In Which ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ – and Saves Mine!

A while back, I mentioned that I’d been avoiding my manuscript like the proverbial plague, and I was. Definitely was.

I have a love/hate relationship with my work, as most authors do, I think – we want to see it thrive and grow and succeed, and yet, sometimes, the damn things insist on doing the exact opposite. You say ‘Characters! Do this and this!’ and they say, ‘Eh. Go away.” You say, ‘Plot! Sit up and roll over and fetch!’ and the plot says, ‘Yeah? Make me, wuss.’ After a while, you get tired of carrying a rolled-up newspaper in one hand and treats in the other, and you give up and go away.

That’s where I was pretty much all spring. For years, I’ve bee thinking I’ve found The Thing That Will Make It All Work. Every time there’s an issue, I go out, I read books, I find The Magical Solution (which, of course, never turns out to be quite as magical as I hope it to be).

But this time, I might actually have done it.

save the catAt Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, I picked up a book called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Based on the popular screenwriting guide Save the Cat!, this book applies those techniques to novel writing, utilizing the ‘beat sheets’ that make movies so compelling to make novels just as compelling.

The subtitle of this book is a bit egotistical:  The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I can’t say that’s true – but this book saved my life and my novel and that IS true!

I always knew there was something wrong with the novel that had to do with the plot and structure. I had betas read it. They declared it to be fine. The characters were fine; the dialogue was great. But something was always off about the plot, and no matter how I tried to fix it, it never worked. My characters had problems! They wanted to solve them, and they tried hard to solve them! Why wasn’t that enough?

Well, with one paragraph, Brody made it all clear to me. I don’t know why – it’s just how she phrased it:

“Now, the question is, what does your hero think will fix those problems, or what does your hero think will better their life? Whatever the answer is . . . that is your hero’s goal. That is what they will be actively striving to achieve throughout the novel (or at least in the beginning). . . . And most important, what will really fix your hero’s life? What does your hero actually need? This is the crux of your story.”

Suddenly, in the space of two pages, I was scribbling in the margins. I never scribble in margins. But here I was, writing down sudden plot points and holes and how to fix them. And I did that through the entire book. 

For example:  my MC, Erin, states on page 10 that she is done seeing ghosts. They have screwed up her life for the last time. So her want, or what she thinks she wants, is to be normal and ghost-free. That has to drive the novel, in part, and I realized that it actually never does. She’s even given hints on how to do it, and never follows through! Boom! Instantly, I sat down and within an hour had two great scenes drafted in which she does just that. Plus, I highlighted that want through the rest of the novel. What she needs, of course, is to give in to her gift and learn to live with it. And by the end of the novel, she learns that lesson. (Great. Now I just gave away the ending!)

Does that mean the wants can’t change, or that your characters can’t have more wants? Of course not, and Brody provides several examples of novels in which the hero’s wants change during the book.

Chapter 2 of this great book is the Beat Sheet – where Brody walks us through the three acts that all stories should have. If you’re like me, that idea has never quite gelled, never quite made sense. Well, Brody fixes that! All three Acts are placed in the context of the 15-Beat Story Arc. Each Act has set ‘beats’ that should be included (as much as possible), in order to ground your novel, ensure the characters are doing their part, and make sure you have all the components of a successful, suspenseful novel. She discusses the purpose of each act, and then explains each Beat contained therein, along with its purpose.

The clouds parted. The skies opened. The sun shone. The angels sang a chorus. Seriously. It was THAT much of a revelation! I suddenly saw where the holes were. Where the plot and structure had gone awry. What scenes were missing. What scenes needed to be deleted. Where the tension needed to be punched up. Where the secondary storylines needed beefed up or changed. I was getting ideas AS I WAS READING. I finally understand the importance of the Midpoint! Once Brody characterized it as ‘the shit just got real! beat,’ I GOT IT. Raise the stakes. Make it impossible to back out. Fast-forward the deadline. Throw in a major plot twist. All of these belong to the Midpoint, and I finally get it!

In the rest of the book, Brody explores how the Fifteen Beats apply to various genres. She chooses a book in that genre and walks you through it, beat by beat, so you can see the underlying structure. She also provides you with a list of other novels in that genre you can read and study as well.

This is quite possibly the best $14.95 I’ve ever spent on a book. EVER. I have rewritten this novel so many times, but this is the first time I can truly say I feel at peace with the rewrites, that I truly see why I’m doing them. Most of all, this is the first time I feel that the rewrites are worth the effort. That I feel I may actually get somewhere with them, that this time, it’s the real deal. I have a bit of research left to do – again, structure holes! – but I feel closer than I’ve ever been.

And it’s all thanks to Save the Cat!

Writing a damn fine story? Read ‘Damn Fine Story,’ then!

damfinestoryIf you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I have a bit of an addiction to books about writing. I firmly believe that if you’re having an issue with your writing – whatever it is you write, however long you’ve been writing – it can be helpful to see what others have to say.

Often, if I’m stuck on a manuscript and don’t precisely know why – or even if I do know why, but can’t figure out how to fix it – I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and see what’s new in the writing aisle. I did this a couple of months ago, and came home with one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read – Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. 

If the name’s familiar, that’s because Chuck has written many novels. He’s also a regular columnist with Writer’s Digest. And in this book, he uses popular works to illustrate his points about how to write your story. Emphasis on story. 

I bought this book because – well, the cover, for one thing! Who doesn’t love a deer in a monocle? Seriously. Who? But I also bought it because of the paragraph I read when I flipped the book open to page 7:

“You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either. Now writing is beholden to very specific rules, and those these rules are very flexible, they’re also teachable. Storytelling is far more . . . wiggly.” 

I knew. The moment I read those lines, I knew I wanted to read this book. Chuck doesn’t pull punches. This is not a book about getting to know your characters or crafting the perfect descriptive sentence or creating rules for your paranormal universe (although those things are covered). No. This book is about how to tell a story. And the next thing that grabbed me, and turned me upside down and shook the loose change out of my pockets, was this gem from page 10:

“Storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo.” 

Yeah. Think about that one for a second. Chuck makes you think about it. Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what a story is, right? You have a character in stasis, until Something Happens and their status quo is shattered. The rest of the story is about the fallout and what the character does as a result. Does he come into possession of a magical, dangerous ring that must be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom? Does she learn she can see ghosts? Do your high school classmates wake up one morning to find the Russians have invaded? Status quo – interrupted. And your story starts there.

Before you start the book, I’ll warn you:  it’s helpful if you’ve seen Die Hard and Star Wars (like, the whole series) recently. Chuck uses them to illustrate the points he makes. You’ll understand why.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is Chuck’s take on the traditional three-story arc. He hates it. See, I always thought I was the weirdo, the wrong one, for never being able to make my stories adhere to that damn thing! Rising action, climax, denouement. Never worked for me. And if you’re like me, Chuck is here to assure you that it’s okay! We’re not the weirdos! (You can chant it if you want! I did!) His argument is this:  “No story conforms to a standard shape . . . if you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster – it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop-de-loop.”

See? Don’t we want to write stories like that?

Now, Chuck also has a lot to say about characters. Here’s another way to look at story:  your character has a problem; the story is the solution. Again, the status quo is interrupted. What your character does about that is the story. But more than that:  how does your character change during the story? Because they should, Chuck argues; otherwise, what’s the story about? In fact, he like to give a character three transition points:  who is this person in the beginning, the middle, and the end? He also believes that every scene, every line of dialogue, should drive home who this character is (using, of course, hero John McClane from Die Hard as his example).

There’s so much to this book – structuring scenes, how to give your characters agency in the novel, using subplots, themes and symbols – and all of it will make you consider your own work-in-progress in a new way.

There are lots of general books about writing out there. There are books that are genre-specific, those that tell you how to create characters, or structure plot, or create better descriptions, or add comedy to your writing. Damn Fine Story is not quite one of those. 🙂 Instead, Chuck looks at things through a different lens. A different, irreverent lens. Yes, he uses language. If that’s a problem for you, overlook it and read the book anyway.

You will be SO glad you did. – Chuck’s website and blog

Reading Books ‘On Writing’

How many of you read books on writing? I do. All the time. I know there’s a lot of writers out there who don’t, and honestly, I don’t get it. If you want to become better at something, you study it, right? So why is writing any different?

I hit a huge snag this weekend with the revisions to my novel. As I explained it to the cashier at Barnes & Noble yesterday, “‘Well, last night I realized that my plot . . . well . . . um . . . my plot sort of needs to exist.”  And it’s true! I have huge issues with the plot. So that’s why I made the 1 hour, 15 minute trip to my nearest favorite bookstore. To find a book specific to my genre that would give me a kick in the head and make me look at things a little differently, so I can hopefully get it sorted. (Starbucks had nothing to do with it. I swear.)

Which made me think about all the books about writing I’ve read over the years, and which are my favorites. (I own at least two dozen; I know I own 2 copies of at least 3 different books.) I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites today.

9781439156810_p0_v1_s260x4201.) On Writing, Stephen King — This goes without saying. If you don’t have a copy of this on your bookshelf, well-thumbed, with scribbled notes in the margins and highlights everywhere, then you SHOULD. I don’t care if you don’t read Stephen King. I don’t. But this man is a best-seller for a reason. Everything you need to know as a beginning author, you’ll find here. Everything you need to remember as an experienced author, you’ll find here. But I think the most important thing you will take away is this:  perseverance.

9781599631677_p0_v2_s260x4202.) The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide:  How To Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions, Becky Levine — LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. I read it cover to cover when I first got it. Not only does she share with you how to choose the right critique group for you, she teaches you how to give constructive feedback to your fellow writers, and provides (glaring and funny) examples of Really Bad Writing. Not only that, but she gives you pointers on how to critique for different genres. A must-have. Even if you don’t belong to a critique group, this will help you revise and edit your own works.

9780061965616_p0_v1_s260x4203.) Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt — This isn’t a book about writing per se, but it is a short memoir of Rosenblatt’s experiences with teaching an MFA course on creative writing at Stony Brook University. The exercises he leads his students through – and the insights they glean from each other – make this a must-read. If you teach anything at all, but especially writing or composition, then you will love this.

9780684857435_p0_v1_s260x4204.) The First Five Pages:  A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, Noah Lukeman — This was one of the first books on writing I ever bought, and it’s still one I turn to. I used it extensively when I taught creative writing last year. Although my copy is out-of-date in some things, like querying agents, most of the material is still SO valuable. For instance:  “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript . . .” Lukeman’s goal (and he’s been an editor himself) is to show you the pitfalls, and ensure that your manuscript can’t be dismissed.

9781599631349_p0_v1_s260x4205.) Writing the Paranormal Novel, Stephen Harper — I re-read this about once a year on average. I own two copies. If you write paranormal or urban fantasy, you need this book! Harper has an engaging and funny writing style, the work is up-to-date with recent examples, and he covers everything, from developing characters and setting to avoiding cliches, to making sure your magic systems really work.

9781402293528_p0_v2_s260x4206.) Writing Great Books for Young Adults, Regina Brooks — Brooks is a founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, and this book was THE textbook for the Writing Young Adult Fiction course I took at Oxford University last year. If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for you, yes? If you write young adult fiction, you need this book on your shelf. Brooks focuses on how to find the “voice” of a young adult protagonist, how to find characters to fit your story and vice versa, how to pitch to agents, and what you can and cannot do within the genre. This is the newest version, published in October 2014.

Do you have a favorite writing book (or two or three)? If so, share them! Feel free to post them in the comments.