Tag, You’re It (by Chris Muessig)

Chris Muessig debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in July of 2009 with a tale entitled “Bias.” The story was subsequently selected for that year’s volume of Best American Mystery Stories—one of very few first published works to find its way into that series. Next, the North Carolina State University editor and English teacher penned several stories for our sister publication, AHMM. His return to EQMM, in March/April 2013, was in collaboration with his friend Steve Seder, but I’ll let Chris explain how that came about. Chris and Steve are, of course, following a long tradition of successful collaboration in the mystery genre—Ellery Queen being the most notable example.—Janet Hutchings

Janet makes me an offer I can’t refuse—insidiously forestalling lame excuses by dropping a theme right into my lap like a severed head, or two. Thinking of “Death Match,” the story Steve Seder and I cowrote for EQMM (and one of her choices for the latest Crooked Road anthology), she wonders whether I might consider writing about the process of collaboration.

So what engendered our particular writing partnership? For starters, friendship between my family and The Stomper’s (“Stompin’ Steve” was a handle Mr. Seder used during his wrestling career, another being the evocative “Huck Fleming”) goes back four decades. Our children are like cousins to each other, and sharing vacations with a passel of kids in need of constant amusement (Steve’s a great face painter) was certainly conducive to collaborative habits.

I did specifically tap him as technical advisor years ago for an ill-fated science fiction story in which an alien centauroid divides itself into a decidedly uncoordinated wrestling tag team (one partner brainy, one an ass) in order to infiltrate human society. Though the story never saw print—that wasn’t Steve’s fault—I still hoped one day to co-opt his ring experience and the Felliniesque characters that comprised the troupe he had once led and masterminded (think 8 1/2 or Juliet of the Spirits in the Boston Garden).

After the world’s longest writing apprenticeship ended with several mystery magazine sales, I decided to give it another go. By this time, Steve had worked up some credentials too, graduating from lively improvisations to the more formal role of writer of “The Book,” the running soap-opera that invests wrestling associations, both large and small, with cliff-hanging situations and virulent rivalries that ensure the fans’ arrival at a venue with ripe and festering attitudes—just the kind of audience feedback The Stomper reveled in. As professional storytellers, one of us dwelt in prose, the other in dramatic action: perfect.

My desire to oblige Janet, however, was immediately complicated by the fact that neither Steve nor I could clearly recall the give-and-take involved in the writing of the story (or what we had for lunch yesterday, for that matter). Consequently, I’ve resorted to digging down through layers of archived e-mails, feeling like Brewer, our plainclothesman, faced with shoe boxes full of handwritten receipts stained by who knows what.

Four years ago, Steve had kindly volunteered to ferry me back and forth to rehab (nothing sensational, just post-knee surgery). At the bottom of the PT timetable I e-mailed him, I added: “Remind me Friday to talk about a story idea.”

Apparently, I was about to make a strong pitch to get him on board as cowriter. His reply: “I’ll be there with bells on. Well, maybe not with bells on; that would look stupid and make a lot of noise”—promised an interesting experiment (1) to determine if we two could actually get from the start to the finish and (2) whether it would be a story I would not or could not write alone.

Steve had once told me about some promoters who had been known to enlist thuggish wrestlers to make fractious individuals toe the line. He envisioned a scenario in which this practice goes horribly wrong; moreover, the victim’s bloody demise takes place in the ring, before live TV cameras and an auditorium full of witnesses.

I wanted to use that premise. The protagonist I proposed was a private investigator hired by the victim’s grieving parent when the police investigation finds for accidental death. Our hero is selected not for his skills as a detective but because of a collegiate wrestling background.

We liked the early 1960s for the tale, an era before the wrestling game (and many other aspects of American life) had become a hybrid extravaganza—and before technology had become a character in and of itself. It was to have a black-and-white feel, so to speak (eventually leaning so much toward the noir, I guess, that it earned a Black Mask logo from Janet). The working title was “Death of a Babyface.”

After a couple days of car-talk, the story structure began to fall into place; I thought we were ready for a first draft. The process, I predicted, would take “a few weeks,” which was only partially accurate.

The first of those weeks ticked by slowly as Steve worked up the opening scene, but it was worth the wait. What he presented me with was the key to all that followed, a clever play-by-play description of the fatal match wherein, over the course of six minutes and sixteen seconds, “BF” (the as-yet unchristened babyface) is dealt a horrific and very public beating, every detail articulated vividly by the energetic ring announcer before he cuts adroitly to a commercial. Though still in need of deeper plotting and balance between pedantry and the magical words of the wrestling lexicon (e.g., “flying mare,” “short arm scissors”), we were off and running.

The rest of January involved a search for suitable names for victim and villain and for motives and traits that would trigger the murder—character trumping plot from the get-go. We decided to use a nonspecific geographic locale and to head each scene with a day of the week and hour of the day in a relentless march to the climax.

Steve schooled me in the lingo and culture of the old wrestling groups. We began to research vulnerable anterior arteries in the scalp (with help from my brother the nurse); but most important, I believe, was inserting the presence of the victim’s father into the opening scene. Now the reader watched through the old man’s eyes as the match literally rolled out on an aged, 17-inch, black-and-white Admiral: the doorway to ambiguity.

By this time, my digest-sized mentality figured we were on the way to a nine- or ten-thousand word story; but Steve, assessing a better return on the effort already expended and the rising tide of plot elements and characters, was thinking we should consider a novel, if not a screenplay, if not a long-running cable series. I said I didn’t have those kinds of connections, so he began to be very conscious about word counts.

February was a blizzard of activity beginning with an abrupt change: our P.I. was gone, replaced by a nondescript plainclothesman named Al Brewer, a war-buddy of the victim’s father. I forget how, but Steve had dissuaded me from using the undercover wrestler; and we replaced him with a rather nonaggressive cop, whose lack of success becomes a great enabler of the raw justice meted out by the father.

Scene after scene, almost one per day, appeared over the next three weeks. We worked tag-team fashion; each scene handed off to the other for appropriate revising (Steve learned to his dismay what a revisionist I am), critiquing, and bridging to the next. The investigation definitely worked better as collaboration between the emotionally involved insider and the professionally distanced outsider, and we thought the layered points-of-view caught the play of uncertainty vs. raw conviction that we were going for. The last major fix was Steve’s: he was pretty adamant about renaming the story “Death Match.”

The finished manuscript went out sometime in March; the rejection slip came back in early September—complimentary, but couched in terms that made it clear we needed to find another market. Steve was speechless in that moment; and I took advantage of the uncharacteristic pause and told him that, heck, we’d try Ellery Queen next (adding in an undertone that we’d probably have to trim the story even more for Janet Hutchings). He heard that remark, and it restored his power of speech.

I spent the next month tailoring the story in a way that I thought would work for Janet—adding a new scene as well as relocating what was formerly our opening segment and turning it into a secondhand account that added to the air of unreliability. Then I trimmed the new manuscript by 500 words to get it under 10k.

Steve looked it over and had some further ideas about making the jargon more accessible, reordering scenes, and verifying some technical details. I did another rewrite based on his observations, and the manuscript went out in December.

Three months later we heard from our third collaborator, who had been mulling over “Death Match” for several weeks. Janet liked it, but there was a section in the middle that was somehow off for her. She thought the announcer’s play-by-play accompanying the videotape seemed unnatural, more a commentary for an audience that couldn’t see what was going on, like radio listeners rather than TV viewers. If we could rework that section, however, she would buy the story.

The Stomper took some exception to our editor’s observations, but capitulated with, “Obviously we gotta do what we gotta do,” which was two weeks of retooling the cited scene and the similar broadcast that closes the story. Off it went; and after the Edgar Awards/Malice Convention hiatus, we at last learned we had made a sale.

P.S. Over a year later, as Janet was prepping the edition the story appeared in, she came back with one more question having to do with our use of a certain inside term. I deferred to Steve, of course; and we cleared the issue up with some firm assurances and some final word crafting. Our author’s copies showed up almost two years to the day since the collaboration had officially begun. Janet has expressed interest in another Brewer story, but it’s one I don’t think I can write alone. Are you reading this, Stomper?

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