Saving the Novel Writer, One Cat at a Time

There doesn’t appear to be a consensus from my informal survey of Goodreads and blog sites on Save the Cat in most writing circles. Some would say it needs its own “save the cat” moment. Others are devoted to the teachings laid out within. I save the catfound it useful in several ways. A point in Blake Snyder’s favor is that he provides exercises at the end of each chapter and gives a lot of excellent examples.

 

Snyder opens strong with his logline concept. The idea of being able to sum up your story in one sentence has its appeal. It will make pitching your book all that much simpler, but it is certainly easier said than done. Blake’s construct is framed around having the “Big Idea” from the start. There is value in this, but his focus is on selling the script to a producer, not on helping frame the book.

 

He even goes so far as to try to convince the reader that the title of the project should reflect the logline. The titles may be self evident but they certainly aren’t “killer” as he would put it. They lack imagination.

 

Having a logline before you start seems like a good idea if you want to write a story using your craft skills. I can see a lot of “pantsers” arguing that this would strip the soul from their story, but it can be a useful starting point to deviate from perhaps. Trying to go back and capture a logline after the first draft is well underway can be a daunting task.

 

The next chapter lacks focus but the bottom line is read in your genre and avoid clichés. Snyder confuses the reader with talk about doing the same thing but different, and then provides a list of the different types of movie plots. He refers to them as genre, but they are not the same thing that novel writer would recognize. Perhaps there is profit in this for a screenwriter, but it’s more plot focused than genre focused.

 

Blake follows this with selecting your hero. Here again it can be a little confusing for the novel writer. Snyder says, “It has to be about someone. It has to have one or two people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for – and someone who can carry the movie’s theme.” This is all fine and good, but his focus is more on picking a character that will amp up the logline. What I think he actually means is that you need to pick the character that can tell your story and has the most at stake. This is critical. There are craft things we can do to make the character more or less sympathetic, so maybe there is a little of cart before the horse here. I think Snyder knows that, but simply has trouble putting it in the right context. We see snippets in this chapter about his focus of selling the script versus telling a good story, when he talks about not writing the script for a particular actor or type. That is probably good advice for a screenwriter, but not necessarily important for a novel writer.

 

Next, we get to the meat and potatoes of the book, where the advice is widely praised for its story structure ideas. The three act play and Snyder’s fifteen beats are great fundamentals to hang a story on. He goes through each beat, providing good descriptions of what they are, with solid examples. He also explains how they fit within the three act play structure. This chapter alone is the payoff for the entire book. His advice to hit the mark on the proper page can be taken with a grain of salt, but the beats are sound.

 

The section that follows is also gold. Snyder talks about the value of a good mentor, to which I can attest, and he lays out the storyboard concept.

 

I’ve had a lot of mentor figures in my life, both good and bad, and there are beneficial things to be learned from both, but a great mentor is invaluable. It’s like a fastpass to learning tricks-of-the-trade along with the fundamentals. They may also furnish priceless networking connections. Even the less good ones can often provide at least a few lessons, as well as showcasing how not to do it if the roles are reversed.

 

The storyboard idea can be used in pre and post draft work. For someone who enjoys outlining and plotting ahead of time the storyboard is a great way to see if you are staying on track and hitting all your marks. For someone who would rather seat-of-the-pants write, the storyboard can clarify the plot structure and framework of the draft, showing where things might need to be cut or moved around to better fit the flow of the story. I like his concept of using note-cards and limiting them to 40. This keeps the work focused and forces the writer to examine every scene to see if it moves the story forward. I especially like Blake’s idea of writing down on each card the emotional change and conflict for each scene. These comments make the story arc easier to visualize, and the ability to color code and add further clarity by tying concepts or arcs together.

 

The next two chapters go into pitfalls to watch out for, and then he closes with a potpourri of things about selling scripts and stuff that really doesn’t do much for the novel writer.

 

Overall, I found a lot of value in this book. Blake’s focus on selling to a producer versus good story telling leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many writers, but there are nuggets of gold in these pages if you can grasp the underlying meaning. The concrete examples he uses provide a clear picture of the concepts and his structure ideas are well worth the read.

 

Clear Ether!

My Journey to get an Agent

Are you or someone you know looking for an agent? Let me share with you what I’ve learned in the process. I’m aiming at fiction novelists. If you write short stories, or non-fiction or anything other than novel length fiction this isn’t really for you.10987353554_976862387e_z

There are a few things you will need to start the process–a manuscript, a query letter, a synopsis, and a list of agents.

First and foremost you need a finished manuscript. You can prep the other stuff, but before you send the first thing to a potential agent you need to have your MS completed, reviewed by alphas and betas, and edited as well as possible. It should be polished to a fine sheen, because this is the thing that will cement the deal. Even if you write a great query and a great synopsis, if your manuscript is subpar the agent is going to pass. Make all the arguments you want about story trumping writing or vice versa, but it will still come down to making that agent fall in love with your novel. Work hard on getting the first part of your story to really grab attention and showcase your voice, because it is the first thing the agent will read. Well, duh, but really, it needs to shine, because they always want the first pages–anywhere from ten to thirty or maybe the first three chapters. I’m just going to assume you did this part and move on. Don’t make me regret it.

We’ve toiled on our manuscript for months or years and it’s ready to be seen, so the next step is to work on your query letter. The query letter usually includes an introduction, a pitch, and a short bio. It should be double-spaced 12 font, and don’t get fancy with the font. My preference is Times New Roman for this stuff. Ideally, it will be all on one page.

The concept for the query is to pique the interest of the prospective agent. Because of this, you need to personalize each one for every agent you query. So, while working on your pitch, you need to start developing a list of agents. Agent Query is a great resource to start (www.agentquery.com/) or you can just Google “your genre” and “agent” to see what comes up. Chuck Sambuchino has a great list at Writer’s Digest (www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents) and he updates it with new agents as they emerge. Preditors and Editors (pred-ed.com/) provides a wide-ranging database for lots of stuff, including which agents to avoid, whether or not they charge to review your work, legal services, and convention lists, just to name a few things. Agents that charge reading fees are warned against, as reputable agents do not charge a reading fee. Absolute Write Water Cooler is another good resource for reviews of agents. (www.absolutewrite.com/forums/)

Take the time to do some research on the agent you select. If you have a connection mention it. If you met them at a con remind them. He or she will usually want your word count and genre listed in this introduction section. If they don’t care about such things the agency listing should say. Or if you find an interview online they might mention specific likes or dislikes in a query. Some have done video blogs or live chats where these kinds of things are discussed.

Their agency website will have information about the submission process and their agents, especially their genre preferences, and usually a little bit of personal stuff, like favorite writers. Also take a look at their client list to see if you’re a fan of one of their authors,or even if they have any yet. If the client list isn’t mentioned on the agency page you can find out on Query Tracker. (querytracker.net/) It’s also a great resource for finding agents. The agency website will also have the submission guidelines. Follow them. Every agency is different. Some will have a simple submission worksheet that will be very limited, asking for contact info, a short bio, and a pitch. Others will take 30 pages and a query letter. More will want a full synopsis and first ten pages of your manuscript with the query letter. From my experience, most will want a query, a short synopsis (1-2 pages) and the first ten to fifteen pages of your MS. Pay attention to the details; they’re usually quite specific. They will often have one email address to sent your query to, and might share within the agency if the particular agent you targeted thinks you might be a better fit with someone else. Some will have you contact the individual agent directly.

These days most prefer an email with everything including in the body of the email. There will usually be a clear note not to use attachments. Your email will get deleted without being read if you don’t pay attention to this. There are still a few holdouts that will only take snail-mail packages.

The meat of the query letter is the pitch, and it needs to have a hook. The sole purpose is to get the agent to ask for your manuscript. This is the part you are going to spend the most time on. You want a one to two paragraph lure for your story, including the stakes and the thing that sets your story apart. I recommend sticking to the protagonist, and maybe the antagonist, and provide the agent with something enticing. There are lots of good places on the web to get help with these. I started with Query Shark (queryshark.blogspot.com/,) which a lot of my friends used as well. Jane Friedman also has a good page for these. (janefriedman.com/2014/04/11/query-letters/) Writer’s Digest has a nice Dos and Don’ts page. (www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-10-dos-and-donts-of-writing-a-query-letter)

Once you’ve created that pitch, you can test it out at several blogs. These two will post on their blog and publically critique: Writer Writer Pants on Fire (writerwriterpantsonfire.blogspot.com/p/query-critiques.html) and Kyra Nelson. (kyramnelson.com/query-critiques/) At Agent Query, it’s more like a club. (agentqueryconnect.com/index.php?/forum/2-aq-connect-query-critiques/) There are sites popping up and folding pretty regularly, and at the time I posted this all of these were still active. There are contests all the time, so don’t be afraid to do some searches on the web when you’ve drafted your pitch.

For your bio, keep it short, but include any other work you’ve had published or any experience you have that is germane to your story, like you’re an attorney and you write court dramas, that sort of thing. School history is a good thing to include, especially if it pertains to writing, for example an MFA. These things aren’t required and if you are a fledgling writer with no writing credits just keep it simple. That won’t stop them from reading your work. A great pitch will overcome a lot.

The next thing on the list is the synopsis. The synopsis is a full summary of your story with all the spoilers and secrets revealed, including the ending. There are resources online for how to do this, but essentially it is a scene summary of the conflict in your story. Carly Watters has a nice “how to” on her blog (carlywatters.com/2013/11/04/how-to-write-a-book-synopsis/). Jane Friedman also has a great helper (janefriedman.com/2011/10/25/novel-synopsis/.) I would make several of these of varying lengths–a one page, a two page and a full, which could be up to ten pages. These are usually single-spaced, and nobody has told me different. What they are looking for here is can you tell a complete story. Do your best to keep some of your narrative voice in these.

Lastly, I created a spreadsheet in Excel to track who I sent to and when, what they asked for, and a place for responses and comments. I used a default rejection if I didn’t hear anything back after two months. You could always resubmit if this happens. Most advice I’ve seen is wait at least 30 days for any follow-up. Some agencies welcome trying other agents in their house after a month, and some will tell you not to bother.

You want to keep your manuscript on sub until you have success. My goal was to always have it out to at least four all the time. If someone asks you for an exclusive there needs to be a reasonable timeframe included, 30 to 60 days is normal. Don’t let someone lock it up perpetually.

I actually have my MS with an agent right now, waiting to see if he will want to represent me. If he says yes, then the next step of the process starts, seeing how well you work together. Just because you get an offer of representation doesn’t mean you have to take it either. Read the fine print on the contract. Obviously, the more reputable the agency the less you have to worry about this, but you still need to read the contract carefully.

Keep your chin up. There will be lots of rejection. Some of it will be nice, some will be generic, and some will seem to simply ignore you. Stay professional, and in the meantime, work on the next project. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Clear Ether!