Plotting vs. Pantsing 14: Michael Stanley

May 23rd, 2010

deadly trade pb

Michael Stanley is the writing name of two long-time friends, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.  Both were born in Johannesburg, but their paths diverged during the apartheid era.  Stanley went to university in the United States, Michael in Australia.  The friendship developed in Minneapolis in the early eighties.  Both have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in remote sensing; Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning.

They have enjoyed many trips in southern Africa together, with Botswana a favourite destination.  The idea of completely destroying a murdered body by setting it out for hyenas came on one of these.  But the intriguing thing about a perfect murder is that it never is perfect, and the intricate plotting of murder mysteries seduced them both, leading to their debut novel A Carrion Death which was published in 2008.  Their second novel A Deadly Trade (titled The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu in the US) will be available in paperback on May 27th.  Both feature their detective, whose nickname Kubu means hippopotamus in Setswana.

michael stanleyPlot or Pants?  Plot and Pants.

When Stanley and I started our first book — A Carrion Death — we didn’t have much idea about anything .  We had written lots of nonfiction — several books in Stanley’s case and multiple mathematics papers in mine — but we’d never tried out hands at fiction.  The premise had come to us in the Botswana bush after watching hyenas devour a young wildebeest.  They ate everything except the horns and hooves.  We speculated on what they would do to a human corpse.  Nothing would be left.  Nothing at all.  What a wonderful way to get rid of a body, we thought!  Especially if you had a particular reason that the body should not under any circumstances be recognized.

I wrote the first chapter and sent it to Stanley.  He was as intrigued and puzzled by the half-eaten corpse as were the ranger and scientist who found it.  What happens next, he asked.  I didn’t have the faintest idea . . . .

When Detective Kubu went out to the area to investigate, we still didn’t know.  We had lots of ideas, but we were coming to grips with all the issues around writing fiction.  Who was it that said that fiction has to be believable but biography doesn’t suffer from that disadvantage?  How right he (or she) was . . . . We had been told to write about what we knew, so our plan was to have the scientist as hero; fortunately, Kubu ignored us and took over, shouldered the academic and not too smart game ranger out of the limelight, and started investigating.  He made one discovery after another leaving a trail of dead plots in his wake.  Somewhere a nasty family of rich and greedy people started to be the focus of his investigation.  Somehow they started to fit the bill.

I can’t imagine a more seat-of-the-pants approach than this.  Kubu pulled us up by his bootstraps.  Or is that our bootstraps?  It was great fun!  Maybe there was a freshness and excitement that came from the plot twisting and turning around us as it coalesced.  When the dust had settled, a couple of reviewers commented that there was “too much plot” and they were probably right.  Good thing they hadn’t seen all the plots we rejected along the way!  In the end we were left with a plot with which we were comfortable, but also with a strong feeling that this was a very inefficient way to write a book.

When we started the second book, we were convinced that all this chaos was a spinoff of the fact that we knew nothing about writing fiction.  It was only much later that we discovered that many mystery writers do it that way, enjoying the discovery of what’s going on as much as the reader.  By the second book we were experts.  We knew better.  We spent a lot of time plotting and arguing, rejecting ideas, following twists, taking turns.  We had mind maps that couldn’t fit on the dining room table.  And eventually we had a plot that we felt held up and that would lead to none of the dead ends that had cost us thousands of discarded words in the first book.  We sent our publisher an outline of The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu and while a few extra embellishments occurred during writing as the characters developed and insisted on doing things their way, if you read that synopsis now, you would see that the final manuscript followed it very closely.  The book came out last June in North America and received enthusiastic reviews.  The paperback will be released in the UK and the rest of the world as A Deadly Trade on the 27th of this month.  We felt we had cracked it!  We knew how to write mystery novels.  This must be how all the professionals do it!

Then came the third book.  We addressed it almost casually.  We knew what to do.  It was just a matter of enough work.  For the first time, however, we found ourselves in heated arguments.  Our ideas were quite different, and yet very much the same.  This plot had no natural birth; like MacDuff, it was “ripped untimely from its mother’s womb.”  It wasn’t for lack of effort.  We actually spent more time on it than on the plot of the second book.  Just as in A Carrion Death the plot has suffered (rejoiced in?) major changes as we painted ourselves into corners or found our characters forced out of character.  As we traveled around the world hawking A Carrion Death, we argued about the plot of The Death of the Mantis. And we still do — with 95% of the book finished!

I suppose our third book is a compromise between the two approaches.  Our first book was chaos, enjoyable chaos, and ultimately successful chaos — a true example of writing by the seat of your pants.  Our second was planned and manicured.  Successful, too, we hope.  An example of planning and careful execution.  Our third is somewhere in between, and it may be our best book yet.

And how will we approach the fourth book?  Your guess is as good as ours.  Maybe better.

10 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 14: Michael Stanley”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    How fascinating! I must read all three books now to see the difference.

    Would you say you approached the first one linearly (diversions into dead-ends notwithstanding)? Or did you add new details into the beginning as you made sense of the end?

    I love the idea of “too much plot” !

    Was the second the fastest of the three to write? Was the synopsis very detailed or sketchy?

    I wonder if your discussions and arguments about book three during your book tours work similarly to the “large body of work” that Jeremy Duns said he builds up before beginning (Plotting vs. Pantsing 4).

  2. Suzanna Says:

    I know that there are sometimes many co-authors in non-fiction but I think your co-authorship is the first that I’ve heard about for a fictional work, which is probably due to the fact that for the most part I read non-fiction.

    A strong longstanding friendship, great writing skills probably help sustain your writing partnership, I imagine.

    Is there anything else that you feel has added significantly to the success of your co-authorship?

  3. Michael Stanley Says:

    Dear Sylvia

    Thanks for your comments and questions.

    We think that A Carrion Death had a clear starting point, but then it was more like a shrub – a rather untidy shrub – with lots of branches that developed but had to be trimmed back. So the thrust was linear, but there were lots of side lines.

    Yes, you correctly deduce that the second book was the fastest to write, and we did have a quite detailed outline. It was in various forms – mindmaps, synopsis, character descriptions and so on. The synopsis was fairly accurate, too, although there were some ideas that didn’t work out and changed as we went along. Not that many though.

    I think there are similarities with what jeremy Dunns said. I suppose the main difference is that we have to both be comfortable with what we are doing all the time. When one of us gets uncomfortable, that leads to a LOT of discussion!

    Hope you enjoy the books!
    Best wishes

  4. Michael Stanley Says:

    Dear Suzanna,

    Thanks for this input. There are a number of contemporary writing partnerships that have been successful in fiction -Nicky French (husband and wife) and Charles Todd (mother and son). We were recently on a panel with Caroline Todd and she says that her collaboration with her son works pretty much the same as ours. Probably the main issues are general compatibility, similar writing styles, and a willingness to set aside ego and listen carefully to the other partner!

    Most of all we have a lot of fun!

    Best wishes

  5. Dana King Says:

    Congratulations on the success of your collaborations. I can’t imagine writing in conjunction with someone else, though much of it does sound like fun.

    I’m starting to see a common thread running through many of these posts: don;t get locked in. You’re a perfect example of writing each book as it needs to be written, without being too rigid about “this is how I/we do it.” When successful–as you clearly are–it must have the side effect of keeping the series from becoming formulaic.

  6. Michael Stanley Says:

    Hi Dana

    Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. Sometimes you think you have a really good plan but it just doesn’t work. Of course you twist and turn for a while but in the end you have to accept that. I’m sure many writers have that sort of experience.

    Matt Lynn who writes mercenary thrillers told me he writes very detailed outlines – about 20% of the book – and sticks to it. But then, of course, he’s really doing the pantsing in his outline…


  7. Dana King Says:

    That’s a great point. Everyone pantses at some point. I tend to do it while putting together the outline; I need some structure to allow myself to be creative in the expression of what happens, and how. (My outlines aren’t nearly as detailed as Matt’s.) Most who consider themselves true pantsers are fixing things in their rewrites I thought about in the outline. I often wonder if the amount of time spent actually writing as opposed to thinking about what happens next is different between the two schools; we just do them at different stages of the process.

  8. Greg Smith Says:

    About the detailed outlining that Matt Lynn does, you said, “but then, he’s really doing the pantsing in his outline.” It’s beginning to look like everybody employs both approaches to writing one way or the other; even for the died in the wool plotters, pantsing has to come into it at some point.

    Thanks for sharing your process and the fact that all of us might benefit by mixing it up with approaches from time to time.

  9. Michael Stanley Says:

    Yes, I think that’s right, Greg. Stan and I are wondering about how we’ll approach our fourth book. But I guess we’ll just start plotting and see where it goes…

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks to Stanley and Michael, and thanks to all who chimed in on this post and those that preceded it. I think this was an especially apt one, since these guys have pretty much lived the entire spectrum, and also wrote one sentence I’m going paste over my keyboard: “Just as in A Carrion Death the plot has suffered (rejoiced in?) major changes as we painted ourselves into corners or found our characters forced out of character.”

    Just a great post and a great ending to this enterprise.

    I think the next thread, maybe in September, will be THE BOOK THAT ALMOST KILLED ME. More about that later.

    Thanks again to everyone.

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