Scrivener Superpowers

How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice

The 2k to 10k Method with Scrivener: Interview with Rachel Aaron

Rachel Aaron calls 2k to 10k her “little book that could.” It started as a blog post and grew into a nonfiction book and has been selling well and helping writers amplify their word count ever since.

What’s fascinating is that in between publishing the blog post and publishing the book it grew into, Rachel found Scrivener, which transformed her method into an even more powerful writing tool.

I asked Rachel what life was like before she found Scrivener. “I was still writing in Word back then because apparently I lived in the Stone Age. It was awful. It was terrible. To all the writers writing in word—stop. Get with the program!”

And after? In her own words, “I loved it. It immediately clicked. […] It was like the best thing that had ever happened in my life. I’m not even making that up. Complete revolutionary moment.”

Listen to the interview to learn how Rachel uses the 2k to 10k method with Scrivener for her writing.

Transcript

Matt Herron:      Hi Rachel. How’s it going?

Rachel Aaron:    It’s going great!

M.H.                         Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. So just as a brief introduction for our listeners, Rachel Aaron is a science fiction and fantasy author of The Legend of Eli Monpress and The Paradox Trilogy. And she also wrote a little non-fiction book for writers called 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What you Love. So our topic today is the writing software Scrivener. Now we’ll get into the fiction writing process in a moment, but what’s most relevant to our topic today is that little non-fiction book. So why don’t you give me a little background on that? Why did you write it? What’s it about?

R.H.                           Well, 2,000 to 10,000 is what I like to call my “little book that could.” It actually started as a blog post on my blog—and if you’re interested you can go to my blog, it’s at rachelaaron.net. You just click on the blog tab, and I have a little sidebar that says “Rachel’s Greatest Hits” and it’s the number one greatest hit. But the blog was about how I took my daily writing process from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day without increasing the amount of time I spent writing. And long story short, I figured out how to get just much more efficient with my writing time. Because I only had so many hours in the day to write—and I had a deadline and I had to make it. So it was a sink or swim moment and I learned how to butterfly basically.

Basically what happened was, I was way behind on a deadline. And I figured out a new way of increasing my word count. And I thought, oh that’s cool. I was at ConCarolinas then in 2011 or something like that. And I just happen to mention to a roomful of people that I had done this. That I had recently gone from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. And the whole room flips out. I was a tiny person on that panel and I got all the questions.

And my friend John Hartness who is a really awesome and funny guy—and also a writer who writes funny books—he suggested, “You should write an e-book and self-publish.” And at the time I was very New York published and I was like, “Oh I don’t want to self-publish. I can’t do all that stuff; I’m scared.” And then I just kept getting requests and my blog posts just kept going viral and I finally said, “Fine, fine. I’ll write the e-book!”

And so I took the blog posts and I greatly expanded it—because I’d figured out a lot more about the process. And I had also started using Scrivener which makes things awesome. And I started doing the book and it kind of grew out of that blog post and it became this very short, I’m a professional writer, I write for a living and here’s how I do things. Here’s how I write fast; here’s how I solve problems. And that’s the whole book.

And for those of you who are wondering how I went from 2k to 10k I invite you to go read the blog post because it would take way too long to explain it here. It’s a very simple process and it seems to work for everyone. I have had people email me all the time saying, “Rachel you changed my life!” and I don’t really know what to say to that. It’s kind of head-slappingly stupid the number one tip of the process is to know what you are writing before you write it. Take a moment to figure out what you are doing. This is like some ninth grade five paragraph essay stuff!

M.H.                         That’s really interesting to me, how it grew from a blog post into a book. Do you find that your fiction stories do that too?

R.A.                          No. Actually, I get asked this a lot. Non-fiction and fiction writing for me are two very different animals. I find non-fiction writing to be much more difficult—and it drains my energy a lot more. Fiction writing makes me excited and I can write it forever. And when I’ve finished writing 10,000 words I feel like I can fly. I feel like I can take on the world. It’s an amazing feeling when you get really going on a story.

But non-fic—I’m so slow. I’ll spend all day writing… like a 5,000 word blog post will take me the entire day and just take it all out of me. But it’s just a difference in people. I know there are lots of people who just find a lot of joy in non-fiction; it’s just not really my calling. Which is why I am so very happy that people do enjoy the non-fiction I wrote, because it was a subject I was very passionate about.

M.H.                         Absolutely. So what edition are you currently in with 2k to 10k? Because you said that Scrivener wasn’t—like you had discovered Scrivener in the middle of your career, not necessarily at the beginning. So when you first came up with this concept of going from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day was Scrivener already an integral part of it?

R.A.                           No it was not—not yet. I was still writing in Word back then because apparently I lived in the Stone Age. It was awful. It was terrible. To all the writers writing in word—stop. Get with the program! It would automatically format everything all the time. I would turn stuff into my editor and she would get it all jumbled. I was just like, I hate you Word! I hate you. I moved to Scrivener and life has been… there were a few little things I had to figure out. Because Scrivener is one of those programs where if you want to be a power-user it’s got everything you could ever want. But if you’re like me, if you’re one of those people who get a digital camera and are like, I just want to push the button and it to take the goddamn picture—that’s how I use Scrivener. I only use a handful of the tools but it’s amazing. I got the trial version and I bought it the same day. And I’ve used it forever. And I sing their praises wherever possible.

To actually answer your question at the time I figured this out I had actually just discovered Scrivener but the book I was writing was in Word. So I was still writing in Word because it was a 170,000 word book and I wasn’t moving it. It was big. It was a very big novel. This was my fourth Eli novel of a five book series.

But I started the fifth book with my process and Scrivener—and that was like writing candy. It was smooth. I could move all the chapters around. I don’t understand why every writing program doesn’t have a “make a block, move it around” feature.

M.H.                         So you started using Scrivener after your fourth Eli Monpress novel. So tell us a little bit about that. Was it a lightbulb moment or was it a slow realization?

R.A.                           With me I just saw it—I can’t even remember where I saw it. I think some writer mentioned it, “Hey you should try Scrivener.” I think on Twitter. And I was like, writing program software huh? That’s probably a scam, but I’ll take a look. And I go click it and I’m like, actually that looks really awesome—and everything I need.

I just finished telling my husband—I had this giant rant about how much I hate word. Because it’s just a big amorphous blob that your book falls into. It’s like a big bag with everything just sitting in there and I couldn’t even track how many words I was writing in a chapter. So I used to make notes—at the bottom of my manuscript I’d just keep a running tally of my words so that I’d know when I’d hit my words for the day. I’d just take whatever number I had and subtract that from the total word count. I had to do the math myself—how stupid is that?

So I’d just gotten done complaining and I saw this program and it’s got a free trial—so I’ll try it. And I used that 30 day free trial like it was my new best friend. Every day —I loved it. It immediately clicked. I had to figure out a few things. I’d gotten it when they’d just released the Windows version. I think that’s how I actually heard about it, because I’m a Windows user. And so I heard Mac writers talking about it but I’m like, oh whatever I don’t have a Mac—different universe doesn’t apply. But once the PC version came out… and it was a little buggy at first, because it was the first release, but I didn’t care. Just the ability to create a chapter, write things in the chapter and then go, oh wait! This chapter should go before this other chapter, and I’d just click and drag. It was like the best thing that had ever happened in my life. I’m not even making that up. Complete revolutionary moment.

M.H.                         I feel the same way. Absolutely. It’s life-changing once you realize you can do that.

R.A.                           Yeah. And for the listeners I am not in any way being paid by Scrivener. This is pure love that was earned by virtue of having an awesome product that is priced competitively. It only costs about $40.

M.H.                         Yeah it’s $49 or something like that.

R.A.                           Which is nothing. You spend that much eating a nice dinner out for two. If you eat at a cheap place!

M.H.                         On the low end, right?

R.A.                           If you’re a big spender, go to Red Lobster, but only order off the value menu!

M.H.                         Right. So eat at PB and J one night and you can afford it! Fantastic. So how many years have you been writing professionally?

R.A.                           Well let’s see. I quit my job in 2009 so I guess that would count. That’s also when I got my book deal. My first books came out in 2010 so it would be six years now. But I’ve been treating my writing like a full-time career since 2004 and writing about every day. So it took me about five years.

M.H.                         So five years to get a book deal and then the fourth Eli Monpress novel was that—what year was that?

R.A.                           I think it was 2011 maybe? About the end of 2011.

M.H.                         So almost seven years you were writing in Word before you came to Scrivener. That’s really interesting.

R.A.                           Actually no. I think I started Scrivener early 2011. I honestly cannot remember. But it was a long time—too long.

M.H.                         And now you dread going back to Word. So I think you’re in a good place.

R.A.                           Yeah. Well I wrote in Word then I wrote in Open Office—which is like Word but a little buggier. But less evil. Like Word but less evil. But a little buggier. And I love Open Office actually and I still use it for when I have to just open a document or write a document or whatever. Because Scrivener is definitely for writing. I don’t use it for other things.

Funny story: I actually got my husband addicted to Scrivener as well. Because he makes role-playing games. That’s what he likes to do. And he uses it to organize his campaigns. Which I think is really cool. Because you can just make little sections by game—game one, game two—and you can use it to keep track of the overall plot and that sort of thing. For tabletop role playing.

M.H.                         That’s really interesting. I’ve been talking to people about different uses for Scrivener and some people have said apart from writing fiction and non-fiction maybe blogs, but I’ve been having trouble finding other good uses for it.

One thing that’s been mentioned is as a project management tool, but in actually writing a game is also a really great use. Because then it’s a writing tool and a management tool, right?

R.A.                           Basically, because you’ve gotta compile the source books and everything and that’s like non-fiction writing. So it just goes in. Scrivener doesn’t do the drag and drop pictures and tables as well as Word—but a minor complaint. But he mostly uses it as a game master to organize his campaigns. He’s used a lot of other stuff too. He’s one of those guys who will try a system then immediately jump to another system. He’s always experimenting with stuff. But he’s used it and it was really cool.

M.H.                         So it sounds like you’ve done a lot of experimentation too with your writing process.

R.A.                           I am always looking for ways to get better.

M.H.                         So you mentioned to me earlier that you had a background as a programmer. So I’d be interested to hear how your process as a programmer translated to your process as a writer.

R.A.                           I should clarify that I was a CSS programmer which is definitely not a hard core programmer. Before anyone comes and tries to test my cred.

M.H.                         Okay. But you built websites.

R.A.                           Yeah. I built websites. I was a very, very good CSS programmer if I do say so myself. I actually really loved my career. I was very successful, I worked at a great company, I built a lot of websites that are still running and have fricken’ flawless CSS. And this was back when we had to support IE6 so that’s saying something. IE6 was awful.

CSS really appealed to what I call the “clockmaker” in me. I really love making very organized, very tightly structured systems where everything just click, click, clicks together. And that makes me very happy; kind of on a fundamental level. And I found a lot of the management techniques—if I can call them that—ways of thinking about things and of managing myself that I learned doing CSS at a very creative and busy design company where I was the least artistic person there because I was the person who did numbers. And I also did graphic design there but I was like the baby graphic designer who did the grunt work of designing things. Whereas all the really artistic people did all the really fun stuff.

But the real thing that I found in any sort of program that you’re writing is that you’re designing a system. In a book you have a plot. And what a plot is, it’s basically how these people get from point A to point B and the changes they go through.

And I like—and there are many different ways of thinking about plots—but I like to think about mine as a system. We have a problem. We have characters. We have all these different things that are all going on at the same time and somehow they all have to make sense. They all have to happen together. And they all have to happen in a way that is interesting. And that’s a pretty big challenge. Because you can’t just have people going from Point A to Point B with no reasons and no complications. You’ve gotta constantly be bucking the system.

And so one of the things I try to do is I try to always be aware of the flow of my writing. Where is the tension? Where is the imperative to turn the page—where is that coming from? Who knows what at what point? I actually in 2k to 10k talk about my thinking, my stones have a two bird minimum. If I can’t do at least two things in a scene I don’t bother with it. Because ain’t no one got time for that.

And so I’m constantly looking for ways to put more into my scenes; to make them do more in the book. Develop this character and also reveal something about the world and build tension for the scenes coming later. And I layer and layer and layer. And with all those layers of complexity you have to have some sort of way of thinking about things. Or you just get confused and you just get lost.

So organization becomes very important. Very heavy plotting—I use Scrivener a lot for that. I have this huge plot list that I’m constantly referring to. And Scrivener actually has a mode where you can look at two documents at once in the same screen which is amazing because I just have a little document—I call it my scene diagram—where I just have a list of where every scene is and a basic one sentence description of what’s happening in that scene. And I use the scene diagram when I’m looking at my novel to remind me of where I am and what’s going to happen next. This is especially in editing actually.

M.H.                         Is your scene diagram just in a text file or do you use the notecards in Scrivener?

R.A.                           I just actually make a new page in Scrivener in the little bottom of the resources part, and I just have a section that is called “editing.” Which is where when I’m writing a novel and I’m like, oh I’m going to have to change something back in chapter five, I just go to the editing and I just dump it in there like a bucket. And then when it comes time to actually edit I pull up that list that I made and I go through it and I make another page that’s called my scene map and I note all the changes that are going to have to happen and where they are going to have to happen.

So just being able to look at two things at once, to move stuff around and to have multiple documents tied to one document—a master document… Because I have my book. And then within the book I have chapters, I have editorial notes, I have ideas for book three or whatever the next book is in the series. Things that are going to need to change.

I also keep—and if you’ve read 2k to 10k, hi, thank you for listening to this—and you’ll know that I like to keep a spreadsheet of my writing. I like to record where I wrote, how much time I spent writing and how much I got. So I like to keep track of my numbers. Because I’ve learned over years of writing that I have a happy writing place. When the story is going well I tend to write about a thousand words an hour. If the story is not going well it drops below that. And if the story is really going well it goes above that. If I feel like I really had trouble with the scene and I’m not happy with it I can go back and look at my writing speeds. It’s just sort of another indicator for, is this actually working?

Because when the writing is working it should be going quickly. If you’re really in love with the scene and if it’s a good idea it will flow quickly. But if it’s like pulling teeth, if you’re really struggling to write then there’s probably something wrong with the scene you’re trying to write. Something is wrong, and that’s your subconscious putting on the brakes.

M.H.                         It’s a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself, right?

R.A.                           Exactly. And people—I hear authors and my heart goes out to these people—I hear these authors, new and established authors actually, just talking about, “Oh I hate writing… I hate writing but I love having written.” People who are like, “Oh it’s pain, it’s torture, it’s blood on the page… ohhh woe is my life.” And I’m like, “You poor dears—that’s not what writing is like. Writing is amazing!” The process of writing should be something you look forward to every day—you get to go and play pretend!

M.H.                         I always wonder if those people are… if they enjoy being martyrs more or if they just are genuinely not understanding the difference between easy writing and hard writing.

R.A.                           I think it’s kind of two different problems running into each other. Because on the one hand you have this culture of writing of if you’re not suffering you’re not a real writer. And you have a lot of people playing that up for the romanticism of it. If that’s the role playing you like to do I’m not going to judge. But if you’re legitimately unhappy with your writing, you don’t understand why anyone would do this… If your dream of being a writer is to have written—to have a book published—if that’s the reason you’re writing then you might need to re-examine your reasons for writing because let me tell you: you spend a lot more time actually writing than you do in the afterglow of publication. It’s 99.999% writing.

M.H.                         If writing is most of your day and you don’t enjoy that part you’re probably not a good writer.

R.A.                           Why are you writing? Why are you doing this? There are so many better ways to make a living.

M.H.                         I’m really interested in the scene maps and the scene diagrams that you mentioned earlier. Because these are… they’re homemade tools, right? It’s not something that comes with Scrivener. And understanding that this might be an audio and obviously video, and not necessarily something that people can look at and reference, can you describe the structure of what a scene map or a scene diagram looks like?

R.A.                           Absolutely. It’s very, very simple. I get a new blank page. I hit the bullet point button. And I just start making a bulleted list of okay, Scene One. The novel opens: what happens? And it’s literally just, villain shows up. Kidnaps hero. It’s like a one sentence of the scene.

And the scene map is not there for someone else—it’s there to remind you what happens in that scene and what’s important. And the process of boiling that scene down to a single sentence can, if you’re having trouble focusing, can really help you discover what’s important about that scene. And I do that for every scene in my book. I break them up by chapters because looking at a giant bulleted list is real hard. So I break them up in chapters.

I also actually— in my method—I note how long each chapter is beside the chapter. So it will say chapter one: 6000 words, and I have like three bullet points below it. And each bullet point is a scene; so there are three scenes in chapter one. And the scene will have a one sentence description, like “Devi gets job on Glorious Fool.” That’s what happens.

And the reason I do the word counts beside every chapter is because I like all my chapters to be about the same length. The reason for that is because if you have one chapter that is very, very long and one chapter that is very, very short—the long chapter is going to feel like it’s dragging. It’s going to feel slow. Even if it is exactly as exciting as everything else that’s happening—people just notice the chapter is really long. And readers notice these things. So I like to present them with—I like to stay within a 2,000 word buffer; which is pretty generous. I don’t do it to the word but say for example my comfort zone is between 6 and 8,000 word chapters. Which is very big for some people. But that’s the chapter sizes I write.

M.H.                         That’s really interesting. And so you use this to kind of structure your novel. So each chapter is 6-8,000 words, I have a little bit of a buffer…

R.A.                           And it goes over and it goes under sometimes. But I generally try to keep them all together. And that’s just a personal preference thing. I’ve read books where the chapters were each 2000 words and I’m like, that’s more like a scene. But what do I know? Different strokes for different folks—everyone does it differently.

But the scene map what I do is I just, I write this whole thing out, I actually do a scene map at two points of my writing process. I do it at the beginning of the book when I’m plotting—so the scene map is more like a “scenes I hope to write” and it changes a lot during the actual writing. Then I re-do it at the end of the book when it’s time to start editing. Because the scene map is literally a map—it is what I use when I edit. I’m like I need to change what Character A said to Character B after they kissed. Well, okay where was the kiss? I go and I look it up—oh it was in Chapter 5. Because you know, you forget which chapter you put stuff in when you’ve been working on a book for four or five months.

M.H.                         When it’s several thousand words or several hundred thousand words…

R.A.                           I write large books. My books tend to be between 120 and 150,000 words—that’s a big book.

M.H.                         It’s a lot to keep track of.

R.A.                           You’ve got to have a map. Also I’ve found the more different angles you can find to think about your work, the more different ways you can find… at least for me because I’m someone who really loves lists. But I fully recognize that there are other writers who are not like that and there is nothing wrong with that. Everyone writes their own way—you’ll never find two writers who write exactly the same way.

But with me, I find that I come up with a lot of really great ideas while I’m making the scene maps. I think, oh man, this scene would be so much better over here! It’s like breaking it into Legos; then you can just rearrange the Legos as you like. I find that very empowering and it gets me really excited about the book and about editing the book.

M.H.                         So in addition to these homemade tools how do you use the features in Scrivener to help you along? Do you use status or labels or anything like that?

R.A.                           I started to do that but honestly I’m really lazy and just doing it all on a list was just easier for me. So I did because I’m lazy. Always give a job to a lazy person: they’ll find the efficient way to do it. But what I do do, is I love Scrivener’s ability to just show me at a glance how many words are in a chapter. I’ll just click on my manuscript and I’ll just say, this many words per chapter— and I’m like, okay bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam—done. Again, because I like my chapters to all be the same length, it shows me where the big piggy chapters are. Where is the overgrown bush that needs to be trimmed down? That kind of thing.

M.H.                         That makes sense. So what about the planning process? Like when you’re first doing your first scene map. You just do it in a bullet point list? You don’t have any notecards or do you do it on paper? Do you take it out of Scrivener?

R.A.                           I actually, when I first do my initial planning, I like to do it longhand. Just because I think better in longhand. But when it’s time to get down to brass tacks I always start off with Scrivener. I actually made myself a template—I call it the “Rachel Aaron Novel Template”—but it’s just basically how I like my books.

I have a title page where I keep track of when I started the book. It’s basically just sort of an identification page for the book. So it’s when I started the book, when I’m anticipating finishing the book, how long I think it will be, what series it’s in. I also do versioning on my novels because a lot of times I will decide, I need to change this—but I don’t want to rewrite, I don’t want it confused. So I’ll just save an old version of the book as Version One. Then I’ll do Version Two. And then I’ll go back.

So instead of cutting and moving stuff down in Scrivener because I think that makes my file look really messy—I just version it. And that’s a personal preference. Scrivener actually is great about, well I’ll just duplicate these five chapters, put them all in a folder and move them down. Because one of the things I do is I keep a “Cuts” folder down in my resource section. And anything that I decide that I don’t like and is going to go, I just copy and paste it down into cuts so I never lose it. I never throw it away. It’s always down there in case I need it. Which makes it a lot easier to cut words.

But I start off with a scene map and I use the resources section—I use that like crazy. I make little folders for characters and plot and the world—anything that’s world building or detailed or pictures—I put them in there. So I have a folder that’s basically here is information about your world. I just actually, well last July, released a self-published fantasy novel called Nice Dragons Finish Last which has been very, very, very well received and I’m working on the second book. I just finished it and I’m about to release it. Once I get it all nice and cleaned up so I’m very excited about that.

But in the book, the characters are all dragons and some of them are 3,000 years old. And my main character is 24. So I have to keep track of how old each dragon is because I’ll have them make references to things that have happened, and I’m like, wait. Were they alive when that happened? I don’t know. Would they remember Genghis Khan? I don’t know. I have to look it up. So one of the things I do is I have a section that’s just called “Dragons” and in there I have a whole table of all my dragons and how old they all are and their relative ages to each other. And Scrivener is great for just keeping—it’s just a useful thing that I have to check every now and then when I forget. And so instead of going into a billion different documents I just click down to my dragon’s folder and look it up.

M.H.                         And what’s interesting is that you can’t use a dragon’s folder on every other novel—these things that you’re adding to the resource folder they’re very unique to whatever book you happen to be working on.

R.A.                           Yeah. And that’s one of things I constantly—because people are like, “Oh what’s your writing process?” And I’m like, “It depends on the books—some books just fall out perfectly made. And other books take a lot of making tools and finding different ways to use them.” That is one of the things—you hit the nail on the head—that is one of the things I love about Scrivener—I can just make a folder. I can name it anything. I can throw as many pages or pictures or links to other things as I want under there and just keep track of it all. Because I write with Freedom on, which is a program that keeps my internet down. And so if I have world building material they need to be in Scrivener. Because I can’t go out and get them—and if I do then I’ll end up browsing reddit for five hours.

M.H.                         I’ve never done that.

R.A.                           That’s not productive to writing. Anyone who has done that—don’t do that. But I have to turn the internet off or I won’t get anything done. And no matter how much I love my novel—sometimes things are hard and you go, oh I’ll just go check this real fast… five hours later.

One of things I find very nice, Scrivener allows me to keep my, basically my workspace of the novel—all of the world-building and documentation I make for myself like Character A, what color are his eyes? I don’t remember I haven’t described them in 80,000 words. I have to go look it up. All the stuff that you just need to check—I just make a little pile and I can just go check it. It’s wonderful.

M.H.                         So what do you think of the default resources that you would include in a normal fiction novel—we’re talking about creative writing here. So on my list are character sketches and setting sketches. Those are the two things I always start with. But beyond that are there other things that you like to have?

R.A.                           Well my Scrivener template—my Rachel Aaron Novel Template—starts with a title page, a page already done Chapter One, but I really should change it to prologue because every book I’ve ever written has had a prologue so starting with Chapter One is kind of useless. There’s one book I wrote that didn’t have a prologue, but that doesn’t count.

So you’ve got Chapter One—and then I have the resource section. And in the resource section I always have: plot, characters, world and then I have cuts, a folder called edits and an individual page called worksheet. Which is where I keep track of all my writing times and numbers. Because for every book I write I’m going to have plot and I’m going to have characters and I’m going to have a world, I’m going to cut stuff out of it and I’m going to have edits. And then I just sort of change these as I go.

And the edits folder is actually especially useful because one of my biggest problems as a writer—personal problem—is that I would get caught up in editing things. I would remember something I would have to do and I would go back and then the next thing I knew I’d spent five hours of what should’ve been writing time rewriting five paragraphs in Chapter Two—which is a ridiculous misuse of time. I don’t even need that stuff right now and it’s probably all going to change by the time I get to the end of this book.

But I can’t let it go; I just get obsessive that I have to fix this problem. And so I have an edits folder which is where I can just say, in Chapter Two, do this. I just describe what I’m going to do. And that mentally checks it off my list so I can stop obsessing about it and move on to what I’m actually supposed to be doing which is writing more words. And I found this very much helps me with my productivity and also my peace of mind, because there is nothing more frustrating than, I’m just going to change something real fast, and then it’s this giant mess. And you’re just like, I’m never going to finish this and I’ve just wasted my whole day. And I have nothing to show for it.

M.H.                         And on the other hand if you don’t get it out of your head it’s just going to sit there and steep.

R.A.                           Fester and bother you. I try to do that. I basically just say this is your edits area. You can write as much as you want here but what needs to be done is not actually writing it’s leaving yourself a note.

And another thing I want to say that I love about Scrivener is: Scrivener is my environment as a writer. If you were to take my Scrivener and look at it, it would make no sense. Because all the notes are out of context. But I understand them because I left them and I know what’s going on. It’s very nice; I feel like it’s my workspace. Because I actually write in a chair—I have like a La-Z-Boy recliner so it’s kind of like a cheap La-Z-Boy. But it’s awesome and I love it.

And I write in the chair, specifically because I don’t like writing at a desk because I fiddle with things all the time and I have to focus myself. Only at the beginning of writing because I always compare writing to diving into water. You’ve got to get going, you’ve gotta make the leap, you’ve gotta hit the water and for me it takes about thirty minutes to actually get down to kind of a good writing level. And I’ve got to get into the zone. And during that thirty minutes I’m very vulnerable to being distracted or someone interrupting my flow… and this doesn’t happen all the time but generally speaking this is kind of my habit.

And so I’ve developed a lot of techniques to keep me from being bad. Because you’ve gotta know yourself as a writer; because you work for yourself. Most of the time you work all alone and you have to get very good at figuring out where you mess up and then compensating for that and figuring out ways around it. You can’t beat yourself up over it; you’ve just got to accept that, I have this issue, okay what can I do to solve it? And that’s why I write with no internet, that’s why I write from a chair so I don’t get distracted by fiddling with things. Also during writing time I’m not allowed to clean. Because those are the things I do. I’ll be like, that dish needs to be put up, and then I go do the dishes and I’ll be like, what are you doing—you’re supposed to be writing!

M.H.                         A lot of it sounds very familiar to me.

R.A.                           I bet it sounds familiar to a lot of writers. And you’ve just got to learn to identify that. And that’s I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn as a professional writer which has nothing to do with craft and everything to do with being a responsible manager of yourself.

And one of my rules is, if I wouldn’t do it at work, I don’t do it when I’m writing. Like I wouldn’t take a five hour break from my office job to play Minecraft. I don’t do that during my writing day. And it takes a lot of practice and a lot of self-discipline. But every day I ask myself: are you serious about this? This is your great dream. Do you have what it takes to say no to distractions and to do it? And the answer is an enthusiastic yes! Because I love my job and I want to do it. Even though it can be very, very difficult and pretty depressing. Especially when you suddenly realize that your book is broken, that you’re going to have to rewrite 50,000 words—which happens to everyone. Every writer at every stage of their career can go through a bad book.

The book I just finished, it was a very, very difficult story—I just couldn’t get it right. And it was very hard and you just have to develop professional discipline and good habits and coping mechanisms to get through the difficult times. Otherwise you end up being one of those writers who hits the book they can’t defeat—and then never writes again. And I’ve known several writers in my professional career who very sadly, who were very talented and who just sort of have their brush with professional writing and then hit a book they couldn’t beat. And they couldn’t finish. And it was due and they couldn’t finish it. And they just stopped.

And that’s the saddest thing I can imagine. I mean you made it and got there and then you just couldn’t do it. And it really does come down to being a professional writer. And that goes way beyond being an aspiring writer who wants to be a professional—no you have to be professional the whole way. The whole way through your career. Because again—it’s just you. And Scrivener—coming back to our topic—Scrivener is one of the programs that I use to help me be more professional. Because it lets me do what I need to do to get my writing done. And it is a writer’s tool box; it has the stuff that I need. And I love it to pieces.

M.H.                         Absolutely. And actually to be honest I read 2k to 10k a couple of times and I think one of my favorite parts about it is that you kind of set out in a way these guidelines for being a professional writer. Like, know what you write before you are going to write it. That’s something and amateur would never do. They would just go write it without knowing what they’re going to put down on the page, right? It’s like a more professional attitude. And I like that because it’s grounded in experience and not, this is what you write, why don’t you just… you know what I mean?

R.A.                           Thank you very much. And I try to—like my blog which is like a professional, a working writer—and that’s how I like to think about myself and how I try to phrase. Because anything I do that’s like, How to do X, How to do Y on my blog—any writing advice I give is always caged with, this is not how to be a special artistic snowflake: this is about how to make a living doing what you love. Because that’s what we’re in this for. I mean I assume—if you’re not in this to make a living that’s perfectly fine. But if you are, if you want to be a professional writer, if you want to write full-time, there are certain realities of the business that you have to learn how to work around and how to deal with. Like deadlines.

I was a New York published author since 2010. This new book is my first self-published book. So I’ve worked with both pretty big New York houses and for myself and the deadlines do not change. You have to get the book done. I’m actually dreadfully late on my current book and I’ve done everything I can to get around that but you can’t rush good ideas. The idea I had was bad and it didn’t work and I had to come up with a better idea. And you can’t just invent those out of thin air. So I tried a whole bunch of ideas that all turned out to be bad. And now I finally found the good one!

But you know, that’s the thing. If you’ve got the deadline you can’t just stop because you don’t know what to do. You can’t just make excuses. You’ve gotta keep banging your head on the wall sometimes if that’s what it takes. And it’s that commitment to yourself and your art and your work on a professional level. Because a lot of people can get very artistic about their writing, and I say that kind of in a weird way. They can get very like, my muse isn’t talking to me. Or, I don’t know what I’m doing I have to just wait for it to come to me. No you can’t do that!

M.H.                         It’s too mystical.

R.A.                           You’re waiting for someone to hand you a book and that’s not how this works. If you’re having a creative slump get out and read some books, watch a cool TV show, go see an awesome movie, play a cool game. Do something to get you outside your own head and thinking creatively again. If you’re having trouble on a book, don’t just say, oh woe is me. Figure out why: why is the book broken? Think about it critically. Because writing is a profession—or at least if you are doing it professionally—it’s a profession. It’s not something you do for fun when the mood strikes us—that’s not how I pay my mortgage.

M.H.                         So I think we’ve kind of got through a lot of the writing process, but there is one thing in particular you mentioned in your book that I wanted to touch on and that was the story timelines that you use. I’m really interested to see whether you use Scrivener or if you use an alternate tool for them?

R.A.                           I use Scrivener and I actually do them exactly like I do my scene plots. I love a bulleted list—I’m a big fan of a bulleted list. I start: Saturday. And I’m just like bullet one and I just list things in chronological order. Sometimes I do times, like if the book is very—the book I just wrote takes place over three days. So for that I broke it down to hours. It’s almost like 24 you know? Watching the clock tick down.

But other books that take place over a much longer time then I don’t worry about hours—then I just track by days. But really I make a timeline for all of my books, and again like the scene map I make it before I start—so it’s kind of an aspirational timeline—and I make it after I finish. And to be clear this is a timeline of events in the book not my timeline for writing the book—which I also make actually. Because I know how many words I write per day so I can figure out about how much time it’s going to take me to write a book. Which is awesome. But anyway, I like to make timelines of what happens in books. Because a lot of times you can solve a lot of plot problems in advance by just figuring out where everyone is at given times in the story and what they are doing and what they know.

This is a very key point especially if you have very tightly woven plots. You have to know who knows what when. What key plot information is available to what characters? And then do other characters know those characters know? Because it can create a lot of tension without you having to do anything. If the reader knows that Character A and Character B both know the same piece of information, but they don’t know that each other knows… so they are dancing around it. And that’s just some beautiful tension, and you didn’t have to do anything except tell the reader they know.

M.H.                         Withhold information from each other, right?

R.A.                           Exactly. Because tension is one of your most important tools as a writer, and tension in writing is what makes a reader turn the page. The need to know. And it can start with something as simple as a mystery. Like in my Devi novels I start off with—Devi is my main character in my sci-fi series—she wants a job. And she’s offered a job on a trade ship where their security teams are constantly killed. And it’s so dangerous that one year on this ship is worth five years anywhere else. And that’s instantly a mystery. You’re like, why is that? What are they doing? Because it’s a normal trade ship—what is going on? And that’s the mystery I open the book with. What’s going on? Why is this? And so that creates tension. And then I have Devi meet the Captain and it’s very clear he’s not what he seems. So the plot thickens, the tension gets stronger.

And I constantly, I use my timeline in a lot of ways to also keep track of the tension. Because all of my books have some sort of a ticking clock. Something that is going to happen. And often the villain is the one moving toward the thing that is going to happen. And they’re not getting the majority of the scenes. So tracking where the villain is in the timeline can really help you create tension. Because what are they doing while you’re not looking?

M.H.                         Yeah. You always wonder what the villain is doing when he’s off screen, right?

R.A.                           Yeah. It’s like in Final Fantasy 7 where you basically follow Sephiroth, but you never actually see him do anything—you’re just following him forever. It’s like, I want to be in his game—his game is apparently where stuff’s going on.

M.H.                         I love the story in that game. For what it’s worth: 7, 8, 9. There just so well-written; the stories are beautiful.

R.A.                           I was the biggest fan of 6 and 10. Ten was the very first video game I ever played. My parents didn’t believe in video games and so I didn’t play them until college. And I still didn’t really know what to do with them and then one day my boyfriend who’s now my husband was like, “Why don’t you play this game. I think you’d like it.” And then an entire summer goes by where I don’t see the light of day. So 10 I have a very special place in my heart for. But 6 was amazing. I love 6 so much.

M.H.                         Yes they’re so good. So are there any other features of Scrivener that we didn’t cover that you use a lot?

R.A.                           I have a feature I’d like to complain about in case Scrivener is listening. Scrivener’s find and replace feature is bull. It is awful. I need a way—if I change a character’s name I need a way to search the whole manuscript, and change it everywhere intelligently. That is one place Word kicks Scrivener’s butt. Word has an amazing find and replace. So what I do actually is, I export Scrivener to Word when I’m done with it and there I make all my changes. But it’s so obnoxious. The find and replace feature is awful. But everything else is great. So just get it right the first time.

M.H.                         I wonder if it’s different in the Windows version—they don’t have full feature parity across the two versions yet—so I’m not certain how the find/ replace feature is different on Windows or Mac. But I know one of the things they are trying to do with Scrivener 3, and this is just from my research, is that they’re trying to give feature parity to the two different versions. So maybe it’s bound to improve.

R.A.                           That would be amazing. Because another problem I have is I search for help on Scrivener topics and I get the Mac version—and it’s not the same.

M.H.                         Yes. All the time. Are there other things that you wish that the Windows version has that it does not have?

R.A.                           No, that’s the main feature—is the find and replace. Again, as I say, I like to think of myself as I’m kind of the grandma of Scrivener users—the person who uses like one percent of what they can use. But that just goes to show—because so many people I talk to go, “Oh I don’t know. It seems like it has a lot of features.” And I’m like, “You don’t have to use them.” You can use it as a word processing program that breaks your chapters up into chapters. That you can click and drag. That is worth $40—that one feature. That is worth all of it to me.

Also if you are a fantasy writer like myself the ability to add words to Scrivener’s dictionary is awesome. Because I will write five books in the same series and I’ll keep the same ridiculous spellings for five books and Scrivener just remembers everything that I put in—between novels. So I’ll start a brand new Scrivener file for a sequel and it already remembers everyone’s name. And I don’t get the red wiggly lines of “you messed up.”

M.H.                         Totally. Do you use Scrivener for anything else?

R.A.                           Well I wrote 2k to 10k in Scrivener, so I use it for all my non-fiction. When I ran a game I used it for my own game notes. I’m showing exactly how nerdy I am. But we just talked about Final Fantasy 7 so it’s already out there now! I love tabletop role-playing for the record it’s amazingly fun. When I ran a game I used it for all my own game notes. I just did each session like a chapter and I wrote about where I was going and what I wanted to do. And what they were going to encounter. And that was fun. It was a Shadowrun game for the record. Shadowrun is awesome; Shadowrun is the best.

I use it for really random things. Like I’ll sit down, and I was actually making a plan of repairs we needed for our house—and it was a three-stage thing where I had a plan of repairs we’re doing this year, repairs we’re doing next year and so on. I used Scrivener—just because I use it for everything! It’s my go-to. And it worked perfectly well. I don’t know if I was using it appropriately but it worked.

M.H.                         I think that’s the best thing about it. There’s no appropriate or inappropriate way. If you are going to use it as a project management tool for house repairs: go for it. More power to you, right?

R.A.                           My husband and I when we are doing stuff together we usually use Google Docs—which is great for just little things. But again, it’s like a bucket you throw stuff in to so everything’s on one page or you can just make a file but it’s all still individual word documents. The ability to be infinitely granular in Scrivener, to have folders and to have folders and you just go down and down for as long as you need to—I love it. It just feels really intuitive and really natural to me. Can’t sing its praises enough.

M.H.                         Awesome. So let’s transition a little bit and talk about the future of creative writing tools. As a professional writer is there ever a tool where you just think to yourself while you are writing, I really wish this thing existed?

R.A.                           A better internet blocking tool. Freedom is as buggy as all get out. The moment a person invents a button I can just push to turn off all internet and then I can’t turn it back on until a set time period—they will get all my money. All of it.

M.H.                         So you actually want it to prevent you from turning it back on?

R.A.                           Yeah. That’s what Freedom does. You start it and you say, I want five hours of no internet—and bam five hours of no internet. And you have to restart your computer if you want that stuff back. Which is fantastic for me because I can turn off the wireless but it’s so easy for me to just turn it right back on and I’ll check something—and never come back. But I would love a program where I could just say, turn the internet back on at 5pm, which Freedom can’t do for some reason because it’s awful. But it was the only thing I could find so I paid $10 for it and I feel very ripped off. But that’s what I’d love.

I know there are a lot of Word Cloud programs out there for brainstorming, and I’ve never really been a writer like that. I think what I would really love to see as a creative writer is some sort of a tool for those of us who are more analytical. Because a lot of people tend to think of writers, oh they’re so dreamy, so creative, and quirky. And I am, I guess, creative and quirky but I am also an analyzer. I love lists, I love spreadsheets, I love math—I love all this stuff. I find it very comforting to be able to see things organized. So some sort of an organizational program.

A timeline program. A program where I can draw a timeline and add events to it and have it automatically adjust. So I can see the events in my novel, well-spaced, relative distances apart and say, “Oh well, they’re not doing anything for eight hours. Maybe something should happen.” And I have to do all that by hand right now. I draw it actually. I have grid/ graph paper and I draw it out—if stuff is very complicated I’ll draw it, if I just can’t get my head around it. So something that would let me do that. Any sort of timeline making program would be amazing.

Also programs that let me more easily incorporate images into my work. For example if Scrivener could add more features to help make books look really good when you export them to e-book—like better drop capitals and that kind of thing. The niceties of pretty published books. Just a few things would be really great like the ability to put in a 300 dpi image that’s small as your chapter header would be really, really awesome. Because again, I’ve gotten into self-publishing which I love because I am a very anal retentive person as you’ve probably realized. I like to be in control of things. And one of the biggest frustrations for me in working with publishers is I can’t control what they do. If they give me a cover I don’t like I can yell at my agent on the phone all day and nothing will happen.

M.H.                         For the images as chapter titles though there is a way. It’s kind of complicated but you can use metadata to insert images as chapter titles and you can even code them. So, for example, that each point of view has a unique symbol associated with them.

R.A.                           Wow!

M.H.                         I’ll send you some links afterwards but a gentleman named Garrett Robinson has a couple of tutorials online about how to format using metadata to insert images into your books. So I’d highly recommend you check that out.

R.A.                           That sounds awesome. Again—things I would know if I was a more advanced Scrivener user than I currently am. That’s what I pay for being very simple about it.

But just sort of niceties like that. And ways to do it more easily.

M.H.                         Yeah, totally. It’s definitely not the easy way right now. It’s kind of a hack. But I think the other tools that you mentioned, having a point and click timeline or build your own timeline app would be absolutely invaluable for so many professional writers.

R.A.                           Any programmers listening: if you want to make a really quick build-your-own timeline app—I’m down. You’ve got my money. I am a buyer.

M.H.                         I second that. That’s a great idea.

R.A.                           I also think that another thing that there’s going to be in the future of creative writing is going to be a program that lets you keep track of your sales more easily if you’re self-published. And I know a new site just launched and I cannot for the life of me remember its name. It basically lets you upload the spreadsheets that you can get from Amazon and will help you track your sales.

For example, and this is so stupid, right now on Amazon there is no way to say, hey Amazon. How many of my books of X title have I sold in my lifetime? I can see how many I sold per month but not total. And that’s so stupid. I want to know—I want to be able to put on the cover of my book, “Over 100,000 sold.” I have to do all the math myself.

At this point in my career, my husband has just quit his job and is now kind of my full-time, I call him my manager. Because he takes care of all the stuff I don’t want to do. All the business stuff and all the accounting. There’s so much accounting. Because you’re getting money from like 50 different Amazons and publishers and other sales points—it’s just coming in from everywhere. And someone has to keep track of all that. So some sort of an author business management tool would be amazing, something that would take Amazon spreadsheets.

Because whether your dream is to be traditionally published or whether you’re really into self-publishing—self-publishing is part of the publishing landscape now. And I’m a hybrid author and I’m very happy being one. There’s a lot of benefits to New York, there’s a lot of benefits to self-publishing. I like to be able to pick and choose based on what book I’m doing and where in my career I am. And I feel that a lot of authors, even if they don’t think this way at the beginning of their publishing career, feel this way within several years. Especially in the mid-list which is where I am, people who are not bestsellers but who still sell pretty well, who make a living off their work.

A lot of people that I know in my own sphere are going to self-publishing. Not really because of anything New York did—like there was no bad burn or there was no fallout—but just because that’s where the money is and you’d have to be stupid not to at least look, not to at least be interested and give it a try. Well stupid is the wrong word. You’d have to be closed-minded. Because there are many very intelligent authors who are firmly anti self-publishing and I just cannot understand why. I do not understand it.

M.H.                         Maybe they don’t want to do the accounting?

R.A.                           Why would you not want tons of money? Why would you not want this? You’re a fully established author—you could literally multiply your income by four. Why not, what is the problem? Do you not like money?

M.H.                         That’s an interesting idea because a lot of these authors that were traditional and never had to deal with these business systems or accounting systems are coming into self-publishing and getting way in over their heads because they’re not expecting to have to keep track of all this stuff.

R.A.                           And it’s very, very different from New York because in New York they do literally everything for you. You’re treated like a precious little Faberge´ egg. Which includes sometimes making decisions for you which I did not like personally. That’s one of the things that really bothered me about New York—this isn’t to say anything bad about my publisher or anything happened there—I’m just a person who likes to make the decisions. And even if I agree with how things came out at the end—having someone make a giant business decision on my behalf without consulting me—I got upset. I did not like that.

And in self-publishing every decision is your decision. But you can also change your decision. But again it is a very different business environment. You have to do a lot more. You have to hire your own copyeditors and editors and artists. You have to do all this stuff. And you have to deal with money coming in from these companies and deciding what your price should be. You have to look and say, am I making a profit? All that kind of stuff.

But you also have to—there’s also a lot of other elements to being a working author. Like for example conventions. A lot of authors love conventions; they talk about conventions all the time. But for me at least, the ROI on conventions (the return on investment) was abysmal. I would spend all this money, and I love them, they’re fun, they’re fun as all get out. But now I treat them as vacations because I’m going to have fun. And write it off in my tax as a business expense. And to make connections—professional connections—which are very important. But when it comes to actually selling books conventions don’t do anything. And I did not know that until I really sat down and looked at my numbers and all sorts of things.

M.H.                         Unless maybe it’s 2k to 10k—because then it’s about writing.

R.A.                           Then it is about writing—then it is all about writing. The one exception to that convention story is going to RT this year—which is Romantic Times—one of the biggest romance conventions ever in the world.

M.H.                         Where is that one?

R.A.                           It’s in Dallas this year. I’ve never been to Texas so I’m very excited. But I’m on a panel with Ilona Andrews and Kresley Cole who are two of my favorite authors ever. And I would pay a kidney to go and see them. So I’m super excited.

M.H.                         That sounds awesome. So you’ve got that convention coming up and you said you just finished a book, right? What else are you working on?

R.A.                           The second Heartstrikers novel which is called One Good Dragon Deserves Another is going to be hopefully out in the next few months but I still have to send it to my beta readers and get it proofread. And I actually have to finish the edits which I’m almost done with. The book itself is finished but it has to be fixed. So I’m working on that and we’re making very good progress.

I’m also hopefully going to be writing a sequel to 2k to 10k which is going to be a much more rounded book. It’s tentatively going to be titled If You Don’t Love It You’re Doing It Wrong.

M.H.                         Nice. I like that.

R.A.                           It’s going to be all about how to make writing less stressful and more intuitive and easier. Because it should be easy and natural and fun. And it should be the best thing you do all day. And that’s sort of what the book is about. It’s going to have a whole bunch of author tricks and working author stuff and how to manage tension and that sort of thing. So I’m hopefully going to have that out this year. And I’m going to be writing the third novel in my Heartstriker series also hopefully this year.

And if I get all that done—which is big if, fingers crossed—I’m going to be starting a new series in my sci-fi universe which is going to be about another mercenary who used to work with Devi and is now running her own all-female Blackbird crash team. It’s going to be like a team on a job gone wrong basically and it should be a lot of fun. I’m very excited about that one.

M.H.                         I love hearing how passionate you are about these stories. It’s so much fun to hear.

R.A.                           Well if I don’t love my books who will? You have to be excited about your own stuff. Or why bother?

M.H.                         Absolutely. So where can people find you and your work online?

R.A.                           They can go to www.rachelaaron.net. And I have all my works, under both of my pen names Rachel Aaron and Rachel Bach. Up there they’ve got sample chapters, my blog is there, I’ve got a mailing list you can sign up and get updates, it’s got a link to my Twitter which is probably where I am most active… that’s the place to find anything and everything me.

And again if you’re interested in the 2k to 10k blog posts which are still up for free in its original format, it is on my blog which you can get to through rachelaaron.net, just click on the blog link. And over on the left hand side I have a whole bunch of links of all my best posts—it talks about how I edit my books, how I plot my books—all the nitty-gritties of how I do my stuff.

I just did a big series about writers and money—which you can tell I think about money a lot—and it’s about all the different ways writers get money and how to handle that money. It’s got tax questions and all that kind of stuff. I really take the business approach to writing. I also talk about my self-publishing numbers sometimes—so that’s all in the blog.

M.H.                         Great. Thank you so much, and thanks again for taking the time today. I really appreciate it.

R.A.                           Well thank you. I am always, always, always happy to talk to writers. Because seriously—this is a very lonely job. If you don’t talk to other writers it’s just you and your characters sometimes. I work from home, my husband works from home and I have a five-year-old kid. There are times when I do not talk to anyone who is not in my immediate family for like a week. So you’ve gotta stay connected to other authors.

M.H.                         That’s great. I really appreciate it.

R.A.                           Thanks for having me. Bye!

M.H.                         Bye for now.

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About Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

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