Posts Tagged beat sheet
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Last time I discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount. Today I’m looking at the opposite problem.
‘My drafts are too brief’
One writer in the class confessed that he had an uncommon problem – his drafts were quite brief. While most of us had fluff we needed to cut, he never did. Which was an interesting problem. (It turns out he’s not alone. After last week, I had a number of comments from writers who also found their drafts were on the skinny side.)
Here are some places to pump up the pagecount –
- secondary characters
- secondary paths in the main characters’ lives
- back story
- parallel stories
- action that seems to echo the theme.
And here’s a post I wrote about turning a short story into a novel, which includes a link to another post about filling gaps in your story outline.
But back to my student. The key to his problem was rather more interesting, and came later in the day. We were talking about moments when your story might need downtime – say, to give the reader a breather after a sequence of shocks and reversals. Sometimes you need a moment of light relief or a chance for the characters to relax and bond. In movies this is often called a campfire scene. My student made an interesting comment – he understood the need for such a scene but found them boring.
Aha, I said.
Are you a bit bored by the scenes you’ve planned to write?
If you don’t find the scene interesting, you sure won’t get the reader hooked. We know we’re not always the best judge of what is interesting – look at our fondness for indulgent scenes, aka the darlings that must be killed. But an absolute rule is that we must not write a scene we’re not committed to. If we can’t muster a bit of enthusiasm, no one else will.
This led to another discussion – about how we often need a scene to form a particular function but feel disinclined to write it. It’s usually for continuity or story mechanics, but the thought of writing it … zzzz. The answer, obviously, is to find an exciting angle. Find an unlikely setting. Or add a person who mustn’t know what’s going on. Unruly animals are good value. Introduce a factor that lifts your bog-standard, box-ticking event into the unusual. Or consider whether you could despatch the business in a simple line – ‘they flew to the Bahamas’. (Although that isn’t going to solve your problem of a short manuscript. In that case, return to the above.)
Repurpose your flabby scenes to give them new life
One of the exercises we did on the course was a beat sheet. This is a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, noting the scene’s purpose and what it adds to the story. (Lots more about it in Nail Your Novel, here.)
My student here had another interesting insight. He looked at his own beat sheet and remarked that several sequences in his novel didn’t have that sense of forward progression. Things were happening, but they weren’t moving the story onwards. (What did he say about not having fluff he needed to cut? After looking at his story’s pace, it turned out he did. He was thinking about events, instead of what took the narrative forwards. It’s strange how we can confuse the two.)
Aha, many of us said.
You’ll probably want to trim those out, I said. But you know what? You can repurpose them – perhaps for a subplot, or those downtime scenes. Perhaps rewrite them with a lighter flavour, or use them to demonstrate how characters are bonding. They’re probably events that you were interested to write but are surplus to the main story thread. So use them to enrich the story in other ways.
Thanks for the stamp, Smabs Sputzer
Next time: characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did you do it?
Sometimes it’s good to take a break from our novels – especially at the end of a draft. But those are the breaks we’ve embraced. The purpose is to forget everything we knew about the book. An enforced break? That does the same – right when you don’t want it to.
It’s not that I’m shouting ‘humbug’, but before Christmas I was working through some notes from a publisher and Dave was deep in a first draft. Now, festivities over, we both have to get back into our writing, which isn’t easy. We don’t book many holidays compared with the normally employed, but somehow as departure looms, we grouse more and more about having to stop writing.
To make a good job of a book I need to know its every nuance. I need to understand how every scene and simile will reverberate through the whole thing – the way a note played on a piano is not just one sound, it quivers the strings of the whole instrument from highest tink to lowest rumble. When I come back to my novel after a break, I have to find its harmonics again.
So here’s how I do it.
First of all, I make sure I’ve got a summarised version of the book. This could be
- the scenes on index cards if it’s at the planning stage
- a working synopsis
- a beat sheet, if revising.
(For a full explanation of these, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.) I use these documents as cribsheets to reboot my understanding of the novel from beginning to end. The structure, the character arcs, the tick-tock of the timeline, the threading of the subplots.
You’ll probably have seen from my other blog that I make soundtracks of mood pieces that have inspired major scenes and characters. Whenever a song snakes out of the radio or my headphones and tells me something about the novel I’m working on, I put it on a playlist. When I’m trying to reintroduce myself to my book, I take the soundtrack for a spin.
Trust the process
In a recent comment here on this blog, Fredrica Parlett made a wonderful remark that I’d like to put on a T-shirt – ‘if I can trust the process and not panic…’ Experience of writing’s ups and downs gives you faith. Faith that you have lost the thread before but you can pick it up again. Courage to get through the first day, when you don’t feel like going back to work after the holidays. Yes, that day isn’t easy. But the next one will be a lot better than you think it is going to be. And before you know it, you’ll be back in the swing.
If you’re thinking 2012 is the year you write your novel, you might like this multimedia short course I co-host with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. More than 4 hours of audio with 86-page transcription and slides. And there’s also my book, Nail Your Novel.
Thank you for the vintage ad pic JBCurio
Do you have any tips for getting to grips with your novel again after a break? Share in the comments
I just got Twitterviewed – interviewed on Twitter, asked enormous questions to which I had a titchy 140 characters to reply.
Twitterviews are the brainchild of Novel Publicity, which has a helpful blog and a website that offers marketing services to authors. You can find out more about Twitterviews here, including how to request one for your book or as part of your blog tour.
But get in training to be snappy – I was asked all the big questions – why I write, what Nail Your Novel is, what my novels on submission are about … answers on a postage-stamp…
Also, the other half of the Morris writing clan has been out and about in interviewworld today. If anyone’s curious about Husband Dave, he just did a considerably less squeezed, but lovely interview at Dorothy Dreyer’s We Do Write.
Today I’m Joanna Penn’s guest at The Creative Penn podcast. Joanna’s interviews are essential listening for me – she’s an author, blogger and business consultant who has rejected the traditional publishing route because she found it too slow and difficult. Instead, she set herself the task of learning how to do it all herself.
Every week she interviews editors, marketing experts and writers about their adventures in publishing and book marketing and has built up a formidable following among all those of us who want to take charge of our publishing careers and make the very best of what the internet can offer us. She’s written a brace of books on writing, self-publishing and internet marketing. She’s also been realising a long-held dream to write thrillers and her first – Pentecost – is just about to launch.
I’m thrilled she wanted me to be her guest this week. Come and join us as we discuss ghostwriting, tips for writing a bestseller – and how to write your second novel. And whether I mind doing really nasty things to characters…
The email was headed: ‘Here’s that film you were in!’ Hereafter, the Clint Eastwood film in which I was an extra, has just been released, and friends are making my day by sending me links whenever it’s mentioned in the press. Yesterday I got an article about a chap in London whose house was used as a location. It had to double for another house already used in the film, and the crew added false tips to the railings, replaced the front door, recoiffed the pot plants and wallpapered the hall.
It struck me that that’s a lot like revisiting a novel to do revisions. To start with I feel I don’t know the story any more, or live inside the characters, or remember the geography of their world. I have to go through a mental set-building phase in order to feel at home there again.
But I don’t just tip into the draft. That keeps me on the outside, like a new reader, and I need to be inside, behind the scenes, taking control of it all. I need to dress the set again. Here’s what I do.
1 Never throw your notes away
From the moment I start planning a book I keep copious notes. About the world, the synopsis, the characters. In one novel I’m planning, there’s a discography of all the music that exists in the world. When it’s time to revise I read them all again.
So many writers I know throw away these files when they send the novel out or hand it to their editor. But it’s never too late for somebody to suggest another round of revisions. The only time it’s safe to throw away your notes is when the book is between covers.
2 Get out your soundtrack
I need no excuse to make soundtracks for my books. First there are the pieces of music I choose to help evoke the initial mood of the story (and are an excuse to browse the Listmanias on Amazon). Then there are the tracks that grab me while I’m working on the book – a talisman for a particular scene, a theme to connect me to a character. Each of my books has a soundtrack, and I dust it off when I need to reconnect with the book again.
There’s an exercise I always do before a major edit. It’s called the beat sheet, which becomes an at-a-glance blueprint for revision. It helps me take charge of the book again because it focuses on the underlying purpose of each scene. Once I’m done with the revision, I keep the beat sheet because if I need to revisit the draft, the beat sheet helps me rebuild the set again.
Thank you, E Bartholomew on Flickr, for the photo. The beat sheet is one of the tools from Nail Your Novel, Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Read an excerpt in the widget on the right, and read Amazon reviews of it here
Guys, what do you do to rebuild the set for a revision?