after the record was released; one member committed himself. On the other hand, Swordfishtrombones was a trailhead, a new direction in an already-long career that has covered more territory than I can even dream of.

If Perdition’s Teeth serves the same role for us, I would be happy. I cannot abide it being unique: I want to follow it with other works.

How to Pick Up Hitchhikers: the Co-Writing Process

My memory is terrible. That's probably why the first distinct conversation I recall having with Cameron about what would become Perdition's Teeth was around the time he posted something on Facebook, canvassing his friends for interest in working on a podcast together. And while we'd played through a brief tabletop RPG campaign set in a similar world, that story had featured a huge plot derailment due to a character having a bunch of drugs on his person, so I wasn't really sure how it would go. And then when we got together with some of the friends from the initial Facebook thread, Perdition's Teeth wasn't something that was high on my list for potential projects -- but it's the one we all got behind, and in retrospect, I'm really glad that it's the one we went with.

It's not just that I'm in love with the characters, or that I got to learn a lot about things like labor organizing in the 1930s. In a lot of ways, I think this was an ideal project for a crash-course in co-writing and collaboration.

For context: Cameron and I have been writing next to each other, as it were, for a long time. We've been reading and critiquing each other's writing for over ten years. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses pretty well, at this point -- but we had never written anything collaboratively. And while both of us had been involved in theatrical productions in the past, we had never been behind the wheel. It was, in a lot of ways, a wild ride.

Cameron, as both the originator of the concept and the better plot-forger (by leagues), created the initial episode-by-episode breakdown of the action in a table format. Now, I can't plot my way out of a paper bag (I mean, I can, but it's really hard), but I am, I think, pretty good at writing characters. So once we had that episode-by-episode outline, Cameron passed the table off to me so that I could detail the characters' emotional arcs as the action progressed. When the table was complete, we met with Alex and the rest of the cast, and talked with them about the proposed course of the story. They had some thoughts; we had some thoughts; we changed things until we were all reasonably happy with how they would go. I mean, maybe not happy, given the ending and all, but satisfied.

From there, we began the real work.

Another thing I learned a lot about on this project: CeltX. I swore a lot.

Cameron and I decided early on that, even if one of us wrote the bulk of the episode, the other would have to sign off on it. We also decided, in the case of a few episodes, that one of us would be wholly responsible for producing the script because, in one way or another, given episodes played to our specific strengths.

Cameron wrote all the exciting stuff; I wrote all the stirring speeches.

It was when we started recording, however, that I moved deeper into another role. As the "character czar," I had written a lot of the character-heavy content, or at least edited it in some way. During the rehearsal and recording process, I used my authority (ha!) to act as a kind of director. It's different from what I thought of as directing, for sure: no movements, obviously, but a lot of heavy-duty voice work. In practice, this meant a lot of talking through the characters' emotional states as they spoke, and putting the characters' words into the context of their actions, as well as a lot of semi-incoherent statements like, "You wanna kinda build up to the comma here, right? And then drop it right down," accompanied by dramatic gestures. Unsurprisingly, the task grew easier with practice, but fortunately, I was working with a very talented and receptive group of people. Everyone involved had taken direction in the past, and fortunately, they were able to help me in turn when I had to pinch-hit on minor characters.

While my involvement in the genesis of the project was more as a sounding board, towards the end, in some ways, I was able to guide things on a pretty high level. Like a hitchhiker who, at first, seems like dead weight on the engine, I eventually got to move into a navigator role, riding shotgun on a project that has grown to be so much more than any of us, I think, initially thought it could. I'm really proud of my own involvement -- but the characters came to life in the voices of our friends, and the story couldn't have been told without any of the people involved on board.

Where Perdition's Teeth Came From

A lot of writers have difficulty articulating where their ideas come from, but I recall exactly how Perdition's Teeth came to be.  I thought I would lay that story out preemptively.

I've long been a fan of weird fiction, because it seems to me that you shouldn't be able to use the names of genres as an easy shorthand for anything but the deeper structure of it -- I dislike saying "fantasy" to describe a story, and immediately having people think of something out of Dungeons and Dragons (don't get me wrong -- I have both played and run more than my fair share of D&D, I just don't think it should be the default.)  And one of the things that I always thought would work is a marriage of the common quest narrative to the distinctly American setting of the Dust Bowl.  I never really did much with the idea, because Edgar had a manuscript they toyed with every now and then that did just that, and I figured that Edgar could do it better than I could, especially after having read some of it.

So I never sat down and worked these ideas out, but they stuck with me.  Blame it on how much I enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath when I was in high school.

But when one of my gaming groups hit a lull in early 2016, I began to toy with a number of ideas.  One of them derived from Pacific Northwestern gothic, one of them is an early form of a project that I'm going to present at some point, called, at the moment Numinous Trespass, and the last was an idea that came to me while showering.  Thanks to Edgar's influence I had begun to listen to music on my phone while showering, but I tended to put my Spotify on shuffle, because I'm an absolute mess when it comes to picking music to listen to.

While in the shower, I misheard a lyric from "That Old Dustbowl" by The Dustbowl Revival as "then the crops go bad, and you lose your soul" and everything came together.  I presented this last idea to the group, and I began telling stories about the characters -- a fortune teller, an gangster on the run, and an ex-preacher traveling west, hounded by a man in a black phaeton.

That was the very first version of Perdition's Teeth.  I ran it using the Nemesis system, a variant on the One Roll Engine designed to run Lovecraftian Horror (I did nothing Lovecraftian in the game -- I'd had enough of tentacles and archaic spelling by this point.)

A few months later, when I was listening to a number of amateur-run podcasts during a break between seasons on some of my favorite series, I realized that Edgar and I knew enough people to get one started.  I mentioned it in an offhand fashion on social media, and less than a week later, five-sixths of the core team were sitting in Joseph's dining room talking about possible project ideas and how we would go about doing it.

I mentioned two ideas I had, with the working titles Planetfall (which would have to change, but it was all I had,) a hard science-fiction story about three groups settling an alien world and the politics of ownership, and Babylon, Missouri, a supernatural murder story set on the banks of the Missouri river that I had tried to write as a novel but backed off from because I felt I had made several serious missteps in my composition and needed time to think on it.

After we had discussed both ideas at length, I mentioned that we could move on to new ideas after we had finished the first one, and I used Perdition's Teeth as an example, thinking that this would be an anthology series.  We put it to vote which one we would do.

My potted description of Perdition's Teeth ended up winning, and Edgar and I began writing shortly afterward, but that's how it came to be.