Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Power of One

Michael - Thursday

NO! Not this one.
Stan and I have just finished what we very much hope are the final edits for our stand-alone thriller Dead of Night. No doubt you’ll be hearing more about the book here in due course, but for the moment I want to talk a little about the writing. This is mainly because my head is still too full of the book to talk coherently about anything else.

With this book we deliberately set out to do something different. We wanted the challenge, and we wanted to see if we could appeal to a wider audience by a change of scene and characters. So we (temporarily) shelved the Kubu series, and took on a new setting, a new protagonist, and a new writing style. Specifically, most of the book is set in South Africa with sections in Switzerland and Vietnam, and the protagonist is a woman, Crystal Nguyen, from Minnesota who was born in Vietnam and came to the US as a refugee with her parents after the Vietnam War. The feature that is common with the Kubu books is that it has a backstory relevant to modern southern Africa—in this case the poaching of rhinos and the smuggling of horns to Asia. And what can or should be done about it.

Yes, this one.
We found a lot of challenges. Could we write a female as the main character? Culturally, Crys is a Minnesotan—she grew up there—and Stan has lived there for most of his career, and I’ve visited often for extended periods. But some of her makeup is Vietnamese. That’s a culture we don’t know at all well. Could we pull that off? Oh, and did I mention that it’s written in first person? I should have mentioned it’s in first person.

From the word go we had two big problems. The one was understanding our new character—what motivated her, what her background was, how she came to be passionate about wildlife and journalism. It was a big enough issue that Stan wrote what started as a novella about her life in Minnesota and ended up as a novel in its own right. That was written in first person present. (Dead of Night is in past tense.) I’m sure you’ll learn more about that book here in the future, too. When we tried to both write her, we found it much harder than writing Kubu. Kubu appears from different perspectives in different scenes; he is consistent, but we don’t view the whole story from inside his head. It’s hard to fit two people into one head at the same time!

We realised right from the start, of course, that everything in the book has to be seen or heard about by Crys, and we realised that put constraints on how the story could be told and its style. You can’t write how anyone else feels or what he or she is thinking. Crys can only deduce that from body language and what they actually say. This was much harder than we expected, or even realised when we finished our first draft. One danger is writing third person in first person i.e. having Crys think about what we would want to narrate. She wouldn't do that. A bigger risk is that the story ends up without the emotional depth that third person narration can provide. The editor had to educate us to that, and we even toyed with rewriting the whole book in third person. (Briefly. Very briefly!)  In the end we added nearly twenty per cent to the book to address those aspects more deeply after a lot of editorial input.

In the end, we are really happy with the result. But, of course, in the final analysis, it is the readers who will decide how successful it actually is.

But I’m not sure we would want to try another first person novel, although we've learned a great deal. And learning is always fun and worthwhile, if somewhat painful on occasion. I’d certainly love to hear what other people think about the first person/third person dichotomy, and if you’ve tried writing both, which do you prefer and why? And which do you prefer reading?

In the meanwhile, back to the relative safety of the younger Kubu finding his feet in his first week in the Botswana CID...

We’ll be at CRIMEFEST in two weeks (May 17- 20 in Bristol) moderating panels and appearing on one with Charles and Caroline Todd. We’re greatly looking forward to that one in particular!


14:40 – 15.30 Panel: Climate Change: Cold Crimes and Hot Homicides
  Quentin Bates, Kjell Ola Dahl, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Robert Wilson
  Participating Moderator: Stanley Trollip


16:00 – 16:50 Panel: Writing Pairs: Is Two a Crowd?
  Michael Stanley (Michael Sears & Stanley Trollip)
  Charles Todd (Charles & Caroline Todd)
  Moderator: Karen Robinson


14:50 – 15:40 Panel: Getting Personal – Private Lives of Characters
  Kjell Ola Dahl, Mari Hannah, Priscilla Masters, Jeffrey Siger
  Participating Moderator: Michael Sears


  1. I can't wait to read this. Sometimes I ask people I'm working with to write what they think another person feels about a situation. I ask them to write in first person. It's an exercise designed to help them build empathy and it works. I still consider a story I wrote anonymously online about 8 years ago as my first novel (it's still online - first chapter on my website)In Chronicles of a Runs Girl, the protagonist and narrator is a young woman putting herself through university in Nigeria. Writing her, I felt a type of freedom I'd never felt before. It's hard to explain, perhaps the best way to describe it is that I was free to experience the other part of what makes me human. We all start off female in the womb, after all.
    I will later feel this freedom again when I wrote my first published book, Easy Motion Tourist, in which the narrator (not the protagonist), is a white male. Again, writing him felt like experiencing more of what it means to be human - not a colour, not a nationality, not my bank balance or the amount of melanin in my skin but simply human. One of my favourite crime writers. James Patterson, writes his protagonist in the first person. While Patterson is white, his Alex Cross is black.
    I can just imagine the joy you must have experienced writing Crystal, and how fun it would have been. And I bet it's gonna be obvious in the book as well. I can't wait to read this one.

    1. Thanks for those insights, Leye. Yes, it can be very liberating, but also very constraining sometimes!

  2. As a reader, I enjoy both first and third person narratives. They are, naturally, very different in 'feel' and, as you pointed out, have a very different emotional focus. But trying to pick one as a favorite is like trying to decide whether you prefer to breath or drink water...

  3. And two guys writing a female protagonist first person- like you know how a woman's mind works!! I jest but I am putting down a book, and not picking it up again, as I am unable to read any further because the male writer just can't do female first person. Was the editor male or female (or both or neither nowadays?)

    1. Hmmm. Well, you might have a point. See my comment at the end!

  4. Having had the privilege of reading an early draft of Stan’s prequel, I know a bit about Crystal and can’t wait to read Dead of Night. I write third person, multiple POV, and can’t seem to manage any other way. My feeling is that the characters are telling me the story, otherwise I don’t know what happens. I hope to branch out from this, and what you have said here is helpful in thinking about that.

    1. Well, a challenge is as good as a holiday, but one has to be willing to accept that one does better in some styles than others, I guess.

  5. Writing the novella (called Wolfman) in the first person present was very exciting and, as Leye says, liberating. I've no idea whether I did a good job or not, but it was difficult but enjoyable. Writing Dead of Night in the first person past with Michael was much more difficult as we had to somehow put our two big heads into her one smaller one. Often it was a struggle. But we learnt a lot.

    Today we bit the bullet and started on what the editor really wanted all along and perhaps skirted around through multiple iterations. What they called the 'nuclear option'.
    We are rewriting the book in third person. I guess I have my answer!

  7. Michael I couldn't believe the timeliness for me of your post. I, too, decided a year ago, after nine third person Andreas Kaldis mystery thrillers, to write something different. Though I still placed it on a Greek island, my protagonist is an ex-pat American who plays piano in a gender-bending party bar at night, while working as a private detective/fixer for locals during the day. I wrote it in first person present, and loved the immediacy of the style. In keeping with your POV gender considerations, my biggest challenge was deciding whether my protagonist should be a woman or a man. My conclusion was to leave it to the reader to decide. That made it an interesting writing challenge in many ways.

    I'm waiting for my editor's input--hopefully nuclear disarmament will have taken place before then--but in any event I'm happy I wrote it, and am back to writing Kaldis #10.