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.
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.
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.