Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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February shmebruary

This month started out with a fizzle, but is ending on a mostly better note, or series of notes:

  • My weight is down. Yay.
  • I am exercising again. Also yay.
  • I think I’m sleeping better in general.
  • My writing is…well, more on that below.
  • Work is [redacted]

On the poop side of things, my writing has gained no traction at all, whether it be fiction or this blog. I fell way behind on my usual one-post-per-day average, just as I did last month, and despite a few posts today, I will still come up short, unless I post ten haikus or something. I’m pretty sure I won’t do that.

I have also fallen behind on my modest reading goal this year. To meet it, I need to read a book every two weeks. To date I have read three this year, so I’m one behind. This is due to a combination of wanting to veg out during my commute and often not getting a seat because the [redacted for adult language] SkyTrain car will be standing room only at 6:30 in the [redacted] morning. It’s insane. I get on at the fourth stop on the Expo line. After my stop, Sapperton, there are 16 more. I’m pretty sure it’s SRO by the second station, Lougheed. It’s silly. Does everyone work in downtown Vancouver? Yes. Yes, they do.

For the writing, I’m not sure what to say. I think about it, sometimes I start, but nothing much happens. The latest book on writing (I’ve read oodles of them now) has the author assert there is no such thing as writer’s block and technically that’s true. Unless you are in a coma or otherwise physically incapable, you can always write if you have some time. So it’s not that I can’t write, I just don’t. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve read some of my stuff recently and while I’m not trying to toot my horn (heh heh), I quite like some of it and think I should write more.

And maybe I will. Soon. I do actually have some additional thoughts on this and will spill them out of my head in another post.

(I’m not talking about work on a public blog. You’ll need the key to my heart diary to find out more about that.)

Laptop Quest 2020: Maybe a better keyboard

I have two laptops currently:

  • A sixth generation (2018) ThinkPad Carbon X1
  • A 2016 MacBook Pro without touch bar

I got the ThinkPad because I a) hated the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard and b) worried that it would fail out of warranty, leading to a $600-700 repair bill, given Apple’s insane (or insanely clever?) design that necessitates not just replacing the faulty keyboard, but basically half of the entire laptop.

Apple then started its keyboard repair program, which covers every model with a butterfly keyboard (this is every MacBook released since 2015, not counting the MacBook Air prior to its 2018 redesign). For four years after purchase, Apple will repair or replace a defective keyboard for no charge.

I bought the MacBook Pro in December 2016, so I am good for 10 more months, after which the cost of repair will again rise to about $700. Or maybe even more, because Apple has never been shy about raising prices.

This whole thing is further complicated by a couple of things related to my writing:

  • I went back to Ulysses, which is Mac-only
  • I still really hate the butterfly keyboard. I find it uncomfortable on my finger tips, and that’s even when I’m not applying my usual “fists of gorilla” approach to typing

I’m wed to macOS, but have begun looking for other writing app alternatives again, because the tool is really secondary to the writing itself.

But wait! In October 2019 Apple updated the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model and brought back the more traditional scissor switch keyboard. Instead of having half a millimeter of travle, it now has one entire millimeter of travel! I tried it out in an Apple store and it’s better, but it’s still not great.

The ThinkPad keyboard feels luxuriously deep and satisfying in comparison (my partner is using the ThinkPad now, as his $200 HP laptop is not running anymore so much as hobbling along intermittently).

So my current options are:

  • Hope that Apple comes out with an equivalent to my current MacBook Pro this year with a “good” keyboard and a price that is not any more outrageous that what it is currently. Rumors suggest the possibility of this is pretty good, but Apple is notoriously unreliable for updates on anything other than the iPhone and Apple Watch. And they have treated the Mac line pretty shoddily post-Jobs.
  • Get a Windows laptop and find other software to use. I’ve been trying out a bunch of new writing apps, as well as noodling around in some old standbys, like the perpetually-in-beta version 3 of Scrivener for PC. For the actual device, the Dell XPS 13 and ThinkPad (7th gen) both seem like strong candidates. The Surface Laptop 3 can be had for a decent price, too, and I’m not concerned about its relative lack of IO.

It’s early, so I’m not really leaning in one direction or the other yet. On the one hand, Ulysses is a really nice app. On the other, I resent having to pay a subscription for it (the updates have clearly not been enough to warrant the cost, which I’ll go into in a separate post). I’m also not a huge fan of macOS. It’s fine and for writing it does everything I need, but I am both extremely comfortable with Windows 10 and really like some of the native features of Windows (it may come as no surprise that windows management is really good, where in macOS it is just short of a disaster).

Anyway, I’m typing this on the MacBook Pro now and my finger tips are starting to hurt, so unless I switch to voice dictation, I am going to end this post here. More to come!

Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.

Recommended.

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National Novel Writing Month 2019: I could still win

Yes, I could still win NaNoWriMo this year, with just four days left. Let me use this handy computer calculator to see what my daily word count would need to be to pull off the feat:

12,500 words per day.

This is due to having written no words at all this month.

On the one hand, there is a perverse sort of temptation in trying the impossible to see how far I’d get (my guess is maybe 10,000+ words, though the last day is a Saturday, which would lend itself to binging, were I so inclined). On the other hand, the only thing of value I’d get would be to simply exercise the ol’ writing muscles.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Words are words, after all. Not to be confused with “Deeds, not words,” the credo adopted by Ace Hunter and his elite group of freedom fighters as featured in the all-time classic Megaforce, of course.

But on the third imaginary hand, if I was going to do something like that, it would probably be a better use of time to revisit one of my existing stories, or work on something new that wouldn’t be subjected to NaNoWriMo’s hellbent-for-metal approach of write now, edit later (maybe never, after looking over what the NaNo method produced).

Realistically, I’m probably not going to writer much over the next four days, but life is full of surprises and one of those surprises could be me writing stuff over the next four days. Who doesn’t love a surprise, except for maybe someone with a heart condition standing next to a giant fireworks display, not knowing it was about to suddenly explode?

A haiku to gum gum people

Just what are they, anyway? What is their mysterious, unspoken agenda? Who knows? Well, in theory, I do, but this is all you get for now.

Tiny, pink and odd
Elastic, ever-giggling
Plans evil or not?

NaNoWriMo 2019, Negative Day 2

Here it is, the second day of NaNoWriMo and I haven’t written a thing.

It feels great. So much time to do other stuff. I went to Costco today and bought a 20 liter jar of mayonnaise.

I am thinking I should keep up on the drawing now, because it’s fun and relaxing. But what to do? Possibilities:

  • Finish that book on learning how to sketch
  • Go back to one of the earlier Inktobers and do all of its prompts, either one per day or following whatever whimsical order I decide
  • Go back to my 2019 prompts and fix/rework the ones I’m not happy with or just try coloring all of them like Ted Turner
  • Start a gum gum person comic
  • Something else
  • Or maybe write something, just not something for NaNoWriMo

A lot of possibilities. I will choose by…tomorrow.

‘Twas the night before NaNoWriMo…

And all through the condo I was breathing a sigh of relief over not taking part this year.

Honestly, I’m looking forward to having a bunch of free time for other stuff in November. There may be a cure for my writing ills, but the last few years suggest to me that the cure is not National Novel Writing Month.

It feels a bit weird sitting out for the first time in ten years (!), but it also feels right. And nice.

Now to maybe write something without the pressure of 1,667 words per day…

Book review: The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar's Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone looking for nuts and bolts advice on writing should be warned that this is a collection of some of Block’s fiction columns from Writer’s Digest, and as such they sometimes provide instruction or advice, but sometimes Block just takes you along on his musings about the writing life.

It’s probably also relevant to add that the columns in question date from 1981 to 1987. He mentions typewriters a lot.

And that is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. Some of the writing advice is obviously dated–he has a wonderfully detailed column about self-publishing his own book that isn’t particularly relevant to how self-publishing works in the 2010s, but Block has such an affable style that the column still entertains.

The columns also serve to paint a portrait of the author as he draws extensively on his own experience writing and publishing–he had been in the business about 25 years at the time these columns were new–and in a way, this makes the pieces serve as a kind of memoir. Block recounts his early days writing soft porn novels, confesses to questionable behavior in his youth, details his fights with editors, agents and others, and regularly reminds the reader that what works for him may not work for them and to adjust as needed.

If you want a no-nonsense book about writing full of advice on plot, pacing, story structure, characters–you will find that here, to a degree. But more than that, you will get a good glimpse into the life and habits of a particular writer, and a snapshot look back at what the writing life was like in the 1980s.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first book on writing advice, but I would recommend it as one of the books to check out.

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The Year of Not Reading or Writing

Based on the results from 2018, I set an ambitious goal for this year’s Goodreads reading challenge—52 books or one per week.

At this point, the third week of August, I would need to have read 33 books to be on track. I have read 19. I’m actually lagging behind last year’s pace, when I managed to read 40 (with a goal of 32). To hit 40 I’d need to read 21 books in about 17 weeks.

That ain’t gonna happen unless I cheat and read a bunch of 50,000 word NaNoWriMo novels.

Why am I reading so much less this year?

Before answering that, I’ll note that my writing has stalled out, too. I’ve been keeping up on the blog, but the fiction writing has sputtered like a campfire in a rain shower. In the last few months, even the blog writing has suffered.

So here it is, the latter half of August and I’m not reading much and I’m not writing much.

Why?

The answer is: It’s not any specific thing, it’s a series of things. Mostly it’s me.

As ridership continues to increase, it is increasingly rare that I get a seat at the start of my morning commute (which begins with a 30+ minute train ride), so I don’t start reading until I get a seat, as I am not comfortable reading while standing up. I could read while standing, so this is kind of on me. But it still means I don’t read as much.

But there are days where I could read and don’t, I just put on my headphones and try to blot out the sound (and world).

I sometimes read at home, but it’s rare.

For the writing, I enjoy the irony of The Journal, my unfinished novel, in which the protagonist struggles with writing, knowing all the ways to get going, knows that you don’t wait for the muse to arrive, that you make time to write, that you sacrifice and force yourself to do it.

And then still struggles. As I do. Why? Ennui? Laziness? I’m not really sure, anymore.

Also, I’ve been playing a lot of City of Heroes again and until the shine of that wears off, it will continue to occupy a chunk of my free time (I had a seven year gap where I didn’t play after the game was shut down).

There are other things I intend to do—draw, look into meditation, stretching and more—and I dabble, but ultimately don’t follow through.

Maybe I just suck at time management.

I’ve looked at time management apps and have yet to find one I really like and click with. Maybe I’ll look again. I’ll just pencil the search into my current non-existent time management/to-do app, ho ho.

Anyway, I’m writing this on my lunch break and running out of time, so I need to wrap up in some clever way or come back to this later. Or both.

Or neither.

More later tonight. For real. (Probably.)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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Best photo of a MacBook Pro accompanying an article on Windows 10 writing apps

Right here:

The best part is the editor’s note at the bottom of the list:

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2013 and has been since updated for freshness, and accuracy.

My own editor’s note: Windows 10 did not exist in 2013. Fresh and accurate indeed.