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Saturday 14 October 2023

Collaboration is Fun by Michael Stanley

 The Writing Team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip

When we had the idea for our first novel, we knew we had a lot to learn. What we did know was that we would write it together.

We were both academics and enjoyed collaborating with other researchers in our disciplines. We never considered that writing fiction might be different. Two heads together were better than two heads separately. This became immediately apparent when Michael sent Stanley the first chapter of what became A Carrion Death. Stanley liked it; he was intrigued. He wanted to know what happened next. Michael admitted that he had no idea. “This is a collaboration,” he responded. “Over to you.” So, Stanley wrote the next chapter, and Michael liked it.

That was the foundation of our collaboration, but our technique developed as we started to learn more about writing fiction and what we were trying to achieve. We’ve remained “pantsers” rather than plotters. That is, we write by the seats of our pants with no formal outline or detailed knowledge of how the story will work out.

We like to brainstorm at the start of the book, preferably while we travel through Botswana to the places where the story is set, and that gives us ideas about characters and the overall direction of the story. It’s a bit like planning a relaxed road trip. You have a general idea where you’re heading, but not which roads you may take along the way. After all, readers enjoy the twists and turns and the surprises. Why shouldn’t we enjoy them as well? Knowing how the story is going to work out up front takes away half the fun.

As far as the actual writing is concerned, we have that pretty well developed after writing nine books. Each of us chooses part of a chapter, a whole chapter, or several related chapters, and writes a first draft. Often, we’re in different parts of the world for this part of the process, with Michael in South Africa and Stanley in Minneapolis. We like to say we work twenty-four hours a day. Michael writes a first draft of a chapter in South Africa during his day and emails it off to Stanley who receives it when he wakes up. After coffee, he opens it and starts to read. He likes bits of it, and dislikes others. New ideas will be sparked. He’ll make corrections, alterations, suggestions. By the end of his day, the text is full of corrections in red, and the margin is full of comments. That is the second draft, and he sends it back to Michael.

Michael wakes up in the morning looking forward to Stanley’s input. He’s been feeling pretty good about the chapter. Perhaps he has a particular paragraph or two that he really likes. When he opens the second draft, he gasps at all the red ink and comments. And, worst of all, the paragraphs he was particularly proud of Stanley has deleted altogether!

Carefully he works through all the changes. Some he accepts, some he rejects, some he replaces with something different. All the comments need to be addressed: some are easy, others not. As for the favorite paragraphs, he realizes that Stanley is right. The voice was Michael’s, not the voice of the book, and that would pull the reader from the story. The paragraphs have to go. “Kill your darlings,” as they say.

By the time all this has been tidied up, we have draft three, and it heads back to Stanley, who sends back draft four and so on. With a difficult chapter, there may be twenty iterations before we’re both happy that the chapter can be put to bed - at least for the first draft of the book.

This may sound like a stressful process, and sometimes it is, but we both know that every change, every query, is aimed at making the book better. The finished book is different from what either of us would have written
individually, and we often say that there actually is a Michael Stanley somewhere out in the internet ether who “wrote” the book.

We’re often asked if we have disagreements. Of course, we do! However, the most heated arguments are usually over a particular word or a misunderstanding rather than something substantial. We still chuckle about a prolonged and heated argument we once had about whether Kubu turned left or right out of a corridor in a house in the middle of the Kalahari desert. It turned out we had mirror-image pictures of the house in our heads. Neither of us had actually sketched it for the other to see. If, despite negotiation, we can’t agree, we do have a protocol for handling the dispute. Whoever wrote the sentence first gets to keep it on the understanding that the editor will fix it if it’s a problem. The editor has never done so in practice however.

Several of our writer friends shake their heads in disbelief. For them the writing process is intensely personal, and they can’t imagine someone else messing with their characters and their prose.

“How can two people write fiction together?” they ask.

“That’s the wrong question,” we reply. “The right question is ‘How can anyone write fiction alone?’”

For us, the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages.  We can brainstorm plot and character – two heads are better than one, and we think we get a more cohesive final product as a result.  When one of us flags, the other is there to nag and take up the slack.  Best of all we get immediate and interested feedback on anything we write. 

However, there are some caveats.  To collaborate effectively, you must be willing to take harsh criticism, knowing that it’s directed at the product and not personal. You have to have a very thick skin. You have to trust your partner and be able to see a different point of view.  It helps if you have similar writing styles. And it probably takes longer than writing alone. 

However, all that is outweighed by the biggest advantage: it is great fun!  After all, we write fiction for enjoyment.


Detective Kubu

A Carrion Death (2008)
A Deadly Trade (2009)
The Death of the Mantis (2011)
Detective Kubu Investigates (2013
Deadly Harvest (2015)
A Death in the Family (2015)
Dying to Live (2017)
Detective Kubu Investigats 2
Facets of Death (2020)
A Deadly Covenant (2022)

Freelance Hournalist, Crystal Nguyen

Shoot the Bastards (2018)
Dead of Night (2023)

1 comment:

  1. A perfect collaboration which created a great collection of stories!