Craft

Book Review – Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder

Screenwriter Blake Snyder opted to take his writing skills to the next level. After successfully crafting and selling 13 screen plays to various Hollywood producers, including Steven Spielberg, he decided to take on the most challenging writing assignment imaginable. Mr. Snyder opted to pen a “how-to” manual for aspiring screenwriters. Those of us fortunate enough to have read Save the Cat! are glad he did. It provided outsiders like me with some key insights as to what A-list entertainment industry producers look for in scripts.

The author came up with a host of neologisms for common screenwriting concepts. By his reckoning the most controversial inspired the book’s title. The expression “save the cat” referred to: “…the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” (Page xv) However, “save the cat” applies to “bad” characters, too. The author went on to explain:

The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (Page 121)

I liked the way the author incorporated the unlikely pair of Samuel L. Jackson’s and John Travolta’s characters from Pulp Fiction to illustrate this concept’s universality. Quentin Tarantino found clever ways to get the audience to “like”, or at least, root for their characters in spite of their working as hit men. One such method entailed making their “boss” a worse bad guy than they were. (Page 122)

Of all the tips Mr. Snyder revealed in the book, writing for archetypes impressed me the most. He pointed out that it’s a bad idea to create characters with particular actors in mind. Instead, he suggested thinking about it this way:

…You find throughout cinema history that many of the big stars play one part really well. Think about Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. Now think about Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. It’s not because these are not good actors who can’t do more than one type of role, only that what makes movies work to a large degree is our need to be shown certain archetypes onscreen.

And the actors who play these archetypes now are just taking the place of actors who played the same archetypes years ago.

Isn’t Russell Crowe Errol Flynn? (Even geographically?)

Isn’t Jim Carrey Jerry Lewis?

Isn’t Tom Hanks Jimmy Stewart?

Isn’t Sandra Bullock Rosalind Russell? (Page 58)

Mr. Snyder included a variety of trenchant thoughts on characterization that would apply to any type of writing. I took away the key concept of how the hero always knows: (s)he never asks. (Page 146) The author added the best way to reveal a character’s essence is through actions, not what (s)he says. (Page 148) I’m thankful to the author for raising the point that often times the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are two sides of the same character. (Page 149).

I always encounter jargon when I read books about craft. Since the author targeted this book to those interested in writing for Hollywood, he included a good deal specific to that market. Fortunately for those of us outside of Tinseltown he added a glossary at the end. This helped me follow unfamiliar concepts such as loglines, promise of the premise and whiff of death. He also defined story ARC which I, embarrassingly, should have already known.

Save the Cat! works as a great primer on screenwriting. It also includes helpful tips that writers of any type of fiction could utilize. I’d suggest those interested make the time to read it now. Don’t wait for the movie.

Book Review – No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

A lot of people would say you’re batty if you think you can write a novel in one month. It turns out the person who started the whole National Novel Writing Month craze was, certifiably, batty. In fact, his name’s Chris Baty. After founding NaNoWriMo (as we writers like to call it) in 1999 and participating in it multiple times, he went on to write a book about the experience. No Plot? No Problem! detailed the author’s “lessons learned” and “best practices” he discovered during his month long journeys.

For those unfamiliar with the concept Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth) takes place every November. Writers from all over the world challenge themselves to craft the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. It interested me to discover that Baty and his circle conducted the first one in July. They switched to November to take advantage of the three day weekend for those of us in the USA. Also, the bad weather made the year’s penultimate month more conducive to writing.

The author presented many useful tips for accepting the month long challenge. I’ve found that many of them apply to “normal” writing occasions, too. The most valuable tool for a writer is a deadline. (Page 32) Busyness is an asset that helps writers stay focused on their work. (Page 21) That’s a good point. I’ve discovered in my own life that the more I have to do, the more I tend to get done. The same concept applies towards writing goals.

I liked how Mr. Baty  emphasized that “no one ever writes a brilliant first draft…Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go around.” (Page 36) He called a first draft “exuberant imperfection”. He defined the concept in an unusual way: “the quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horrible and crappy.” (Page 37) Why? He explained, “Inspiration and insight, I’ve learned, flow more freely from failures than they do from successes.” (Page 174)

In addition to solid writing advice, the author provided non-craft tips for completing NaNoWriMo. He mentioned the need to get friends and family on-board for one’s November challenge. This helps minimize unneeded distractions. One father had an unique take on how to parent while writing 1,667 words a day. He called November, “National-Going-to-Bed-Early Month.” (Page 73)

The author intended the book to guide writers through the emotional caprices of NaNoRiMo. I thought the inclusion of quotations from people who’ve successfully finished the month long challenge a great idea. It showed that the ideas expressed in the book weren’t exclusively the author’s. He provided comments from people who’ve completed the 50,000 word challenge once, to those who’ve done so up to 12 times. It surprised me that so many people have completed NaNoWriMo during multiple years.

As if all that isn’t enough an incentive to motivate writers, Mr. Baty provided commentary from several authors who’ve gone on to publish novels they wrote during NaNoRiMo. Gayle Brandeis and Rachael Herron each published three. Marissa Meyer published four. As if that didn’t get the attention of his readers, Elizabeth Haynes published five.

I mentioned that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. I’m not sure how many revisions went into No Plot? No Problem!, but I did find a few mistakes in it.  Throughout the book, the author included gray boxes separate from the narrative. They included additional material regarding the topics discussed in the text. The one entitled “How Long Does a Rewrite Usually Take?” appeared twice in the version I read. I found it on pages 180 and 175. The most obvious error occurred in the phrase “Jimi Hendrix writhing over his flaming Telecaster.” (Page 146) A Fender Stratocaster served as Jimi’s guitar of choice.

Statistically only 17% of people who begin NaNoWriMo finish. (Page 36) With this excellent reference source available, it will be interesting to discover if that number increases. That’s not really the point, though. The author emphasized that writing for its own sake has surprising awards. “The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously.” (Page 23) I’d suggest all aspiring novelists give that some thought as November approaches.

 

Book Review – Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Some of my writing lacked passion and excitement. At times I thought of it as the phone book with verbs. I’ve spent months struggling to figure out why. Thanks to Jill Elizabeth Nelson’s Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, I found my answer. I needed what she refers to as a “Deep Point of View.” Ms. Nelson described Deep Point of View as follows: “The narrative should read like the thoughts going through the character’s mind but without the need to italicize as in direct thought quotations.” (Page 17)

Someone in my critique group encouraged me to read this book. After feasting on an extra-large helping of humble pie, I decided to take the not-so-subtle hint. At first I didn’t think I’d get much out of the book due to its brevity; it comes in at only 59 pages. Just like a short poem in which every word impacts the finished product, each page presented valuable information for making one’s writing much more engaging for readers. I’ve read numerous books on craft, but never encountered a guide this concise, efficient and practical. I applaud Ms. Nelson for the accomplishment.

I can’t praise this book enough. In addition to the guidance on enhancing POV, the author provided much sound advice regarding the mantra “show don’t tell.” I thought I mastered this in my writing. Not so. In addition to the myriad “tell” words all us writers use more often than we should such as thought, felt, saw, etc., the author explained that we must also eliminate “prepositional tells”. Some examples of these include expressions such as “in agony” and “with smug satisfaction”. (Page 43)

Ms. Nelson included many examples to illustrate her points. I’ll refer back to them for years to come. The ends of the chapters contained worksheets. The author challenged readers to apply what they’ve learned and take a passage written in “Shallow” POV and change it to “Deep” POV. I struggled through several to discover this wasn’t easy to do. Following the worksheets, the author presented her suggestions on how to fix.

I’m thankful my colleague recommended Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View to me. I’m also greatful for the book’s short length. In order to apply its lessons to my own work, I’m going to need as much time as possible for editing.

Book Review – On Writing by Stephen King

There’s nothing scarier than when somebody who’s successful at something writes a book to explain why. I felt a bit of a chill as I opened this offering from “The Master of Horror”, Stephen King. As I read on my fear subsided. Mr. King presented an excellent work that served as part memoir and part guide to proper writing techniques. I give him tremendous credit. Of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft On Writing was the only one I couldn’t put down. Most works on the subject tend to be rather dry and clinical. Mr. King penned a very witty and entertaining take on the subject. That alone showed me this author earned the right to write a how-to on the topic.

King established dual theses in this book. He explained that good writing entails mastering the fundamentals of the craft (such as vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style) and stocking one’s “toolbox” with the right equipment. He also emphasized how it is possible to turn a “competent” writer into a “good” one. (Page 142) While he didn’t consider it one of the major goals of the book he referenced that writing solid fiction entails telling the truth. (Page 158) It may sound counterintuitive, but his explanation made it sound lucid. All writers, regardless of genre, should write about what they know.

King presented many great ideas in the book, some of which, I felt happy to read, as I do them myself. I thought his suggestion of writing in a room “with the door closed” fantastic. (Page 155) It sends a message to others, and especially to the person writing, that it’s work time. This is something I practice, and agreed with him. I also liked his suggestion to “write the first draft with the door closed and the second with the door open.” He meant that only the author should see the first draft. Several beta readers should read the second and comment on it. I haven’t done this personally, but King got me thinking. I may need to re-evaluate my current process.

Ironically, the best piece of advice on writing in the book wasn’t one of King’s original ideas. He cited a comment he received on a rejection letter. I’ve heard other writers tell me the same thing, as well. I thought it interesting that a writer presented it in the form of an equation. King wrote, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” (Page 222) As I’m familiar with the way many writers choose to hash out their first drafts, I took this as very sound guidance.

King provided many prudent observations on grammar and craft that writers at any level would be foolish to ignore. After all, he made his living as a high school English teacher before writing novels full time. I thought his witty asides served as the true highlight of the book, though. They made it much more understandable and fun to read. If I had to select a most memorable one, I’d cite the following thoughts on back story.

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying. (Page 227)

King’s candid acknowledgment of his own challenges as a writer impressed me most about this book. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his field and even he’s faced tremendous obstacles. He explained how he struggled to complete On Writing following the accident that nearly ended his life. In the memoir section of the book he detailed his battles with drug and alcohol addiction while a working novelist. He wrote Cujo during this period, but couldn’t remember doing so. (Page 99) I thought it remarkable that someone with these kinds of issues could still have the discipline to write every day, let alone end up successful at it.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that On Writing is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found it surprising that someone famous for writing horror novels could have such trenchant observations regarding the craft. He pointed out that to be a writer one must read a lot and write a lot. (Page 145) I’ll be taking that advice and adding some of King’s works of fiction to my reading list.