How 2 Novelists Used Save the Cat!® to Write Their Novels — Both Coming Out This Week
This is an extremely special blog post for me. Four years ago, I taught my very first Save the Cat! Writes a Novel Workshop. Going in, I was both nervous and excited. Save the Cat! had done so much to help my writing career (I owe my 12+ book deals to Blake’s method) and I couldn’t wait to share that magic with other authors.
I will never forget that class. Every single student was smart, passionate, creative, and eager to make their stories better. All I wanted to do was inspire those writers, but I left feeling inspired by them.
I ended up keeping in touch with nearly every student in that class, even becoming close friends with a few. And now, four years later, I’m both proud and ecstatic to announce that one of those students is about to see her very first novel on the shelf.
After leaving the STC! classroom four years ago, Robin Reul wrote two novels, signed with a literary agent, and sold her book to a major publisher. My Kind of Crazy is a fantastically witty and charming young adult novel with so much humor and even more heart. It releases on April 5, 2016 and I couldn’t be happier for Robin.
But the story doesn’t end there…
About six months ago, I received a call from my publisher telling me that they’d decided to push up the release of my new young adult novel, Boys of Summer. It was originally scheduled to come out in June, but for various reasons, they’d decided to release it in April instead. “What day in April?” I asked.
“April 5,” they said.
So yes, not only is one of my very first students getting her book published, I have the great honor of sharing a release day with her.
To commemorate this uncanny kismet, Robin and I have decided to host a joint launch party in Los Angeles on April 10 to celebrate the release of both of our books. (Details below.) If you live in Southern California, we sincerely hope you can make it.
Additionally, I asked Robin if I could interview her about using Save the Cat! on the blog. So here is my interview with Robin Reul. Enjoy!
JB: How were you first introduced to the Save the Cat! method?
RR: I first discovered the Save the Cat! method through a workshop taught by author Jessica Brody. (Hey! That’s you!) I’d heard of it previously as a top method for hitting the critical beats in a screenplay, but Jessica’s method for adapting it for use with novels revolutionized my approach to writing. Though the beats hit at different page counts, the essential elements are still the same, and can help in both the writing and the revision process in different ways that help keep things on track with plot, characterization, and story arcs, and most of all pacing.
JB: How did using Save the Cat! help you write My Kind of Crazy?
RR: I used Save the Cat! more in my revision process for this novel than I did in the initial writing. I am a pantser, so the story came to me as I went along, and often the characters had their own ideas where they wanted it to go. Therefore, using it for the initial plotting, at least for me, was minimal, because I knew things were likely to change during the writing process. But it kept me focused on the general way things needed to unfold. However, in revision it was an invaluable tool. By looking at the story I’d written and plugging it into the essential 15-beat structure, I could see where the holes were, where I needed to pick up the pace or get to the action or reveals sooner. I liken it to putting on a pair of glasses and suddenly everything becomes clearer and the fine details stand out in different ways. It then becomes easy to know exactly what scenes you need to focus on and edit to get the story flowing properly.
Additionally, because I often only have a vague idea what’s going to happen until I’m actually writing that particular scene, the use of “The Board” was very useful. By looking at each individual character’s arc on index cards and seeing how they intersect with the other main characters, it gave me a great perspective on the best places in the story to plant the “red herrings” that might develop into something of greater importance further down the line.
JB: Which beat gave you the most trouble? Which beat did you find the easiest to write?
RR: I think the “midpoint” probably gave me the most trouble. In novels we call this the “murky middle.” It has to be so distinct and clear, and at that point you really have to have a sense of where that story is going and how your character is going to handle the mess he’s found himself in or you’re pretty much screwed. The audience is hopefully emotionally invested at this point, and in my opinion, this is the point where many great stories fall apart.
The easiest beat for me to write was definitely “Break into Three.” I had such a blast writing this particular scene, and the funniest part is, I had no idea what I was going to write until I sat down to write it. I had literally ended my writing day the evening prior by closing out the chapter with “And then I came up with a plan so crazy it just might work.” The next morning, after properly caffeinating, I sat down to write it and the perfect solution came. I’ve never written a scene so easily.
JB: Do you think Save the Cat! in any way helped you to get published?
RR: Without question. As I said, I am a pantser, so finding a method that helped me organize my thoughts and have a way to look at the overall structure and flow of all the elements of my story was truly a gift. It made my writing 10 times stronger and more focused. It helped me see the filler for what it was and trim the unessential elements. It made me aware of how every scene needed to further the story or character development and if it was doing neither, it needed to go. Most of all, if I wasn’t hitting those beats, or didn’t know what they were, then I knew exactly where I needed to go back and dig in deeper.
There are a lot of different methods out there to choose from, but because I have a film background, my stories are all very visual to me. It feels very organic to marry that screenwriting structure to a novel format to find my natural pacing and rhythm. Early feedback on my novel often speaks about the fast pacing and strength of the interwoven stories of the main and secondary characters, and I absolutely credit that to using the Save the Cat! method.
JB: How do you think STC! can help aspiring authors?
RR: I think Save the Cat! can help aspiring authors by making that initial drafting process less overwhelming by providing a checklist of sorts to help keep you focused on structuring your novel, making sure all the necessary story beats are in play. Later, in revision, it is a no-fail method of finding the weaknesses and holes in your story and character arcs and honing your focus on the places that may require more thought. Save the Cat! helps you lay down the bones of the story, which makes it a lot easier to then go back in and add the meat.
Seeing your story visually is also extremely helpful, and creating “The Board” and color-coded index cards with each characters arc that fit within the 15 beats you hammer out shows you where there is too much or not enough going on. Once you have figured out your beats and completed your board, it becomes incredibly obvious what is working and what needs attention.
I think it is really helpful to go back into novels that you love and try and create sample beat sheets. When you break down a story and look at it in this form, you will realize that there is an underlying formula for a successful story, but what brings it home is good writing. The two go hand in hand. A formulaic story is not satisfying, but equally, great writing without a strong plot and the highs and lows that make you want to take that journey with a character can fall flat. Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, Save the Cat! is an invaluable tool in helping authors write stronger stories that hook the reader from the first page.
About My Kind of Crazy by Robin Reul:
Everybody needs someone who gets their crazy.
Hank Kirby can’t catch a break. He doesn’t mean to screw up. It just happens. Case in point: his attempt to ask out the girl he likes literally goes up in flames when he spelled “prom” in sparklers on Amanda Carlisle’s lawn…and nearly burns down her house, without ever asking her the big question.
Hank just wants to pretend the incident never happened. And he might’ve gotten away with it — except there is a witness.
Peyton Breedlove, brooding loner and budding pyromaniac, saw the whole thing, and she blackmails Hank into an unusual friendship. Sure, Hank may be headed for his biggest disaster yet, but it’s only when life falls apart that you can start piecing it back together.
About Boys of Summer by Jessica Brody:
Meet the Boys of Winlock Harbor…
Grayson Cartwright: Golden Boy. Football Prodigy. Troublemaker.
Mike Metzler: Local Heartthrob. Surfer Boy. Hopeless Romantic.
Ian Handler: Army Brat. Musician. King of Sarcasm.
Best friends since they were kids, Grayson, Mike, and Ian were hoping for another epic summer on “The Locks,” filled with clambakes, bonfires, and late-night swims in the ocean.
But that was before Ian’s dad never returned home from his last deployment. Before Mike had to take on more responsibility in order to help provide for his family. Before Grayson’s accident left him with an injured throwing arm and an uncertain future.
It’s clear this summer on the island is shaping up to be very different from those Grayson, Mike, and Ian had come to rely on. And when the sacred code of dating a friend’s sister or ex is broken, it will push their friendship to the absolute limit, testing their loyalties in a way that could either break them—or save them.
About Robin Reul:
Robin Reul has been writing since she was in early elementary school, when she used to make her own book club flyers for her classmates and then pen their original stories. Though she grew up on movie sets and worked for many years in the film and television industry both as an actress and in motion picture development, she ultimately decided to focus her attention on writing young adult novels. She likes to write the same kinds of stories she loved as a teen: the ones that give her butterflies in her stomach and are filled with quirky, memorable characters who stay with the reader long after the story ends. When she’s not writing, Robin can be found singlehandedly driving up the profit margin of her local Starbucks and indulging her love of baked goods, particularly those in the key of pumpkin. She lives in Los Angeles suburbia with her husband, son, and daughter. Visit her online at RobinReul.com.
- Sean Carlin
Jessica and Robin,
Congrats on the publication of your books! I’m in the final chapters myself of a manuscript I plotted on Save the Cat! software, and I can’t emphasize enough what an indispensable resource Blake’s storytelling tools are for novelists as much as screenwriters — maybe more so, in fact, given the scope of a novel and how much easier it is to get “lost” in it along the way. For me, the process of drafting a novel — which is a full 26-mile marathon compared to the 5K that is a screenplay — was made all the more manageable by finessing the logline, selecting the genre (and adhering to its prescribed conventions), beating the plot out on “the Board,” and keeping in mind the conflict and value change in each scene/chapter (I was just commenting the other day on Kristen Lamb’s blog how crucial this regimented approach is). I applaud your discipline, and I look forward to reading Boys of Summer and My Kind of Crazy.
And I’ll definitely swing by the B&N in Calabasas next Sunday. Always happy to meet a fellow author — and STC! practitioner!
- Balle Millner
Congratulations on your book release. I wasn’t sure if Save the Cat was worth buying until I read your story.
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