Thursday, June 21, 2012

Two Heads

Greg and Lisa
When Stan and I started writing A CARRION DEATH, we didn’t give too much thought to the concept of two people writing fiction together.  We were used to working collaboratively in our academic careers, and it seemed natural to take on a novel as a joint project.  Later we realized that it was quite unusual for fiction to be written jointly, and still later we discovered that, in fact, there were several successful writing partnership in the mystery and thriller genre – Nicki French, Charles Todd, PJ Tracy, Roslund&Hellström are excellent examples.  And it seems to be becoming more common, even in South Africa.  Recently a husband and wife team, who live in Cape Town, published a dark, psychologically driven thriller - WHEN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT I OPEN MY EYES - to critical acclaim. Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus write under the name Greg Lazarus.  Greg is a philosopher at the University of Cape Town, Lisa is a psychologist and freelance writer.  You can read more about Greg and Lisa and their writing at:
Unfortunately their book is currently only available in South Africa but, after reading it, I’m sure that’s going to change. 
Of course, Stan and I were very curious about how this new South African writing duo operates, and how their style compares to ours.  So we got together (electronically) and compared notes.
When you write - at least, your first draft - do you divide the work by characters, scenes or in some other way? Do you plot the whole book before you begin?
Greg & Lisa: For WHEN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT I OPEN MY EYES, we began with a very simple idea. There would be two main characters: a female psychologist, and a man with bad intentions. Every scene was to be written from the perspective of either the psychologist or the menacing figure. We each took charge of one character, and assigned the scenes accordingly.
That first draft was a mess. However, once we had finished it, we had definitely gained more insight into our characters, plot and setting. We then went back to the beginning and rewrote everything scene by scene. This time we collaborated closely: we bounced the chapters between each other many times, deleting scenes, adding new ones. Then we worked through the book again, and again...  We kept revising the novel until the people, action, tone and other features felt right.
Now we’re working on a book that we’re trying to plot carefully before we start writing. We’re interested to see whether it’s any easier, and how the preparation might influence the result.
Michael & Stanley:  We don’t divide the draft by characters, we do it by scenes.  Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing something about the context – for example Stan is a pilot and Michael worked in the diamond mining industry – but sometimes it’s just who has an idea or “sees” the scene in his head.  That’s the first draft.  Then we swap the scene back and forth until we’re both happy with it.  That could take more than 20 iterations!
As far as plotting is concerned, A CARRION DEATH grew like topsy and went through many changes of plot.  A DEADLY TRADE was planned out carefully and that worked well, but DEATH OF THE MANTIS was somewhere in between, and so is our new book.  There doesn’t seem to be a perfect strategy – at least not for us.
As writers, do you have different temperaments, notice different things, write in different ways?  What about the gender mix?
Michael and Stanley:  Well, it would be interesting to have a female perspective on things, and perhaps it would be easier to draw female characters.  We are sometimes asked about how we can write a black character from a different culture.  We think the cross culture thing may be harder than the cross gender thing.
Greg and Lisa:  Maybe Greg is terser and more implicit in his style, and Lisa more explicit and expansive. Also, perhaps Greg is more interested in abstract ideas, and Lisa in the dynamics of a relationship.
We used these differences in the first draft, where each of us began to establish a voice for one of the main characters. But in subsequent drafts, where we both worked on everything, we were each careful to write in a way that would be natural to whichever character whose scene it was. By now, neither of us can say of any sentence in the book, ‘That’s mine.’
Do you find that writing as a duo helps you to write a rich novel, or does co-writing make it harder to keep it all coherent? (Both found the other’s book seamless.)
Greg and Lisa:  We write better when we write together. The risk of incoherence is higher than it is for a lone writer, maybe, but the reward feels greater.
We’ve found that people are often surprised that fiction can be created collaboratively. But of course, other writing projects – for instance, scriptwriting for TV – are often collaborative too, and that doesn’t amaze anyone. Maybe the idea is that literature is, or should be, the product of a single mind, a communication from one author to the reader. We wouldn’t accept that, though we do agree that it’s crucial to produce a coherent work.
Michael and Stanley:  We think we gain a lot from brainstorming and working through scenarios together before we write them and discover that they don’t work!  On the whole, we both keep track of where we are and keep the unity of the book in mind.
Do you think that crime and thriller writing is especially suited to co-writing, in comparison with other genres?
Michael and Stanley:  We hadn’t thought about this before, but we think the answer is probably yes.  All fiction is driven by story and characters, but the plot is a very important component in crime novels.  We think the brainstorming aspect is very helpful in that context.  We have certainly found it so.
Greg and Lisa:  We’re not sure. Maybe any genre is well-suited to the pooled ideas and writing skills of co-authors. Of course, almost every book already has more than one person working on it in some way: there are editors and proof-readers too.
Does working collaboratively mean that productivity is higher?
Michael and Stanley:  When we are asked about productivity, we sometimes joke that we work twenty-four hours a day (when Stan is in Minneapolis eight hours behind Michael in Johannesburg).  Actually, we don’t think that being two people means we write the book faster.
Greg and Lisa:  On the one hand, we felt that revisions were more efficient with two people. On the other hand, co-authorship seemed to make the need for revisions greater! So perhaps these factors balance each other.

 One task that took a long time was to inhabit the same imaginary world. The first draft felt as if two quite disparate worlds had been welded clumsily together. By the last few months of revisions, we were living, so to speak, in the same place; we had the same ideas about what our characters and our imaginary Cape Town were like.

We finished up by asking each other a couple of specific questions about the books:

Greg and Lisa:  As far as we can gather, neither of you live in Botswana. What made you choose that country as the setting for A CARRION DEATH? What has been the international response to setting your book there?

Michael and Stanley:  There are really several reasons.  We wanted to set the book in a location where the idea of leaving a body to be destroyed by scavengers made sense.  We didn’t feel that would work well in South Africa.  We also wanted to explore an African culture that was stable and not working through the aftermath of Apartheid, yet still had intrinsic problems.  Finally, we’ve both spent a lot of time in Botswana and love the diversity of the country - both the environment and the people. 

The main issue with overseas reaction was the McCall Smith issue.  Where we trying to ride on his coat-tails?  Actually we didn’t know about McCall Smith’s work when we started the book, and our novels are very different from his in any case.  Other than that, reaction has been very good.  Several reviewers have described Botswana as a character in its own right in our books.

Michael and Stanley:  Your two main characters in WHEN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT I OPEN MY EYES are an academic philosopher and a psychologist.  We’re sure their characters are very different from your own, but there’s an obvious parallel.  Was this a case of “writing what you know”?  Presumably this novel is a “stand alone”.  What’s the strategy for the next book?

Greg and Lisa:  Our lives are much less thrilling than those of our main characters! But yes, we thought we might convey a little of what it’s like to be a psychologist, or a philosopher, though we did reshape these experiences so as to support the ominous, gothic atmosphere we were  hoping to achieve. 

We found our professions useful in other ways. Psychologists are trained to look for complexity in people: their contradictory desires, for example, and their mixture of goodness and malice. That’s helpful for creating characters. And philosophers attend to fundamental questions, such as how a person’s worldview influences her life; we were interested in this as one of the themes of our book.

 We hope our next book will be thrilling, tense, and alert to the intricacy of people. How it’ll turn out, though, we don’t know!

Michael (with Stanley, Greg, and Lisa) – Thursday.


  1. Great concept for a post! However, I think each pair of you has it easy because there's only one another to contend with in your writing. In my case, I have all those voices...crying out all the time...for attention..."pick me," "kill her," "the plot sucks!"

  2. Great interview, my writers group are tackling an epic co-writing project at the moment, so this is valuable advice for us.

  3. Love this. I'm part of the same writing group as Charmaine above. We've taken on a mammoth collaborative task and reading this is helpful.

  4. Jeffrey, do you think it's easy to work with Greg??

    Denise and Charmaine - let us know if you have any questions about the process of collaborative writing. How many of you are working together on the project? I imagine it gets exponentially harder as you add more people, and more writing styles, to a piece of work.

  5. Hmmm, Stan and Lisa, am I detecting a pattern of literary tension in pen-work paradise? Then again, it beats conflicts with oneself ... 'cause then you can't walk away from the opinionated #*&^%.

  6. I love working with Stan any time, and I wish we were working on something right now rather than what I'm actually doing. Of course, what I'm actually doing is marking 150 freshman exams, so we're starting from a low base here!

    On the subject of collaborative projects, how about Andrew Gulli's mammoth project: NO REST FOR THE DEAD? A collaboration of David Baldacci (Introduction), Jeff Abbott, Lori Armstrong, Sandra Brown, Thomas Cook, Jeffery Deaver, Diana Gabaldon, Tess Gerritsen, Andrew F. Gulli, Peter James, J.A. Jance, Faye Kellerman, Raymond Khoury, John Lescroart, Jeff Lindsay, Gayle Lynds, Philip Margolin, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Palmer, T. Jefferson Parker, Matthew Pearl, Kathy Reichs, Marcus Sakey, Jonathan Santlofer, Lisa Scottoline, R.L. Stine, and Marcia Talley.
    Hey, writing with one other person must be a cakewalk!