Thursday, December 15, 2022

The same question again!

 Stanley - Thursday

For a long time, I was surprised when I was asked either at an event or when talking to a reader “How do two people write together?”  

Now I am surprised when I'm not asked the question. 

In fact, I've been asked so often that I am occasionally tempted to answer “I write one word, then Michael writes the next.” And occasionally I succumb to that temptation, only to immediately feel bad and try to recover by making a joke out of it.

I've written about our collaboration before. In my blog of 12 April, 2018, for example, I explained not only how Michael and I write together but also how we came to write together. 

To recapitulate briefly: 

We usually try to be physically together when we brainstorm the next book.  We find wine and laughter helps the process.  I

Greasing the mental cogs

In contrast to those who plot out their books in advance, we are pantsers. That is, we write by the seat of our pants, making up the story as we go along.  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. (What confounds plotters is how we can start writing, knowing any or all of these could change.)

Then we start writing.  At any point in time, we can both be writing different parts of the story, usually decided in a WhatsApp 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 suggested, 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.

Typical comments, additions, deletions

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 ours.

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 likely 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.’  Is it better to start a sentence with 'Meanwhile' or 'In the meanwhile', or 'Meantime' or 'In the meantime'? Clearly, these are 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.

I am also asked whether collaboration suits everyone. My usual answer is that there are certain requirements for a good collaboration. 

First, you have to leave your ego behind. You have to accept that there will be times your collaborator's idea or writing is better than yours. Even for seasoned collaborators that can be very painful and irritating. 

Second, you have to accept that there is rarely one best way of doing anything. Learning how and when to compromise is essential. 

Third, there will be times when each of you is more productive than the other, and times when each of you is less productive than the other. Accept that everyone's energy rises and falls. It is only a problem when the balance is always tilted one way. 

Things work when everyone helps each other.

Finally, use the collaboration to have fun.

Overall, I'm convinced that collaboration leads to a better product.

Our usual response to the question "How can two people write together?” is another question: "How can someone write alone?" 

"You want to write alone?" I ask. "It's lonely; there's no one to brainstorm with; no one else to blame; no one to laugh with; no one to help finish that bottle of wine when together."

In fact, I'm particularly puzzled when authors ask me how two people can write together. I'm puzzled because all authors have to learn to collaborate at some level, be it with their agent, their various editors, their publisher, with the cover designer, and so on. They have no choice.

I think they should take the next step and collaborate the whole way!

Occasionally one head IS better than two. I remember one heated exchange Michael and I had about which way Kubu would have to turn when he entered an abandoned house in the Kalahari that was thought to house the bad guys. I had a very clear picture of the layout of the house and was certain he had to turn left. Michael also had a clear picture of the layout and knew that Kubu had to turn right. After much heat had been generated, we realised that neither of us had shared our floor plan with the other. And, of course, the floor plans were different.

Here is the result of the latest collaboration between Michael and me, with a very nice blurb coming out of Edinburgh.

And, of course, the Murder is Everywhere blog is a fine example of collaboration between disparate writers, most of whom claim they could never write with someone else!

Ho ho ho! I wish all our Murder is Everywhere readers and bloggers a safe, healthy, and happy festive season.


  1. And a Happy and Healthy Holiday season to you, Stan...and to you too, Michael.

  2. Wait--is there a floor plan to this blog? Happy Christmas and a Wonderful new year, Stanley on the left, Michael on the right and Jeffrey and everyone else on and reading this!