Thursday, October 1, 2015

Heated agreements

This is Michael:

Michael in traditional author pose

This is me:

Stanley in traditional author pose

This is us:

And this is what we do together:

Whether we are alone or together at an event, one of the first questions we are asked is “How do two people write a book together?”

We then explain how we do it.  After sitting down together in the same location to come up with the general idea for a new book, we go our own ways and are seldom together again while the book progresses. 

At any time, we are both writing some part of the new mystery.  To accomplish this, we spend a lot of time talking on Skype so we have a general idea of what to write next.  Since we are pantsers, we often surprise each other with an unexpected twist.  This is good since we think it is unfair for only readers to be surprised as they move through a book.  We do too.

As soon as one of us finishes a section, we email it to the other, who goes through it with a fine-tooth comb.  The sender waits with bated breath for the document to return, usually a day or say later, usually covered in red ink.  We are hard on each other and don’t hold back if we think something the other has written is bad.  Of course, the writer of the bad piece usually thinks it’s one of the best bits of prose he’s ever written.

Sometimes a cooling-off period is needed before the next Skype call.

We also praise good ideas and good writing.  However, most of the comments are more benign: suggestions for word changes, corrections to grammar, or ideas to incorporate later in the book.
This process continues, sometimes fifteen or twenty times, until we are both satisfied (or exhausted).  Then the piece is put into our Repository folder.  And we move on to the next section.

Last Sunday we put the best two words one can write onto the manuscript of our sixth Kubu mystery – THE END.  Our working title, by the way, is Dying to Live and is the story of man’s greed, in this case to corner the market on a plant that prolongs life.

As all writers know, typing THE END doesn’t really mean that one has reached the end of the process.  There’s more to come.

In our case, adding THE END to the manuscript means we both read the whole book once again, annotate changes that we think should be made, then call each other on Skype to discuss.

Nothing of significance changed this time, but we did, as we so often do, have a number of  what we call heated agreements – our term for incidents when we spend lots of time and expend lots of heat on issues that no one else would notice.  We’ve found that big changes in the plot are dealt with very quickly, but it is little things that cause the most dissension.

Some examples:

One of us had written (and the truth is we often can’t remember who wrote the first draft) “The building was enclosed by a fence and was obviously locked up.”  The other thought it better to replace “enclosed” by “surrounded”, so we spent some time arguing which was better.  I bet that neither of us can remember the arguments we so passionately espoused.  Ironically, sometimes it happens that the person arguing most strongly for a change is the person who wrote it in the first place.

Yes, we are often THAT confused.

Another example:

Kubu is faced with walking up three flights of stairs to meet with a professor at the University of Botswana.  Realising this, he “groaned silently”.  I think I wrote that.  Michael didn’t like it and replaced it with “groaned in his head.”  "Ridiculous," I thought and changed it to “thought grumpily”, and we exchanged heated words about something that made no difference to the story.  I think we ended up with “he sighed!”

As Kubu headed these stairs, we had written “He didn’t exactly rush the stairs, but took them one by one.”  I argued that it was tighter to say “He didn’t exactly rush the stairs, but took them slowly”.  Yet another disagreement ensued.

Sometimes the disagreements are over important issues, such as whether to use ‘may’ or ‘might’.  “He may be hiding in the house.” or “He might be hiding in the house.”  I suspect that I argue against whatever has been written, either way, since, of course, both are right.  And I can’t remember what I said the previous time anyway.

Since we write the first draft in American (and later translate into English for our UK audience), we also run into cultural issues.  I try to represent the American language and writing style (often badly, I suspect), while Michael is steeped in the South African (or English) style.  So I may argue vehemently for “upward” and Michael passionately for “upwards”, when the only thing of importance is that we remain consistent within the same manuscript.

It is interesting, too, that often, when I’ve been adamant about the correctness of a word that it turns out I’m either wrong or that multiple forms are all correct.  I suspect that the same goes for Michael. 

Neither of us would probably admit this to the other!

Anyway, when we have these heated agreements, it is probably best that we have them over Skype.  Sometime it IS better to be on different continents.  If we were together, we’d probably throw red wine at each other.

On the other hand, we probably wouldn’t – we’d just drink more.

And, yes, in case you’re interested, the manuscript is finished.

For now.

Stan - Thursday


  1. You know guys, I bet George and ira Gershwin could set your relationship to music....

  2. Nice blog, Stan. Quite well written. Of course there are several points here that need fixing. I think we should schedule a discussion to go through them, but here are a couple of examples:

    In the paragraph that starts "We also praise good ideas and good writing. However, most of the comments are more benign..."
    This doesn't make sense. It's the negative comments that you want to compare there. Perhaps: "However, most of the comments are more benign. In fact we often praise..." We may need a comma after "In fact" but we\ll need to discuss that later.

    I've noticed the discussion about May and Might sometimes switches sides. But it's not correct to say they mean the same. For example:
    "May I go out to night?" and "Might I go out tonight?" depend on context.

    But really pretty good for a first draft. Keep at it.

  3. That is pretty amazing. While I am pretty good with getting along and finding common ground I doubt I could do what you two do (besides, I am not a writer in any sense). Have you ever thought of running a country or perhaps the United Nations?

  4. Stan, I feel both envy and admiration when it come to your partnership. My ego would never let me show my messy drafts to anyone at all, much less to someone who was going to tear them apart. I'd be a quivering mass of jelly. All the while I write this, though, I wish I had another mind to help me think. The heat in your agreements I am sure is born of your having cemented your friendship spending a lifetime together in relatively unsafe environments. It would be fatal (literally) for people to mince words when the decision of what to do involves hippos or mamba snakes.

    You know what a fan I am of the results your quibbles achieve.

  5. How human: the individual vs. the group, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. Great description of the cooperative process, Stan.

  6. It is enviable that two people can write not one but several books together. I say this as a friend and I can discuss precise wording ad infinitum, as we discussed yesterday: Is pillar right or should it be bastion or bulwark? It gets out of hand.

    It's hard to do this.

    Isn't there an adage that a camel is a horse put together by a committee? I think that writing can be like that if more than one person is doing it, but you both have succeeded no matter what the process is.