Rachel Aaron is the bestselling traditionally published novelist and author of several books including the Eli Monpress series, as well as one of my absolute favorite books on writing, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.
Rachel always wanted to tell stories. But the types of stories she wanted to tell changed as she grew older. As a little girl, she wanted to draw comics and manga. Later, she thought about writing movies. Ultimately, though, when she thought of stories, they always showed up as books.
Rachel isn’t a visual person and drawing doesn’t come easily to her. For her, writing books just makes sense.
By the time she got to college, Rachel knew she wanted to be an author. She got an English degree because she thought that would make it possible—that she’d become an author with that credential. However, her English degree made her really good at writing essays, not novels.
In 2004, Rachel graduated college and was trying to figure out how to actually be a published fiction author. That’s when she discovered Holly Lyle’s website.
Holly’s advice was: “If you want to be a writer, start writing.”
Just Start Writing—The Rest Will Follow
Taking Holly’s words to heart, Rachel spent the next year writing a 220,000-word YA novel. In 2005, self-publishing didn’t exist in the form that it does today, so Rachel went to New York with her behemoth young adult novel.
She tried to publish her first novel for two years. She was rejected by every publisher that she queried. Finally, she gave up trying to sell that first novel because she wanted to write another book.
She sat down and wrote the story that spoke to her—the book that seemed fun to write. That became her first published novel, The Spirit Thief.
She used that manuscript to get an agent, who sold her book to a publisher.
In today’s episode, Rachel shares her secrets to writing higher-quality books more quickly…while still enjoying the process! After applying Rachel’s lessons from 2k to 10k, I noticed a huge increase in my personal writing speed, and I was able to overcome writer’s block almost completely. She’s the real deal!
Rachel is a master when it comes to plotting and writing novels that draw readers in, and she’s one of the few masters who can actually communicate her system, sharing it in a way that lets you take her ideas and immediately implement them to improve your own writing.
Rachel gained her expertise in plotting the hard way. When she decided to write a book back in 2004, she began as a pantser. After 5,000 words, she gave up on that manuscript and began building a world. She went overboard on world building and threw out her second attempt as well.
That’s when she realized she was going to have to develop a system.
How to Plan Your Novel in Five Steps
Planning a novel is all about knowing your destination.
1. Write out everything you know
This is the very basic first brainstorming session where you figure out everything you already know about your story, and what inspired you to write it. You don’t have to know anything specific at this point. This part of the process can be short or long, depending on what you already know.
2. Work on the major parts of the story
Outline the characters. Who is in your story? And how does the story affect them?
When it comes to characters you’ll need:
- The protagonist. This is the person whose actions move the story forward.
- The antagonist. This is the character who works against the protagonist.
- The power players. These are people who are important to the world, but who aren’t the protagonists of the story. Think supporting cast (like Dumbledore in Harry Potter.)
Create the setting of your story. Where does your book take place? What we’re doing at this point in the production process is setting the stage and casting your characters.
Outline the plot of the story. What events are going to make up your story? And in what order do they occur? In particular, this is where you decide on the end of your story and the beginning, in that order. You can change the end of your book as you’re writing it, but you have to know where you’re going in a general sense.
Is this going to be a standalone book or part of a series?
Life is much easier if you answer this question now and start planning for it.
- If this is a standalone book, you’re going to need to make sure your ending ties up all the plot threads.
- If this is a book in a series, you need to figure out the larger meta-plot and where this book fits into it.
Remember, writing a series is the easiest way to build an audience and make money as an author.
Step 2 ends when you have a solid understanding of where your story takes place, when your story takes place, and what your story is about.
This step should be fun! You’re using your imagination to create a world that you’re going to tell a story in. If you’re not having fun at this point, seriously consider whether or not this is a story you want to spend your time telling.
3. Fill in the holes
Start with the plot. In Step 2, you created the beginning and the end of your story. Now start at the beginning and ask, “What happens next?”
Then begin outlining the scenes that follow from the beginning. When you get stuck, go to your ending and ask, “How did this happen?” Then outline the scenes from the ending backwards to where you’re stuck.
If you get stuck again, jump to a point that’s already outlined and fill in the gaps between the scenes that you have outlined.
If you’re really stuck and can’t figure out what’s happening in the novel, the next trick is to figure out what your villains are doing at that point in the story.
If all else fails, just ask yourself this question: “Why isn’t my story working?” Answer your question on paper and see where it takes you.
Remember: stories are supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun telling them, chances are your readers aren’t going to have very much fun reading them. If your subconscious thinks there’s something wrong, there probably is.
There’s no such thing as a completely broken plot. Usually the reason you’re stuck is that you don’t know why a story isn’t working.
You’re done with Step 3 when:
- You can write your plot from beginning to end with no holes or skipped scenes.
- You have detailed notes for every important character and setting.
- You know what point of view you’re using to tell the story (for instance, first person or third person)
- You’ve nailed down the voice of your story.
4. Create a timeline for your story
In a timeline, you want to note:
- The events of your story and how they occur in relation to one another.
- The important backstory that occurs before your story takes place.
- The age of your characters and how well they know each other.
- What your characters know and when they know it. This is to make sure your characters’ actions are consistent with their knowledge at that particular moment of your story.
If you haven’t done so by now, you’ll also want to:
- Draw a map.
- Create descriptions of all your settings so that you can easily stay consistent throughout the drafting of your novel.
After you have a timeline, map, and descriptions:
- Take your plot and create a scene list. This is exactly what it sounds like: the list of scenes that take place in your novel, ordered from first to last.
- Take that scene list and break it up into chapters.
Be sure to do a boredom check!
When you get to this point, go through your story one final time. Rachel plays her stories like a movie in her head to make sure there aren’t any dull scenes or places she skips.
It’s much easier to change a book at this stage than when you’re drafting.
5. Start Writing
In Step 5, you actually start writing.
Your story may change as you write it. This is natural to the writing process, and every writer has to learn when to let go and let the story play out. All of this work is to make your life easier, not to lock you into something you can’t change.
You’re always free to follow your characters where they want to go. Plotting is your roadmap to get you back to where you want to go.
Plotting your book allows you to get to know your characters before you have to spend hours writing them.
The time you spend planning varies from book to book. It just depends how much you know before you start planning.
How to Write Fast
Rachel has written 15,700 words in one 13-hour day. That was part of the last book in her science fiction trilogy, and she was excited to be writing it…so that excitement translated to zipping right through!
There are three variables you need to control to write at your fastest speed.
1. Know What You’re Going to Write before You Write It
Know the scene you’re going to write before you start your writing session. Understand the characters, setting, and conflicts that will arise in this particular scene. Know how this scene is going to start and how it’s going to end.
Before you draft your scene, write a summary. Make your summary a sketch of your scene.
The benefit of sketching your scene is that you can discover problems with it before you draft it. Fixing problems while you’re drafting a scene is the most time-consuming way to go about writing.
2. Track Your Time
If you want to write quickly, you have to know when your most productive hours are. The only way to do that is to track how you’re writing currently.
Create a spreadsheet and keep track of:
- What time of day you’re writing
- How long you’re writing for
- How many words you write per session and per day
- Where you’re writing
Write at different times of the day and in different places. Also, pay attention to how long you’re writing. Often, writers will become more productive the longer they write…to a point.
Rachel usually only writes 500 words her first hour, yet she averages more than 1,000 words per hour. She usually slows down after seven hours because her brain gets tired.
It’s also very important to track the time of day you’re writing because you’ll be most productive at a particular time of day. Rachel has found that her most productive time of day is in the afternoon.
If you’re very busy and writing only when you can squeeze it in, Rachel recommends that you try writing in the morning and in the evening. Track your results and see which time of day gives you more words. Then focus on writing during that time of day.
3. Get Excited
You have to be excited about what your writing. If you aren’t excited about what you’re writing, it’s going to show to the reader.
If the scene is boring to you while you’re writing it, why are you making the reader read it? Why are you making them go through a scene that doesn’t entertain you?
When you’re telling a story, you’re entertaining yourself. If you’re not entertained, chances are your audience won’t be either.
To turbocharge your writing productivity, you have to combine the elements of:
- Knowing what you’re going to write before you write it
- Writing in your most productive place at your most productive time
- Writing scenes you’re excited about
Do all three of these and it’s like having your best writing day every day.
We have to divorce ourselves from the idea that time input equals writing quality. The only thing that matters in writing is the end product.
More Tips for Writers
- Trust your gut.
- Excitement is an important part of writing quickly. So when you’re really excited to start writing your book, check over your materials and see if you have enough to get started.
- If you feel like you do, then start.
- If you feel like you don’t, ask yourself: What else do I need to know?
- Figure that out and then start.
- At no point should you say to yourself, “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out in the middle.” That is a clear warning flag that you need to do more planning.
Not every idea is worthy of being a book.
- Your reader doesn’t care how long you took to write a book. They only see the finished product—not the work that went into it.
- You have to be your own quality control, especially if you’re a self-published author.
- Seek out objective opinions that you trust.
- You have to have the artistic integrity to know when to ignore the opinions of others.
There’s a lot of trial and error in publishing. You never know how good the book is until someone else reads it.
—Tom Corson Knowles
- You can’t catch your own typos. You need somebody who doesn’t know what they’re reading to read your book.
- If you’re not having fun writing, something is wrong. Writing is supposed to be a joyful art.
- If you’re not enjoying telling a story, you should ask yourself why.
Figure Out Your Author Brand
These days, you need to have a brand, no matter who you are—a way for people to recognize you and know what you stand for and what they’re going to get from you.
- What makes you unique as an artist?
- What do you have to say?
- How do you see the world?
- What makes your art unique in the marketplace?
Branding isn’t just about having covers that match. Figure out what makes your art unique, and then publish books consistent with that brand.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
http://rachelaaron.net/ — Rachel’s website
Nice Dragons Finish Last (Heartstrikers Book 1) — Rachel’s self-published fantasy series.
2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love — Rachel’s book on writing, where you can learn about her process in detail.
Check out Rachel’s 5-step Plotting Process on her blog at thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-i-plot-novel-in-5-steps.html
Rachel also mentioned Holly Lyle’s website for authors in the show—you can check it out at hollylisle.com
Check out Tom’s newest training course for authors, Bestseller Ranking Pro, at bestsellerrankingpro.com
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.