One thing I’ve never done – and wonder if I could ever do – is co-author. Sure, there are successful teams: Charles Todd, Renee Patrick, Sparkle Abbey. But could I shelve enough of my authorial ego to do it? Today’s guest, Mike Rubin, explores that very topic.
Co-Authoring: A Honeymoon Collaboration or War of the Roses?
By Mike and Ayan Rubin
A number of popular thrillers have been jointly written by two people. For example, James Patterson has more than a dozen co-authors. Clive Cussler writes with co-authors as well, including both his son, Dirk, and Boyd Morrison. Five of Janet Evanovich’s thrillers were co-written with Lee Goldberg, who scripted the Monk television series.
My wife, Ayan, and I are among a small group of American husband-and-wife writing teams, although there are other couples who write together, like British author Nicci French (the pseudonym of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French), and Swedish authors Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall.
Whenever Ayan and I make presentations about our thrillers, we always get asked several questions. One is how we can write together and stay married, and the other is how come only I am identified as the author.
Ayan and I power walk together early each morning, and when I say “early,” I mean 4:30 a.m. During the course of our walks, which began many years ago, we talk about potential characters, plot lines, and the remarkably exotic state of Louisiana in which we live. Such discussion help us stay alert as we exercise. When we feel we have enough material for a novel, we start writing. Our debut book, the multi-generational historical thriller The Cottoncrest Curse, was the first to grow out of these early morning musings.
Before we begin writing, Ayan and I talk extensively about the key characters and their motivations, about the beginning, middle, and end of the story we are conjuring up, and even about the first sentence. We don’t commit any of this to a formal outline however. We find that the process of connecting the dots, filling in the subplots and developing the “minor” characters is the most fun. In fact, during the course of writing, we often discover that a character whom we initially conceived of as incidental to the plot morphs into a major player. For example, in The Cottoncrest Curse, Sheriff Raifer Jackson suspects that what appears to be a murder-suicide at the eponymous Cottoncrest Plantation in 1893 may, in fact, be a double homicide. We had originally considered his naïve deputy, Bucky Starner, to be a tertiary character, and had thought that aged Civil War surgeon, Dr. François Cailleteau, would appear in merely one scene. But as we fleshed out the story, both Starner and Cailleteau became integral to the plot.
Although Ayan and I don’t outline our books in advance, we do “outline in reverse,” meaning that as we complete a chapter, we prepare a short synopsis of what we just wrote. This allows us to maintain continuity as we work without tying us down to a preconceived roadmap.
Outlining in reverse is also useful as our plot evolves, since we do not write full-time. Because writing is our avocation and not our vocation, the first draft of manuscript can take us over a year to complete.
In our second novel, Cashed Out, we kept control of the intricate twists and turns in the plot by reviewing the “reverse outline” of our previous chapters before we drafted the next. For us, this proved to be a much faster way to keep track of the action.
Because we agree on the main aspects of storyline as well as the key characters and their motivations before we ever start writing, we don’t have disagreements about the plot. Nor do we argue about whether a character would say or do something one way rather than another. Because we have discussed our key characters extensively, we know how they think and speak before we put a single word on a page. That is not to say that there is nothing left for us to exchange views about, however.
I usually write the first draft, including every idea we ever had. Ayan then reviews my first draft, fully explains anything that might be unclear, winnows out anything that slows down the plot, and rewrites the manuscript as she sees fit.
The two of us then work together on the third draft. Each of us has to defend to the other why we included or deleted certain passages, changed a plot point, or altered scenes. We decide together if we need more or less dialogue or shorter or longer descriptive passages.
We intentionally write thrillers with short chapters. The purpose of for this is to make sure that our finished novel is a compelling “page turner.” We want readers to say, at the end of each chapter, “Well, I’ll just read a few more pages to find out what happened next.”
Once we complete the third draft, we review the manuscript to assure that it is ready for publication. Ayan does all of the fine-tuning.
Though we’re honored that both of our novels are award-winners, what really gratifies us is when we give multimedia presentations and audience members either ask about or speculate on what happens to one or more of our characters after the novel ends. That’s what all novelists hope for—to create characters so realistic that they linger in the reader’s mind.
As to the second question—how come only my name is on our first two novels—it has to do with marketing. We were told by the publisher of our first book that getting people to buy a “debut novel” by an unknown author is tough enough, and that having two names on the cover of a work of fiction may be off-putting. Because we write legal thrillers, and because I’m an attorney who routinely gives presentations around the country, we decided together that it made sense to list me as the author, although on the acknowledgment page in each of the novels I expressly indicate that Ayan is a major contributor. I always make it clear at all book events that the novels attributed to me are in reality a joint effort. Our intent is to get our stories into the hands of readers, not to worry about whose name is on the cover.
Our third novel, Enflamed, is now with our agent in New York. We’re just finishing up our fourth, The Crescent City Killer, and have already started on our fifth. Ayan and still walk at 4:30 a.m., and we’ve many ideas still to develop.
Mike and Ayan Rubin jointly write novels under the name “Michael H. Rubin.” Their debut novel, The Cottoncrest Curse, a multi-generational historical thriller, was published by the LSU Press, was named the IndieFab Book of the Year Gold Award Winner and was lauded as the Best Thriller and Suspense Novel published by a university or independent press in 2014. Suhrkamp has released a German language edition. The Cottoncrest Curse is available in hardback, eBook, and as an audiobook.
Their second novel, Cashed Out, won the Jack Eadon Award for Best Contemporary Novel of 2018, which honors the book of the year “whose characters are vividly portrayed as those individuals who can exist side-by-side with someone living in this world now, and deals with issues of today in dramatic fashion in a setting that must be excruciatingly real.” Cashed Out was also short-listed for both the Silver Falchion Award as the Best Mystery of the Year and the IndieFab Gold Book of the Year as the Best Thriller/Suspense Novel of the Year. It is available as a paperback and eBook.