Save the Cat! Writes a Novel Can Save Your Manuscript (I Promise)--A Book Review

Saturday, January 12, 2019
If you're writing historical fiction, where you have a day-by-day account to rely on, you probably don't need much help. Just craft a few fictional characters and plug them into the real-life events.

Easy peasy.

However, if you're writing something that's pure fiction, like one of my current WIPs, you might lose your way. I know I have. I'm wondering where-in-the-bleep my story is going. I've got lots of ho-hum character development and not a lot of plot tension. Nothing is ramping up, character-wise, and I'm 26,000 words into the manuscript.

If I was being truly honest, there's not much plot at all in my manuscript.

Uh oh. I think I need help. Major help.

Jessica Brody's Save the Cat! Writes a Novel  is the best 64 pages on novel writing I've ever read. Seriously. (Is this book only 65 pages long, you ask? More on that later.)

A colleague in my writing accountability group (who's also one of WOW's high priestesses) suggested I read this book and review it. She made sure I got a free copy. When it arrived, I scanned the table of contents, and skimmed some of the pages. Obviously, this book was not my cup of tea. I'm a pantser. When it comes to outlining and plotting and creating boards, I'm like Teflon, baby. None of that pre-planning stuff sticks to me.

I put the book on my bookshelf, planning to read enough to fake a review... 'cause it wasn't a book that would work for moi.

Days turned to weeks. The book review was overdue. Unable to procrastinate any longer, I bit the bullet and started reading... and I couldn't stop.

I. Couldn't. Stop.

Jessica Brody has succeeded where my writing friends have failed... where my accountability group members have failed... where my editor has failed. Jessica Brody has made me into a planner. (Say hallelujah!) I'll try to share the wealth of this book in less than 1,000 words.

Before getting into the true meat of the book, Brody insists we create a story-worthy hero. To help, she shares what three things every hero needs, she discusses a novel's A story and the B story, (which was made crystal-clear when she pointed out the external story of Stephen King's Misery), she lists the universal "lessons" a hero has to learn, she provides some exercises to determine if our hero is story-worthy, and she even includes a checklist, to ensure we have a hero that can support a novel.

All that, and she does it in just the first 10 pages of what I consider the most effective and user-friendly 64 pages on manuscript-mapping. (The book is 320 pages.)

Whew! Immediately I started thinking of my meandering-to-nowhere story. I started jotting notes about my hero in the margins of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (because I wasn't in a spot to create notes on index cards). I realized that my hero--Nathan--struggled with self-acceptance. That was going to be the lesson he'd have to learn.That thunderbolt brought to mind other plot-bits I'd have to include.

The next 54 pages blew my mind. Brody walks the reader through mapping out a novel's three acts. I've been told to do this in the past, but have resisted. And I've resisted with a smug smile on my face. This book breaks a story's map down into doable chunks (and wipes the smirk right off my face).

Doable for even a pantser like me.

For example, Act 1 needs to include

  • a powerful opening image
  • the stated theme
  • the set-up
  • a catalyst 
  • a debate
Amazingly, each of these "road-markers" are clearly explained, and popular novels are used as examples to further illuminate. While reading, I kept nodding my head. This is groundwork I have not done with my WIP. It's the stuff I should have envisioned before getting 25,000 words into a major rut.

Act 2 is broken down into these parts (I'm not including all of them):

  • The B Story
  • Midpoint
  • Bad Guys Close In
  • All is Lost

When Brody explained the midpoint, in the margin I jotted down that my hero, Nathan, needed to be on a downward spiral. Before reading this book, I'd never considering planning such a thing. (Jessica Brody, I bow down to you!)

When I inhaled the "All is Lost" section, I scribbled at the bottom of the page, "Maybe the teacher (which is me) dies? Perhaps she kills herself after being stalked/bullied, and Nathan doesn't have a clue that he could have saved Mrs. R..." The incredible power of planning hit me: when I jotted that down, other plot bits fell into place, like dominoes.

A. Maz. Ing.

Act 3 comes in at the end (of course). One of the parts of Act 3 is the Finale, and Jessica Brody breaks that down into the "Five-Point Finale" to ensure the novel has a powerful and satisfying ending. The Five-Point Finale promises to change a writer's life, and I'd have to agree. A couple of those points are:

  • The Team Gathers
  • The High Tower Surprise

Jessica Brody calls the story map a "beat sheet" and a "beat" is a plot point. A novel includes 15 beats, and each one is explained so clearly and compellingly, even a tried-and-true pantser like me is transformed. Along the way there are examples from well-known novels, and visual representations are also included, to help remind the writer how each "beat" fits into the rest of the plot.

After those mind blowing 64 pages, there is a four-page "Transformation Test" to make sure a writer's story map has all the boxes checked.

Things still aren't clear? Really? Included in the rest of the book are break-downs of the following novels: Sockett's The Help (one of my favorite novels), Stephen King's Misery (one of my favorite novels about writing), Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything, Kinsella's Twenties Girl, Cline's Ready Player One, and the inimitable Joe Hill and his novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Each of the 15 plot-points are laid out for the reader.

At the end, there's even a section on how to write loglines and synopses, along with ways to create a plan--index cards and cork board (that's how I'm gonna roll) or digitally (at there's an app).

If you are floundering with your novel-writing, or if you're simply trying to get your manuscript fine-turned, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is the perfect how-to book for you. I promise.

Sioux Roslawski is an aspiring novelist who's avoided plotting/planning like some folks are scared of snakes. Sioux feels strongly that snakes are our friends (she used to have several snakes as classroom pets)... and now she feels the same about creating a story map. Plotting is now her friend (thanks to Jessica Brody)!


Judy H said...

This book is sitting with my notes, rough (very rough) draft of my novel on my desk. Love this book.

Linda O'Connell said...

When a book speaks to you this strongly, you can bet it is a great resource. I will check it out. I am not a mapper, but perhaps...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Phenomenal review, Sioux! I have to get this book now, and I'm so glad it helped with your plot! I feel like I can take this format and massage my memoir's turning points into the right places to add tension. It's almost set up that way right now. It's interesting when you start looking at the format of stories and discover that many of the successful ones are set up this way.

I love snakes, too! That albino boa looks good on you! :)

xo ~ one of the high priestesses (lol!)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Interesting! So would this system work with a mystery? I try to plot and its odd that I can only muddle through it. I'm so type A! Will have to take a look at this book.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Jessica--I love it too. I didn't think I would, but it is transforming me.

Linda--You KNOW I'm no mapper. However, Brody spells it out in such easy-to-understand terms, I can't help but think it might help me with this mess of a manuscript.

Angela--I was disgruntled at first, thinking I'd have to fake a review, but now I am so grateful you hooked me up with this book. I'm already envisioning 15 strips of cork board, glued onto meter sticks, so I can take my map to my writing retreat.

Snakes ARE our friends. And you ARE one of the high priestesses of WOW. ;)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I would be glad to loan it to you, so you can look at it before buying it. (I hate to buy books sight unseen.) Let me know.

Pat Wahler said...

I need something to guide me from beginning to end, though my outlines are never written in stone. As a result, I've read dozens of books on story structure. Based on your glowing recommendation, I'll be grabbing this one right away!

Margo Dill said...

I am sold! :)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Pat and Margo--I don't think you will regret getting it. And if either of you knew how much of an anti-planner I am, you'd know: this book has some powerful mojo.

Nicole Pyles said...

I'm a pantser at heart too (granted, I have only been writing short stories and it's been a while since I've made a serious attempt at a a novel) and immediately added this to my list. I know I'll write a novel one day and need to make sure I become a planner!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--Oh, so you don't want to get 25,000 words into a project and then have to scrap them and start from scratch because there's no plot?

I can't understand your concern. ;)

Once I figure out a way to make my map mobile and I start creating the map, I will blog about the process, since it's going to be such a different thing for me.

Angela Mackintosh said...

That was my favorite thing about your review, Sioux! The fact that you were disgruntled at first and thought you had to fake it, and then made the turn to loving the advice, made your review much more dynamic. You wrote it like a hero's journey with beats and everything! The hero was transformed in the end. :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

The original SAVE THE CAT changed my writing life, Sioux, in much the same was as this one's changing yours. I'm intrigued enough to write down the title and take a longer look-thanks!

Renee Roberson said...

As a self-proclaimed pantser, I laughed my way through this review. I've been stuck on my current YA manuscript (50,000 words written, and a decent plot, but the character development is not where it should be). I should know how to do this by now! I actually have sticky notes all over the wall of my office right now where my husband was trying to help me "journey map" the book out so I can get back to revisions. I wanted to throw my stack of post-its at him, even though he does know what he's talking about. The way this book breaks it down bit by bit sounds perfect. I'm off to order it now. Thanks!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Angela--I see what you did there. You plugged the book again. Bravo!

Cathy--Well, I'm sure my transformation will be a bit messier than yours was, but oh well.

Renee--I'm buying one for a friend of mine who is writing a novel BY HAND (yikes!). If she's stumbling even a bit, this book will get her back on track.

Mary Horner said...

I've heard of this, and went to a presentation about it, and thought it sounded helpful, but you have finally convinced me to read it for my own WIP! Thanks!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--If it can nudge me into pre-planning, it's a miracle worker. Seriously.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top