If you’ve ever written a screenplay, novel, or picture book with a narrative arc, chances are, you’ve run across Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet from his book, SAVE THE CAT. It’s my go-to book for plotting.
A couple of weeks ago, I hit a moment of real despair on a picture book manuscript I’d been working on for at least two years. Some critique group feedback had me feeling like a total hack. (Note: This was not my critique partners’ fault. They are lovely. This was my own frustration with myself and my inability to get what was in my head on the page.) In that moment, I questioned whether I was a “real writer.” I pounded my fists and wondered why it never gets easier. In short, I felt like giving up. It felt a lot like the “all is lost/dark night of the soul” moment of every hero’s journey in a book or movie.
And then it hit me, I’ve been here before. Many times. In fact, I always have a dark night of the soul with every manuscript. And it’s normally before I get some kind of big breakthrough. Sure enough, a couple of days later, I opened a blank page, and wrote something very different from what I had, much shorter and more visually driven. And now it feels “right.”
So what’s the takeaway? Writing a book is a series of ups and downs, trials and failures, moments of triumph and despair, just like those we put our characters through. If we can recognize where we are on the journey, we can find the courage to keep going until we hit “the end.”
Let’s look at some of the key writer’s journey beats using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet as our guide.
- Opening Image – Fade in, an ordinary day, a writer (me) going about her everyday business (probably chauffeuring children, walking the dog, etc.)
- Catalyst – I overhear something, read something, watch something on TV, and lightning strikes. A story spark!
- Debate – Is this MY story to tell? How strongly do I feel about this story idea? Do I think it’s marketable? Can I get my hands on the research materials I need to write it?
- Break Into 2/ B Story – I commit to the journey. One of the first steps is to find some mentor texts. For those who know Save the Cat, the B story (or “love story”) is where mentors are found.
- Fun and Games – What’s the most fun part of writing nonfiction? Research, of course! Lots of reading, watching documentaries, interviews. Plus early drafting, those moments of writing before expectations set in, can be fun too.
- Midpoint – This is where it gets real, and the stakes are raised. Normally, this means I show the manuscript to critique partners and get feedback. Or discuss it with my agent. Now there are expectations. It feels like the manuscript has to be something. And then I have to revise over and over again based on the feedback I’m getting. This is where the journey starts to get difficult.
- Bad Guys Close In – Self doubt is the real “bad guy” here, as expectations grow for the manuscript. When what I want to say isn’t coming across on the page, self doubt rears its ugly head until…
- All Is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul – This is the lowest moment of any book journey, aka the pit of despair. Something sends me over the edge, and I feel like I’ve totally forgotten how to do this. I’ll never sell a book again. My career as an author is over. (Blake Snyder talks about the “whiff of death” during this beat. I’ll tell you what’s dying here — my career.)
- Break Into Three – Normally, after I’ve given up all expectations and attachments to the manuscript, I get some kind of breakthrough. This normally requires opening a clean sheet of paper and being willing to throw out everything I’ve written to date.
- Final Image – The now-ecstatic writer (ME!) sends the manuscript to her agent, feeling like she’s finally told the story she wanted to tell. And there’s a chance this one could sell! The writer toasts her success with coffee. Fade to black.
Does your writing journey have these kinds of ups and downs? How do you find the courage and confidence to push through at those “all is lost” moments and make it to “the end?”