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Reverse Engineering Your Novel

By Mike Fleming (@hiveword) on July 20, 2012 9:31 am

Stickies on a whiteboardOne of the nice things about working on the Writer’s Knowledge Base is that I see A LOT of writing articles pass by. I don’t have time to read all of them, of course, but M.E. Summer’s post “Kate Beckett’s Murder Board: Reverse Engineering Your Story” caught my eye just from the title alone. “Reverse Engineering.” Hey, that’s a technical term and I’m a technical guy (plus I probably know what she’s going to say and it’s right up my alley.) Then, there’s this “Murder Board” thing and that puppy sounds interesting!

Check out M.E.’s post and then come back. (I’ll start the Jeopardy music…)

Nice post, right?


I thought so, too. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot due to my work on my novel writing software so I knew about the nature of the issues in the post. However, I came away with an observation and a question for myself:

  1. “Reverse engineering” your story is outlining after the fact
  2. Could Hiveword solve the presented issues?

Outlining after the fact

If you reverse engineer your story you are effectively making an outline from what you wrote pantser-style. Then, you examine the outline and look for a broad range of problems. That’s cool if you want to work backwards like that but it leads to what I’ve been calling rework.

Outlining first or after the fact ends up with the same artifact (an outline) so there’s no loss there. Doing it after the fact is naturally faster. I should say seemingly faster but I’ll get to that in a moment. Then, you study your reverse engineered outline and look for problems. M.E. mentioned some of the ones she looks for:

  • Scheduling mishaps
  • Dropped subplots
  • Extraneous fluff
  • Missed opportunities

Thing is, when you find any of these things you’re going to have to do some rework. Hopefully, the rework isn’t too extensive but you never know. That’s why I said that, sure, doing the outline itself after the fact is faster but the total time to novel completion is not. In fact, I’d argue that the time to market is faster if you outline first.

Of course, as soon as the reverse engineered outline is done it’s a high-fidelity representation of the story. That is, until you change the story as a result of corrections. It’s easy (and OK!) to deviate from an outline but nobody said you can’t update the outline as you go. It’s relatively painless (depending upon your system) and you’ll always have a high-level representation of your novel.

Seems to me that outlining first saves time and can prevent carpal tunnel. (Hmm… “Prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.” Maybe I should use that in my marketing efforts!)

Essentially, doing an outline first allows you to see the story in its entirety and make changes while they are less costly in terms of time and rework.

M.E. mentions that a “painstaking outliner” probably doesn’t have these problems and that reverse engineering an outline is a way to help pantsers. So she knows the choice that she and her fellow pantsers make. I think the concept that M.E. presents is a great boon for pantsers. But, outline first or outline afterward, it’s still outline time!

Can Hiveword track the concrete examples M.E. gave?

As mentioned above, that’s a question that came to mind while reading the post. After all, these are issues I’m trying to solve and the post listed a bunch of concrete examples (including one commenter who tracks phases of the moon!). Turns out the answer is a mixed bag.

I’ve categorized the issues that M.E. presented below along with how Hiveword might help (if possible).

Setting inconsistencies (travel, weather)

Hiveword can help here since you can easily see the characters and setting by scene. If a character is at Setting X in one scene and Setting Y in the next, you know there’s some travel involved.

Plot and dropped subplots

For plot, M.E. specifically asked “How did she know X when she doesn’t find out about Y for another three chapters?” That’s tricky for Hiveword to know and really depends on the nature of X. Judicious use of tags might help. (I explain tags below.)

The dropped subplot part is handled by Hiveword. In the screenshots you’ll see a rudimentary example of the plotline visualizer tool. You can easily see how subplots weave in and out and when they end.


Hmm, this is a tough one. Hiveword lets you describe a character in great detail. You can also assign those characters to each scene. But M.E.’s example question was “Would she be talking to him again so soon after he did Z?” which Hiveword really can’t answer since it’s a judgment call.

Realism, scheduling mishaps, extraneous fluff, missed opportunities

I’ve grouped these together because Hiveword is of no help here. These issues simply require a human brain.

Moon phases, time between scenes, and events at points in time

I’ve grouped these together because Hiveword addresses all of them with tags. Tags are simply arbitrary words or phrases that you can attach to scenes, characters, settings, or plotlines. Tags are powerful because they are Hiveword’s extension point that allows writers to track whatever they need to.

A tag could be a date, a phase of the moon, a critical happening/event, a marking of the first plot point, etc. Since you can have multiple tags all of these could exist at the same time.


So, Hiveword fared reasonably well in its ability to track the provided items. Some things, though, simply require a brain. Sorry about that!

Check out the Hiveword screenshots for an idea of what can be tracked. Though you won’t see much use of tags there I think that the loose, custom tracking they provide can tremendously help writers.


  • Outline before writing or after — you’re writing an outline either way
  • Outlines can be a high-fidelity living thing, kept current as you write the prose
  • Outlining first saves time and rework
  • Hiveword can help!

By the way, if you want to call Hiveword a “Murder Board” I’m cool with that. 😉

How about you? Do you reverse engineer outlines from an existing work?

Image by kowitz



Philosophy of the Muse (or, Hot Tub Bubbles)

By Mike Fleming (@hiveword) on January 1, 2012 8:26 pm


Ever sit in a hot tub? Personally, I can’t resist the lure of the relaxing hot water, messaging jets, and all of those bubbles. During a recent hot tub experience I was mesmerized by the bubble patterns as they clung together in big, foamy islands, zipping past me in the strong current, forming, breaking, and forming again.

As I contemplated bubble “behavior” I couldn’t help but think of the multiverse. Oh, you know you would, too! 😉 But even as abstract as the multiverse theory is I got even more abstract by likening the bubbles to ideas or the muse. So, read on if you’re in the mood for some philosophical musings.

A hot tub has a jet that adds air bubbles to the water like a fount of micro-ideas. They’re tiny yet plentiful; tangible yet impossible to hold. They come to the surface to die or join forces with other bubbles and coalesce into bigger ideas. This is our big chance to catch them.

Over time these bubble islands — already well-formed by themselves — seem to seek out other bubble islands while ignoring others. It’s the strangest thing. It’s almost like the bubble islands have a gravity that attracts others and yet lets others pass by. These islands represent bigger and bigger ideas. Ever feel that way as you were conceiving your story? Like your ideas were snowballing into more intriguing, exciting, complex ideas? That’s bubble islands at work.

Many times the bubble islands have one or more dominant large bubbles that provide a crystal clear view into the complex structures of the bubble island. In your story it’s this richness of detail that can really set your story apart.

But, “bubble” implies a short life. Here one minute and pop! it’s gone the next. Whether you’re peering into the window provided by the dominant bubble or trying to understand the nature of the bubble island (that is, the idea) you need to capture what you see and not let it slip away. Good ideas are precious and should be captured immediately in writing. Unfortunately, I’ve lost many good ideas over the years so I now try to capture them as soon as possible.

How about you? How do you ensure that you don’t lose your good ideas?

Image by Glenn Loos-Austin