How I Write My Books by Aaron Mahnke

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from Aaron Mahnke whose new book, Frictionless Freelancing, launched today.

There’s a little saying around the internet: “Math is hard.” I heard it four times yesterday, and two today, and that’s aboutnine times too often for my taste. Math isn’t hard, but do you know what is? Writing.

Yep, I see the irony too. I just wrote about how writing is hard. That created some kind of wormhole in space and time, Ithink. I am, however, completely serious about the writing bit. It’s difficult, and at times can seem darn-near impossible.

I’ve published two novels in the last two years, one of whichwas over 150,000 words long. Neither was written in just a month (speaking of, NaNoWriMo is now in full swing), but I actually finished writing them, which is more than90% of the people who start a book can say. As of November 1st, I have a new bookavailable as well, Frictionless Freelancing. It’s not a novel, but the effort and struggle that it took to write it was identical tomy previous books.

I finished all three books because I have a few secrets that I use to get the job done. And Michael Schechter, being thenosey man that he is, asked me to open my trench-coat and reveal those secrets to you. So, don’t scream, but here we go.

Cellular Mitosis

To write a novel, or even a work of non-fiction like my new book, is to plan out what you are going to write. Not all of us are J.R.R.Tolkien, who claimed to just let the plot of the Lord of the Rings take him where it wanted. No, us mere mortal writersneed to plan things out.

Your first step is to write out the plot of your novel in one sentence. What, in a very simple sense, will happen in your book?One sentence is all you need, but you need to write that down. Once you have that single-celled organism of text, it’s timeto start letting it multiply into a massive colony.

Find a way to expand that core sentence into two. Then a paragraph. Then two paragraphs. Keep expanding the detailsof each paragraph until you have a very detailed summary of the plot of the novel, usually around three or four pageslong. It’s a non-visual storyboard, telling you what will happen all the way through your book.

This does a couple of really important things for you. First, it helps you work out the plot in real-time, notice conflicts in thestory and discover secondary plots that could be given polish. Second, if done right, this process provides you with oneparagraph for each chapter of your book. Which leads me to the next secret.


I take that long plot description that has just been born and edit it slightly. My goal is to make each paragraph thesummary of one single chapter. Sometimes the way I write my 4-page plot summary needs tweaked to help me makethose paragraphs more clear, but the ultimate goal is to have a paragraph written for each chapter I plan to write.

Each paragraph becomes a chapter synopsis. Now, I use a Mac app called Scrivener, and it allows me to create a newdocument for each chapter. Within each document is a spot for the document’s summary, and I copy-paste eachparagraph from my storyboard summary into individual documents, and number them in sequence.

I realize this doesn’t sound like a lot of writing. It sounds more like scrapbooking or something. But we are building awireframe for our novel, and this underlying structure is going to hold all of the real content as we write it. And that’s thethird secret.

Fill in the Gaps

I remember an episode of MacGyver from my childhood that involved a skull discovered in the garden of an old manorhouse that MacGyver’s friend Penny inherited. At some point in the story, MacGyver needed to know what the originalowner of that skull looked like. He took pencil erasers, some longer than others, and glued them all over the skull at differentpoints. Then he took clay and filled in the gaps to recreate the flesh of the face.

Writers need to be a little bit like MacGyver to finish their books. If you’ve summarized your plot in a multi-page storyboard,and then broken it up into chapter-sized chunks, then you’ve glued the erasers to the skull. You’ve set up guides for the laststage, which is very much like filling in the spaces with clay.

Of course, this is the hard part we all dread. We have to actually write the story, word for word. All of the hard work,though, has already been completed. You’ve planned out what you want to happen or say, and you have set out all ofthe pieces in order. Now, we just write.

I understand that “just write” is a stretch. There is, of course, more to it than that. How each person does this part is as uniqueas their fingerprint. That said, I have one more secret to share, this one focusing on how you are going to reach the finishline.

Pace Yourself

This bit takes some math (math is hard), but it can make the difference between finishing your novel or not. Let’s say you’re doing NaNoWriMo and you have 30days in November to write an entire novel. If your target is 50,000 words, you essentially need to write 1,667 words per day.But I doubt you are going to want to write every day of the month. Even professional writers need a break. There will alsobe hard days and easy days.

I would prefer to plan on 25 writing days. This allows for some breathing room and flexibility. At 25 days, that means youneed to produce a clean 2,000 words per day. When I’m on a roll I can crank out 1,000 words an hour, and your mileagemay vary, but you need to know what you are capable of achieving.

It can also be helpful to look at each session as a chance to write a single chapter. A good average number of chaptersfor a novel is 25, so that could be a very realistic goal. Committing to writing one chapter per day sets a very solid goal foryour writing session as well. It’s less based on word count, and more about ticking off another box in a short list of boxes.

Your Turn

Now you know my secrets. Hopefully they have offered you some ideas and methods that you had not heard of or tried.And ideally, they provide you with the tools you need to plan, begin and finish your novel or whatever it is you attempt.

Check back tomorrow for my favorite excerpt from Frictionless Freelancing, one that will appeal to everyone looking to make things happen.

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3 Responses to How I Write My Books by Aaron Mahnke

  1. I’m reminded, yet again, why I write poetry. Novels are too messy. 😉

    I do know when I start to outline a book for say, meditations or essays on the writing life, I’ll use an organizational structure. It probably will follow my pattern for authoring a poetry manuscript. The pattern helps me to follow how the work flows and to identify gaps.

    • I already see myself using the structure I’m comfortable with for blogs and trying to use it as building blogs… just need to make sure I keep the bigger picture in mind, even when writing the small stuff.

      • Finding a structure and process that works for you is probably three-quarters of the battle.

        When I organized my poems for a manuscript, I had to do the same – keep the big picture in mind while noting how each poem played into some theme or movement. My boss’ dissertation worked the same way. I should know since I edited the thing a bajillion times.

        How about I send you a tweet every so often asking if you’re keeping the big picture in mind? :) I actually already planned on harassing/encouraging you throughout the month, but I can add the big picture component.

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