Friday, January 7, 2011

How to Start Your Book

Okay, so recently, I turned in a novel I'd written to my agent. She read it (loved it--phew!) and gave me some feedback. Her only comment? It's going to blow your mind. Are you ready? Mind-blowing tarp all set up?

Really?

She said: "It starts too fast."

Okay, stop the pony. Starts TOO FAST?? Isn't that what we're always told? Toss the reader into the action? Grip them with the first word, the first sentence, the first scene??

Now, I'll admit that I'm very sensitive about the way my novels start. I don't like it when someone tells me to start my novels in a different place. Since I don't write in order, I don't write the beginning first, and I feel like I have a really organic process for finding the opening scene of my books.

So my agent told me this particular book was opening too fast. I re-read my first chapter, and saw her point.

Then I proceeded to write a different book for a different deadline. The problem of this other novel went into the notebook of Impossibilities I'm Going To Figure Out (see Monday's post)--which is really just my brain.

Then I finished the deadline novel. Sent it to betas.

And I had to face the opening-too-fast novel. So I read through it. Made some light edits, etc. Could not for the life of me see a different way to start it. So I did what any writer would do: I opened a blank document.

I was going to write a new first chapter, dang it!

And I did. Like 10 times. They all sucked. None of them were right. Or even close.

I could feel the haze coming, the need for sour patch kids and bacon and a good long vacay from writing.

Then the fabulous girls in my critique group gave me a book that changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE.

I think they were skeptical that I would actually read the book. But I proved them wrong! Ha! I even filled out NOTE CARDS and MADE A FREAKING STORYBOARD.



That's right. Believe it (picture proof, FTW!). Now, those of you who've been here a while know that I simply don't do this. I don't outline. In fact, the mere thought of it makes me shudder and throw salt over my shoulder to ward off evil spirits.

Well, guess what? This book that changed my life? It showed me how to outline in a way that makes sense to me. MAKES TOTAL SENSE!

I know by now you're all screaming: How?! What book??! Spill, Johnson!!


SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It's about screenwriting--and there's something magical about relating outlining and story construction to movies. I can "see" it. I can watch a movie and "see" everything laid out in only a matter of hours. I can't do that when I read.

So I read SAVE THE CAT, and voila! Just like that, I realized the missing piece of my book: Beat One.

That's right. Out of 15 beats, I was missing the first freaking one! And since The Fabulous Blake Snyder tells you what should have in each beat, I could suddenly "see" how my book needed to start.

I wrote the first chapter the next day.

SAVE THE CAT people. It will save your sanity. Buy it for all your crit mates. Get it yourself. Read it. Love it. Cherish it.

And I made my own Blake Snyder beat sheet for novels using the resources Blake has on his website.

Do you have a book on writing that changed your life? Do tell.
(This may or may not but definitely is the one I've read the most of... I don't like to read to learn. So sue me.)

Also, I wrote a letter to my teen self, and it's up on the Dear Teen Me blog today. I will seriously send you good karma and kiss your babies and/or critique your query letters if you'll go comment on it so I don't look like a complete tool. Deal?

97 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

I've never done the outlining or story boarding things either - may have to try this one! Thanks for the tip :)

TheCreativeMrsK said...

I'm about at this stage of my novel writing process... Sounds like I might have to pick up a copy. :-D

Yay for visuals and writing aids! Can't wait to read your letter! (And props to you for writing all of these books.)

Laura Pauling said...

I absolutely Save the Cat! I love how he describes high concept and writing the log line. Love it. And I think his outline is great and the way he explains the storyboard. I agree, it's a must have!

Anita Saxena said...

I'm about to rewrite my novel again, but before I did I wanted to educate myself more about structure, story flow etc... And I've been actively looking for books to learn from. I really appreciate this suggestion. Thank you!

Natalie Aguirre said...

That's so cool. I'm going to check it out. I read a book on screenwriting--I can't remember the name but it's on my Goodreads list--that was good. Here's a link to a screenwriter/author blog who talks about the index card method of outlining your story: http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/

I'm going to try it as I'm developing my new story idea. Hope it'll save so many revisions. And in my first manuscript, Michelle Fry at Alfred Knof told me I started my story too much into the action. Once I revised it, I saw she was right and my critiques were so much better. Glad you're being so productive.

Theresa Milstein said...

Your'e the 2nd person to recommend Save the Cat. Is this when you were posting about trying to outline way back when?

On Writing and Hooked were my two big ones. Hooked got me thinking about inciting incident and story worthy problem needed in chapter one. On Writing had me thinking about character.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

LOL. I feel your pain about your chapter. Been there. I've vaguely heard about the book. Definitely going to check it out. I can't think of any specific book. I love most of the ones I have--some more than others.

Trisha Wolfe said...

Starts too slow??? Yup, never heard that before LOL This books sounds wonderful, I WILL check it out. Thanks for the awesome post! I learn something new everyday =)

Teresa aka JW said...

I'm into storyboarding and outlining. I'm ordering it today!

thanks

Samita (Book Purring) said...

Save the Cat sounds fantastic, plus how adorable is the kitty on the cover. Still, I think my only future is to read books not write them hehe.

Lydia Sharp said...

OH ELANA I WANT TO HUG YOU! I have been screaming praises for that book since I bought it over a year ago. STRUCTURE. IT'S NOT JUST FOR SCREENWRITERS. I can honestly say that book changed my writing for the better, in ways I never thought possible. I can't even... just... I'll be here all day if you don't stop me now. JUST READ THE BOOK. MULTIPLE TIMES. UNTIL YOU KNOW IT BETTER THAN YOUR OWN CHILDREN.

E.J. Wesley said...

Captain Obvious would like to offer up Stephen King's 'On Writing'. Best book on the overall craft I've read. Bird by Bird is very inspirational, and should probably be read by everyone (writers or no).

Being a dog person, the title of the book turns me off a little, but I think I'll check it out. :)

Happy New Year, Elana!

Liza said...

I have this book on my list to buy...but the budget is tight. At least now it will go to the top of the list. Favorite writing book...Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott...not that I think of it, it's time to read that again too.

Jen Daiker said...

I just want this novel so I can have it on my bookshelf and people think I really am a crazy cat lady!!!! I totally want this book! Thanks Elana I'm glad it's a life changer!

I loved Stephen King's On Writing. I would say it changed my life. Not necessarily for the content regarding teaching, just the way he talks to you and tells you his life. Telling you to open your mind, broaden your thinking, unleash the writing beast and never look back.

I too was never an outliner until I finished a few manuscripts and realized outlining after it was written was much easier. I think Save the Cat might save my technique as well!

HaPpY fRiDaY!

Kelly Bryson said...

Hey Elana- My fav book on writing is a book on screenwriting, too. STORY by Robert McKee. It's A-MAZ-ING. I promise. My library had it, I bet yours does too. It covers everything from character development to any kind of story structure you could think of and movie examples of all. Completely blew me away. It's one of three writing books that I loved enough to buy.

And of course I'll go read your letter to teenage you. All I ask in return is a lifetime of servitude, starting on Monday. You'd get the weekend off- isn't that generous? ;)

Magan said...

EVERYONE in my RWA group has been talking about this book and I still haven't bought it...I guess what you're saying is that you are now using your mind control to make me buy this book?

*eats bacon, puts in Amazon cart*
D'OH

Christine Danek said...

Holy freakin' cow. This is how I learned how to put a story together--screenwriting. I see things visually, and honestly, self help books (for the most part) make me haze over (pretty much I want to poke my eyes with hot pokers). I need to see it. I can see it in movies.
I will have to get this, pronto!
Thanks and good luck. I'm pretty sure you write nothing that sucks.
Just sayin'

salarsenッ said...

I'm going to order this book right now, well after I finish this comment.

There are so many books that changed my life but I'd say the first two would be Structure and Plot by James Scott Bell, and then Pride and Prejudice by (my female heroine) Jane Austen. (I reread it as an adult, and the story, structure, and character development leaped out at me. It was amazing.

owlandsparrow said...

BAH! The dreaded beginning—mine started WAY too slow, and it was chock full of stuff I loved. Alas. After reading Beth's (frexing incredible) book, and knowing that her (amazing) first chapter was originally the third chapter, I found the inspiration and courage to chop off my darlings and start the story in the right place.

At least, I think it's the right place. It's working MUCH better, from what I can tell, but…perhaps I should read SAVE THE CAT just to make sure!

Of course, being the cat-lover I totally am, I think I would read that book based on the title alone. How fortunate that it's actually helpful. :)

Thanks for the recommendation, and for sharing this with us!

—Kayla Olson

*heads over to teen me website*

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Bet I'm missing more than one beat!

Misty Waters said...

Well, my most recent life saving book probably isn't as cool as yours, but I just finished Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I learned that I STILL don't know as much as I thought I did! Ah well . . . better I find out early in the game, right?!

Heather Simone said...

I absolutely love "Save the Cat!" I use Blake Snyder's "Beat Sheet" with each new novel. I love it!

Michelle McLean said...

oooo I'll have to check it out :D

jbchicoine said...

Thanks so much for the tip!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Glad to read that you found a way over the hump and fixed that first chapter. Way to go. I don't read writing books (long story), but it's good to know this one helped you. And that's what's important about those things. =o)

Jenilyn Tolley said...

I just realized that my beginning starts too fast as well. I'm going to have to try to find a copy of that. Thanks for the recommendation!

Jamie Grey said...

I think Save the Cat is like my writing bible! I am *still* learning so much from it and it's made my writing so much better. (Well, at least I hope so!)

I'm so glad it worked for you! Hmm...it's been a while, I might need to give myself a refresher :)

VR Barkowski said...

Ha! I always get big arrows ten pages in from critiquers saying, "Your story starts here." Clearly, I need this book.

On Writing changed my life. I used to believe "real" writers sat down and the words flowed. I could never be a writer because I had to mull over and mold each sentence. King showed me writing doesn't come easy, even to him. That's when i started believing in the dream.

Jonathon Arntson said...

I was not expecting that! I buy the validity of SAVE THE CAT, but Elana, there's no way you storyboarded. No freaking way.

Matthew Rush said...

I have heard amazing things about this, now I definitely have to get it. I bet this would really help my novel, because while I know the writing is pretty good, I have some major concerns about plot/pacing/story.

Off to read your letter ...

Lydia K said...

That sounds like a fun book to read. I've been chatting with other writers about screenplays and how they distill a novel down to the key points. I may have to get this, thanks Elana!

Lois D. Brown said...

Confession: I haven't read a book on writing since college when I pretty much overdosed on them. BUT, I think I'm ready to try it again. Thanks for a good place to start.

Little Ms J said...

I'm ordering it today!

Becca said...

Hmm, I may have to read this. One manuscript needs a little work on the beginning. My other I can't seem to get a good start at all.

My favorite writing book is "No Plot, No Problem," only because it taught me to write even when I didn't like what I was writing.

And I could use the good karma (and heck, a query critique too) so I'll go comment on your letter.

Elana Johnson said...

Jon, I have the board! I will take a picture and add it to the post. Believe it, brutha!

And am I a terrible person if I have Bird by Bird and On Writing and I haven't read them? I have them...they just don't call to me. (I am so shallow.)

Krista said...

I'm ordering it today! As I write my books are "movies in my head" so this sounds entirely relate-able to me. Thanks for the tip, Elana.

Kristi Helvig said...

I haven't heard of Save the Cat, but will definitely get it. My fave writing book so far is On Writing.

I was a panster with my first ms, but outlined my new one before writing it--I can't even describe what a huge difference it made. I'm flying through revisions this time, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel on each page!

Angela Felsted said...

I so need to read that. Openings are the hardest for me. I never seem to get them right . . . so frustrating.

Meredith said...

I haven't heard of this one, but I'm definitely picking it up! The idea of beats is awesome--I need to work on that! Glad your sanity was saved :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

"It starts too fast" is a problem i think you'd WANT to have

Charli Mac said...

The opening to my MS has been the bane of mu existence. My critique group recently mentioned Save The Cat. I am going to buy it today.

My MS currently has 7, yes 7, possible openings.

SAVE MY MS!

Marisa Hopkins said...

Starts too fast?? Interesting!! I didn't know that was possible. And I HAVE to get that book! Looks great! Thanks so much for sharing!

Tracy said...

"Save the Cat". I'm on it!

I mean, buying the book...not actually ON the cat.

Nicole Zoltack said...

I've heard about Save the Cat and visited the website before. The material on the website alone is awesome so I can only imagine that the book itself is a gem and a half.

And started too fast? Wow, that's incredible!

Susan R. Mills said...

After multiple failed attempts at outlining, I think I need this book!

Carolyn V. said...

Oh my gosh! I've heard about this book all over the place! I've gotta get it now! =)

Congrats on getting your second book to the agent. So cool!

Christine Fonseca said...

Okay, so dude...I NEED that book, I think?!?!?!

Kelly said...

I should probably do that too with the index cards. I am a visual person.
I'm reading On Writing by Stephen King right now and am loving it!

Annette Lyon said...

I hereby have a new "must read" book to add to my list.

Two books that blew my writer mind:
Scene & Structure, by Bickham
The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler

The latter was aimed at screenwriters too--thinking of a story as a movie really helps.

Shari said...

I've been looking for some new books on writing. So, this is perfect. THANKS!

Joylene Butler said...

I'm currently taking a 2-wk online screenwriters course for authors with Alex Sokoloff that has me feeling the same way: Yay, I get it!!!

Great post, Elana.

Karen Lange said...

Will have to remember that title. Always appreciate you sharing your experiences, and for now, I live that portion of my writing life through you. lol No, really I'm aiming for that place of published book and agent-y stuff, and you always have such great insight and info. Thanks a bunch!
Have a great weekend,
Karen

Patti said...

I changed where I began my novel about three billion times and in the end I went back to my original beginning, but I learned a lot in the process of all those rewrites, so I guess it wasn't a waste of time.

Heather said...

Welcome to the dark side of outling. It's wonderful here. ;) The book that changed a lot of things for me in the beginning of my writing was The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Loved it!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Okay, I'm like you - I DO NOT outline. I just don't. I've tried to be more organized, but I fail miserably each time. So...I will try this book. But only because YOU told me to! :-)

Krispy said...

Just saw that book this weekend & was tempted to get it. Maybe I will have to now if a fellow pantser is recing it! :)

There is something to be said for learning on the read after being plopped into the action, but my friend was totally telling me about a book the other day and how 100 pages in she still doesn't really know what's going on. Everything is IMMENSELY IMPORTANT, but she doesn't know why. :P

John Sankovich said...

Since I come from a screenwriting background, I have a lot of books for screenwritings. Save the Cat is one and very popular for story structure. Another one that might help is "Creating Unforgetable Characters." (I don't recall the author though) Another is "Story," which is a good one for story structure and how to develop an idea from beginning to end. A lot of the same process works for both screenwriting and novels, except for the actual format needed in the final product.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is genius. I am browsing Blake Snyder's blog now...

Patricia A. Timms said...

Thanks for the heads up on the book. I'm going to have to check it out.

It's true though, scriptwriting can definitely help book writers. I spent several years of my life writing short screenplays and using my friends while I filmed them. I even tried converting a book to a screenplay and it was hard. Hardly any of the detail in a book is required for the screenplay. I admire screenplay adapters. While some are better than others, it's the rest of the film crew that screws up the whole production.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Wow. Everyone is talking about this book! I guess I should get a copy.

Thanks for the recommendation! I struggle with outlining, too, so I'll be sure to check it out.

Katie Ganshert said...

well shoot!! I must go and get this right away!!

RaShelle said...

Elana - That's fantastic you found out where to begin your novel. I'd better go check this out for myself. Thanks!

Serenissima said...

I love using screenwriting techniques and will check this book out. There's also a great blog site loaded with screenwriting tips. It's my goto place when I'm facing a wall with my stuff.

It's: http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com

ali said...

Well, since I was the one who got you the book, you can probably guess how I feel about this subject. And I have a great big Symphony bar sitting in my desk drawer (yes, I already ate some of it!) with your name on it!

I love the love for this book, E! I just knew it would change you if you gave it the chance!

Melissa Gill said...

Okay, now I have to go get that book. I also realized recently that my book started too early. It took me a long time to figure this out because I kept hearing that you should start right in the action. But I've resisted reading save the cat, because, hello, my book's called Zombie Rabbit. The first thing that happens in the rabbit dies (not a pregnancy thing). So anyway, I'm rambling.

I've read a lot of great books on writing, but one I really like is called Thanks But This Isn't For Us by Jessica Page Morrell. It's funny, and well written, with great examples.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm writing down the title so I can check it out later! It sounds amazing.

Carol Riggs said...

Ok! that book is on my list. I never would've thought to get a screenwriting book, and now I know. Very interesting that you'd started your book "too fast" when "they" tell you to start quickly with the action. Whew, finding the perfect balance, I guess!

Holly Ruggiero said...

It sound like a visual method if I’m reading you correctly and that might work for me. I’m definitely checking it out.

Liesl said...

I just got this because Ali raved about it so much. I can't wait to read!

Colene Murphy said...

Oh no!! Pantser turned plotter! I feel doomed to the inevitable now. If Elana can turn plotter, are all the pantsers in the world doomed?! ;)

Going to pick up that book asap now though. Sounds AWESOME! So glad you found that missing piece for your novel!

Becky Wallace said...

I read, "The Plot Thickens." It was...okay. It did provide a lot of interesting ideas to build background for your characters, but it takes SO FRICKIN' LONG to do all the exercises. If I was going to do it again, I wouldn't actually write out all my answers. I'd just think about it.

A good book makes you think, right?

Elle Strauss said...

Thanks for the recommend--I'll definitely read it. I'm a fan of HOOKED by Les Edgerton.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Right on! I'm so adding that book to my list. I'm also off to comment in the hopes your crit my query. See ya'.
Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

Nicole L Rivera said...

Dude, I am totally stoked because I just totally ordered this book!!!! Can't wait for the guy (or girl) dressed in brown to deliver it. (Sorry I think I'm channeling my inner, not-yet-discovered surfer dude within today).

Happy weekend!

Blessings, Nicole.

Amber Cuadra said...

I am going to put that book on my reading list. :)

Hardygirl said...

I sooooo need this book!!! And, your storyboard is freakin' BEAUTIFUL!!!!

SF

kathrynjankowski said...

How can you know if King and Lamott don't speak to you if the books remain unread? Give 'em a chance. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Christopher Vogler wrote a book about mythic structure, THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, that's geared towards screenwriters but can be applied to fiction, too. Highly recommend it.
;-)

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Yay, I'm so happy you enjoyed Save The Cat! It is the best.

I had a few people critique my first chapter and they also told me it started too fast. They wanted to know more about my character before the action began. Of course, now I worry my opening is too boring/slow and won't capture an agent's attention. Sigh!

Janet Johnson said...

Sounds like a good one. Thanks for the recommendation. And *sigh*, I don't like to read to learn either. I'm just so glad you admitted it first. :)

Melissa said...

This book sounds absolutely awesome! I'm happy you fixed your first chapter. I'd hate for you to lose your sanity because I like coming to your blog!

GunDiva said...

I tried storyboarding and I sucked at it. Maybe I need the book, too. Thanks for the recommendation.

Tina Lynn said...

I took a class based on this book! It IS that awesome! <3 I'm still not sure it beats bacon or sour patch kids, but yeah...

Michelle said...

I WANT THE BOOK! so I'm off to find it...
thanks for the great post.
oh and yay for you finding the perfect beginning

Mary Vaughn said...

Great post! I'll have to read this one.

LTM said...

LOL! Save the cat... :D I don't have any writing books I particularly like. I read On Writing and a long time ago Elements of Style. I'll have to check this one out. Thanks Elana~ :D

Nichole Giles said...

Yeah. I still haven't gone out and found it yet, but I still intend to read that book. So glad your life has been changed forever.

Liz Fichera said...

Great title: SAVE THE CAT! Will definitely check it out.

Martha Ramirez said...

Elana, Save tha Cat is my absolute fave!! It excites me just talking about it. I have been working on a blog post to share about STC and I am def going to link you there. This was an awesome post.

I share it with all my writer friends.

Another writing book I am very passionate about is by James Scott Bell. Actually he has three writing books out and all all AWESOME. Plot and Structure is the first one I would recommend reading.
Just like Save the Cat it read as a pageturner and I couldn't put it down.
Yay! I love to meet other writer who have the same passions as me:)
Happy writing, Elana! Nice to meet you. BTW Charli Mac was the one who pointed you out:)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Okay, Elana you lit a fire under me...I will buy Save the Cat. I've read about it several times, but when it comes from you I know it's got to be good...

Happy New Year!

Valerie Ipson said...

I am currently reading Save the Cat! again. I don't know if I have anymore renewals left on it at the library, but I've had it like forever. I should just buy it.

I loved reading Bird by Bird but it won't do for you what Save the Cat! does.

Jeff King said...

Strunk and white’s element of style, and Stephen King’s book on writing, both have changes my perception of writing and given me focus.

June G said...

You're at it again. Being super helpful and offering great resources. Thanks so much!

toni said...

oooh good advice. I can see the action happening in movies, I think that's a great way to think about the story development.

woot :)

Pam Torres said...

Wow! Great timing. I just finished Jane Vandenburgh's, "Architect of the Novel" and was looking for my next book on writing to read. BTW I loved Vandenburgh's book. It really spoke to my random brain.

Heather B. Moore said...

Okay, okay. You sold me. Buying it now!

Anita Saxena said...

Hey Elana,
So I'm reading Save the Cat right now and I'm on the chapter about beats. Snyder actually denotes a specific number of pages for each beat. Since YA novels are typically longer than 110 pages, did you just double the number of pages for each beat, or did you just ignore the page number stipulation all together? I would REALLY like to hear your thoughts on this. If it's not too much trouble, my e-mail is: productofanillusion@gmail.com
Thanks!

Jen Chandler said...

I've heard of this book but forgot about it. I'm glad you mentioned it. Outlining is always a dream of mine. You know, I plan to outline but...meh...it never happens.

Writing book that changed my life? I'm going to go with "Walking on Water" by Madeleine L'Engle. I think I've read it twice a year for the past 10 years. It has taught me to be more real, more authentically ME when I write.

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