Tag Archives: Rachel Aaron

Writing method trial – the result

There's memes, there's gags, and there's real life. This one is all three.

With luck, this joke will no longer be true of my writing life…

Last month I ran a trial. I was going to take an old project, one that had been through many incarnations, and start over one more time. This time, however, I would be using a new method, gleaned from Rachel Aaron’s book, “2000 – 10000”.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

The method itself isn’t very revolutionary – at least, not in the way I applied it. I would simply start by outlining the whole plot, then do a more detailed outline, and then break that detailed outline into scenes. Finally I would take each scene and write another detailed outline, and then I would write the script, a scene at a time, from the outlines.

Some of you are probably wondering what the hell I did before now, if this is my “revolutionary” system. Well, like I said in my original post, I wrote by the seat of my pants, hoping that the storyline would work out along the way and end up somewhere satisfactory.

Yes, really.

Being the lazy toerag I am, I took the first three weeks of February writing outlines. I left myself the last week to actually write the play itself. I reckoned it broke down into about eight scenes, four in each half, with a prologue setup. The first day of writing was very encouraging, with two scenes completed in an hour and a half, with a word count of two thousand words or more. This was actually working!

I only got to spend four days that week writing, and didn’t get my two scenes a day, though I was well on the way by the time Friday rolled around. I was confident that I would have this play done and dusted by the end of the first week of March.

Well, this is the Tuesday of that week. I wrote “Curtain” on the final scene of Act Two this morning, in a sort of daze. All in all, I’ve spent around eight to ten hours actually writing. Maybe two work days for real people*. I’ve produced, in that time, over 11000 words, and a complete full-length play, my first in more than a year. I’ve also done the preliminary planning for a one-act play that I intend to have finished by Friday. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

I’m not going to say this is the only system, or even the best system. What I’ve found in the past is that any system will have its champions and its detractors. What works for me may be living hell for someone else. But I know I have done more and better work in the last fortnight than I have in the two years preceding. My next aim is to have three short plays adding up to a decent one-act written and ready for publication by the end of this month – one a week. If I can achieve that, and I think I can, I will have proved this new system to my satisfaction.

What’s YOUR system? Doesn’t have to be a writing system – for a while we had the infamous “Tidy Friday” plan, where everyone in the household cleaned the whole place between four and six on a Friday night, so we had a clean home for the weekend. Tell me the secrets you’ve discovered that lead to an organised life! Best suggestion wins a personalised Certificate of Organisationalism!



*i.e. not writers. Writers aren’t real people.

Follow the PenMonkey – The Truth of Chuck Wendig

Actually, I’m already having second thoughts about that title. Still, here we go…

Screenshot of Chuck's blog. Reproduced without permission, and I fully expect to be eaten by wild dogs as a result. And not in a good way.

Screenshot of Chuck’s blog. Reproduced without permission, and I fully expect to be eaten by wild dogs as a result. And not in a good way.

Chuck Wendig is wise. He dispenses a good deal of wisdom on the subject of writing in his blog, but the latest post I read really summed up the grim truth of writing:

You have to DO IT!

I am lazy. I’ve tried about a dozen different musical instruments, searching for the one that I can play without effort. I had a go at lots of different sports to see if I had an aptitude for any of them without lots of practice. In my life, the two disciplines I have stuck with are juggling and writing, and they have remained because…well…

Juggling WAS actually that mystical thing that just clicked. I could do it straight away, or at least with enough ease that I was willing to put in the work to get even better. I’ve taught juggling for long enough to know that it is this way for some people. My earliest juggling partner, Dougie, could watch a trick being done a few times, then just give it a go and it would usually work out. He was a natural, better than me. My good friend Mike didn’t have the same flow, but he had way more determination and would work at a trick until it worked. Months, if necessary. If I’d had to put in that effort, I would have walked away.

Writing hasn’t been easy, but I wanted to be a writer, and with the birth of Eldest Weasel I was given the opportunity to try it. Early success in the sale of a story and an article gave me encouragement, and I had the support of Mrs Dim, something for which I can never be grateful enough.

So even though the actual writing wasn’t easy, the ideas have never stopped coming, and I have never lost the desire to be a writer. But by nature, I’m what writers call a “pantser”, following where the story leads and hoping it’ll get where it’s going in a reasonable word count. It can be an exhilarating journey, but you have to be prepared for the occasional trip down a blind alley, or running out of steam in the wilderness. In my virtual desk drawer I have more than one great idea that’s still awaiting the arrival of roadside assistance to de-coke the engine and refill the tank.

So Chuck is right – the deepest truth, the unavoidable fact is that YOU MUST WRITE. There’s no easy way, no method to skip the work and get the prize, you have to write. To coin another metaphor, you have to go down to the coalface and hack out your story. No argument from me.

But here’s something I’ve learned, (and maybe Chuck would agree): While you’re hacking away, sometimes it’s good to step back and look at THE WAY you’re working. Are you using the right end of your pickaxe? Are you swinging with a steady rhythm? Could you maybe use a power drill? And lots of other mining-type questions. I’ve been a pantser for years, and it’s worked pretty well, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way I can write. Maybe trying a new method will reduce the number of unfinished pieces, and make better use of my time at the coalface, as it were.

2000 cover

To this end I picked up “2000 – 10000” by Rachel Aaron, a book that promised to improve your daily word count. That wasn’t exactly my aim, since I’m mostly writing plays, but increased efficiency is a good goal. The book is short, and available for the Kindle, so I downloaded it and read it in one evening. It makes a lot of sense.

Rachel’s main point – the one that resonated most with me – is that working out the story is most of the heavy lifting. And pantsers like me do that work while we’re writing. We’re not just hacking out our coal, we’re trying to work out where the best seam is, indicate it to other miners, ensure everyone is wearing the correct safety equipment and make lunches for the miners WHILE STILL MINING! (This was a lousy metaphor. I should have used ships instead.) She said that by taking five minutes at the start of her writing time to outline what she was aiming to write, the bones of the scenes, she could write with more confidence and better direction. She had to edit less, because she knew the whole scene was worthwhile, and she knew how it was going to play out.

For someone whose stories have often gone off the rails as the characters grab the plot and run away with it, or slump in the corner and refuse to play, this was a revelation. Not just a vague outline that says “And then they work out their argument and get married” at the end, but an actual breakdown of the whole thing! Brilliant!

To test the theory, I have given February over to an old favourite project of mine. I wrote the general outline, then broke that down into acts and scenes. I’ve taken each of those scenes and written a more detailed outline. In a couple of days I’ll have detailed outlines for every scene and have a plan – a detailed plan – for the whole play. No one gets to go astray, because I know where they have to be next. If I get stuck on one scene, I can go on to the next and work on that, confident that it’s part of the plan. I have high hopes.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

This is a good method, but the real secret of the book is “Look at the way you work”. You don’t have to adopt Rachel’s method, or use Robert McKee’s graphs, or Blake Snyder’s beat system, but you should try something new from time to time, see if the way you’re working is the best way for you. There’s no magic bullet that will make writing (whether books, poems, plays or condolence letters) easy, but you can make things easier on yourself.

And when you’ve got a good method, you’ll just have to DO IT!