Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

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The “Ikea Effect” and Re-writing Fiction

Ikea store frontThe other morning, after dropping my son off at school at 0-dawn-thirty, I heard a report on NPR about something called “the Ikea effect.” In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years—which is fine, if that’s your choice—Ikea is a chain of stores that sells housewares, including a lot of furniture. The unusual thing about Ikea furniture is that you purchase it in a box, unassembled, take it home and—you hope—put it together yourself.

Some researchers at Whassamatta U. or some such institution did some research and discovered that while people who buy new tables like them, people who buy new tables from Ikea and put them together love them. They love the tables more intensely and for longer.

Why? Because they put some effort into them.

If you’ve ever put one of these things together, from Ikea or anywhere else—my kit was a desk with a hutch—you know that you had darn well better love the thing, because it was such a pain in the buttocks to construct.

By now you’ve probably guessed what this has to do with fiction writing. We don’t just pour knuckle-flesh, blood, time and our cussword vocabularies into our craft. We pour our hearts into it, our deepest emotions, a measure of our souls. Even something that might seem less than deep to the reader has come out of our boundless, crazy need to create worlds on paper with the magic of words.

So, naturally, when we’ve finished writing some slice of fiction, we tend to love it with a passion that makes an Ikea table-lover look like somebody who… well, somebody who really, really likes a dumb table.

There’s a problem here and that’s the strong temptation to send our literary babies off into the big world before they’re ready. I know, I know, you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating (and besides, I wanted to write about the Ikea effect because it was cool, and it’s my blog). Let that manuscript sit in a dark drawer for six weeks, at least, after you finish it. Then, and only then, drag it back out, read it and improve it. Time will separate you from your passion for the thing.

And that’s not all. Get your writing group or some beta readers to give you impartial feedback and then rewrite yet again. If you’re able to and your manuscript is a big enough deal, have it professionally edited—not just proofread, edited—and rewrite again. Then rewrite some more.

Okay, so maybe you’ll do fewer rewrites, maybe more. I’m not trying to dictate a process. But it is undoubtedly very important to put some emotional distance between yourself and your fiction before you polish it, so you’re not blinded by the Ikea effect.

The world has plenty of wobbly, lopsided tables already. Let’s all be sure we don’t add to them.

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.

The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.

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.

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.]