Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Plotting or Pantsing? Or both? by Guest Author Michael Stanley (aka Michael Sears and Stan Trollip)

Michael Sears
Stanley Trollip
Please welcome authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley. Their award-winning mystery series, featuring Detective Kubu, is set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The latest book in the series is a prequel, titled Facets of Death. It starts the first day Kubu joins the Botswana CID, and he’s immediately thrown into solving a violent heist of rough diamonds from Jwaneng—the world’s richest diamond mine. Their latest thriller Shoot the Bastards introduces Minnesotan environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen. Set mainly in South Africa, it has as backstory the vicious trade in rhino horn.

Michael has lived in South Africa, Kenya, Australia, and the US. He now lives in Knysna on the Cape south coast of South Africa. Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis and Cape Town. For more information, check out their website or their Amazon author page. You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter, and at the blog Murder Is Everywhere.

When we started our first book, A Carrion Death, we didn’t have much idea about how to write a mystery. We’d written lots of non-fiction, but we’d never tried our hands at fiction. What we had was a premise. The premise had come to us in Botswana’s Chobe National Park 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 of getting rid of a body, we thought! Especially if you had a particular reason that the body should not under any circumstances be recognized.

Michael wrote the first chapter and sent it to Stanley. He was as intrigued and puzzled about the half eaten corpse found in the desert as were the ranger and scientist who found it. What happens next? he asked. Michael didn’t have the faintest idea...
What happens next??

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. We’d been told to write about what we knew, so our plan was to have the scientist as hero. But Kubu ignored us and took over, shouldered the academic out of the limelight, and started investigating. He made one discovery after another, leaving a trail of dead plots in his wake.

We can’t imagine a more seat-of-the-pants (pantsing) 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. It was also scary, but we weren’t working to a deadline. In the end, after three years, we were left with a plot that we were comfortable with, 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
Mind maps!
mystery writers do it that way—pantsing to enjoy the discovery of what’s going on as much as the reader. By the second book, we thought 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 tens of 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, the final manuscript followed it pretty closely. We felt that now we understood how to write mystery novels. This, we decided, must be how all the professionals do it!

Our third book was a compromise between the two approaches. The 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 believe. An example of plotting and careful execution. Our third was somewhere in between. Our careful plot didn’t work, and we had to pants it out in the end.

Since then, we’ve become committed pantsers.

One result of this rather unstructured writing style, and the fact that Kubu took over as our protagonist without asking us, is that Kubu was quite unplanned. As we went along, we learned more about him, his school, his parents and his wife, but we had no idea how he’d developed into the Criminal Investigation Department’s star detective. Did he make mistakes? How did he learn? We felt that we needed to know the answers, so we decided to write a prequel that starts on the day Kubu joins the police as a new detective in 1998 (Facets of Death).

We also had the idea of a huge diamond heist from the Jwaneng mine in Botswana—the world’s richest diamond mine. If that had happened at the height of the diamond boom, could it have led to a collapse in the Botswana economy? That was a premise we could explore in a pantsing style. We started with the heist and let it play out, feeling the familiar panic when we neared the end of the book and realized that we had no way of catching the kingpin behind the crime.

The book had a plotting aspect as well, forced on us by it being a prequel. We wanted to explore Kubu as a young detective, but we knew where he would end up. He had to become a successful detective. He had to find his wife. His boss had to become director of the Criminal Investigation Department. In short, he had to develop into the present-day character our readers know and enjoy.

What we’ve learned over eight books is that there is no right or wrong way to develop a story. The majority of mystery writers seem to be pantsers, but there are plenty of big names who are plotters. For example, Jeffrey Deaver writes an extensive outline of each book, and then fleshes it out over a few months to get the complete novel.

Writing is a very personal process. Probably each writer (or writing team) has to find the style that works best for them. And it may change from book to book… 

1 comment:

Ann Parker said...

Hi Michael and Stan! You two seem to have come up with a system that works for you! And I'm glad to see I'm not the only writer who has vacillated between pantsing and plotting. I started off a pure pantser, but now I do a sort of half-and-half... pantsing for a while, then some loose plotting (with room for sudden inspiration/occasional pantsing) as I move into the last half of a book.
Facets of Death sounds wonderful, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
Thank you for being a guest on my blog!