A NOVEL JOURNEY
Writing & Publishing A Novel
Save the Cat
I didn’t come up with this system. Save the Cat is a brilliant way to organize and plan based on careful study of popular films and stories by Blake Snyder. There are workshops but also templates online. I created my own template after reading the book which is also a great resource. Save the Cat tests the waters of a story. Translating my outline into this template addresses all the big questions I need answered before I commit to a project.
What picture does the opening create for the reader?
What is the catalyst that changes things for the protagonist?
What are the internal and external obstacles?
What are the stakes for the protagonist?
What are the side stories and how do they affect the primary narrative?
What leads up to the ending?
What does the resolution do for both the protagonist and reader?
Full disclosure, my end product will not fit perfectly into this template. Things change. Each story is its own beast. (As is Junebug who is now climbing up my pantleg.) But considering the movement of the story, understanding the working parts, and having this Rosetta Stone in hand lets me confidently – and finally – get to the fun part.
Outlining - Part One
I started writing short stories when I was four years old.
It’s a hard habit to kick, so when my stories grew too big for a few pages I literally had no idea how to tame a larger piece and just started writing page after page without any planning. What I ended up with was a jumble of words that resembled a labyrinth or discount bin at Target more than a novel.
I needed some semblance of a plan.
But when I tried neatly outlining by hand on a legal pad, that didn’t work either. My brain could wrap around individual scenes but not in any reasonable order. I ended up crossing out and restarting half a dozen times. Finally, I realized the answer was simple-ish. One closet door and stacks of post-its later, the real planning had begun. Here’s how I outline – part one.
Color-coding helps. It enables me to sort ideas into the three acts of the novel. (See my Save the Cat post for more info.) I can move around the plot points, attach them to each other, and even code further with quick visuals for subplots, too.
For me, planning backwards makes sense. I need to know how things work out so I can subtly drop clues – and sometimes misdirection – throughout. The post-its allow me to constantly reassess how well those hints are spaced out and where they need to go.
Finally, the post-its make the project feel more manageable. Be still my short story heart. Each square is a scene, not a chapter, and I can focus my energy on perfecting these moments while always keeping a cautionary eye on the full landscape of the novel.
There are a million different ways to outline, but a door and post-its somehow work for me.
Writing reminds me of cooking.
Only I write much better than I cook or bake. Still, I’m often drawn to recipe boxes in thrift shops or discount stores because they are compact, whimsical containers for my brainstorming notes.
I plan my stories by their ingredients.
Typically to get started I explore four categories. Each one helps me envision the world splayed out in front of me and sidestep major problems. I also need this all to come together before I begin the actual storymapping. A pantser by nature, that just doesn’t work for me with longer works. So, with a bit of whiteout and a few recipe cards, I figure out the following:
Characters – Who are the important people? Honestly, I rarely start with the primary character. Often I’ve seen someone walking or talked to someone in line at the grocery and feel like they need a spot in this world I’m creating. The hero (or anti-hero) arrives after secondary folks take their place, waiting for the star attraction.
Places – Where should the different pieces of the story take place? I lean heavily on pictures for this one, studying details and trying to create the keystones for the story. This is a great moment to mimic moods and tone with those locales.
Events – What are the major happenings that change or shape the story? Thinking about their ripple effects lets me see the big picture while also adding secondary storylines. I imagine them as rocks in a pond and the rings those rocks make when dropped become the beats of the story.
Imagery – What are the governing images in the story? Even though this one isn’t a novel in verse, I am forever changed by the idea of an image system, something I first picked up through Cordelia Jensen’s awesome article. (SO excited to take a mini-course with her at Highlights this summer.) Click HERE for the full article but essentially establishing images and language that mesh and mean something help establish a lyrical continuity throughout the work.
Once these ingredients are all dumped into the proverbial mixing bowl, it's time to cook the story and plan ahead.
My meandering path from a wild idea to a full-fledged novel that will hopefully see the light of day, and a few bookshelves and nightstands.