Fiction Writing in a Hurry… or Not

HurrySometimes I get in a hurry…

Eleven-thirty!

Okay, time for writing break. (Most people know this as lunchtime.)

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two! Omigod. Two precious minutes flushed.

Grab laptop, thumbdrive, shove them into the briefcase. Stupid laptop won’t go. Shoooooovvve! There.

Eleven-thirty-three. Crud.

Speed-walk to the elevator. Punch the down button over and over to make it come faster.

Get on the elevator, press the P1 button to parking over and over to descend more quickly.

Trot to the car, throw in the briefcase, realize I have forgotten my reading glasses. Screw it, I’ll squint.

Peel out and make the five-minute trip to the library or coffee shop. Why do I change location? Too much distraction at the office, what with the demands of gainful employment.

Eleven-forty!

Pray one of the two tables at the library is unoccupied.

Luck! First table is free. Sit. Rip laptop from briefcase.

Where is the stupid thumbdrive? It should be in this pocket, but it’s not.

Root, root, root in briefcase, find thumbdrive somehow enfolded in checkbook. Arg.

Hand are now shaking from a combination of morning caffeine and hurry-stress. Some difficulty plugging in thumbdrive. Come on, stupid laptop, boot, boot, drat you, boot.

Need to do a free-write to focus. No, forget it.

Look at the last sentence written. Do no further review. Just start writing.

See Craig write. See Craig write fast.

See Craig get stuck. Is this right? What happens here? Crud.

Open up the novel plan and check. I have wasted five minutes on a tangent, and not a good one either. See Craig delete text.

Eleven fifty-five!

Write stuff. Hate it all. Repeat.

Alarm dings. Time to return to the office!

Peel, dash, elevator, desk, reboot stupid laptop, have brief lottery fantasy, back to work.

Sometimes, I take my time…

Eleven-thirty! Time for writing break.

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two. No problem. I’ll just do what I can do today. Persistence will win my battle.

Pack the laptop in the briefcase, taking three seconds to reach in and jiggle things a bit so the PC slides in. Put the thumbdrive in my pocket.

Stroll to the elevator, press the button once. Smile and nod to passers-by.

Down to the car, off to the library. Wave to the librarian and sit down at the table. Unpack, boot up. While the laptop starts, take minute for breathing meditation.

Check the novel plan to see what’s on tap for today. Reread a few pages from the previous day’s work to get grounded. Free-write for a couple of minute to get the gears greased.

Linger over the first words, letting today’s pace come out on its own. From there, write as quickly as possible without rushing, pausing to look up once in a while.

The alarm dings. Look over today’s production. Not bad, either for quality or quantity.

Back to the office. Smile as I open that first email, because I’m a good worker.

And I get to be a writer, too.

So… which do you choose?

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Fiction Writing Lessons: “Afraid” by Jack Kilborn (J. A. Konrath)

book cover for novel afraidI’ve just finished reading Afraid, by J. A. Konrath, writing as Jack Kilborn. It’s a corking yarn that I’d classify as light horror reading, if there can be such a thing. I managed to cull a few writing lessons from the book, which I will now share for you edification.

Straightforward plot. Afraid proves that a novel doesn’t have to be super complicated to be effective. A group of five psychos-turned-by-science-into-super-soldiers arrives in a remote small town. The psychos perpetrate some seriously unsavory hijinks on the townsfolk, thus bringing themselves into conflict with the good guys. The good guys, a few townspeople with the luck and pluck to fight back, eventually win the day, but not before weathering some of the most harrowing abuse imaginable. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.

Lesson: Don’t make your plot any more complicated than it has to be (but don’t make it any less so, either).

Well-defined characters.  I’ve read things in which the characters are very hard to tell apart. Konrath/Kilborn avoids this by giving each character distinguishing characteristics both physical and psychological. The sheriff is old, near retirement, and nursing a lifelong grudge against his brother. The primary female character is a pretty blonde who works hard to support her son, to whom she is totally devoted. The largest member of the psycho squad is seven feet tall, built like a Sherman tank, and has the IQ of a walnut. These characteristics and more are often drawn with action and dialogue, rather than outright description.

Lesson: Distinguish your characters physically and psychologically, and do it with action and dialogue as much as possible.

Vivid imagery. Afraid delivers a lot of its horror with vivid images of terrible acts you might never have even thought of. The straight descriptions, which are necessary, are mixed in with related action and the combination often hits you right in the gut. Notice in the following example how physical descriptions, character actions and internal dialogue combine to hammer home the horror Note: If you don’t like horrific images, don’t read the excerpt.

Something hit Fran in the chest, bringing her back to the present, making her flinch. It clung to her shirt. Warm and wet, like a towel. What was it? What had he thrown at her? She shook her shoulders, but it didn’t move. Fran needed to let go of the shelf, needed to release her hands so she could knock off whatever— The flashlight came on, pointing at her. Fran looked at her chest and saw something red and rubbery and shredded hanging there. Something wearing Al’s walrus mustache. And then the light went off. Fran screamed. She screamed and screamed and then her paralysis broke and her hands opened up and she batted Al’s face off herself, arms flailing out as if she were being attacked by a swarm of bees. (Konrath, J.A.; Kilborn, Jack (2012-09-30). Afraid – A Novel of Terror (p. 41-43).  . Kindle Edition.)

Lesson: Use multiple techniques to build imagery that hits home.

In brief, some other lessons from Afraid are:

Use suspense by pressuring the good guys. Things keep getting worse and worse for the good guys and the bad guys keep popping up even when you think they are done for.

Save the day in an interesting way.Yes, amid all these crazy soldiers and suffering townsfolk and bravery and bloodshed and stuff, there’s a monkey running around and he turns out to be the key to salvation (almost… heh, heh, heh…).

Add a touch of romance. Two of the good guys fall in love, or close to it, during all the mayhem. Their existing, suppressed feelings for each other are galvanized by the crisis.

Put in a kid. Few things elicit sympathy like a good kid who is having a hard time but doing his or her best to cope. There’s a boy in Afraid who manages to be admirable without being depicted as a short adult.

Sacrifice. In the end, the sheriff sacrifices himself to complete the salvation of the other good guys and end the psycho-soldier threat. It’s a poignant touch that makes the book’s conclusion memorable.

No More Posting the Draft

Rubber stamp marked draft

For a long time, I was posting regular excerpts of my nascent novel, Thin Spots, in this space. More lately, I’ve had the draft up on Wattpad and invited you kind readers to view it there.

Well, not anymore. I took the draft down from Wattpad a few days ago and am pretty sure I’ll keep it off, because, as I’ve been working through the draft lately, the idea of thrusting version 1.0 into the public eye has seemed more and more lame.

First of all, it’s a first draft, full of errors, from typos to plot holes you could fly a zeppelin through. The more I think about it, the less I want that to be the first impression people have of my writing. It’s better, I think, to wait until the thing is fully baked and then cast it upon the waters.

Secondly, and more important, is that having the draft out there started me worrying about how many people were reading it, why or why not and how I could get more people to give it a look. I was slowly slipping away from writing the very thing I wanted, for the enjoyment of the thing, and into writing to please everybody else. As I’ve said here before, that could be the death of the process for me.

Third is the problem of major changes. I have revamped the first three or four chapters and some of the changes ripple through the rest of the book. Do I make all those changes now and re-post all those chapters, or leave that until later and hope readers understand when, say, characters who were around in chapter six (pre-major change) aren’t around in chapter 45 (post-major change) when clearly they should be, at least as far as the reader knows? It gets messy and, frankly, I’d rather spend the little spare time I have writing than reorganizing everything, writing catch-ups and what not.

My only worry is that there are a few people out there that really were following the draft and would like to continue. If there are any such people (this may be looking for the lost tribes of Israel), and you are one of them, please write me at coolcarsoncraig@gmail.com and I’ll put you on a mailing list.

Half-Baked Planning

Half baked bread loaves being put into an ovenNote: In case you care, I have removed the rough draft of Thin Spots from Wattpad. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Having made it more than halfway through the draft of novel number one, despite having many other demands on my time, has made me a holy-rolling believer in planning your novel before you start writing it. I have my little setup of manuscript, scene sketches and fix sheet all constructed and waiting for me every time I sit down at the keyboard. The manuscript says “start here.” I look at my scene sketch and I start there. When I run across something that will need cleaning up later, I note it on the fix sheet.

Planning is a beautiful thing, but, I wonder, can you do too much?

I just finished writing a chapter that’s long, rambling and weak. It’s a prime candidate for the rewrite operating table, and I think the problem is Stebbins, a gladiator who shows up earlier in the story. Because Stebbins wasn’t there.

It’s a battle scene. Colin (the lead) winds up there unexpectedly and hides, because he’s injured. Then he comes out of hiding and meets… not Stebbins, but another guy named Calley. See, I was writing along, Colin came into the open and all at once Stebbins, who was not scheduled to appear, popped into my head. I could see Colin spotting his friend, being amazed and overjoyed.

This vision of the Colin-Stebbins reunion was powerful and required some consideration. If I went with it, Stebbins’ role in the planned story would change drastically. It would also greatly hork up Calley’s planned role. And I liked my plan. It was a good plan, and it was already there.

To stick with the plan or change things–that was the question.

My point here – and I do have one, as Ellen Degeneres says – is that I was in the midst of a good problem. Making decisions like this one lies at, or at least near, the heart of the fictioneer’s craft. It’s also a huge part of the fun.

If I had planned each scene in the novel down to the last pinhead, I’d be far less likely to land in such a delightfully uncomfortable spot. I’d be much too wed to the plan due to all the trouble I had put into it. I’d also find it much easier take the already mapped out path of least resistance.

Instead, since I have a plan that’s more general in nature, I get to make writing decisions on the fly. I am creating and solving fiction problems all the time, while at the same time not constantly trying to figure out the next big milestone in the story.

So, yes, for me, at this point as a nascent novelist, half-baked planning is best. I have the broad brush strokes. It’s filling in the detail along the way that keeps me turned on.

What’s your stand on planning? A lot or a little? In-between? Let me know in a comment.

Filling the Gaps in Your Story

A canyon between two steep cliffsNote: If you’re interested in seeing how the draft of Thin Spots is coming along, you can check it out on Wattpad. Thanks!

A simplification of Newton’s first law of motion, from our friends at Wikipedia, states: “An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.” The same can be said of your novel. If your novel is moving nicely forward (which I hope it is), it will continue to do so unless something comes along to stop it or shove it off in another direction.

While there are plenty of things that can stop or re-direct your novel, the one I’m thinking of today is what I call gaps. These are gaps in your knowledge, plot or other novel elements that crop up as you’re writing, regardless of the amount of planning you’ve done. For example, you might be writing a scene that occurs in the vicinity of the Hoover dam and discover that, though you’ve read about the dam itself, you know nothing about the countryside or the roads. Gap! Or, let’s say you’re composing away and suddenly realize that if Uncle Slappy has the knife in the chapter your currently crafting, it had to show up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag several chapters prior. Gap!

Whatever you do when you encounter a gap, you don’t want to let it stop your progress and you don’t want to let it re-direct you to the extent that you go off to work on something else. You can avoid that sad fate if you have a way to handle gaps already in hand when you start your project. I have a couple of ways I’m fond of; no doubt there are more.

One gap-handler I like is the in-line notation. This allows you to go with the flow when you hit a gap and still provides you an opportunity for patch-up later. As you hit a gap, you simply note the problem in brackets and keep right on going. For example: “Uncle Slappy pulled the magic knife from between the sofa cushions and [for Unc Slap to have knife now, knife must be in Ant Kiz purse way before now] brandished it like a sidekick in a B-grade swashbuckler.” This is not my idea; I picked it up from some writing book a long time ago and have used it with some success.

Another method, and my current favorite, is to keep a document called “Fixes.” I use a word processing file for this, but you could use a card file, or a legal pad, or the wall—whatever makes your cork float. I keep the document open while I’m writing and when I hit a gap make an entry there. For example: “For the scene ‘Uncle Slappy Cuts Up’ be sure the knife shows up in Aunt Kizzie’s handbag some scenes prior.” I like this method because I don’t have to go combing through the manuscript later to find the fixes.

That’s all there is to it. Happy gap-crossing!

10 Bogus Reasons for Not Writing Your Novel

No ExcusesWhen I look through the wonder that is the Amazon Kindle store and other online literary emporia, I’m flabbergasted by the number of novels out there. After I’ve been flabbergasted for a while, I have a cup o’ joe to calm down a bit. Then I start thinking about something else—the number of novels that aren’t there, but could be. These poor little guys are in people’s heads as concepts, in desk drawers as partially-finished manuscripts to be picked up one day, in city dumps or recycling centers where they were tossed by folks who just gave up.

Do you have a novel that’s languishing for lack of attention? You have your reasons for neglecting it, of course… but maybe they’re bogus! Check this list and see if any bogus reasons are yours.

10. You Don’t Have Talent. If you’ve got the yen to write a novel at all, it’s a sign you have some kind of talent. Maybe it’s a talent for pretty prose, or artful plotting, or just sitting back and letting rip with a good yarn. But you won’t know until you try, will you? Talent needs to be developed. If you have that urge to novelate, the ability to generate that emotion is your talent. Nurture that by writing and it may develop into more and greater talents.

9. Your Story Ideas Aren’t Good Enough. Good enough for who? If your ideas are good enough to keep you entertained while you’re writing, that’s all you need. Nothing will sustain you through the long course of a novel like enthusiasm for the project for its own sake. And who is telling you the ideas don’t cut it? Some long-dead teacher? A parent? Tell these ghosts in your head, “Thank you for your opinion. I embrace it and now I let it go, because you are just a ghost in my head, and I can have a big glass of wine when I’m done and you can’t—ha, ha, ha!” And then write.

8. It’s Self-Indulgent. We’re so often taught that doing something for ourselves is selfish and bad, especially if it doesn’t result in money or a mowed lawn or something. Let me remind you that the seventh habit of highly effective people (Stephen Covey) is to Sharpen the Saw; that is, to get away from the grind and do something that enriches your brain. That’s what writing does. Besides, if writing makes you happier, isn’t that good for everybody around you? You bet it is.

7. You Need a Certain Environment. Okay, I know we’re all tired of hearing about her, but J.K. Rowling wrote at least the first Harry Potter book in several Edinburgh cafes . I know one author who, when her three kids were all tiny, would lock herself in the bathroom, put her pad on the toilet seat and write while the three little ones were banging on the door. If you try, you can write almost anywhere; maybe not as much or as well as you like, but you can do it.

6. You Have Writer’s Block. I believe that writer’s block is real. It’s happened to me, in a small way, when I tried to write everything beautifully the first time around, or when I tried to write for somebody else. It’s also happened to me when I didn’t have an adequate plan for what I was writing. If I have a plan, I don’t write myself into a corner and get blocked trying to figure out how to write myself out. Once I gave up perfection, started writing to please myself, and started planning everything, my blocks went away.

5. Your Novels Always Flame Out. We’re back to planning again. Your novels flame out because they have no plan, so they get out of control and crash into the trackless wastes of Not-Written-Land. As a seat-of-the-pants, non-planning writer, I have flamed out on at least three novels. These days, I use a plan and I am farther along that I’ve ever gotten before. What’s more, I’m confident I’ll finish. Make that flight plan, gang, and you won’t crash.

4. A Novel is Too Big. I wholeheartedly agree. A novel is too big for any sane human to take it on. All those characters, settings, events, details… it boggles the mind. But what if you only had to write one page? You can do that, right? That’s how a novel is written: one page at a time. The pages add up and become your novel. It’s almost as miraculous as compound interest.

3. It’s too Hard to Get Published. I agree with this one, too, if you’re talking about traditional publishing. Not only do you have to write a great novel, you have to hope it gets to the agent or editor when he or she is in the right frame of mind for your kind of story. That could be five minutes of every day. But all is not lost, because now you can e-publish yourself for minimal cost. Yes, you have to do the marketing yourself, but you’d probably wind up doing most of that anyway. And the royalties are light-years better.

2. You Don’t Have Time. True, time is limited for most of us. We have jobs. We have families. But how much time is “time”? You could probably plan a beat on a beat sheet, or write a summary paragraph for a scene, or a piece of a scene itself, in ten minutes. Writing in dribs and drabs like this certainly makes the work go more slowly, but if you put the time in, the work will also go forward. There’s no hurry.

And the number one bogus reason for not writing your novel is:

1. You’ll Do It When…  If you look around on the internet you can find a novelty item that’s a round disc with the non-word “tuit” on it. Get one of these and then you’ll be able to do all those things you were going to do when you finally got a round tuit. We want to wait until we’re retired, or when the kids are out of diapers—until all the conditions are right before we jump into the novel. Why? Did you wait until everything was perfect to go to college? To try your first beer? To ask that cute girl or guy on a date? To get your first… well, never mind. The point is, we do lots of huge things in life without waiting around. You can do the same with your novel. Start now! Life is short. Who knows, tomorrow you might get run over by a muscle car and end up in a coma. Like the hero of my novel, which I am writing… now.

Writing a Stubborn Scene

Writing the Stubborn Scene

This week I had a struggle with a scene in my nascent novel, Thin Spots. It’s a pivotal point in the plot, where the hero finds out he’s not just a soul trapped in Hell by mistake; rather, he has a comatose body on Earth to which he can return. There’s a lot of information to be presented and I figured the best way to do it was in dialogue between the hero, Colin Davis, and the angel who screwed up and landed him in Hell, a character named Sakamiel.

As usual when I struggle with a portion of the book, I learned some things to share in this space.

Be prepared to retrofit. For this expositional scene to make sense, I had to go back and plug some events into a couple of preceding scenes. For instance, Sakamiel gives Colin the news that his body is in a coma back on Earth and that there’s a chance he can return to it. How would old Sak know all this? As things originally stood, he couldn’t, so I altered a previous scene to show Sakamiel’s boss relaying the coma story to him and I altered another to indicate that Sakamiel was doing research that would uncover facts about Colin’s being able to reunite with his body.

Outline for clarity. I didn’t just want to convey information in this scene. I wanted to show that the information had set Colin on a new course of action. That meant I had to arrange the dialogue so it built from the least arresting matters to the most arresting and ended with Colin’s making a decision. I tried simply writing the dialogue a couple of times, but it just rambled. To tighten things up, I made a bulleted list of the points I wanted to make and then arranged them in the most interesting sequence. It was a miniature beat sheet just for this chunk of dialogue. Once that was done, I was able to write the scene to my satisfaction.

Keep going… and retrofit again, if necessary! The day after writing draft one of this post, I started work on the scene after this troublesome one. Lo and behold, I discovered that to make the subsequent scene work the way I wanted it to, I would have to go back and rejigger the stubborn scene yet again! So, with a little carping, I backed up and did the work. Thank goodness I did—both scenes are better than they would have been otherwise.

Let go of perfection. I keep learning this lesson over and over again. Even with all the effort I’ve described, the scene still doesn’t quite ring like it ought to. I was very tempted to keep working on it until it was just right, but then I remembered the old mantra “don’t get it right, just get it written.” The scene is good enough as it is and I will be revisiting it during the rewrite anyway, so it’s time to move on. The niggling pursuit of perfection slows you down, leads to writer’s block and, most important, sucks the fun out of everything! So I’m letting this puppy go for now and happily moving on.

If you’re interested in reading this scene, keep an eye on the Friday excerpts; it’ll be coming up in several weeks.

Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

Scene Templates Might Save Your Bacon

SignpostLast Wednesday, I wrote about the Beat Sheet and how great I think it is now. With that bad boy knocked out, I feel I’ve got a coherent, streamlined structure for a story that might even be worth reading one day.

So what’s next? Jump into writing?

I have to say I’m strongly tempted. Although I do love planning, I love the creative play of writing much more. But I am holding off for a few more days to complete scene templates for at least the first few scenes I’m going to write.

Why? Because whenever I have gotten stuck before, scene templates have saved my bacon.

I picked up the form and idea for these templates from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, a fine tome on the mechanics of novel-writing, especially when combined with Story Engineering and Outlining Your Novel. Since adopting Marshall’s original templates, I’ve tweaked them to meet my own purposes and temperament and am tweaking them still as I go along. Here’s an example, with descriptions of each part in [brackets]:

Scene Title: Mine! [Scene title. Like, duh.]

Scene # and description: Satan writing “Mine” all over his map. [I am not using scene numbers right now because the tools I use don’t support auto-numbering and if I rearrange things I don’t want to have to change all those scene numbers. I like using a nutshell description. One could also put the descriptive paragraph here.]

From # N/A [Title of the preceding scene; this helps you keep the dots connected.]

To # [Title of the succeeding scene, again for connecting those dots.]

Action/Reaction: [In an Action section, the viewpoint character for the scene does something. In a reaction section, the viewpoint character mulls things over and decides what to do next.]

Scene Viewpoint Character: [Three guesses what you put here.]

Where: [I use a nutshell description, but this could be as long as you want.]

When: [I like to use a date and time of day; however, I suppose you could use the relative timing of events, as in “after John gets a parking ticket, just before he trips over the coffee shop doorjamb.”]

ACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Goal from viewpoint character’s last section: [Here’s the concluding goal from this character’s previous section (just put N/A if it’s their first one), which provides motivation.]

Against (person or circumstance that brings crisis): [This is whatever is at the root of the conflict in the scene.]

Conflict (occurrence of crisis; section character’s reaction): [This section might just as well be called “Action,” except that would be confusing. Here’s a synopsis of what happens in the scene.]

 Failure (unless opposition) (inability to undo or deny crisis): [Because a good story requires the hero to be up against the wall most of the time, she is always failing on some scale at the end of a scene (at least until you get to the very end). The bad guys, on the other hand, mostly experience success.]

 New Goal (or go to a Reaction section) (character doesn’t necessarily have to devise, but describe it here; can devise here, though, or devise in Reaction section): [Having failed, the hero decides what to do next; you describe that here.]

 Cliffhanger: [At the end of most scenes, I like to have at least the appearance of a major disaster occurring for the hero. This is some kind of action, as opposed to thinking up a new goal.]

 REACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Failure from scene viewpoint character’s last action section (briefly describe; the section will restate it): [Pretty obvious, eh? This can be a cut-and-paste job, if you like.]

 With (other characters that share the section): [Often it’s good to have at least one other character, perhaps a confidant, in the Reaction scene so the hero can talk out his reaction some.]

 Emotional reaction (character’s gut reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the viewpoint character’s emotions here.]

 Rational reaction (character’s analytical reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the character’s more calculated thoughts about how to make things right.]

 New Goal (character devises): He/she will X in order to X. [The emotional and rational reactions work together to engender the new goal. Describe that here.]

At this point, you might be thinking I am the most anal-retentive creature in existence and have devised a way to suck all fun and discovery out of story creation while at the same time putting off any actual writing.

I beg to differ. Crafting the scene templates, I’ll admit, tastes more of work than play, but it’s worth it. As you fill them out, new ideas will occur to you for nifty development or much-needed fixes. These things are not carved in stone—you can reorder them and rejigger them any way you like as you go along.

The best part is, once you have a template for every scene in your story—or at least enough to get started with—the writing flows through those blank pages like hot lava through a scrub forest. The “duh” moments, when you don’t know what to put on the page next, are few and far between. This means you can concentrate on the quality of the writing itself—the crafting of language, the drawing out of characters, the description of setting, the arrangement of action—all the truly fun stuff!

Scene templates may not be for you, but I invite you to give them a shot, especially if you’re a writer who has started several novels but never finished one. They could make all the difference in the world.

The Beat Sheet: A Revelation

Sometimes a simple thing can be a revelation. Thus it was for me with the scene list, usually known by its cooler name, the “beat sheet.”

Though I had heard it mentioned before, I really didn’t know what the beat sheet was until I happened on Larry Brooks’s lucid explanation of it in Story Engineering. It sounded so good I decided to try it.

The beat sheet isn’t a complex thing. It’s just a list of your scenes with the minimal information necessary—a scene name and maybe a nutshell description. Having assembled your list, you start fooling with their order, adding some, subtracting others, until you have a satisfactory skeleton on which to hang the flesh of your tale. You can use whatever you like to make your beat sheet: a word processor, post-its, index cards, scraps of tanned cowhide. The main thing is that you can rearrange, add and subtract scenes with ease.

The beauty of the beat sheet is that it removes detail. If you’re trying to sort paragraphs describing each scene, or scene-construction forms of some kind, it’s too easy to get lost in the information about each scene, rather than simply concentrating on where it should go in the story. With the beat sheet, you get a couple of crystalline drops of data for each scene. These info-chicklets are easy to hold in your short-term memory, so you can juggle several at once and better determine how they affect each other, which insight goes into your scene arrangement. (FYI, the average short-term memory holds about seven items at once.)

I was stunned by my results with the beat sheet. I had a big sub-plot and realized it wasn’t working at all, so I cut it to the bone. I figured out how to tighten up the first three sections and began forming an idea of how the concluding section would go. Most valuable of all, I found that events in need of foreshadowing and questions in need of answering  jumped out at me like clowns popping out of a miniature Volkswagen.

Valuable as it was, the beat sheet still left me feeling a little short in the coherence department. I didn’t have a good sense of whether all the beats made sense or not. Now it was time to bring back some detail. The next step, writing a descriptive paragraph for each beat, helped me take care of that. Writing a paragraph about each beat helped me analyze it to be sure it held up as a worthwhile part of the story and also fit well with the other beats. I discovered more plot gaps, more foreshadowing needs and even a few more scenes that needed adding.

I’m still working on the descriptive paragraphs, but they’ll be wrapped up soon and when they are I’ll be in great shape to plan each scene to the point where I can write it easily. Then – joy of joys! – I’ll actually write those puppies!

Bonus! Here’s a beat with a descriptive paragraph to give you a concrete idea of the process.

1.      Colin gets killed. The Dough(boy) is Flat Colin gets hit by a truck while delivering pizzas.

Colin is toodling along on his scooter with the music turned up. [Look up some real scooter/motorcycle fatal wrecks and base the scene on them.] A truck runs a light; Colin doesn’t hear it coming and gets hit. He sees the famous bright, white light beckoning him forward. [What about other people who are in comas? Why don’t they get the same reaction as Colin? And if there are more like him, why don’t they recognize the smell of someone still connected to a body? Maybe de Retz, in his eagerness to make good, broke the rules and snatched a soul (Colin’s) meant for Limbo, Heaven or some other area; that hasn’t happened before. Also, Colin is the only person ever to find out he is in a coma someplace and that affects his behavior.] [If Colin is meant for Heaven, why is his body still alive? Maybe Colin’s angel is the one to escort him to Limbo or coma holding area.]