Find the Beats

This afternoon, I worked on revisions.This is the part of writing I love. I love it much more than drafting. Drafting for me is hard work. It’s a clammy, dark underground cave I struggle to dig my way out of. Revising is my happy place—the place where I can relax and think and breathe life into a jumble of words—words that need polishing. Revising is my chance to shine my story into a brilliant ruby or diamond or sapphire.

My focus for the time I had to work was very specific. Today I searched for beats.

I grabbed a Dunkin Donuts caramel iced coffee (my current favorite drink), picked my kids up from school, got them situated into their homework routine, settled into my revising chair (which is different from my writing chair), opened up my laptop, and searched for beats in my manuscript.

Beats are bits of action interspersed throughout a scene, such as a character walking to a window, or removing his glasses or rubbing his eyes. Usually beats are physical gestures like these, though an internal thought can be considered a beat too.

Beats can be a good thing. Writing with beats is a powerful way to help round out your character. Beats can tell more about him then a lengthy description. They can provide bits of imagery that can guide your reader’s imagination. Here’s an example:

Adam took off his Red Sox cap. He put it back on and jumped out of his seat. “I got it!” he said. “I know how Simpson solved the puzzle.”

In the example above, the first two sentences would be considered beats. They help describe the scene and also tell us a little bit about the character. 1. Adam is a Red Sox fan. 2. Adam gets excited when he’s figured something out.

Beats similar to these can be used throughout the story when Adam is put in a similar situation. Here’s another example:

Adam paced alongside the classroom windows. There could be a million reasons why his teacher asked him to wait here after school. He took off his Red Sox cap and then put it back on. “I know,” he thought. “She probably wants me to run for Class President. “

In both scenes, Adam takes off his Red Sox hat and puts it back on when he’s thinking.

See how using a beat can help round out your character?

But here’s the thing… Although beats can help vary the pace of your dialogue, they can also bring it to a halt too. It can make it feel choppy or get in the way. This is especially true during an emotional scene. Let’s say two characters are in the middle of fight. One character is shouting. The other is crying. The character who is shouting is accusing the other character of stealing her favorite lip gloss. In the middle of her tirade though, after she accuses her friend of stealing her lip gloss, she walks over to the window and looks outside. When she comes back, she tells her she never wants to speak to her again. Because she is shouting the whole time, it doesn’t make sense that she would walk over to the window at all. Most likely she would keep yelling until she has finished. See how walking to the window in this case has interrupted the flow of the scene and slowed down the action?

If however, the character yelled about the lip gloss, told the other character she is a terrible friend, and then walked over to the window, it would make more sense. It would serve as a moment for her to think about what she just said. She may even apologize.

See the difference? In both examples, walking to the window serves as a beat. But in the second example, the flow of the conversation is paced better.

Another thing to be careful of when using beats is repetition. How often do you repeat a beat? How often does your character tap her fingers on the table or lick her lips? If it’s too often, it can be annoying or distracting to your reader.

So how can you revise your manuscript focusing on beats? One way is to read your scene a loud. Sometime your ear can pick up beats your eyes miss. Another way is to use the Find/ Replace function. This is a great tool in Word. Pick a word or phrase from one of your beats. Search the chapter for repetition. I also use a highlighter to show me all the beats I’ve used in a chapter. This way I can clearly see if I’ve used too many beats and if the ones I’ve used are effective in rounding out my character.

In my earlier manuscripts, I didn’t know anything about beats. It wasn’t until I read a great book on revising that I learned about them. In fact much of this post came from notes I took a few years ago after reading the book. It’s called, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. I highly recommend it!

So there you have it. Now you know how I spent my afternoon. I looked for beats! Sounds like fun, huh?

 

You Could Write a Novel too!

Have you ever thought about writing a novel?

Many of us who love to write sure have…

We imagine creating a story so memorable it may as well be a work of art—our very own words strung together like music, set on crisp white pages and bound together inside a beautiful old- fashioned cover—with our name etched on the front.

Can you imagine?

The problem is, as much as many of us would like to write a novel like that, only a select few of us will actually write a novel in the first place. Why is that?

There are many reasons I suppose, but to be honest, the biggest reason that people who want to write a novel but don’t ever do it, is that they find reason after reason to believe it’s impossible.

They think:

                Writing a novel is hard.

                I’m not a good enough writer.

                What would I write about?

                No one wants to read a story I’ve written.

                I don’t have enough time.

To those reasons I say:  

Writing is hard.

You do need to be a really good writer to get your story published.

It is sometimes hard to think of an amazing story idea.

It is possible no one will want to read the story you’ve written.

None of us have enough time. We have jobs and school and kids and sports and annoying little brothers and cooking and meetings and housework and yard work and doctor’s appointments and family picnics… The list goes on and on.

But what I really say to all those reason is this:

If writing a novel length story is important to you, then you can overcome those obstacles…because that’s what all those reasons are. Obstacles. And obstacles are meant to be overcome. That’s their job—to stand in the way of you getting what you want. It’s your job to overcome them!

Are you up for the challenge?

Do you want to write a novel? If you want to then that’s all the qualification you need.

Even if you think you’re not a strong enough writer, that’s okay because the more you write, the better you get. Over time, if you stick with it, you will become a good writer. And if you stick with it long enough and really work hard to improve, you will become a great writer!

So where do you start?

Many writers are worried their idea isn’t good enough to become a story readers will care about. If that’s the case for you, think about ways you can put an original spin on the idea you have. Each of us has a story to tell. How can you make yours feel special?

Once you have an idea (even if you don’t have all the ideas in your head worked out into a perfect outline), get ready to write.

I’ve found the best way to write a novel is to just start writing. The idea of writing so many words can be overwhelming. Don’t think about how many words you need to write. Just write as many as you can for today. And then tomorrow, write as many as you can again. If you write something every single day, pretty soon one chapter will turn into five and five chapters will turn into fifteen. And before long, you’ll be writing the ending to your first amazing novel!

If it’s hard to find the time to write every single day, you might have to get creative about it! Do you love watching TV after finishing your homework? Swap TV out for writing time. Do you love to play games on your phone while the kids are at swim lessons? Blast out a few hundred words instead. Wake up a half hour before the kids wake up and write. Stay up an extra 45 minutes once they are tucked in and write. That nap you usually take after raking the yard on Saturdays? Skip it! Your story is calling your name!

Do you see what I mean? If it means enough to you, you’ll find the time. 🙂

But what if no one wants to read my story?

If you try to write a story everyone else will like, you may give up half way through because it’s not a story you care that much about. You’re going to spend a lot of time on this story. Make sure it’s one you really care about…one you’re excited to write. Pretty soon you’ll see that if you’re writing a story you’re excited to write, you won’t even notice how long it’s taking. You’ll just be excited that you get to write it!

For some of us, writing is as important as breathing or hanging out with friends. If it feels that way to you, then overcome the obstacles you think are getting in your way. Crash through them. Stomp all over them. You can do it. Besides, it’s nice to know there are other writers out there who are doing the same thing as me!

Back to Basics

As most of you know, I’m writing a middle grade novel for kids. I’m in the midst of deep revisions, looking to be sure the story I’ve written is as strong as I can make it. I’m fleshing out my characters, determined to make them jump off the page. I’m fixing a few minor problems with the plot and checking to be sure the details of the world I’ve created are consistent throughout the story. I’m also working on voice-that tricky thing that makes your characters and story unique…the skill that’s so hard to perfect.

Revising a manuscript is hard work. It’s strap yourself into your chair and just do it kind of hard. In a future post, I’ll talk about the revision process. There are many great books to help get your manuscript polished and ready to be seen by agents or sent to editors for self publishing that I will recommend. I also have some helpful tips that I’ve learned along the way. First though, it’s important to understand the basic parts of a story. With so many young writers and beginning adult writers who visit the blog, I thought writing a post about that might be useful. Besides, even those of us who have been writing for a very long time, could use the reminder!

So here it is…

Every good story needs:

A Great First Page that hooks the reader into it. It needs to feel different and exciting enough that the reader will want to turn the page.

A Memorable Main Character that makes your reader experience emotion (any type- anger, sympathy, worry, love, etc.)…one that makes your reader want to visit them again and again.

An Original World that your readers will want to visit. You can write about a common setting, but in order to make it amazing , you’ll need to add your own unique spin on it.

Conflict and Stakes for the main character. There needs to be a problem that your character faces. That problem , if not solved should lead to consequences that would be bad for the character. By creating a serious conflict with a serious consequence, you’re creating high stakes. The higher the stakes the better.

Action that keeps the reader interested and moves your story forward. If a scene doesn’t do this, then cut it out. Keep the scenes that keep your reader reading- even after their bedtime!

Strong Voice. Use word choices that are age appropriate for the story. The language should reveal the tone (sad, scary, romantic, adventurous, etc) and also the uniqueness of your main character.

A Surprise in the plot. If the reader can guess everything that’s going to happen, they will put down your story and never pick it back up. So create a twist they don’t see coming!

An Appropriate Ending. Every ending doesn’t have to be Happily Ever After, but it does need to tie up any loose ends and ensure that your reader closes the book feeling satisfied.

These are some of the basic points that I refer back to when I write all my stories. They’re great reminders for me. They keep me on track. They work for picture book stories, short stories and even novel length stories. I bet they can work for you too. 🙂

No matter what type of story you’re writing, whether it’s realistic, mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction or adventure, be sure you go back to basics once in awhile. You’ll be surprised how amazing your story can be!

So go ahead, give it a try. Write down the basics somewhere you can refer back to them. Then take advantage of the springtime weather while writing this week. Sit on the back patio, or on your front porch. Find a empty bench in the park or spread a blanket out in your yard. All it takes is a laptop or tablet, or even a paper notebook. Oh and maybe some lemonade too!

A Story for Brave Avrie

I mentioned last week that I was writing a short story for a 7 year- old little girl who is battling Leukemia in a big way. The little girl’s name is Avrie. Brave Avrie.

I’ve heard it said that writers write because they have to. They have a story that needs to be told and they can’t focus on much else until they find a way to tell it. That’s how it is for me anyway. And that’s how it has been all week as I’ve been thinking about little Avrie and the story I want to write for her. Her real life story has touched my heart and I so dearly want to help her- in the best way I know how!

Stories can bring hope to children. They can make children smile. That’s my objective with Avrie’s story. She and her family are living a nightmare, and the thought of what they’re going through has consumed my thoughts. And so I’ve written this story for Avrie. I hope it can help, in some small way, to give her the hope and strength she needs to fight this illness.

As anyone who knows me personally will tell you, I don’t share my stories with anyone- until they are ready to be submitted to agents. My goal for the last several years has always been to get my books published. That means writing the draft, revising it, polishing it, and then doing the same thing over and over again at least 100 times. Seriously.

But I have not done that with Avrie’s story. I don’t have the luxury of time with this one. To me, this story is too important. Avrie is having some really tough days and I want to cheer her up. I want to give her hope. I’m not presuming to believe my story will cure Avrie’s cancer. But I hope it will make her smile. Stories can do that and right now that might be just what she needs.

There’s another reason I’m in a hurry to get this story out into the world. I hope to raise money for her family. You may have noticed a new tab on the right side of the screen, Avrie’s Story. If you click on it, you will have the opportunity to download the story for $7. I chose that number because Avrie is 7 years- old and 7 is a very lucky number! All proceeds will go to Avrie’s family, who is struggling to pay her medical expenses.

Please consider donating to little Avrie’s fund, Prayers4Avrie by downloading her story, Avrie’s Dance. It’s the story of a brave little girl who finds a way to fight the demon inside her in a very surprising way! Even though I haven’t spent months revising and polishing this story, it holds a special place in my heart. And I’ll tell you why…because this story has the power to help a family in need.

Thank you in advance for downloading Avrie’s Dance. I hope you like it! And please keep your fingers crossed that Avrie likes it too… and that she gets rid of the dreadful demon, Orange Blob once and for all!