Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's the beats, Daddy-o.

It's been a bit hectic around here lately. Besides all the usual holiday prep, my editor is visiting for the weekend. Among other things, we're kicking around ideas for projects for the coming year. One of the projects under discussion is an editing service. We're using, as a springboard for the discussion, David Antrobus's recent terrific series of Indies Unlimited posts about hiring an editor and about editorial pricing. If you're looking for an editor (and if you have a book to publish, you had damn well better be) or if you're thinking of hanging out your shingle as an editor, I highly recommend that you check them out.

In my own book news, I'm scheduled for an interview at Lucy Pireel's blog on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, in honor of the first anniversary of the start of the events in Seized, the Pipe Woman Chronicles Omnibus goes on a special Kindle Countdown sale at and The regular price for the five-book set on is $8.99, but on Wednesday, the price goes down to $3.99. Friends and neighbors, that's less than a dollar a book. The price will gradually rise over the course of the following week, until on Christmas Eve, it'll be back to $8.99. The UK pricing is similar -- starting at 99 pence on Wednesday and going up to the regular price of £5.61 on Christmas Eve. It's going to be an amazing, dirt-cheap deal for somebody. Please let your friends know! Thanks!

One comment I often get from other writers is, "How do you write your books so fast?" To which I usually do sort of an awkward shuffle (which looks really awkward online, let me tell you) and say something lame like, "I write short books." Which is true, to a point.

But mainly, my technique is to draft what I've taken to calling a rough outline-ish thing. I talked about it briefly in my pre-NaNoWriMo post this year. Basically, it's a paragraph per chapter, more or less, about what I plan to accomplish in that chapter. It doesn't include every twist or nuance, mainly because I don't always know what form each twist or nuance will take until I sit down and write the scene. But it does give me a rough road map to follow. And it's hugely useful for battling writer's block; when I sit down for a writing session, I can look back at the last page or so that I wrote the day before, glance over my outline-ish thing, and know immediately where I need to start writing today.

Turns out there's an official term for what I do: "story beats." I discovered the term while reading a post on David Gaughran's blog earlier this month. He talked to the authors of Write. Publish. Repeat., by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant. And it turns out that they use my system for drafting an outline before they start writing their fiction pieces. They find it helps them divide the labor in their multi-author works. But it also helps them stay on task and on target:

Stephen King says in On Writing that he thinks plotting is clumsy and anathema to creation. Overall, we tend to agree. Some books — often fast-paced thrillers — suffer from a mechanical style of progression, where everything is really convenient because it has to be lest the structure crumbles. But we also think, for us at least, that having some idea of where the story will eventually go is absolutely required to avoid a meandering narrative. Stories should be tight and focused, even if they’re quiet pieces without serious action. Beats will help that. We don’t think Stephen King would object to the idea of beats (not that we need to impress him) because they’re not rigid. You think you’re going here, but if you end up there? Ain’t no thang.
We write our beats with the idea that we’re predicting what will happen rather than requiring it to. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we guess wrong.
If you guess wrong but still feel that something must happen, this is where the “pantsing” part takes over, and you deviate from beats on the fly. Here’s the rule: You’re allowed to manipulate the environment, but not the character.
In other words, if you need for your character to be in New Orleans in order to set up the next chapter, you can't have your character do something out of, well, character, to get there. For example, your broke but moral-high-ground protagonist can't rob a bank to get the money for a plane ticket.

Anyway, if your writing is bogging down, you might try writing some story beats and see whether they help you get your story moving again.

These moments of bloggy beats are brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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