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Spider and Jeanne

Spider's Online Diary

27 February, 2001--A memoir of spousal collaboration:

Spider and Jeanne Robinson

(Some thoughts on collaboration, to mark the May 2001 reissue of STARMIND by Baen Books)
© 2001 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

Photo © 2001 Greg McKinnon

We didn't do it deliberately. It was serendipity.

So we're not sure our experience will be relevant to you. But using the imperial "we" makes us feel so much like royalty, we can't resist writing this account of how we came to collaborate on three novels. Cue the Wayback Machine, Professor--forward, into the past!

Back in 1977, Jeanne had never thought of herself as a writer, or had the faintest desire to be one. Spider, her partner of two years then, was the writer--and a superstitiously secretive one. He never showed anyone anything but completed copy. (Oh, Jeanne always helped him fix the first draft, but no one else ever saw anything but final draft.) She was a modern dancer and choreographer, with a career considerably more demanding than his.

But then she had this baby...

So we went back to the Old Country to show off the baba to the family. And ran out of cash. Marooned at Jeanne's mom's house in Massachusetts, we knew our only hope of getting home to the blizzards of Nova Scotia before Summer was for Spider to sell something fast.

He reasoned as follows: when in a hurry, write about what you already know, to save time researching. What did he know? Well...a dancer. And thereby more than most laymen know about dance. Ah, but how to sell a dance story to Analog? Fairly obvious: set it God, in space. Dance in zero gee! What a wonderful concept...

That night , he mentioned that he was working up a yarn about zero gravity dance, called "Stardance." Jeanne's ears grew points...

Her own career was on maternal hiatus, and our baby was a sweetie: for the first time in many years she had time and energy on her hands. And when you think about it (which we did not, until much later), what a choreographer does is make up stories--whether linear or abstract--even if they're usually told without words.

The next day Spider became aware, as he scribbled, of a vague presence behind his shoulder. He let it pass: he loved his wife, and she WAS being quiet. After a time, he heard her voice: "That's not the correct term. A dancer would call that a jump, not a leap."

He was faintly irritated by the interruption--but after all, she was his resource person, and it would be well to spot errors before one became inoperably entwined in the story. He grunted and made the correction.

Awhile later, she did it again. "No: that's a ballet term. Modern dancers don't say that." Spider growled, and again made the change.

Ten minutes later Jeanne clearly exceeded her mandate as technical consultant: she said, referring to the protagonist, "Shara would never do that. She's just not that kind of person."

Seriously annoyed now--this was exactly why he didn't show work-in-progress: well-meaning people were always fiddling with the confidence he needed to keep working--Spider began to explain why Jeanne was wrong. Assembling his arguments, he discovered that she was right. He thought about this, and about Jeanne's uncanny ability to "read" people accurately on short acquaintance...and then about how badly he would have blundered if she had not just rescued him.

"Pull up a chair," he said, and added her name to the byline.

Jeanne was extremely reluctant--but he wouldn't let her off the hook no matter how much she squirmed. (Much the same way their marriage began, now he comes to think of it.)

Neither of us could tell you at gunpoint "who wrote what." Jeanne did not set a word to paper, nor did she often suggest major changes in style or grammar of specific sentences, nor argue details of space science, those being Spider's lines of evil. But she helped guide every scene, supplied dialogue and action and business and vital technical advice and crucial structural suggestions--and every time Spider paused to ask himself the age-old question, What Happens Next?, she would tell him. Her suggestion was nearly always better than anything he could come up with. Most vital to the story, she invented and explored the entire art of zero gravity dance, Spider supplying only relevant scientific data about the behavior of objects in zero gee. How she did all this without making him defensive, neither can say.

Nonetheless, the process was so strange to Spider that it produced a story unlike anything he had ever written. As he typed the final draft of "Stardance," it seemed to him that it was awful. Worse, it was unsalably long. He was in despair as he typed the last page: Jeanne had to literally seize the MSS from his hands to keep him from destroying it. She pointed out that they were broke nearly to the point of being unrepairable, and that even a rotten story might well bring a check from some desperate editor: we might as well begin hunting for one, while trying to think of a better, shorter, more salable piece to write.

Spider sent the story to Ben Bova at Analog, then called to ask for a quick decision. Ben promised one, but pointed out that the MSS was obviously much too long: he advised us to work on ways of cutting it at least in half while he was reading it.

That night we studied it together, and despaired anew. We could not find a spare word. Reluctantly we called Ben and said so.

"Forget the cutting," he said. "I'm a little more than halfway through, and I'll probably buy it pretty much as is. Find a good place to break it, and I'll run it over two issues."

That night we went crazy again. There was just no way to bisect the damn thing effectively. Next day we called Ben again...

"Forget breaking it," he said. "I've finished it, and I'm going to run it in a single lump, fill half the magazine with it, and it's going to win the Best Novella Hugo." (The Hugo is sf's top award, unique among arts awards in that it is voted on annually by anyone in the world who wants to bother, rather than by an elite group of "experts.")

The check arrived: joyously we headed for home, ran into a major blizzard, and durn near died in New Brunswick.

So Jeanne became the first person ever to win a Hugo, a Nebula, and AnLab and Locus Poll awards for her first published work, and Spider got the second of his three Hugos.

Jeanne created a dance solo called "Higher Ground," about what she had learned in inventing and contemplating zero gee dance, and premiered it at the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention, Noreascon II, in the Grand Ballroom of the Boston Sheraton. It incorporated brief simulated zero-gee special effects, both live and on film. Over a thousand fans gave her a ten-minute standing ovation, and Jeanne found herself, with no clear idea how it had happened, on the short list of candidates for a seat on the Space Shuttle--to try out zero gee dance for real!--through NASA's Civilian In Space program (where she remained until the Challenger tragedy ended the CIS Program for our lifetime). Spider found himself lecturing with Jeanne at the Canadian national dance conference on dance in free fall.

Over the next year, many colleagues urged us to "expand that sucker into a book and make some real bread." But we couldn't bear to pump our baby full of bad gas, just to make her marketable to a more affluent buyer. One day sf's most reknowned and skilled plot doctor, Gordon R. Dickson, called us up. "I've heard of your problem," he said, "and I wanted to suggest that the good way to turn a novella into a novel is not to pump it up bigger...but to write the sequel." That night we discussed how we might do that. To our shock, we realized all the clues we needed were already in "Stardance," planted there without conscious intent! We contracted with Dial Press for a novel. (Note: Gordon R. Dickson died in February 2001. We miss you, Gordy: thanks for everything.)

The remaining two thirds of STARDANCE were written differently than the original novella. Jeanne was now back in high gear as a dancer/choreographer in New York. So while she sweated in studios, Spider sat in a tiny apartment on the East Side and wrote, with the baby on his lap. Jeanne would read the copy when she came home, and explain what was wrong. (Being careful to praise what he'd gotten right.) Then he'd fix it. It always came out better.

The second portion of the story, serialized in Analog as "Stardance II," won the AnLab again. The hardcover sold well, and the first paperback printing was set at 200,000 copies. STARDANCE has been in print ever since, currently in Baen Books paperback, and has been translated into eight other languages.

In short, it worked so well that it was thirteen years before we tried it again.

Well, we were busy. Jeanne founded and ran her own professional modern dance company, Nova Dance Theatre (which is very much like having a dozen retarded children, if you ask Spider) for eight years, and its school, DancExchange, and choreographed over twenty works for performance while wrestling with Boards of Directors and funding agencies and a hundred other things. Spider continued to show her work-in-progress, and her suggestions always improved it, but Jeanne was simply too busy to put in the hours necessary for a collaboration.

But a dancer's career is as short as an athlete's: in 1987 Jeanne retired.

Few make that transition comfortably, and being two and a half decades younger than usual doesn't help a lot. For awhile, moving the entire Robinson household all the way across the continent, from Halifax to Vancouver, soaked up a lot of energy. Jeanne taught dance for a time, as she had since age 16, but it no longer satisfied. Her growing commitment to Soto Zen Buddhism filled many hours, but you can't sit zazen forever. Well, you can, but your husband and teenager would look at you funny.

One day Spider came to her and asked for her help. "It's time to peddle the next book, and when I ask myself which one I'd most like to write next, it keeps coming up that sequel to STARDANCE we've been talking about for ten years. You want to have another book?"

So we drew up a proposal together for a book called STARSEED, sold it to Ace, and sat down to work.

This time we used a dual-mode of composition.

In the early evenings, we'd use the duel-mode: we sat side by side at the Mac and argued about every sentence. (We're using the same method to write this essay.) We agreed in advance that in the event of a deadlock disagreement, Spider would get final say--but it never came up. It did get just a bit stormier than it had with STARDANCE, because by now Jeanne knew she was not just an intruding amateur--but equally often it was glorious telepathic symbiosis (the sort our characters were seeking), with each of us synergizing and heterodyning the other. High cotton...

Around two AM Jeanne would yawn, make some last suggestions, and fall over. Spider would slog on until dawn (his usual working hours). When Jeanne woke, she'd read the new copy, and work on it until Spider woke in mid-afternoon. (Note: if you can't tolerate weird sleep-cycles in a mate, don't marry a writer.) That set things up for the early evening argument--or feast of harmony, as might be.

Of course, we've described an ideal day that rarely took place. Parenting (and the rites that can cause it), food and drink, One Damn Thing After Another kept revising the schedule.

And once, the method changed completely. We were sitting in a nightclub, digging Johnny Winter, and got to talking. Jeanne felt that we hadn't introduced our protagonist well enough, early enough, to make readers empathize with her. WE did, but we knew things about her that the events of the plot gave us no chance to wedge in for several chapters. "We just tell the readers that dance is real important to her," Jeanne said. "We have to show them why." And she grabbed Spider's pen, borrowed some paper, and proceeded to write an eight-page Prologue, while Spider watched and Mr. Winter's guitar wailed. It is Spider's particular favorite part of the book.

STARSEED came out in Ace hardcover in October 1991; the paperback in September 1992. (There was a special leatherbound signed edition from Easton Press, which also published leather editions of STARDANCE and STARMIND.) It is in one sense not a sequel to STARDANCE: it takes place twenty years later, the original characters get only cameos, and we worked to make prior knowledge of the earlier book unnecessary. Dean Wesley Smith, who bought it for serialization in Pulphouse magazine, had never read STARDANCE.

And we had enough fun writing it that, once Spider had completed a couple of other books that crept into his schedule while he wasn't looking, we wrote a third book in the same ficton ("ficton": fictional universe, e.g. Oz, Barsoom; term coined by Robert A. Heinlein), titled STARMIND. Our purpose was to answer all the lingering questions left unresolved by the two earlier books. It was released in Ace hardcover and paperback and Easton Press leatherbound in 1995-6. The third collaboration used the same methodology as the second, and for some reason was even more fun and less effort this time. It was still hard work--but the definition of riches is "sufficient meaningful work," and sharing riches is even better than having them.

We may well collaborate again in future (we'd both like to), but the Stardance saga is now complete, and we haven't come up with an idea that would fully engage us both, yet. Meanwhile, Jeanne continues to be Spider's first reader, and in his opinion improves everything she reads.

We cannot advise anyone so bold and reckless as to plan to collaborate with a spouse--or indeed with anyone. But we recall the words of Larry Niven, paraphrased from a late-night discussion: "If you must collaborate, it should be with someone you'd be prepared to sleep with if necessary. Sharing a typewriter is as intimate as sharing a toothbrush." (Insert your own jokes about Jerry Pournelle, Steve Barnes, David Gerrold, and other Niven collaborators. We did.) We do warn you that collaboration is a peachy way to test the stability of your relationship--possibly to destruction. If there is any ego struggle in your marriage, this will likely resolve it, one way or the other. It helped us learn to transcend some of that stuff; but we may have just been lucky.

We do echo Larry's advice that you agree in advance who will prevail in case of showdown (flip a coin if you must), and stick to it.

Spider feels that collaboration spoils both the best and worst parts of being a writer. You're no longer the omnipotent God of your own universe...but you're no longer so goddam lonely either. He had not realized until then just how quiet it gets down there in his pit. To quote the late great cartoonist Jeff MacNelly ("Shoe"), writing consists of simply "staring at a blank page, until beads of blood form on your forehead." That's something it can help to share...

It goes beyond writing, really. Jeanne was once married to a man who discouraged her dance career. Spider has lived with people who thought writing sf wasn't real work. Whether we'd ever dabbled in each other's artform or not (Spider has appeared in Jeanne's dances, as a musician), we are both rich in having a spouse who understands that when we're staring into space, we're working. And who will back us to do what we must, whatever that takes.

But having had an opportunity to mingle our work, to spend hours together creating something neither of us could have alone: that is more than riches. That's joy...

--Vancouver, British Columbia

(NOTE: at present STARDANCE and STARSEED are available in a single paperback from Baen Books, titled THE STAR DANCERS; the third and final volume, STARMIND, will be reprinted by Baen in May 2001)


Larry Kresek's cover painting for the Dial Press/James Wade hardcover first edition