Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar
Sometimes, when you’ve written the first draft of a novel, you can tell something is wrong, but you’re just too close to your story to suss it out.
Here’s a good trick. I call it a beat map. (That’s a journalism term I’ve stolen and re-defined.)
Take your manuscript, open a new Word document, and create five columns: Page, Chapter, Time, Day/Date, Scene.
Then, slowly go through your manuscript and fill out the spaces below. Chapter 1 probably starts on Page 1. Time is obvious, as is Day/Date. Under Scene, type in “Introduce Penny…” or whatever your first scene does.
Keep the stuff written under Scene to two essential elements: that which moves forward your plot, or defines your characters.
If you get to a scene that does neither … ah ha. You just found part of the manuscript’s problem. Consider nixing it.
If you find that the lengths of your chapters varies madly (two pages here, 38 pages there…), bingo. That’s a problem.
If you find that the scenes in the middle don’t do much but move the characters from venue to venue like a big ol’ chessboard: ta da! The infamous Muddle in the Middle.
(I didn’t note this earlier, but you really need to know where your Act I ends and Act II ends. For my beat maps, I add a long horizontal line of hyphens right there.
As you study your beat map, you’ll begin to find the pacing problems inherent in your story. You’ll find the fat and the clutter.
I also find where I’ve got bad clock: I have a 3 p.m. scene on page 90 and suddenly it’s 2:30 p.m. on page 98? Things like that.
A beat map isn’t fun or sexy, but it can be a great diagnostic tool for the ill-tempered first draft.