Attempting to “Save the Cat” Part 1: Some Thoughts on Blake Snyder’s Screenwriting Bible

I once heard the title, Save the Cat!, bandied about at a writing symposium, and once or twice in various writing groups on Facebook. I had never given screenwriting much thought, but the general wisdom said this book transcended movies and had a lot to teach writers about commercial fiction. It slipped my mind until I got some feedback about a problem with pacing in No Rest for the Wicked. The editor recommended I read Blake Snyder’s book to help me iron out the problems.

Intrigued, this time I picked it up immediately. And I didn’t put it down until I’d read it cover to cover.

What Does “Commercial Fiction” Mean?

There are LOTS of genres. Some of them correspond to age groups, some of them correspond to themes, and some of the correspond to the amount of violence and sex involved. The term “commercial fiction” isn’t so much a genre as it is an umbrella term that covers popular reading material. Even though scholars rarely give speculative fiction and romance writers enough credit. They aren’t creating “literary” fiction, so the academics aren’t interested even though some of the most innovative and imaginative stories come from these traditions.

During a meet and greet with Steampunk author Gail Carriger during Steampunk World’s Fair this year, she spoke for a while about this term. She proudly wears the moniker of “commercial fiction writer” because to her, this simply means her goal is to write things that the general public want to read. And this is a very worthy goal.

So, I put aside any fear that I might be “selling out” somehow, and decided to open myself up to Snyder’s advice.

Formulaic? Or a “Recipe for Success?”

It’s a fact: humans love stories. Sharing information and tales of our day out on the hunt or gathering the food to get through the dry season meant survival in our early history. And we are still captivating by a good story today.

But just because we love stories, doesn’t mean we will love all stories equally. As anyone who has ever botched the punchline of a joke will confirm, it’s all about how you tell it. There are so many elements of timing, repetition, building tension, delivering on promises, and any number of other tools in a writer’s toolbox that can make or break a book.

And as unpoetic as it is to say, if people don’t like one book you write, why would they decide to try the next one? They don’t even need to be able to say why they didn’t like your book. That’s not the burden of the reader; that’s something only the author can tease out.

I am sure for many, Snyder’s approach seems far too cookie cutter. He tells you, sometimes down to the page, when certain beats and reversals should occur. It’s important to remember though that he isn’t saying that you can’t write a story that follows a different path, only that this sort of pattern and trajectory has proven itself to grip readers and leave them wanting more at the end of the day.

Super Structure

One of the most astonishing things to me about comparing my outline of my piece to Snyder’s recommendations is how often what I had already written aligned with what he said. This seemed to strengthen the idea that there was something innately motivating about the structure I was naturally following. And the places where my betas and potential editors had found problems were ALWAYS the places where things didn’t match up.

Looking over the recommended structure also showed me that No Rest for the Wicked as a novella wasn’t really the complete story I thought it was. When I started to toy with the idea of making it a novel instead, I found that things fell neatly into place. The order of my chapters didn’t change, but I did find places where I needed to expand on the action in order to deliver a big enough pay off to leave the reader satisfied.

What’s Next?

No that I have finished this latest iteration of No Rest for the Wicked, I started work on the next Mistress of None book. I haven’t decided on a title yet, but the pre-writing is being aided in no small part by Mr. Snyder’s sound advice.

I decided to write a series of posts about my experience using his methods from the start of a project, and hopefully help other people escape any of the hidden traps I come upon. So, check back soon for more on my writing journey using Save the Cat! as my guide.

Anthology Review: Steampunk World (2014)

“Steam Speaks All Languages
Steam Knows No Boundaries
Steam Is Universal”

sw-cover

I am usually more of a novel reader, but lately I’ve been both reading and writing a lot of shorter fiction. Figuring out the right amount of words to fully tell a story is both an intellectual and artistic challenge, but I believe editor Sarah Hans did a wonderful job of pulling together this anthology composed of fabulous stories. I’ve noticed a trend in the last year or two of agents and editors looking for non-Western Steampunk, and this collection was already on the shelves so kudos to all 19 authors and the publisher, Alliteration Ink. Each story is even accompanied by a beautiful black and white line drawing.

With 19 completely different tales to tell, I’m not going to even try to review everything in Steampunk World. I had hoped to dedicate a few days to it, but with Christmas right around the corner and this book so perfect for a last minute gift idea I’m just going to say that overall, I felt like this was a very strong book, both as a collection of short stories and a collection of Steampunk. It was originally funded through a Kickstarter campaign, but you can read all about the book and the authors at Alliteration Ink.

Multi-cultural Steampunk sound good to you? Check out their next collection, Steampunk Universe as well!

 

There's Still Time to Sign Up for the Collaborative Writing Challenge! Begins Dec. 30

I learned a lot of things from participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo- Pre-writing is a godsend, I need to stop deluding myself into thinking I can write after 5pm, and I can write over 3000 words a day for a week straight if I have to.

But I also got a real taste of how very lonely being a writer can be.

Which makes me even more excited for the novel I will be coordinating with the Collaborative Writing Challenge! This is a chance to build up a really cool community of writers that I hope will go above and beyond this individual project.

The deadline for possible first chapter submissions is today, and so far we’ve got 7 submissions. I’ll be reading those submissions and talking over the potential for growth with the rest of the CWC over the next few weeks to narrow it down to three, then it will be time for people to vote on their favorite.

Didn’t write a starter chapter? No problem! I think writing the parts in the middle are the most fun, personally, because you wield so much power over the rest of the story. I’ll be starting my try for Project, 6, Esyld’s Awakening, Chapter 16 this week. It’s been 10 chapters since I saw the story last and I am really excited to see where it has gone when I wasn’t looking. Wish me luck!

cwc-announcement

Here’s a quick reminder of how the whole project works.

  • Writers sign up for a chapter try by December 30. (We’ve reached our minimum number of authors to get the project going, but the more the merrier!) Sign up by filling out the form here
  • 3-5 Writers attempt each chapter, one week at a time. You’d have access to the following:
    • The chapter immediately before the one you attempt
    • detailed chapter summaries of any chapter that came before
    • detailed notes about characters, places, and any special objects or magic schema that may be at work
    • prompts and questions from the coordinator to help you decide which direction to take
  • The coordinator (me!) chooses the chapter(s) that moves the story along the best (and/or is my favorite for whatever reason. Sometimes we also combine multiple chapter attempts).
  • At the end, we have a 30-chapter book with at least 30 contributing authors who all get to put another book on their resume
    • 10% of proceeds go to charity!

These pins are available through my Kickstarter campaign!

And don’t forget, if your chapter is chosen at any point during the challenge, you’ll also receive a United we Steampunk, Divided we Fall pin by yours truly.

An Interview with Steampunk Author Daniel Ottalini and his Newest Release

steel-praetorian-800-cover-reveal-and-promotional
My husband is a Roman historian and I’m a Steampunk nut (in case you hadn’t noticed), so you can imagine my joy when I found a mash-up of the two! In a nutshell, his books are about an alternative history where Caesar survived the assassination attempt and changed the face of the world. I’ve started reading his Steam Empire Chronicles books recently, so you can expect a review in the future, but I got a chance to do an interview exchange with him as a fellow NaNoWriMo 2016 writer. When you’re done reading, head on over to his website to read and interview with me!

What project are you working on now?

I’m actually working on two projects at the moment. First, my novel Steel Praetorian is available for presale and I’m working on a blog tour and blog-a-thon this month as part of that release on December 1st. Writing wise, as part of NaNoWriMo2016, I’m working on Laurel Emperor, the fifth and final novel in the Steam Empire Chronicles series. It’s been an amazing journey going from zero to now six published books, and I can’t wait to share this one with everyone!

What book(s) are you reading now?
Right now I’m rereading the Belisarius series by David Drake and Eric Flint – One of my favorite Roman/sci-fi/historical style mash ups (yes, I know, it’s very ‘duh, that’s what you write too.’ but it’s truly a lot of fun to read.)

What is the most important component of steampunk to you? Why?
I think the most important part of steampunk is the conflict between groups – rich vs poor, union vs management, men vs women (gender roles, etc) imperial vs rebel. It’s funny because, normally, I’m a huge fan of the underdog, the scrappy rebels striving for a better…whatever. But in my own novels, the protagonists are the loyalists, who have an uphill climb against the rebels. Sometime in steampunk, its not about improving the technology, but about mastering what you have.

What part of the craft are you working on now (Like what part of writing do you need to spend more time working/learning about?)
I’m still working on breathing life into my characters in less obvious event-focused manner. In other words, building their character traits from the ground up. I’m actually planning on going back to my first novel and doing a serious upgrade in order to make those characters more believable and to improve the writing!

What three things are essential to your writing routine?
Silence.
Internet.
An outline – I’ve been using google docs to create a living outline. Before this I used a journal, and I’m a much faster typer than a writer. Plus I can access the same document everywhere, even share it with beta readers before I type the entire novel. Makes a lot of work much easier.

If you could cosplay any character from classic Sci-fi or Steampunk, what would you choose?
Wow, tough question – Character wise I’d probably want to go as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, although in honesty I’d rather go as a rebel trooper of some sort – gotta love the dome helmets or the Hoth cold weather gear!

Do you have a favorite Steampunk-related memory?
Actually it was a video game – Rise of Legends for PC – A spin off of the Rise of Nations, itself a great game, truly inspired me as a young teenager. I loved how the background was an intersection of magic, mysticism, and giant smoke belching constructs. One of their units even inspired me in my own writing over 10 years later – the giant spider like trash hauler was definitely based on that idea.

If you could suddenly master any skill, what would you choose?
Oh wow, I think it’d have to be another language – I’d want to be perfectly able to read, write, and speak Spanish at all levels – this would be useful in my day job and in my writing career – multiple translations of my book for free/cheap? Here I come!.

Thanks Daniel!

You can find out more about him and his books (plus an interview with me tomorrow!) at his website, and don’t forget to pre-order your copy of The Steel Praetorian.

Classic Book Review: Master of the World (1904)

master-of-the-worldI’m still slowly working my way through the classic science fiction works, but I recently found this short little book in a used book store and added it to the old “to be read” pile. After reading some other works of Verne I was, shall we say, underwhelmed by this much-lauded author, in a large part because they seemed to go on interminably. I’d hoped that Master of None would appeal to me more because it is so much shorter than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but alas, it left me wanting more, and not in a good way.

In brief, it is the story of a strange vehicle and its many sightings. Somehow, people report seeing something that moves faster than any known machine, and they see it on land, sea, and the air.

I didn’t know until after I had finished it that this was in fact a sequel to a 1886 release entitled Robur the Conqueror, and perhaps if I had read the first book I’d have liked Master of the World more, but honestly, I doubt it. I don’t know if it is just a matter of translation and the higher frequency of the passive voice in French, or if it is a failure of my modern sensibility to be tickled by this old style of writing, but as a story described on the cover as a suspense/thriller I found it rather dull and predictable. I know the mad scientist bent on using his genius to bully mankind into betterment for no particular reason was still pretty new in Verne’s day, but he’d already been-there, done-that 30 years earlier with his most famous character, Captain Nemo.

On top of that, the was ending struck me as both abrupt and bizarre, and the whole tone of the story felt melancholy and hopeless about the future of humankind. One critic I read speculated that this was due to Verne’s failing health and dour disposition in his twilight years, but whatever the reason I wouldn’t say I’d recommend this one.

Collaborative Steampunk Novel Update and a Few Thoughts about NaNoWriMo

Collaborative Steampunk Novel Update

When I announced that I would be coordinating Project 7 for the Collaborative Writing Challenge starting in Dec. I admit I was a little worried about recruiting people. Steampunk has become a lot better known in recent years, but there are still plenty of people who don’t really know what’s it about, or at least aren’t comfortable enough with the genre to feel like they can contribute.

On the one hand, I complete understand and obviously I’m not going to push and say someone should do it if it doesn’t interest them. On the other hand, I see Steampunk as less of a genre with distinct borders and rules, and more of an overlay that can be added to a mystery, romance, or any other sort of story.

It looks like there are a lot of people who feel the same way! 70 slots have been filled so far by 30 writers, and there’s still over a month before the project begins. Each project has a minimum of three authors in each slot, and up to five, so there is plenty of space if you haven’t signed up yet. Just don’t wait too long!

Remember, the project starts in December but runs until August, so even the prospect of starting a project after the bustle of the impending holidays has you seriously considering if a string of lights is sturdy enough to hang a person by, just keep in mind you could sign up for a chapter way out in March when you’ll just be twiddling your thumbs.

NaNoWriMo Update

A typical science fiction or fantasy novel for adults comes in around 100k words (~350 pages depending on the size of the book). YA books tend to be closer to 70k, but even that word count is higher than the goal for the National Novel Writing Month of 50k. So why the discrepancy?

Writing a book is at least 80% revising.

Let’s face it, the first pass is going to be bad. Some people’s bad is a lot worse than others, but generally speaking there are going to be plenty of issues to fix on even the structural level, not to mention at the specific word choice level. Personally, I am finding it incredibly difficult *not* to be doing revisions as I go, which has been my pattern in the past. I know that what I wrote yesterday is rubbish and I want to make it at least refined enough to be just regular or old ‘bad’ before I move on, but that won’t help me reach my word count goal. Grrrrr.

revising-memeSo rather than be annoyed, I decided to change my mindset and embrace the utter craptitude of the firstest, roughest draft. I am writing whole scenes of dialog with just the words the characters say but with no dialog or action tags. I am leaving myself notes and giving myself permission to move on from problem passages to press on to things I know for sure. And I am not reading over things I wrote a week ago and painstakingly looking to see if I used “she” to begin too many sentence. (Though old habits die hard and I know many would already say I pay way too much attention to that sort of thing when I should just be writing.)

I am also doing a ton of pre-writing exercises to help me get really focused when it comes time to sit down and write. Pre-writing can mean anything from answering character and world-building questionnaires to writing a summary of what you want to accomplish in a chapter. But before I could wrap my head around that level of detail I made a spreadsheet with a separate page for each of the 6 parts of my story that I used to outline down to the scene level and projected word count.

I’m about 1/3 of the way into this whole NaNo experiment, and I’ve written 14,369 words on Mistress of None so far this month, bringing the total words for Part 1 to over 25,000. This has been a very different way to approaching novel writing and I can’t say I like everything about it. On the other hand, I have also gained some invaluable new methods and most importantly, the confidence I’ve gained in myself.

All writers go through times where they feel like poseurs or like they can’t possibly succeed, and I was having one those dark periods in August after the dour advice and attitudes of the folks at the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con. Now, I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I have the drive and the tools to make a real go of this.

Now I’ve just got to convince the rest of the world…

 

 

Steampunk Book Review: Arachnodactyl by Danny Knestaut

arachnodactyl cover bookfunnel

Okay, I can probably guess what you are thinking. The title of today’s book, Arachnodactyl, sounds like a lot like something that sprang from the mind of Ed Wood or was riffed to death by the MST3K crew. I know I was picturing a bizarre spider-pterodactyl hybrid creature flitting across a Syfy channel ad when author Danny Knestaut first contacted me about doing a review. In truth, the only monsters in this story are of the human variety, and the story is both more serious and objectively better than the title may suggest.

The main character is an 18-year-old farmhand and tinkerer named Ikey. He is the last surviving child of a home torn asunder in equal parts by the Great War and his father’s ruthless nature. When Ikey is offered the opportunity to leave his old life behind and work for an admiral on an airship, he is afraid to leave his crippled uncle at the mercy of his father. He eventually agrees in order to avoid the threat of being drafted into the war effort but his heart is still on the farm. The welcome Ikey receives from his new boss in Manchester is anything but warm, and his isolated upbringing and conditioned fear of physical harm leaves him fumbling and making mistakes. The one bright spot in his new life is his boss’s wife Rose, a mysterious blind woman who never removes her veil. Her strange ways and the intricate machinery he finds in the house lead him to suspect she is not a human at all, but an automaton created by her husband.

In general, I thought this book had a strong premise and had a much more philosophical bent than I’d expected. Ikey is fascinated by the idea of blindness, both the seeming difficulty of even mundane tasks as well as the freedom the dark represents. Even though he believes he is unfit to love and never plans to have a family of his own because he believes he will turn out no better than his father, he finds himself enthralled by Rose. When they first engaged in a physical relationship I was actually disappointed because so many books seem to just add sex for the sake of sex, but after seeing the revelation that Ikey experiences as a result I decided it was more than just a bit of fluff. It actually was a very important moment for a character and his coming into his own as an adult, as well as his discovery of Rose’s true nature. The book is by no means overly graphic, but it is probably a PG-13 or older type read.

Surprisingly, the word “arachnodactyl” never appears anywhere in the book. My best guess is that the author was referencing Rose’s strange hands because arachnodactyl literally means “spider fingers.” I hope the shlocky horror movie the title evokes doesn’t hurt his sales, because we all know how people are when it comes to books and covers, and titles are just subject to the same knee-jerk judgments, especially in the ebook market where so many titles are free.  The writing itself was a bit inconsistent with several extremely procedural sentences like “he put the spoon in the bowl and the bowl on the plate” strung together, but were followed by lovely and melancholy prose offering insight about the nature of the world. It’s another instance of a book I wish I had edited, because all in all I feel it is a strong start but would have benefited from some tightening up in some places and more vividness in others.

This is not another fluffy, silly Steampunk book with lots of gadgets and action. Instead, it is a portrait of a damaged young man trying to find sense in a world that seems totally senseless and his love for a woman who seems to see the world as it is despite her lack of sight. His struggle and the overall tone of the book reminds me of books I read in high school English like Ethan Frome, though the prose itself is not always quite on par with the scope of his premise. I look forward to seeing how Knestaut’s work continues to mature and change as the series progresses.

The book will be released in Sept 2016, but pre-order you copy of Arachnodactyl now on Amazon!