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I Didn’t Understand Beats

Progress Has Slowed

My lack of progress recently has become a concern. Back in October, my last update, I felt proud to report that I increased my count from 32 beats in July 2020 to 72 beats in October 2020. But progress has slowed to a crawl, and I’ve tried to understand why.

I could assert that I’ve had to do a lot of world building. It’s important to me that the world not only be consistent, but be realistic and impactful to the story. But I’ve had to do that all along. Building out the European Union’s political structure is no different from building out Terran Consolidated Product’s corporate structure, in terms of complexity and amount of time needed. So that’s not it.

Another part of it might be that I’m nearing the end of the major world-building phase. The components are in place. Also, the introductory work is just about done. I’ve finished the story beginning, preparation phase, and game changer 1 (using Nick Stephenson’s nomenclature). What comes next will require a slightly different mindset. Or maybe I’m using that as an excuse to disengage?

My Beats Weren’t Beats: I Didn’t Understand Beats

Those issues aren’t responsible for my lack of progress. It’s something more basic. It dawned on me that I don’t understand beats. I only had a cursory understanding of beats to begin with, because I started writing before they were a popular concept. I mean, when I started writing, my Smith Corona Classic 12 typewriter was state of the art. Before I continue, I just want to point out that the link I found to a picture of the typewriter was at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The picture looks just like my typewriter, except instead of blue, it was beige. And it’s a museum piece.

What’s that about teaching an old dog new tricks?

Ahem.

I started this effort by writing focused statements of the plot point. Each Scrivener card (that I was calling a beat) was very small. That was closer to a beat than where I ended up. Later cards were more rough drafts of chapters, and I noticed that mentally, I began treating them as outlines, not as beats. The net effect? My progress slowed to a crawl.

I Didn't Understand Beats: I only thought I did

It’s no wonder I’ve started to slow down — I’m not writing beats, I’m writing a rough draft.

It appears that the pantser in me attempted a coup. Well, maybe I should be more charitable and say that old habits tried to reassert themselves. In either case, I can’t go on like this. I need to get the first trilogy plotted, because I just had an idea for the next that I’m pretty excited about.

And that doesn’t happen very often. The “excited” part, I mean.

This is What Beats Really Are (Remember, I Didn’t Understand Beats)

The alternative title for this section is He Can Be Taught!

Since I’m building new habits and mind-sets, I decided to cut myself some slack. I’m not going to dwell on how I got into this slow-down. Instead, I’m going to focus on getting out.

I turned to Google and found several helpful explanations. Many included examples. I’d like to share a couple of them with you.

On the site Screenwriter-to-Screenwriter, Monica Partridge write a post called “What, Technically, is a “Beat” in a Screenplay?“. It helpfully laid out the difference between a plot beat and an emotional beat. It also talked about a third kind of beat, the reversal, which I’m still thinking about. The post’s explanations helped me reinforce what I thought I knew about beats and extended my understanding through the introduction of multiple types. My previous understanding only included plot beats. The examples were clear, but they talked about a movie I’d never seen, so they didn’t help me as much as I’d like.

I Didn't Understand Beats: A rough draft is _not_ a beat

For the record? This is not a beat. It’s a rough draft of a chapter. Sigh.

Another site, Story Grid, presented Shawn Coyne’s post called “Story Beats: Understanding Units of Story.” Its examples were a little more clear to me, though it’s not Monica Partridge’s fault I didn’t watch The Wedding Planner.

Starting this week, I’m going to attack the beats for A Ghast in the Machine again, this time using a corrected and refined understanding of beats.

I Didn’t Understand Beats — Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did

I’m a software developer at heart, and I’m surprised how often that mind-set blindsides me. Without asking permission, my developer brain conducted a post mortem failure analysis on how I got to this point.

Yes, I’m an idiot, but let’s put that catch-all aside for a moment.

I have a terrible habit of assuming if I know a little about about a topic, I know everything about the topic. I’ve tried to get rid of that little gem for going on 50 years. So far, so bad. In this case, I participated in conversations about beats. I loosely used the concept to make whatever progress I’ve made on the book so far. But when I needed to throttle up, my ignorance cost me.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to cultivate a curious mind. Isn’t that synonymous with having the mind of a writer in the first place? I bring this up here, though, just to reinforce a lesson you likely already learned.

Stay curious. Keep cramming facts into your brain. Keep your mind elastic. It’s a simple cure for a ton of ills.

Like pretending to understand beats.

And to be clear? I still don’t understand beats. But I know I don’t understand, and I have some good starting points now. I’ll see where that takes me.

Publishing Reviews Now?

You might have noticed that I just published a book review of Space Carrier Avalon (Castle Federation Book 1). I’ve been reading as much as I can lately (mostly audio books) because a) I love reading science fiction and b) I’m trying to understand how other writers approach their craft. I’ll publish review sporadically as I finish books.

Right now, I’m reading Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Garden. I’m about twenty percent in, and so far, it’s looking as good as the first book in the series, The Quantum Magician. Talk about fantastic world-building! I can only hope to build something that feels so natural and lived in. The characters, too, are just fantastic, especially Belisarius Arjona. I’ll likely review it early in 2021.

My Adjusted Goals

Look, I’m sick of having to write about why I didn’t get more done. As Jayne Cobb said in Serenity, it’s beginning to damage my calm. I have goals I need my books to meet for me, and my books have quite reasonably pointed out that I need to write them before they can get to work.

So.

By the end of this calendar year, I will finish the beats for A Ghast in the Machine. Come March, I will have finished the beats for the next two novels that make up the first trilogy.

By the end of 2021, I will complete the first draft of Divinity Ascending and begin writing A Ghast in the Machine. I’ll also come up with titles that make me less angry than these do. That’s a “me thing”; I’m quite cross with myself right now, and I don’t like anything I’ve done. I’m giving myself the silent treatment in response to my lack of progress.

I Didn't Understand Beats: Time to start writing (real) beats

Yeah, it’s an old meme. But coming from the writer who cut teeth on the Smith Corona Classic 12, a freaking museum piece now, what do you expect?

Also, I’m going to borrow an idea from Lynn Sheridan that he published on his site The Otaku Author in the post “Author Journey (December 7, 2020).” I’m going to start posting a weekly status update. My last writing update was October. I only skipped one monthly update (November), but it masked this whole beats debacle. Switching to weekly will make it harder for me to hide that kind of thing.

Do You Write Beats?

Do you write beats for your stories? How’s that approach working for you? I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments!

5 thoughts on “I Didn’t Understand Beats

  1. I’m not entirely sure if you’d call them beats either, but I write two to four sentences per chapter that tells me who is the focus, what are they doing, and how it ends. I don’t tend to do more than that because it tends to change as the first draft is getting written. The characters like to derail things whenever possible, but as long as they get there eventually…

    Having accountability is a big help. I look forward to more regular updates. Hopefully, we’ll all see some progress.

    1. “I’m not entirely sure if you’d call them beats either, but I write two to four sentences per chapter that tells me who is the focus, what are they doing, and how it ends. ”

      After I finished this post, I found another good reference:

      http://www.katherinecowley.com/blog/10-keys-to-writing-story-beats-in-novels-with-exercises/

      What you described is exactly what that writer recommended. So, sounds like you’re right in line with the prevailing thought on beats.

      “The characters like to derail things whenever possible, but as long as they get there eventually…”

      Ain’t that the truth? TBH, I take that as a good sign that the characters are vibrant.

      “I look forward to more regular updates. Hopefully, we’ll all see some progress.”

      I hope so. I’ve been working on this freaking thing since 2017 or before. That’s just not acceptable. I’ve written since I was a kid, and it’s about time I stepped up my game.

      Fingers crossed…

  2. I don’t get beats either, possibly because I, too, date to manual typewriters. But my coach says I do them naturally. Go figure. But if it works, do it! Even us old dawgs can learn new tricks!

    1. ” But my coach says I do them naturally. Go figure.”

      I spent a lot of time researching beats today, and I came across a lot of writers who said the same thing. They, like you, have internalized what beats are.

      I’m actually haunted by the idea that I had done the same thing, but I dislike my work so much that I needed a crutch.

      Or maybe I should be less wimpy about it and just say I wanted to confirm my assumptions? That probably sounds better, doesn’t it?

      BTW: I really enjoy your posts about the craft of writing. Good stuff!

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