Sunday, January 10, 2010

Partners in Crime: Michael Stanley

Continuing the Partners in Crime series here on Mystery Fanfare, I asked Stan Trollip, one half of the writing team known as Michael Stanley to Guest Blog about writing collaboration.

Michael Stanley
is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.

A Writing Collaboration

by Stanley Trollip (half of Michael Stanley)

“I couldn’t do it!”

“I don’t know how you do it!”

“Who writes, and who edits?”

These are exclamations Michael and I often hear from other authors as we travel on book tours.

“How do you do it?” is a question asked of us by everyone.

When we first started meeting people - readers and authors - after our first novel, A Carrion Death, came out in 2008, we were surprised by these questions. It seemed so natural to us to work together. Both of us were educators by profession, both professors. Michael is a mathematician, very interested in mathematics education. I was a professor of educational psychology, interested in using computers to improve teaching and learning. At its core, education is all about collaboration – between teachers; between learners; and between teachers and learners.

Furthermore both of us are fans of brainstorming as a problem-solving strategy, and have used it extensively in our professional lives. So it never occurred to us NOT to collaborate. It was only later we heard that conventional wisdom dictates that writing collaborations work for non-fiction, but not for fiction.

So both of us believe that collaborating improves our end product; that our books would not be as good if either one of us had written them alone. But quality is not the most important benefit of collaboration for us. Working together is so much fun. We spend hours talking, arguing, cajoling, usually over Skype since we live so far apart, and usually with a glass of wine at hand. We cannot imagine the loneliness of writing novels alone with nobody to bounce ideas off, nobody to critique what you have just written. Neither of us think we could do that.

So how does it work?

The book that went the most smoothly was The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu (A Deadly Trade outside North America). So let me describe it first.

In early 2007, after we had finished A Carrion Death, we spent a couple of weeks at Michael’s house in Johannesburg and a week at mine in Knysna, on South Africa’s south coast. We have found that being physically in the same location works best for us when creating the plot of our next novel. We brainstorm, throw around ideas, conjure up characters and locations, decide who is to be killed, and by whom, plan red herrings. All of the normal plotting strategies.

What is wonderful about having someone else involved is that everything is immediately subjected to external scrutiny. If I have a cute idea or want a character that reminds me of someone I know, Michael instantly questions whether it fits the plot or whether it is just satisfying a personal whim. And vice versa. We draw pictures and mind maps, discuss how the reader is going to view each aspect of the plot, and build up our characters’ personalities and motives.

After about a month of work, we wrote a short outline of the book – only a few pages long – with a brief description of what would happen in each chapter. And we prepared a timeline that told us what happened when.

When we finished the manuscript 18 months later, we compared it with the original outline and found the two to be very close.

The planning and writing of A Carrion Death was very different. Neither of us had written fiction before, and we hadn’t written together. So we had a great deal to learn. We started writing with only the idea of the opening scene – a body is left for hyenas to devour; some people stumble on the body before the hyena has finished demolishing it; the perfect way to get rid of a body has failed. After that, we sort of made up the plot as we proceeded. This, needless to say, resulted in many dead ends, errors of plot, unnecessary red herrings, and so on. Eventually we finished the manuscript after 3 years. Then it took another 2 months after our editor had looked at it.

We are close to finishing our third manuscript – tentatively titled Death of the Mantis. We have had more difficulties with this than with the second book, partly because we found we needed to make a significant plot change after starting writing, partly because the plot is more difficult to pull off. It will end up taking nearly two years to finish.

So far I have discussed the high-level aspects of collaboration – the plotting, etc. How does it work from day to day?

At any point in the process, Michael and I discuss, usually over Skype, what comes next in the story. This can range from a scene to several chapters. One of us decides to write it – sometimes because of our knowledge of the content, sometimes because we have the time. Once the draft is finished, the other gets to read and edit it. A few hours to a few days later, the writer gets the edited copy (everything is done electronically, including the mark-up). The draft will now contain a myriad of comments and suggestions, ranging from suggested wording changes to major issues about the content to new ideas to be considered. It is at this point that one’s ego gets challenged. Michael may dislike ideas I thought were terrific or make significant suggested changes to writing I thought was wonderful. Ouch!

But this is the power of collaboration. A solitary writer does not have the same access to a reader who is honestly critical – most friends say they like everything we write – which is not helpful, because what we write is often bad. Moreover, the feedback comes quickly – we sometimes can have three or four iterations of a piece in a day.

After each iteration, there is less to discuss, less to fix, until we are both satisfied. Only occasionally are we unable to reach agreement. Our strategy then is that whoever wrote the first draft gets to keep what they wrote. “The editor will take care of it if it’s bad,” we say to each other, knowing that it’s not really true. But the approach works and the book is better for it.

You may ask whether there are any downsides to collaboration. In terms of the writing partner, if you are willing to leave your ego behind, there is no downside that we have found. The only negative thing that may result from collaborating is that a manuscript takes longer to complete – both of us have to agree before it moves forward.

So, I am a great fan of collaboration – it works well for Michael and me, but I acknowledge that it may not work for everyone.

From my side, the greatest benefit that has accrued from collaborating with Michael is that we are closer friends after writing three manuscripts together – and we were good friends when we started.

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