the magic of write-by-numbers

Financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, among others, runs Book to Brand. It’s an intensive, two-day event designed to help experts write a book that will take their career to the next level.

“But Dave,” you exclaim, “that sounds an awful lot like what you do.” Indeed. That’s why I’m going to be there to help out!

Applications for the Spring event (May 10-11 in New York City) are about to close. If you’re serious about the author/speaker/thought leader route and you have the resources to invest, consider applying. There are a couple of spots left. Mention my name to get the Dave-a-rino discount. (Please don’t tell Farnoosh you want the “Dave-a-rino discount.” My name will suffice.)


Back at Amherst, the “five college” system meant I could take Len Berkman’s playwriting class, despite Smith’s women-only status. (This is great, I thought. I wish there were an entire industry where I’d be the only dude. Little did I know.)  

Side-note: It’s often said that the five colleges inspired Scooby-Doo: Amherst (Fred), Hampshire (Shaggy), Mount Holyoke (Daphne), Smith (Velma), and UMass Amherst (Scooby). As Wikipedia makes clear, the writers just plain ripped off Dobie Gillis. Mystery solved. (Zoinks!)

Side-side-note: The comparisons never even made sense. Shaggy is able to hold down a job—private detective—while adequately caring for a pet. Does that sound like any Hampshire graduate you’ve ever met?

Side-side-side-note: Just kidding, Hampshire students! If you guys never graduate, you can’t be graduates. D’uh. Now I’m making Amherst look bad.

Anyway, Len Berkman: terrific teacher. Every class, he’d fire off a bare-bones scenario: “A just got something he really wanted as a gift. B is A’s friend. B is jealous and will do anything to get what A has.” He’d just rattle these off as though from memory. Maybe he made them up on the spot. Regardless, we’d jot the scenarios down and start writing scenes. Playwriting-by-numbers. Afterward, we’d act the scenes out around the table. Immediately, you’d see what had worked and what hadn’t.

Rinse and repeat. This is how you learn to write, people.

When it comes to mastering the craft, nothing in my experience beats a live, simultaneous writing exercise like this. So why are there so few opportunities for writers to do them on an ongoing basis? I would happily pay for a regular opportunity to sit around and write, on the spot, with other writers. Not so that we could each fiddle with an existing project, but to tackle a single, new writing challenge, whether or not it’s for something. How else to learn from how different writers try to solve the same problem?

People attend conferences, retreats, and colonies to improve as writers only to immediately scurry off to some poetic windswept crag on the property wearing one of those fisherman sweaters. It’s like, “Now that we’ve all gathered in one place, let’s get as far away from each other as possible.” You don’t need Yaddo to finish a draft in complete solitude, guys. Just go to a Hampshire College alumni event: even the tumbleweeds have crickets.

Writers can usually be convinced to share their work for feedback, but they will do almost anything to avoid actually writing something new, on the spot, around other people. What makes this so uncomfortable?

There is only one possible explanation: Animals instinctively go off by themselves when death is near. For humans, nothing approximates mortality like a blank page. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Cogito ergo sum. Quo vadis.   

Thankfully, Len created a safe space for the work and even made it fun. Plus, his alphabetical prompts made it much easier to just start writing. Long after, I’d often wish I’d kept copies of the many scenarios he’d given us over the course of the semester.

Years later, I stumbled on Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. This gem, dating from the 1920s, contains 1,462 scenarios like the ones Len used to give us, organized according to the author’s own elegant logic.

“A, trusted butler in the household of A-9, is really a crook. A, using his position in the household of A-9 as a ‘cover’ to his black designs, loots the jewel box of A-9’s wife, B, and departs secretly.”

And so on. Not all of the scenarios are quite so Jazz Age, but you can make it work. Just replace “butler” with “TaskRabbit Supertasker” and “jewel box” with “Apple HomePod.” Good to go.