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writing beats

Doing What We Do (Rough Draft Writing – Part Two)

Craft of Writing

Last week, I wrote Part One of this two-parter, so if you missed it, you might want to pop back and have a peek.

I talked about writing character sketches and setting sketches before I even begin writing the beats. And all of this is done before I start working on the actual story.

Once I’ve gotten through the characters and the settings, I’m ready to get started on the beats. I think of the beats as notes to myself about the story. I definitely don’t think of doing it as outlining. It’s more like me telling myself the story. Not as it will eventually be written — a novel or short story — but as if I’m sitting next to myself, literally, telling myself about the story.

The beat listing begins as just a bunch of bullet points. This happens. Then this happens. Then this other thing happens. And I just list things out, as far as I know them, all the way through to the end, if I can. Sometimes, I only know the beats for the first third or half. And that’s okay. I often get the rest as I’m working on the ones I do have, so I have the entire story out in beats before I begin writing for real.

Once I have my bullet points — I’ve usually already divided them into chapters at this point, but not everyone does it this way, of course — I start at the beginning. I take the first bullet point, which might look like this:

  • Jacob awkwardly asks Sophie out

Okay, that’s actually a bullet point from my YA post-apocalyptic novel Hovel Rats, and it’s not the first bullet point, but about halfway in. You get what I mean though.

So now I take that bullet point and expand on it. You know how in writing, people always say, “Show, don’t tell”? In this case, it’s all about the telling. I just write down a few sentences about what is to happen in the scene. I also might make notes to myself on things to remember to try to convey. Here’s the above bullet point as a beat:

Out scavenging, Jacob starts talking about missing dates. Not the asking so much as the anticipation and getting to know someone. He knows that sounds a little lame, but it’s part of the “normal” that he misses.
Sophie thinks about how she hadn’t ever been out on a date before “normal” ended.

After a bit a hemming and hawing, which Sophie doesn’t recognize as Jacob being nervous, he asks if she would like to have dinner with him. Sophie is confused. They have dinner together every night. She finally gets that he’s “asking her out.” Make sure to convey her blushing and her feeling a little dumb for not getting it. Also, her excitement.

They make plans to have dinner on the patio by the roses.

 

That’s it. Simple.

A couple paragraphs, just so I know what’s going on and who’s feeling what. The scene I wrote from that beat was about 1200 words, but only half of it was the actual awkward asking-out part. The rest of it was the “out scavenging” part that is just two words at the beginning of that beat. Generally speaking, a beat will be about 10-20% of the length of the actual scene that will be written from it.

One of my issues with traditional outlining is that it didn’t seem to leave room for creativity. It felt very draconian. In doing the beats, I have more than one opportunity for creativity. I found that when writing the beats themselves, that’s when my plotting muse kicks into gear.

I play with the plot at this level, almost exclusively. This is where I learn exactly where my story is going. It’s much more efficient than learning in the writing phase, because if something doesn’t work, I know much sooner and after much less effort. I’ve only written a couple hundred words versus a couple thousand or more. I can pivot and adapt more easily and quickly.

Once I’ve done my beats, either all of them (preferable) or as far as I have in my head, it’s time to sit down and start writing. I use Scrivener for pretty much everything writing-related (including this blog post!) and Scrivener has a split-screen feature. Word also allows you to have two files open and split the screen, so if you’re still using Word, this is workable for you too.

I usually have the beat on the bottom and my writing space on the top (because I like it more or less eye level). Then, I simply start writing as I would have any other time, but use the beats as guidance. What I’ve found is that I’m much more focused and I can belt out words a lot faster.

If I’m in the zone, in general, I can write about 2000 words an hour. Note, I said in the zone. If I’m not in the zone and if I’m trying to decide on things as I write and I’m trying to think about how whatever I’m writing is going to affect what I’ve already written and what I’ve yet to write, then I have a much lower word count per hour.

Write or Die helps me to keep up with how fast I can write. He’s releasing a WoD 3, but it’s pretty ugly, so I stick with version 2 🙂

Because I’ve written the beats and I’ve worked out, mostly, how everything relates together, I don’t have to think about any of that. I can just focus on creating great description or natural dialogue. I can focus on creative ways of bringing the emotion out of the characters and onto the page.

And I can write faster.

You’ll notice that there’s tons of creativity in this stage, too. Obviously, to create a striking description requires it. To bring the characters to life on the page requires it. So creativity isn’t stifled at all using this method. I’d say it’s just organized differently.

Instead of the creativity being in a great big jumble as I write, instead, I’m carving the plotting aspect out and doing it separately. I’m doing the character and setting descriptions separately. There is still room in the writing for all of these, but the heavy lifting of them is already done. So whatever I still fiddle with in the writing itself is smaller, less pressure.

So that’s my system! Instead of just writing by the seat of my pants or rigidly creating an outline I must adhere to, I mesh the two. I create an environment where I have the guidance of an outline, but the creative openness of writing by the seat of my pants. And this works for me.

Let me know if you decide to try this way; tell me how it works for you!

What’s your process? Do you do a lot of planning or pre-writing? Or are you a write-what-you’re-inspired-to-write sort of person? Drop a comment below!

 

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Doing What We Do (Rough Draft Writing – Part One)

Craft of Writing

I mentioned in my New Year post that 2018 is going to be dedicated to writing. I’m refocusing on the words.

I thought it might be interesting to post about how I actually do that. What my “process” is, so to speak. Fair warning: this is going to be a two-parter. This is mainly because as I wrote, it got really, really long! So you’ll get a bit here and you’ll get a bit next week too 🙂

Back before I got into publishing, before I’d even taken one course about writing, I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. I came up with an idea for a character or a situation and I’d just sit down and start writing, without any idea where I was going.

This is a perfectly valid way to write. Lots of people do it successfully this way. For me, what I found is that it was really inefficient. I spent a lot of time meandering around, not really sure where I was going. I strongly resisted any suggestion I do anything like outlining, because the story was in charge, not me. I had to go where the story took me.

As I connected with other writers and also worked through my graduate program at Seton Hill, I realized what my problem was and it was inherent in the way I was writing.

My husband is Dutch. When his mom came over to the US to visit us the first time, one of the things she really wanted to do was go to a grocery store.

I know. That seems weird. But in the Netherlands, grocery stores are small, neighborhood businesses. They don’t have sprawling jungles of produce and glaciers of frozen foods.

So she wanted to see a grocery store here in the US. We obliged, of course. We let her loose in a Kroger (I think… maybe it was Publix) and I went around, gathering what I needed from various sections. A little while later, I got to the dairy section and I found my soon-to-be mom-in-law standing in front of a dairy case. This older woman, just frozen there, staring at the butter.

Why do you need so many different kinds of cream cheese?

You know… that wall of butter that is generally four feet wide and six feet tall. She was just standing there, looking a bit dumbfounded. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay. She turned to me, her eyebrows furrowed.

“Why do you need so many different kinds of butter?”

Too Much Butter

I realized that, in having literally no path for my writing, I had way too much butter to choose from. There was too much I could do. Too many paths I could take. And having that much choice, having to make that many decisions (this, but not that; those, but not these) froze me up more than it freed me.

I had so many places I could go, I had no idea where I should go.

Several years ago, I started playing with other ways to write, other processes. I tried out different methods that other people use. Some are pretty well-know, like the Snowflake Method. Others are just systems that writers have devised for themselves. I’m still exploring, but I feel like I’ve found a method that works for me. Not only does it keep me focused on where I need to go for the story, but it also greatly speeds up my actual writing, so I get things done much more quickly. (When I, yknow, actually focus on my writing.)

Writing Like a Hybrid

To give credit where it’s due, I completely ganked this method from Sterling & Stone, which is a trio of writers who not only publish books, but also produce a great podcast on self-publishing that I recommend to anyone interested in that avenue (among many other podcasts).

The method involves creating “beats” for the story as a method of pre-writing. It’s not outlining, so much as it’s note-taking for the story.

How It Works for Me

First, before I do anything else, I make character sketches. For each major character, I fill out a worksheet which details what the character looks like, their background, etc. I don’t necessarily know all the things about them at this point. I leave a lot of stuff blank to be filled in later, as I write. But I get the major stuff down now, early.

Once I’ve got the sheet filled out, then I write a page or so about the character in relation to the story. What is their goal in the story? How do they change? What is their overall attitude to what is happening? How do they feel about the other characters? How do they connect?

I don’t get into details about the story itself here, just the general implications on and attitudes of the character I’m working on. I’ll also note down how the character’s background might affect their reactions to the general plot or other characters. For example, if a character had an abusive girlfriend, maybe that character is wary of women, in general, and so holds the main character at arm’s length and doesn’t trust her.

I do this worksheet and write-up for all the major characters. For minor characters, I will do a more sparse version of the worksheet and maybe write a few lines about who they are within the story and why they are in the story. (I find it’s important for supporting characters to be in the story for their own reasons, rather than my needing them in the story.)

That done, I’ll do something similar for any major settings. I’ll write a few paragraphs with the description of the place, any general significance, and then significance to soecific characters and/or plot.

Westminster Abbey ~ London
An awesome setting 🙂 Photo by Aja.

These worksheets and write-ups are important to do ahead of time for a couple reasons. First, it allows me not to have to worry about figuring out what someone or something looks like when I’m in the flow of writing. I’ve already worked out how they look.

Second, it brings me closer to the characters (and the settings) before I’m actually writing. I get to learn about them as separate entities from the story itself, which, I think, helps make them more realistic. I don’t want characters who didn’t exist before the story and only exist now because of the story. If I connect with the before-story characters, then I will convey them much more richly within the story itself.

Okay! That might seem like a lot of pre-writing, and it is! But it’s not the main pre-writing. This was the pre-pre-writing. But don’t be intimidated. It seems like a lot of work on the front end and putting off the fun of the writing itself. But what I’ve found is that when I do this (and the beats, which I’ll talk about next week), the writing is much easier and goes faster. Honestly, the writing comes 3x+ quicker if I do this stuff first.

And even besides those good outcomes, I’ve also found that because I don’t have to focus on creating all these details when I’m writing, my first draft comes out much more polished. This is because I’m able to focus on the writing itself — the scenes, the plots — rather than the details of the characters or deciding what a place looks like. It cuts down on the decision fatigue happening during the actual creation process.

Next week, I’ll talk a lot more about writing the actual beats: how and why.

What do you think of the pre-pre- writing so far? Do you do something similar? Entirely different?

 

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Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.