Saturday, November 13, 2010

Good Committee Writing

Generally, I deplore writing by committee.

I don’t mind good collaboration, which you can see works wonderfully well in the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and Disney’s Sherman Brothers:

And let’s face it – just about everything you read out there has been written by more than one person, for every writer has an editor guiding the way. It’s easy to pick out, for example, where JK Rowling’s editors stepped in to guide her in her earlier books, though she found her own way afterward. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis shared their works with each other and with others, seeking and getting plenty of input. I’m seeking input on my own writing (though, it seems, so is everyone else).

So it’s with this kind of baggage that I approach Jack Alan, an amalgam of Jack Goodman and Alan Green, both advertising men, who worked together on a series of humorous pieces that skewered the popular How-To books of their era.

They echo their skewering of the genre in the short piece “From Pillar to Post,” in which Jack Alan describes the early days of owning a Great Dane. Here, they describe what happens when Jack is called on to punish the misbehaving pup:

I now change my approach, deciding to try the Great Big Playmate tactic. Crouching on all fours, I advance on him, barking several times with mock ferocity. He decides to humor me by pretending he thinks I'm a huge, dangerous dog. With a happy yelp, he flashes around a chair and dashes upon me from behind. Since he weighs roughly eighty-two pounds at the moment, I am now flat on the floor with him on top of me. He wants to pretend he is shaking me by the neck. This is too difficult unless he actually does shake me by the back of the neck. So he does.

I get up and brush myself off. I brush him off me, too, several times. I have now succeeded in gaining his confidence and showing him that I am a regular fellow who doesn't mind a good, clean romp, so I am through. But he isn't. He likes it too well to quit. He gets my tie in his teeth and hangs from it. It is some time before I get my breath.

He still refuses to stop. It is therefore time for me to Punish Him. I decide to lock him in the bathroom. This consists of the following steps:

1. He instantly senses my purpose and scrambles into the bedroom under the bed.
2. I rush after him and say, “Come out from under there this minute!”
3. He doesn't.
4. I get down on the floor and look under the bed. We face each other silently for a moment, each trying to outstare the other. I blink, which gives him the round.
5. I mutter several dire threats. So does he.
6. I hold out my handkerchief, hoping he will grab it and pull, thereby enabling me to drag him out.
7. He grabs it and pulls.
8. We are now both under the bed.
9. I seize him firmly and wriggle out.
10. A head bumps severely against the box spring. It is not his.
11. I shove and pull him into the bathroom and back out, closing the door.
12. I stop closing the door to avoid catching his nose in it.
13. I shove him back and close the door, catching my hand in it.
14. We both howl simultaneously.

Returning to the living room, tired but victorious (look up Pyrrhic in any good encyclopedia), I now proceed to describe my dog to you. He is still a puppy, seven months old. He is a good dog to have for a case history because, although a thoroughbred, he has a character which is practically a cross section of that of America's dogs.

Full text of their funny tale is found here.

Here, Jack Alan shows the secret of committee writing: The whole is better than the sum of its parts. While the writers may work together on ideas and word choice, they keep in mind that the end goal is a good, readable story, not that they win every argument.

Now maybe I’m reading these two wrong. Some teams have an idea man and a writer. Others do a bit of both. I’m putting on rose-tinted glasses here, imagining how the process works. However they do it, those pulling Jack Alan’s strings do it well.

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