Beating Out a Book Series
I didn’t always know about Blake’s beat sheet.
About a decade ago, though, when I was the librarian for the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, Blake sent our group a gift copy of Save the Cat! I got to devour it right away and, at the next meeting, I told the group about it and passed it along to another member. This was several years after I’d started getting serious about writing fiction. At the time, I was in the midst of drafting my fifth manuscript—According to Jane—a book that later became my debut novel.
Let me tell you, that story needed a lot of work. Some serious structural revision. And, having fallen in love with Blake’s deceptively simple one-page beat sheet, I was able rethink the plot points of my work-in-progress. When I got the call in 2008 that the story sold to Kensington in a two-book deal, I tossed a handful of confetti in the air and baked a pan of brownies, mentally thanking Blake for his genius.
The beat sheet is still my favorite novel-structure tool, and I haven’t written a manuscript since then that didn’t, in some way, utilize its principles.
This month, I just released my 12th and 13th books—one novella and one novel, respectively—that are both part of a new women’s fiction/contemporary romance crossover series called “Mirabelle Harbor.” It’s the first time I’ve entered into a project knowing in advance that it would be a series, so I was certain I’d need to do a lot of plotting and organizing before I delved into the drafting process.
For the record, calmly trying to tell you all that this was a daunting prospect does not adequately convey the sheer level of panic I felt—right alongside all of the excitement—when I began working on it last fall, LOL. I loved this fictional town I’d created and the collection of characters that inhabited it. As a result, I’d committed to releasing at least four books for the series. However, my original idea actually required that I plan for seven stories! (That concept alone was worrisome enough to make my curly hair even curlier, and to cause my longtime critique partners to start grilling me on the state of my sanity…) And, so, because I had to be ready to work across so many novels and plant the seeds for later plot elements in the earlier books, I needed a structural tool I could really trust. No surprise that I reached for my own battered copy of Blake’s book.
In the past, since I’d only been working on one manuscript at a time, I just used the original 15-point beat sheet on a piece of regular copy paper. I’d type out each beat, print out the whole thing, and have my list ready as a handy one-page reference. But dealing with seven books was a game changer. I needed to be prepared x 7.
The first thing I did was still to type out a beat sheet for each of the stories, which allowed me to look across the entire series in a glance. But as I was writing the first two Mirabelle Harbor books—Take a Chance on Me and The One That I Want—I realized how quickly new plot developments could emerge, particularly since I only tend to plot out the really big elements in advance, and I leave the details of the individual scenes for when I’m drafting. A lot of serendipitous surprises can come up then…and that means that any new backstory discoveries or character-trait additions that were revealed while I was working on one of the earlier novels in the series could easily affect key scenes of a later novel. I needed to keep closer tabs on those, particularly since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to remember all of these changes over the many months that I’d be working on this project.
So, I decided to add a second way of accessing the beats for each book, this time in the form of note cards. I started out with fifteen note cards (one for each beat) for every book. At the top of each card, I’d write down that one beat, but there would still be plenty of room left on the card—at the bottom, on the back, or paperclipped to it as needed. (For instance, the “Catalyst” section for book two needed five additional note cards just for that beat. The “Finale” needed 13 cards…) But what was great was that I could zip over to the set of note cards for the fifth or sixth or seventh book, find the beat in that story that would likely be influenced by a plot twist or new development in the novel I was currently working on, jot down my notes for how to incorporate the changes, and still feel confident that the structure for that later book would remain strong and that there would be no lapses in continuity.
Thus far, this method has been incredibly helpful for me, and I find myself grateful to Blake all over again for coming up with a tool that’s so versatile. The jury is still out on whether or not I’ll release all seven books, but the first two in the series are now published, and I have several chapters written for both books three and four, You Give Love a Bad Name and Stranger on the Shore.
And regardless of how many Mirabelle Harbor books I write, I can assure you, I’ll be throwing more confetti in the air and baking another pan of brownies in Blake’s honor.
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- Marilyn Brant
I think we all want that “Holy Grail of writing fiction” – LOL!! I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you’ll find the beat sheet as useful as I did. It can’t do the actual writing for us…but I’ve found it to be a very reliable structural tool in giving me the basic spine of a story. I still need to add tons of details, sharpen dialogue, infuse the narrative with subtext, and flesh out the plot and characterizations, but it’s a relief to have targets for certain major turning points. To know that you’re working with something that’s structurally sound :) .
- karen laird
Marilyn, your blog was fabulous. I learned so much about you and about the starting of writing , just in this one page blurb.
Thank you for sharing and being who you are. It come through in the stories you write.
- Marilyn Brant
Oh, Karen, thank you so much!
I truly appreciate your kind words, and I hope this post shed a little light on one way of approaching the writing process ;) .
- Sean Carlin
Excellent post, Marilyn — great illustration of the infinite versatility of Blake’s tools for writers of every genre, medium, and format.
- Marilyn Brant
Sean, thank you!
And YES, I agree :) . That versatility is something I’ve loved about Blake’s beat sheet, too. It’s been wonderful to see how many writers — across fiction, TV, film, even songwriting — have put it to use!
A fabulously entertaining passage Marilyn. And very informative. I am a reader mainly, but have written a couple of truly lame stories for fun. I am going to try this beat sheet method and see if I can improve my stories!
A huge congrats on your ever growing collection of wonderfully written novels x (currently reading ‘The One That I Want’ :)
- Marilyn Brant
I very much doubt that anything you’ve written is “lame”… ;)
I’d love to see you post or publish one of your stories sometime, though, so if Blake’s beat sheet can be of help to you, I hope you’ll give it a try. (If any questions come up, please let me know!!) And thank you for reading The One That I Want!
- Bob Conder
As a writer of screenplays and short stories, I have always wanted to write a novel or two. Your blog has motivated me to do it!
- Marilyn Brant
Excellent! I’m thrilled to hear that! Wishing you all the best as you get ready to dive in ;) .
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Marilyn, it’s encouraging that you found it so helpful. I have it, ready to read. I’m always searching for the Holy Grail of writing fiction—the one that will “show me the way” for my next novels. thanks for this.