Thursday, April 12, 2018

Writing together

The question we are asked the most is “How do two people write together?”  It has happened so often that I am occasionally tempted to answer “I write one word, then Michael writes the next.”

Another question could be “How did you decide to write together?”

The answer to that is easy.  We really didn’t make that decision.  From the beginning, that’s what we were going to do.  We never considered or discussed the possibility of writing solo.  Even though we were both avid readers, we didn’t realise how uncommon it was in 2003 for two people to write a murder mystery together.  We’d probably never thought about it.

A little background is helpful.

First, in our professional careers, both of us had written extensively, almost always with someone else.  Michael had written many papers with colleagues and students, and I had co-written four text books with friends, and had collaborated on many papers.

Second, In the 1980s, I was living and working in Minneapolis.  Because I was working at a university, I had flexibility with respect to my time during the summer, so that’s when I took my vacations.  Every year, I went back to South Africa for a month to see family and friends.  And to go into the bush.

I was a pilot, so I’d rent a small plane and fill it with friends, food, and wine and head off on a flying safari to Botswana or Zimbabwe.  Magic!

On one occasion, we were on the Savuti plains of the great Chobe National Park in Botswana.  We watched a pack of hyenas hunt and devour a wildebeest.  Most people think of hyenas as scavengers, but they are ferocious hunters when hungry.  Anyway, about four hours later, the wildebeest was gone, because hyenas eat the bones as well as the flesh.

Spotted hyenas (Image David S Green)

That night, over a glass or three of wine, we decided that if we ever needed to get rid of a body, leaving it for the hyenas was what we would do.  No body, no case!

We also realized that this was a great premise for a murder mystery.

Michael and I were both professors, so we didn’t want to rush into anything, so we talked about it for fifteen years.  When I retired in 2003, I suggested to Michael that we get off our backsides and start writing.  A month later, Michael emailed me a draft first chapter, in which an ecologist and a game ranger stumble on a hyena eating a human body.

The hyena moved off when the men shouted.  It stood about fifty metres away watching them with its head low between powerful shoulders, wary, not fearful, waiting for its chance to retake the field.  The men stood in silence, staring at what the hyena had been eating.
Yellowed bones pierced through areas of sinew and desiccated skin.  The head, separated from the spine, lay about a metre away.  Remnants of skin on the upper face stretched in a death mask over the skull and pulled at the scalp.  The lower part of the face had been torn away, and the back of the skull was smashed by jaws hungry for the brains.  The eye sockets were empty, save for dried blood; one of the vultures had already had a turn.  Snapped ribs lay scattered, but the backbone and pelvis were intact.  One leg remained attached; the other was gone.  The lower half of one arm was missing; the other, freshly crunched by the hyena, lay a short distance away.  There was a cloying smell of carrion, unpleasant but not unbearable.  The scavengers had removed most of the flesh and the desert sun had desiccated the rest.  The flies, less cautious than the hyena, had startled to a buzzing swarm but now resettled, fat green jewels on the dirty bones.  
“It’s definitely a man,” said Andries unnecessarily. 

I emailed back that I liked the chapter and asked what happened next.  “It’s a collaboration,” Michael wrote.  “It’s your turn.”

And so the collaboration began.  And that chapter became the first chapter of our first book, A CARRION DEATH.

The original hardcover from HarperCollins 
We usually try to be physically together when we brainstorm the next book.  We find wine and laughter helps the process.  Today we are pantsers (write by the seat of our pants – that is, make up the story as we go along) rather than plotters.  So the first thing we do is have a vague idea of what the story is about, usually what crimes are committed, and by whom.

Then we start writing.  At any point in time, we can both be writing different parts of the story, usually decided in a Skype call because normally we are either on different continents or in different parts of South Africa.

When one of us finishes a piece, we send it to the other for a critique.  Let’s say Michael has sent me a chapter.  I read it, marking it up with Track Changes in Word.  I praise the parts I like, red-line the parts I don’t, make suggested word changes all over the piece, and add a comment or two about ideas that I had when reading the piece.  I then email it back to Michael.

When he gets over the shock of seeing so much red ink, he goes through what I have done.  He accepts some suggestions and rejects others.  Sometimes, he likes the new ideas that I had, sometimes he doesn’t.  He then reworks the chapter and sends it back to me.  I then go through the same process and return it.

This to-ing and fro-ing can happen ten to twenty times.  And by the end, the chapter that Michael wrote initially is no longer written in Michael’s style.  Nor is it in mine.  

While this is going on, the reverse is too.  At the same time, I’ll be writing a first draft of a piece, then sending it to Michael.  He does the same to mine as I did to his.  And when it’s all over, my piece isn’t mine anymore.  It’s oours.

We say there really is a Michael Stanley somewhere over the Atlantic, who has written a book that is different from one Michael would have written and different from one I would have written.  And better than anything we could have written solo.

There are other questions that we are asked too.  “Do you ever disagree?” is one.

Of course, we disagree—on a lot!  And sometimes it is good we are on different continents and not in the same room.  But our disagreements are usually over the smallest of issues:  Should she be terrified or petrified?  Should he introduce himself with ‘How do you do?’ or ‘Pleased to meet you.’  Important issues that would have a profound impact on the story!

And what if we can't find common ground?  Early on, we established a protocol for handling this possibility:  Whoever wrote the first draft gets to keep it.  Let the editor decide - which has never happened.

This weekend, we will finish a stand-alone, DEAD OF NIGHT, which has a female protagonist, Crystal Nguyen, and is written in the first person.  We have had more difficulty with this story than any of the others.  I think the reason is that given our style of writing together, we both have to be in Crystal’s mind in the same way, having the same reactions and thoughts.  Since she is telling the story, we both have to tell it in the same way.

Publish date in the UK:  July 15 by Orenda Books

We started it about five years ago and had multiple false starts because we didn’t have a common understanding of who Crystal was.  And we initially had different ways of letting Crystal tell the story.  So the style was inconsistent.

I eventually wrote a complete novella solo, called WOLFMAN, in an attempt to get to know Crystal better.  I think that worked, which made writing DEAD OF NIGHT much easier.  Not easy, but easier.

We are also often asked whether we recommend collaboration.  We do, but it’s not for everyone.  You have to leave your ego at home; you have to accept that the way you would write something is almost certainly not the only way, and you have to be comfortable with compromise.  None of which comes easily to many people.  But if you can do it, it’s is wonderful.  There is always someone to brainstorm with, someone to give you a kick in the pants when you are doing something else instead of writing, and someone to celebrate with.


  1. I'm very disappointed to have to admit that I agree with every single word!

  2. No matter how much I learn about your collaboration, it still looks like a magic trick to me. And I fully admit, as I have told you both, separately and together, that there are many moment in my sometimes frustrating and lonely experience of writing alone that I wish I had someone who would just take it over and tell me what do to. Even if I disagreed completely, I am sure in explaining why I disagreed, I'd find the right path. I may have to explore multiple personality disorder to make myself a better writer.

  3. No matter how many times I hear you elaborate on writing together, I’m fascinated as to how you guys do it. Frankly, S&M are the appropriate initials fdr describing how I’d view the process should there be any soul out there fool enough to have me as a (writing) partner.