“The Mona Lisa”–A Collaboration with Tessa Kum for Halo: Evolutions

Jeff VanderMeer • October 12th, 2009 @ 1:16 pm • News, Writing Tips


(All images in this post are *unauthorized* dramatic re-creations from our novella “The Mona Lisa,” with the spaceship played by a model given to Ann and me by a Romania friend. These images do not in any way represent screen shots from any new or future version of Halo, okay dude?)

UPDATE: Tessa’s version of events, which involves a lot more swearing…

There’s nothing like a little challenge to roil the blood and take over your life for a couple of months—all while not being able to say much of anything about it publicly, but, finally, I can announce that: Tessa Kum and I have sold a monstrous, kick-ass, action-packed, insanely entertaining 35,000-word novella entitled “The Mona Lisa” to Tor editor Eric Raab for the anthology Halo: Evolutions–Essential Tales of the Halo Universe. Other contributors include Tobias Buckell, Brian Evenson, Karen Traviss, and Eric Nylund. Halo: Evolutions should be available in bookstores by November-December.

Our story is set in the period between Halo 1 and Halo 2, in the Soell System, amid the debris field now circling the gas giant Threshold. The Prowler Red Horse is on a recon mission that largely consists of salvage. As the story opens, they’ve just brought a strange civilian escape pod on board the ship. For once, there are signs of life, and Sergeant Zhao Heng Lopez and her team are waiting for the engineers to get the pod open, unsure of what it might hold. What they find inside eventually leads them to [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED], which might hold the secret to [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] and [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] with ice cream and a thick [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] that’s [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] in the hold, after a flash of earlobe.

One thing we wanted to do was break with tradition, so our two main characters are women: Sergeant Zhao Heng Lopez and medic Benti. Other prominent characters include the Prowler’s commander, Foucault, his AI Rebecca, the pilot of a Pelican named Burgundy, a slew of marines, and, erm, someone wielding a cricket bat. Yes, you heard correctly. A cricket bat. How’d that sneak in there? The Aussie influence from Tessa, my partner in crime on this Bataan Death March of an experience. (Me: “Wanna collaborate on a Halo story, ‘cause I’m in over my head?” Tessa: “Hell yeah!” Two months later: “I’m gonna die if I read this again,” “Where the hell am I again? My brain doesn’t work anymore.” Ann: “Jeff, I’m sick of this *#(!&)@ process, too.”)

As readers of this blog know, I am indeed all about process, so below the cut you’ll find some insight into the story behind the story, for anyone who’s interested. (I’m sure Tessa or Ann will correct me if I get anything wrong!)


(This is from the beginning, about page 10. Maybe page 11.)

How’d You Get This Gig?

The editor, Eric Raab, asked me on the recommendation of another contributor, and after tentatively saying yes I had a panic attack and realized (1) I didn’t have enough time to do it myself and (2) although I had some familiarity with Halo, it wasn’t nearly enough to get up to speed in the condensed time period in which the story had to be written–especially considering an idea had to be pitched first, and approved by Microsoft.

So I asked Tessa because she’d done in-depth critiques of a couple of my books this year, and I’d done the same for one of her short stories. I thought it’d be a good collaboration, as we already had a sense of the other’s writing because of having gotten into the guts of it. That’s not the same thing as a collaboration, but there’s a similar element of trust involved. As an added bonus, Tessa was fluent in Halo-speak, and would have my back. (In fact, even though I read the wiki and watched videos and played the game to refresh my memory, I was still making mistakes, so this was a doubly wise move on my part. “No, greenhorn!” Tessa would snap. “It’s not a helmet—it’s armor!” Etc.)

First came the pitch, and we actually wound up putting forward three-paragraph summaries of two or three ideas. Although we could’ve done any of the three, they approved one of the two in which we had the most investment.

Vetting Process

Once the pitch had been approved, Microsoft/Bungie sent operatives to secure a perimeter around Tessa’s apartment in Melbourne and my house in Tallahassee. They then hooked up the [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] and erected the plastic wall to [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED], after which followed an intense period of [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED], with a [REDACTED—CLASSIFIED] and [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED]. I can’t say this didn’t hurt, but I understood why such extraordinary secrecy was required. Thus hardwired into the [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] and able to [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED], the writing process began in earnest. It took very little time to get used to the [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED], although some of the side effects included [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] and [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] from the ears.


(Things get a little tense in this scene.)

Rough Draft

Then came the rough draft, which Tessa took on while I was teaching at Shared Worlds. Our idea was scalable, in that I saw it like a kind of accordion. It had, I thought, the potential to run short or long, depending on the amount of complication and whether our marines stayed together or split up.

You never know what you’re going to get when you collaborate. There are all kinds of ways that things can go wrong, despite good intentions, despite talent. So it was with a sense of excitement and nervousness that I read Tessa’s rough draft.

It ran to 15,000 words, dissolving into a series of fragments and notes toward the end. This draft was a life-saver, as I didn’t have a good sense of the characters to this point, except, possibly, for Lopez. Tessa added Benti, all of the characters from the Mona Lisa, and basically all the marines, while establishing Commander Foucault and AI Rebecca. The rough draft had everything in it that was needed to do a second draft: the structure was sound, the basic characters were in place. In particular, Tessa had fleshed out two characters: Rimmer and Henry, both of whom changed little from rough draft to final. I don’t think Rimmer’s dialogue changed at all. She’d also done some work on a silent marine named Clarence, and had a good sense of how battle-worn Lopez needed to be.

Scenes were missing and scenes needed to be fleshed out, but without that first draft having been so tight—without it containing so much story—there would’ve been no way to complete the story on time without it being a mess. So, when I got it, I breathed a sigh of relief, and went to work.

Second Draft

My second draft turned out to be around 24,000 words. I made a list of the characters that needed the most work, first, so I’d remember to work on them. I fleshed out Lopez’s character, changed the opening around sequence-wise, added description, brought Benti’s point-of-view up closer to the beginning so she was layered in better (splitting up a scene that used to be solely in Lopez’s point-of-view), layered the AI in more—my favorite line was, when Foucault gets mad at her, she says “You’re getting spittle on my holopad”—and generally created a few more scenes, worked on divvying out information a little more gradually, moved around descriptions, made cuts to riffed off of Tessa’s work by adding further details about secondary characters. I also added sequencing, by having each section start with a time-stamp, which provided structure for the reader who might’ve wondered when things were going on for the two main marine narratives.

One thing I also did is try to bring more action to a section when they first land on the Mona Lisa. But, although I have played Halo and had been researching it, I didn’t have the same familiarity with it as Tessa, and that meant I couldn’t see certain things properly. When you are fuzzy on one part of a story, it sometimes bleeds into another. So by the time I was done with the draft, there was this long-ass encounter in the docking bay that (1) wasn’t effectively paced and meant the story would’ve had to have been around 50,000 words to accommodate it, (2) made the hangar seem like it was as big as the Epcot Center, which made no sense and meant you couldn’t really “see” it, and (3) created action without the right context to integrate it effectively into the story.


(Everyone’s understandably a little jumpy starting around page 36, paragraph 3.)

Third Draft

I’d spent about a week on this draft. I turned it over to Tessa, who proceeded to turn around another draft in about 48 hours. Our time constraint was pressing, and because of other deadlines I had, I needed it back quickly—although I hadn’t expected it that quickly. She wound up writing about 25,000 words during a Sunday and a Monday, sending to me at 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning (her time) after a full day at work and then switching over to the story. (I kept getting these little email progress reports: “almost done,” “kinda almost done”, “am I dead yet?”)

Since of that was rewrites—when she first emailed me to say she’d written 25,000 words I had nightmares of a 40,000-word draft!—pushed the word count to about 31,000. This was a jaw-dropping, Herculean effort. Not only did she nail the ending, she also fixed the hangar scene by getting rid of the action I’d put in, reimagining the sequencing and the actual physical space, and then layering back in those details of mine that were still useful. This was key to the success of the story, because my brain was still worrying at the hangar problem—it was like a huge bloodclot in the story that was making it impossible for me to think about other aspects of the narrative. So when she fixed that, it made the whole story flow more smoothly, and unblocked me creatively.

Fourth Draft

I then took the story back and did another draft. In this draft, I focused on isolating those scenes that seemed thin to me and rewriting those first, in the morning, while I was fresh. I then replaced the old versions with those scenes and proceeded to add layering and nuance to the story in various places. Sometimes these were just little things—a phrase here or there. I also took my lead from Tessa with regard to Lopez, because I’d given her a little more depth than she needed, with a bit about an abusive father that just didn’t fit. So Tessa had stripped that out, left some other stuff in, and I riffed a little more on those remaining aspects. A lot of this was a process of experimentation—adding more text and then seeing if it worked or just slowed things down. I also solidified Burgundy as a viewpoint character.

More Drafting

Tessa and I then sent the story back and forth, soon using revision tracking because we were down to smaller changes and didn’t have to continually re-read the entire story. It was important to preserve the changes now so that we could reach consensus. About ninety-nine percent of the time, we found the other’s edits to be beneficial to the manuscript. In other cases, one or the other gave ground depending on how important a particular change was. Finally, our deadline was upon us and we’d done as much tweaking as possible. Usually, at this point, in our individual writing we would’ve put the resulting draft away and taken it out and done more editing in a week or two. But we didn’t have that luxury–it had to go to Tor.

Still, we were pretty punch-drunk ecstatic at that point—from first draft to finished draft, we’d created a 35,000-word story we were damn proud of: it moved, it had texture, it had drama, tension, and humor. We’d more or less created it in three weeks. We’d worked well together, hadn’t killed each other in the process, and our strengths and weaknesses at both a macro and micro level had proved a good match. Tessa’s sense of story was very strong, and her sense of what additional details needed to go in. It was constantly a process of building up and breaking down, on both our parts.

We’d also taken advantage of time zones—Tessa would pass off a draft to me, go to sleep, it’d be morning for me, I’d work on it all day, and pass it off to her during what would be her next morning. This helped a lot, but at the same time, it’d been the most exhausting process I’d ever gone through on a story, and the same for Tessa—perhaps more so because she had the constraint of a day job and had to fit in her work around it. I also have a day job, but since I’m my own boss, I could at least move around my work load and concentrate on the Halo story during my peak creative times, like mornings.

Still, my hands and shoulders hurt from the amount of typing. My sleep patterns had become erratic. Tessa’s sleep had suffered too, and she was more banged up than I was. What had been enthusiastically entered in upon as an impossible task—had been undertaken in part because of the challenge of doing what seemed impossible—had become even more impossible because we’d gone from what we’d thought would be a 10,000-word story to a story that maxed out at a natural length of over 35,000 words. Mutterings of “Never doing that again” flared up. It was definitely a mixed-emotions kind of thing. I think the only time Tessa snarled at me is when I suggested I’d be happy to collaborate again. I was taking the long view, a couple years down the line, where as I think Tessa thought I meant next week!!


(By page 55, everyone’s irritable, and no one wants to talk to anyone else.)

The Editing Process

The editing process consisted of Eric Raab’s review of the story, three rounds of specific line-edits from Microsoft, and our own internal quality control review. Once again, operatives surrounded our respective abodes, once again [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] was [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] into [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] and our brains [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] [REDACTED---CLASSIFIED] [REDACTED--CLASSIFIED], but this time it was much more familiar.

Although the compressed time frame made this more stressful than it would be usually, the result was an air-tight story, in my opinion. The Microsoft reviews corrected a few errors of fact that we couldn’t have known about since we had no access to their Bible (we referred to the wiki), as well as made a few style or character suggestions—all of which I can honestly say were reasonable and welcomed.

The most astonishing thing to us, though, for some reason—acute paranoia and fatigue?—was that there really weren’t many suggested changes, and most of them were worded in such a way that it was left up to us to implement them however we chose. In some cases, a question or comment led to a change elsewhere in the story, too, because in a tight story changes have ripple effects. On our own we also found the kind of continuity errors that creep in when you don’t have time to gain perspective on a story. (A quick read by David Moles also helped us tighten the opening and ending.)

A Crazy Process

With the the editing process compressed like this, several things have to happen concurrently that would normally happen consecutively. For example, Raab had to start on his copy-edit before all the comments were in from Microsoft, or we’d incorporated Microsoft’s changes. This will always cause potential stress, and here I think my experience in publishing was useful in giving perspective on the process. Since Tessa hasn’t been writing as long, she hasn’t yet been through all of the types of scenarios a writer encounters. On the other hand, she has a kind of natural toughness and refusal to settle for second-best that helped give me energy when I was flagging a bit.

But, then, the whole process was crazy. I produced more words in a shorter period of time than for any other piece of fiction that I’ve ever written. Even with a collaborator, it was nearly impossible—and that’s with tremendous support from my wife Ann, who read a draft, listened to ideas, printed out stuff for me, and took on other tasks so I’d have time to focus on Halo.

One side effect of this condensed process is that Tessa and I, more than once, commented on how there was text in the story we didn’t remember being there. Like, we’d literally been doing automatic writing or something. In a sense, this was good, because when we saw the typeset proofs the story was still fresh to us. But it was also a bit unsettling, and underscored the dream-nightmare aspect that went into creation. Each day on the project lurched and slid into the next without there seeming to be much division. I’d look up at the calendar and see it was Friday and be unable to remember what had gone on during the rest of the week.

At times, too, because of the time zone difference, it became absurdly non-stop. Although we probably couldn’t have gotten it done in time if not for that 20-hour difference, the seemingly instantaneous turn-around could be unnerving. The draft would be off my desk and in Tessa’s hands. I’d go to sleep. I’d wake up and the draft would be back!!! With no freakin’ break. And I’d work on it again, send it back that night, and when I woke up—there it’d be again! This was somewhat shriek-inducing, and contributed to a sense that I was writing this thing even in my sleep. It also meant there was no respite, no real break. (And yet, all of this said, I’m really proud of this story.)


(Everyone’s so exhausted from all the fighting that, er, they all take a nap. The end.)

Lessons Learned?

Working in a shared universe did help create a quality story in the short time period because it gave us a setting with a lot of backstory behind it, meaning there were details we didn’t have to spend time making up. On the other hand, Halo isn’t so detailed that we didn’t have space to exercise our imaginations. We rarely if ever butted our heads up against some constraint that blinkered us. That shared universe also probably helped to some extent, because any tendency to feel protective of certain aspects of the story weren’t as strong as they would’ve been if we’d been working on an original story.

The most interesting thing from my perpective was seeing what Tessa had deleted, and getting a real lesson on the value of leaving stuff out when it comes to characterization. In many cases, cutting lines actually enhanced the believability of the characters—moving the emphasis to their actions and their physical movements made them more real. In other places, of course, knowing about their background was important. But it was a matter of picking the right spots.

Collaboration: Not Killing Each Other

In terms of the collaboration, although I’ve delineated some aspects of what we both contributed, I no longer have a clear idea of who did what on a sentence and paragraph level. I know the story would not exist without Tessa’s rough draft, but beyond that the collaboration feels 50-50 in a very organic way. I don’t see any difference in style or tonal variation between sections I know Tessa contributed to more than I did, and vice versa. There’s definite Aussie and American influence on the story, but it’s integrated in such a way that it doesn’t clash. (Perhaps the funniest discussions Tessa I had were about terms like “stickybeak,” and then even American terms I somehow didn’t recognize as being American, possibly because they’re regional.) We also found that Tessa likes pronouns more than I do, and that I use the word “something” too much.

One thing’s for sure—for me, a collaboration where one writer does a full draft and then the other writer does the second draft is more useful and organic than splitting up a story into sections where each writer does a certain number of scenes. I think this is why the novella feels smooth and seamless.

I’d never work to this timeline again—it might just kill me—but I’d definitely collaborate with Tessa again at some point. There’s a similar bloody-mindedness, sense of humor, and work ethic that’s very important not just for the writing but for preserving the friendship after the writing’s done.

Now, Tessa might have a totally different perspective. (I’m sure she’ll post about it soon.)

Major thanks to Ann, Tobias Buckell, Edward Duff, and David Moles for help along the way.

17 Responses to ““The Mona Lisa”–A Collaboration with Tessa Kum for Halo: Evolutions”

  1. Gio Clairval says:

    Thank you for sharing the process, Jeff. I’ve been working on a collaborative project (a 10,000-word long story with Erin Stocks) these past days, and I recognise some of the points you describe here–while others were dealt with in a very different way. It was fun, and surprisingly smooth. A shorter story, though, and no deadline, but a world built from scratch…

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Gio–I’d be interested to know how it differed for you. Collaborations always fascinate me because I do so few of them with other writers.

  3. Hellbound Heart says:

    …your picture showing page 55…….where does the cat fit into things?

    peace and love…..

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Hellbound–that’s not a Cat. It’s a Pelican.

  5. Gio Clairval says:

    As I said, one of the differences is that we created a world from scratch. We wanted to submit to an anthology, but got bored with the limitations they’d put in the setting (it was very specific and also a bit contradictory). So we let our imagination(s…) run free.

    Step One: Worldbuilding
    A couple of days of brainstorming about the world, on FB because messages are in threads and don’t get mixed up with other emails, and PM-ing is less tiring than chatting.
    This part was very smooth. Great fun.

    Step Two: Outlining
    I outline. Erin does not. She indulged me, but I knew she was suffering, so I made the outline step very light. ‘Twas just the inciting incident and three turning points–one line each. When Erin gave signals of impatience, I moved on, even if the conclusion remained to be decided. I never begin something if I don’t know how it ends, but she never outlines, so I sped up the process despite the missing ending. Each of us was making concessions (concerning the method). As for content, we never said ‘yes’ to an idea the other had come up with if we weren’t enthusiastic about it—fact is we were enthusiastic all the time.

    Step Three: Scenes
    I wrote the beginning, she wrote the inciting incident and then we clutched the quill in turn. The ending was imagined when we were nearing the…end.

    Erin lives in Oklahoma; I live in Paris–and these days I’m holidaying on the Lake of Como (seven hours ahead in both cases). When she went to sleep, she sent me the file, and I took over. No pause for us either.

    Writing the first draft (together) didn’t take more than a week. I think the indispensable ingredient of collaborations is a similar rhythm, speed, reactivity. If one of the guys needs to think something over for a too-long time, the other is driven crazy, and vice versa.

    Step Four: Editing
    Each edited the other’s scenes. As we edited, the story got bigger (10,000 words instead of 5000). This must be a constant with collaborations.

    Step Five: Killing each other?
    No tension so far! Both of us are supple gals and we are complementary–one’s writing is sensual, the other darker. When first-drafting, one tends to be florid, the other underwrites. One thinks characters’ interaction, the other thinks drama…It helped that we can decently write in the other woman’s style (I know this is going to surprise Erin), except for the food similes (those are all Erin’s).

    Outcome
    The dozen people who’ve read it so far say they can’t tell who wrote what. A beta-reader said it was so seamless he was sure the damned thing had been written by some Erin-Gio hybrid.

    What about another collaboration?
    Yes! But loving the other guy’s style is not enough. One must like the way the associate’s brain works.

  6. 819 Unrepentant Distraction says:

    Good work, Reclaimers!

  7. ~ says:

    Yay spaceships!

  8. Daniele Pase says:

    @Gio Clairval: Is it a realistic description or are you making it prettier than it is?

  9. Bryan Russell says:

    Thanks for this. I love process stories, and I sat down to my computer today to find two great ones: this one here on your collaboration, and Catherynne Valente’s wonderful post on the things she learned after finishing the first draft of Deathless.

    And, on top of that, it’s also given me a little boost of energy to continue on with some requested revisions of my own. Which I muchly needed.

    So… thanks.

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh, good, Bryan. Never know if I’m gonna bore people to death with this stuff.

  11. Drax says:

    Aces High, Jeff and Tessa. Awesome process piece.

  12. Gio Clairval says:

    Daniele: It really happened like I said.

    Jeff and Tessa’s project was more important. Setting specifications and deadline added a pressure we didn’t have. And what to think of the masked (and armed!) people that were spotted in their gardens since the story got on tracks?

  13. Sir Tessa says:

    What Jeff said.

    Only, with more capital letters.

  14. Sir Tessa says:

    UPDATE: Tessa’s version of events, which involves a lot more swearing…

    Well, that’s only in keeping with precedence. I think 99% of the swearing we edited out was mine too…

  15. Gillian says:

    I just carnivalled both of you, to keep it all fair.

  16. Merc says:

    Wow, that’s pretty frickin’ cool. :D I definitely enjoyed reading how the process worked (in such detail). Oh, and the photos are awesome. (Great way to illustrate the story.)

    Thanks for sharing this, Jeff, it was a great read!

  17. Patricia says:

    It’s an awesome story. Only problem is my son is agonizing over the ending, who wins? He’s got me up Googling the “sequel” because he can’t take the suspense. I’ll just direct him here.

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