I never trained as a writer, in the sense of taking classes or going to workshops. This explains a lot about my commas.
I don’t know if people who actually train formally as writers learn about beats. They must learn a lot about structure, so I imagine they do; possibly they call them something else. The reason I learned about beats has more to do with my theatre training as a director and dramaturg. Intro to Directing was a lot about diagramming beats, though I’m not sure how much attention I paid at the time because I was busy designing sets in my head. Something must have stuck, anyway, because beats, despite sounding kind of silly, are pretty awesome.
A beat, in a play, is a moment of specific emotion or a segment of a scene concerning a specific theme; you pull apart a script based on its beats, and that’s a very basic way of charting the emotional flow of the play. It’s not a generic technique; a lot of directors don’t like to break down an emotional function with something so coldly analytical, and many others are so experienced they see the flow naturally. But beats are a good crutch for a beginning director, and especially in writing they’ve served me well.
I’m still pulling apart The Dead Isle and reassembling it, and for the most part it’s been instinctive — I’m more experienced than I was two years ago, so it’s like grading an essay by a very smart student. The problem is that a lot of the Australian content of the book is intertwined with itself; I’m pretty proud of how related everything is, because complexity like that takes skill and work, but it can also be a detriment when you need to lose something. The Australian portion of Dead Isle is literally half the book, and probably about twice as long as it needs to be. There are a lot of dead threads that start something but end up going nowhere, and in this case removing one of those threads — a specific character — means erasing an entire expository scene which both explains the political situation and motivates emotional reactions in the characters, which in turn drives a change of setting. So ditching him is kind of a big deal, and the ramifications of removing him involves drastically restructuring about thirty pages.
It’s a little overwhelming, trying to untangle what I tangled up two years ago, and finally I broke down and made a list of a) information to be conveyed and b) later actions that require present motivation. Even that only helped so much, and the end result is that I couldn’t just whip through the next to chapters. I had to take them apart into beats — a fight beat, an expository beat, a beat that needs to be removed for totally different reasons. In all, it broke down to about fifteen beats in thirty pages, which is pretty average, and now I get to figure out how to fit them back together, one at a time.
I really enjoy talking about this stuff, the nitty-gritty of how I actually go about writing, because it’s what I longed for as a young writer and rarely got. I didn’t know how professional writers achieved what they did. There’s plenty of writing out there about how to metaphorically wrestle with literature, but not a whole lot of nuts and bolts talk about how to rework a scene or invent a character or make a setting seem real. I don’t think it’s deliberate — I just think writers evolve these things for themselves so naturally that they don’t consciously look at how they build (or rebuild) a story. Half the time I don’t either, until I look at what I’m writing and go “HUH. BLOG POST!”