Some authors start with a detailed outline of their novel and know every plot point before they write the first word. Others avoid preparing an advance blueprint, confident that the story will unfold as they work.
My wife, Ayan, and I (who write jointly under the name of “Michael H. Rubin”) approach the process differently from both those who need to know every aspect of their storyline before they start and those who do not plan ahead, assuming that the plot develop once they begin.
In the case of both our debut novel, the award-winning historical thriller, The Cottoncrest Curse, and our new contemporary legal thriller, Cashed Out, the main characters and the arcs of the story were fleshed out during our daily, early morning power walks. And I do mean early—we head out at 4:30 a.m. each morning.
We delve into who our primary characters will be, conjuring up their backgrounds and motivations. We decide how the book should start, brainstorming catchy first sentences and ideas for a compelling first chapter. We also confer about the overarching plot of the story, focusing on two or three crucial events in addition to potential endings. But, we do not commit any of this to paper. Our conversations allow our story to develop within a fluid framework. It is only after the essential building blocks of our thrillers have been established that we actually start writing.
Because we don’t prepare an outline in advance, we’re not locked into any specific path. Our story and characters can evolve as we write. In The Cottoncrest Curse, for example, we originally conceived of Dr. François Cailleteau, a grizzled, plain-talking former Confederate war physician, as a minor player. As we wrote, however, it became clear to us that he was a key ingredient, both to provide some of the necessary historical background that undergirds the action and to facilitate the plot. Ultimately, we expanded the role we had initially intended for him. Likewise, in Cashed Out, Washington Eby, an elderly next-door neighbor whom we originally thought of as only a comic foil, developed into a fully-rounded character whose interactions with the protagonist became key components of the novel.
Although we never begin with a written outline, we “outline in reverse.” In other words, once we write a chapter, we jot down general information concerning that chapter on a spreadsheet. As each new chapter is drafted, the essence of its contents gets added to the spreadsheet. This helps us in several ways.
First, it aids us in keeping continuity straight. Did characters say or do something in chapter 14 that is unintentionally at odds with what they said or did in chapter 3? Keeping an outline in reverse helps us avoid inadvertent continuity errors that can creep into a manuscript.
Second, a reverse outline is extremely useful in keeping timeframes aligned, especially in a novel like TheCottoncrest Curse, where part of the story is set in the post-Reconstruction era and part in the 1960s.
Third, a reverse outline is invaluable when you’re trying to locate something you wrote in a prior chapter so that you can properly reflect the foreshadowing you built in while composing earlier portions of the manuscript. Although computers can electronically search for words you used, they won’t help you find concepts you had introduced, plot points you had staked out, or twists and clues you had added. That’s where a reverse outline comes in handy.
Fourth, once a manuscript is finally completed and it’s time to write a synopsis, a reverse outline provides a quick way to review the entire storyline in detail.
We’ve found that the reverse outline method saves us from being straight-jacketed into a pre-ordained plot. We prefer not to spend time creating a detailed outline in advance because we do not want to tire of the story before we even start writing it. Likewise, employing the reverse outline method in conjunction with our intimate knowledge of the main characters and the primary arc of the novel before committing anything to the page lets the story and characters evolve as we write while simultaneously enabling us to see where we’ve been. It’s like having a back-up camera in a car that works in tandem with the rear-view mirror. You need to pay attention to what’s in front of you, but when you have to look backwards, it’s reassuring to know that you’re getting the clearest and broadest view possible.
Michael H. Rubin heads the appellate team of a law firm with offices from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to the East Coast and is a speaker and humorist who has given more than 400 multimedia presentations throughout the United States. He received the Burton Award at the Library of Congress for outstanding writing and is a member of the Authors Guild, the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the International Association of Crime Writers. Ayan Rubin has been a developmental book editor, a nonprofit consultant, and, for almost three decades, the Coordinator of the Educational Services Division of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, a state-wide television network. Writing under the name of “Michael H. Rubin,” they are the authors of the award winning historical thriller, The Cottoncrest Curse, released by LSU Press, and of the contemporary legal thriller, Cashed Out, which will be released by Fiery Seas Publishing on August 15, 2017.
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