One Word at a Time—One Beat at a Time
I have a confession to make: After writing 21 novels, contributing to three anthologies, and going on countless international and domestic book tours spanning six continents over the course of eight years, I seriously considered giving up writing.
Though I’d managed to achieve far more than I’d ever dreamed, I was exhausted, a little burned out, and desperately in need of a break. So the day I walked away from my computer and boarded a plane, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d return.
I ended up taking a year off to travel. Paris, Peru, Santa Fe, Norway, Hawaii, and Sedona were just a few of the places I visited. During that time I read a lot of books, ate a lot of good food, experienced a lot of amazing adventures, but what I didn’t do was write.
Not a single word.
Though I should’ve known that a writer never truly quits. Every new place I visited became a possible setting for a book—every stranger glimpsed on a train was a potential story in the making. And so, when the year was up, I found myself back at my desk, eager to begin writing again.
Since my last 14 novels dealt with paranormal themes, I was eager to shake things up and decided to return to the sort of contemporary stories I wrote at the start of my career. The book would be the first in a trilogy, and told in the perspectives of three teens who find themselves immersed in LA’s star-studded landscape, and a high-stakes competition where the actions they take in pursuit of the win make them all suspects in a mysterious crime.
I was excited to get started. I could see the scenes come alive in my head. But translating those images to words that elicit those same images is always the challenge. So, I did what I always did—I reached for my copies of Save the Cat!®, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat!® Strikes Back and reacquainted myself with Blake’s incredibly useful tools for defining genre and breaking the story into 15 manageable beats.
There was a time when I didn’t know about the beat sheet. I didn’t discover Blake’s method until I was about to begin work on my 8th novel. Early on, back when I was struggling to get published, it was another screenwriting book that taught me what I needed to know to secure my first book deal. So by the time I discovered Blake, I already had a system that worked. I wasn’t sure I needed to take on another.
But then I read Save the Cat!, and was instantly sold. I highlighted entire sections and tagged lots of pages, and when I saw him speak at an RWA event, I was officially a convert.
Maybe it was a coincidence, but it was also that eighth novel that went on to hit #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list, and then stay on the list for over 65 weeks. I was lucky enough to do a book signing alongside Blake at that time, and I don’t feel like I was at all exaggerating when I told him how the beat sheet had changed my life.
And yet, here’s another confession: Sometimes, when I get about halfway through filling out the beat sheet, I quit. The story is alive, I tell myself. It needs to be told now—and these 15 beats are dragging me down!
When I give in, I will inevitably find myself stuck in the exact story beat that I failed to address.
When I’m disciplined and refuse to heed my baser instincts, the writing flows so much easier.
In the end, either approach works, but it’s only because the beats get addressed one way or another.
I’m about to begin work on my 25th novel, and the one thing that never changes is that overwhelming rush of fear when I first glimpse all that empty white space on my screen, and wonder how I’ll ever fill up that page, much less the 300 plus that will follow. And yet, the answer is easy—one word at a time—one beat at a time.
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