Beats 2.0

shutterstock_154842116If Sterling & Stone had a word-of-the-day calendar (and if instead of giving you a new word each day, it gave you one each year — shitty calendar, I know), 2014’s word would be “iterative.”

About a zillion times lately, in private conversation and in interviews, the three of us have said the word “iterative” as we refer to our company’s progress.

The way we’re using the word, it simply means we want to get a bit better as time passes, always looking to improve what we have going on. We don’t need to be exactly where we want to be right here, right now. we just need to be a little better than we were a week ago, a bit better than we were a month ago, and a good deal better than we were last year at this time.

That’s an awesome (and rather unstoppable) way to see things, and not the way most people view progress. We live in an instant-gratification society, and people have been trained to believe that when you want something, you should be able to have it immediately. So when people set goals or aspire to be something (something different, something better), they’re often disappointed when they don’t get or become perfect immediately.

But you just have to keep improving, and eventually you’ll surpass what you’d been hoping for.

Sean and I were asked for Sterling & Stone’s big goals the other day, and it was hard to come up with them, in specific language, because we’re so focused on iteration. We just want to be better. Better today than we were yesterday. Thinking bigger than we were last month. Doing things we hadn’t conceived of even being possible toward the end of 2013. You saw it in the How to be Awesome post from a few weeks ago: we’re never really satisfied with staying where we are, even if it’s a good place.

We believe in fixing even the things that aren’t broken … because hey, they could be better.

Our way of planning stories is like that, too.

Beats 1.0

In Write. Publish. Repeat, I described the “story beats” we use to plan our stories — what Sean plans as architecture before giving me to articulate as a story — as being like Cliff’s Notes written in advance by a guy who wasn’t paying much attention.

The joke there — the “guy who wasn’t paying much attention” part — refers to the fluid and non-confining nature of beats. I never stay within the beats; I use them as guideposts and both discover many gems between the lines while writing and wander far away from them once I get rolling. (We’ll return to this part it in a minute.)

But the rest — the “Cliff’s Notes written in advance” part — meant that they were little more than chapter-by-chapter sketches that summarized the book … but summarized it before the novel, serial or series was written. At the time, that was accurate.

The beats Sean gave me for all of the Unicorn Western books were around 12 paragraphs of maybe 200 words each, roughly describing what might happen (but only roughly) within a scene. Because I used to write entire drafts before Sean would see word #1 of those drafts, I never checked back in and hence strayed far from the beats toward the end without giving him a chance to weigh in.

They gave me a nudge and nothing more. He got me rolling with a vague sketch; I wrote; we re-assessed when I was done.

And that worked fine for a while. We wrote all nine of the Unicorn Western books like that; we wrote the Cursed books like that; we wrote Namaste that way. Same for the LOL series, but for those the beats were even more skeletal: “The plan is conceived” was all I was given for a scene in Everyone Gets Divorced, for instance.

But by the time we reached Robot Proletariat, Sean had already begun giving me sparse character sheets to go with the outlines. He’d take a paragraph to tell me about each of Mars, Cromwell, Miri, and the snooty human members of the Lexington household. Because it wasn’t enough to know what might happen. I needed to know more if we expected our stories to keep getting better.

I loved what I saw, and that gave Sean permission to go further.

Beats, Revisited

Really, the writing was on the wall from the dawn of our second project together, and both of us should have seen it coming.

The first season of The Beam was given to me with a 10,000-word “world document” that made clear Sean’s love of and facility at delving deep.

But because it was new — and wasn’t in-line with what we’d done on prior or later projects (for a while, at least) — I didn’t know what to do with it at first. I thought I was supposed to memorize it. Include every bit of information in it.

Was I really supposed to watch all of these TED talks about nanotechnology and wearable computers?

Of course I wasn’t. That was all background. Sean had given me significant world events in the time between 2013, when we wrote the story, and 2097, when the first season of The Beam takes place.

I didn’t need to write about that timeline, or write about the history of the Directorate and Enterprise parties, the series of iterations (there’s that word again) of The Beam network as it grew out of the Internet, or anything else in the world documents.

I just had to know it. I just had to have it in mind, so I’d understand the world in which the story took place. Then I’d write the story from what we were calling “beats” at the time, but which were really just a small part of what we call “beats” today — the chapter-by-chapter signposts I’d used with Unicorn Western.

I read the “world document,” and then I referred to the outline as I began chapter one of episode one.

No wonder The Beam was our richest world at the time. It was the first story in which we used evolved beats, instead of settling for the old way we’d been doing them. We just didn’t seed that at the time.

Beats 2.0

Axis of Aaron CoverSean told me he was going to “try something” with the beats for the standalone novel we’d slated for the middle of 2014. He was going to “make the beats bigger.” I didn’t really know what he meant, but whatever. I was in the middle of writing blog posts at the time.

When he finally delivered the beats for Axis of Aaron, I about lost my mind. It’s hard to convey this in a way people will truly get, but the simple way to say it is that the beats broke my heart. I mean that in the best of ways, mind you. As I read through them and looked at the photos Sean had included, I felt like I was walking through the small island of Aaron, strolling past the dock-bound cottages, and smelling the friers at the thriving carinval called Aaron’s Party.

I felt like I knew Ebon Shale, his late wife Holly (who Ebon discovered had been unfaithful after her death, at her lover’s side, in a car accident). But I felt like I knew Holly too, and understood her for who she was and who she couldn’t help but be.

I knew Aimee Frey, the girl Ebon spent three summers with on Aaron during his coming-of-age years and who he reunites with after Holly’s death, to help her fix up her father’s cottage.

I read through the story and felt Ebon’s vertigo as Aaron’s reality began to distort around him. As Aimee’s father’s house seemed at once old, then new again. As the carnival appeared as abandoned and ghostly. As Ebon discovers a strange woman in red, then feels driven to pursue her for a reason he doesn’t understand through a maze of streets, eventually becoming lost as right becomes left, as east becomes west, as the horizon begins to tip on end.

We’d given ourselves a month to write Axis, and we had a hard stop on June 1: the day Fiction Unboxed would begin. At the end of April, I told Sean I couldn’t write Axis now, not before Unboxed. Because if Unboxed loomed and the story had sprawled, I’d have to rush it. And I wasn’t willing to rush it. Because even after only seeing the beats, I already loved the story too much.

Harder Better Stronger Faster

The new “beats structure” showed up just in time for Fiction Unboxed, and for The Dream Engine, which we wrote during it.

Sean was too inspired by my reaction to do anything less that forge stronger iteratively ahead. Despite the crunch of our 30-day novel, he crafted another of those amazing, incredibly rich beats packages.

Thank God. Because I can’t imagine how I would have written The Dream Engine without it.

Thanks to Beats 2.0 for The Dream Engine, I didn’t have to fumble through discovering what Eila, Daw, Levi, Cora, and everyone else looked like, acted like, or what backstories drove them. Sean had already “cast” our characters like a filmmaker, choosing actors he’d place in the roles (without having to contend with agents, availability, or budgets).

He’d written elaborate backstories and motivational dossiers for all of them — and, unlike with those first beats back in the Beam Season 1 days, I now understood that I didn’t need to shoehorn all that information into the book itself. In the most technical sense, most of what was in the beats would now be “wasted,” because we’d never know the reason Atwell Doyle had such an analytical bent to his personality.

But of course, it wasn’t wasted at all. Because how could the book’s final twists have made sense if I, writing the first draft, hadn’t been crystal clear on who Atwell was, why he was that way, and how he’d react to a given situation?

Sean’s character work made those characters feel real from the first word I wrote after reading them. It made me able to write so much faster, because I didn’t double-clutch or hesitate. I knew who they were. BOOM. The scenes fell together like nothing.

I didn’t have to imagine what Waldron’s Gate looked like, what the underworld of Pavilion was like, what the huge Convenience machine was or how it seemed to work. The hidden staircase inside made sense. Eila’s home seemed familiar and told me so much about her and her family. Why? Because my writing partner had done all of that for me. He’d “location scouted,” also like a filmmaker.

I didn’t have to create this world piecemeal, slowing down and chasing dead ends. I already knew the world. All I had to do was move in and start recording what I saw happen in my head.

After The Dream Engine — my favorite of our books when I finished it, I returned to Axis of Aaron like reuniting with family. And then Axis supplanted its predecessor, becoming my new favorite of our works.

And as I was finishing Axis, Sean set to work on the first book that he and I will write for the Lexi Maxxwell line without Lexi’s in-progress collaboration (although she’ll get final cut at the end) — a Platt & Truant-style romance (with a bit of Maxxwell spiciness added at the end, I’m sure) called Le Fleur de Blanc.

I felt lost in the world of Le Fleur — more even than in the imaginary steampunk world of The Dream Engine or the mindbending reality of Axis of Aaron. It was our modern, everyday world, yes. But it took place in Sean’s old back yard, in Southern California. The lead character owns a flower shop, like Sean’s family used to, and like three members of his family still do, in three separate floral businesses.

Right. He was at home in all of that, but not me, and I’m the first-draft writer. I know science and philosophy and the usual toolset most of us have. But California rich-people culture? Hell. And flowers? Double hell. 

But the beats, even for me, are making it work.

Thanks to the improvement of our process, we continue to tell deeper stories. Better stories. We continue to know our characters better than we ever have. We know our worlds with more clarity. We can see them, smell them, hear them, touch them. Now the beats contain assignments: things to go see, videos to watch, musical scores to consider for inspiration. Movies whose look reflect looks Sean has in mind for given scenes or works.

Now, this is important: I’m free to deviate from the beats whenever I want, and I still do … all over the place. But now I deviate in plot because the world demands it. I write scenes differently because I know the character would never do that. And yes, characters grow and new worlds develop. Even in our Beats 2.0, the story is still there only in the very, very roughest of sketches. The best stuff still comes out during the draft, as if from magic.

But thanks to having such a firm place to start, we’re getting better. We’re getting faster. And we’re getting better faster.

About Johnny B. Truant

Johnny started out as the writing everyman, barely managing a novel a decade. From there, he has become a storytelling superstar, pounding out a novel a month. He's the co-founder of Realm & Sands, as well as the host of the Self Publishing Podcast.


  1. I love Realm & Sands beats, and it makes so much sense in every way to create them, even if it’s just for yourself. Because just by casting, location scouting and telling the story “fast” in the beats, you already know so much about the book you’re about to write, that the first draft will *have* to be better than it otherwise would be.

    I would consider Beats 2.0 as Draft 0.5.

    And I enjoyed the Beats for Scrivener series on Udemy very much.
    Sean did a great job!

  2. I loved the Beats for Scrivener series and I’m going to try some beats for the rewrite of my WIP. Thanks for clearing the of path for the rest of us, and I look forward to seeing what beats 3.0 look like…

  3. Dave Floyd says:

    I think you missed a fine opportunity to wind up Dave by not pricing the Unboxed Package at $97. 🙂

    • Johnny B. Truant says:

      LOL, we had to SPECIFICALLY step around that. It’s funny; $97 has become a price we CANNOT charge now. 🙂

  4. I’ve just started the Udemy and am “super excited” as Sean would say (what is that excited with a cape and x-ray vision?). Thanks, guys.

Speak Your Mind