Middle Madness

I think I’m over the hump with the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed (for a quick blurb see here).

Story structure is hard. And while this book is much better structured than early drafts of my previous novel, it had two major problems: the ending and the first part of Act II. Late (very late) in the second draft I cracked the ending. So that just left the middle.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the biggest comment from my awesome freelance editors’ (I use three: Renni Browne, Shannon Roberts, and R.J. Cavender) involved problems in this middle section. It’s not that the scenes wen’t good or exciting, but mostly that I fell prey to a personal need to sneak Napoleon into the story (time travel seems to call out for the most pivotal personality of the modern era) and this resulted in a bad case of “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (or a variant thereof).

So what is the dreaded Double Mumbo Jumbo? Most specifically it’s the phase coined in Blake Snyder‘s Save the Cat book (which I discuss here). DMJ is invoked by throwing two unrelated implausible things into the same story. However, my specific problem is really a cousin, what my editor Renni calls “1+1=1/2”. This is, the idea that doing the same improbable thing twice in the same book isn’t twice as good as doing it once, but actually half as good. Even if the thing is cool. So a kind of DMJ.

And I was doing it in my middle.

Still, this section of my story accomplished a lot of other things too. And I had to figure out how to rework it to keep as much of the good as I could, avoid a DMJ — and not make TOO much work for myself in terms of repercussions later in the book. Thinking about various ways to restructure, particularly given the constraints of my story, my elaborate time travel scheme, and history itself, was quite the brain buster. I thought on it all day for at least a week. So hard one Friday that I literally gave myself a migraine headache! I found myself pondering time travel so aggressively that I became confused as to what year it was — and then my vision began to shimmer (migraine).

I probably outlined 15 different scenarios and talked about countless more. This part of the writing process is very peculiar. I often end up with a half-baked scenario that satisfies some goals, but just doesn’t really work. One quickly reaches a point where no new ideas surface internally and you need to shake it up. I then find it extremely useful to talk with a limited pool of friends who have read the book in it’s latest incarnation. This allows me to efficiently go over the possible elements. Then we talk out the problems. By vetting numerous failed scenarios it’s often possible to collect enough different disconnected ideas that a single coherent new plot can be jig-sawed together. Or at least coherent enough to polish out in the writing.

This last week, I even twice resorted to writing out (as prose) incomplete outlines to see if they worked. The first revealed itself as a miserable failure. The second made it to the finish.

Now it’s off to friends and editors to see how it passes muster.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Save the Cat – To Formula or Not To Formula

I’m always reading books on writing and storytelling. In fact, I read three this week. One of them was Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. This post isn’t a review per se of that book, but more some mental ramblings on issues it raised.

First an observation about the nature of “advice” books and the possible career of sceenwriter. Mr. Snyder was (he unfortunately died suddenly recently) a noted screenwriter, having sold over a dozen major spec scripts, at least two for over a million dollars each. He worked on roughly 100 screenplays in some capacity. Yet, only two of these have even been made into movies.

Eeek gads! If this is success as a screenwriter it has to be creatively bankrupt. Unlike novels, screenplays aren’t a medium themselves. In fact, I find them boring as shit. They’re just a weird but essential initial sketch of a film. Now don’t think I consider them unimportant. A production can easily ruin a great script, but it’s exceedingly rare to take a bad one and make a good movie out of it. They’re certainly the single most important element of any film. Great screenwriters add immeasurably to a film. Look at the different between Empire Strikes Back and Phantom Menace. Personally I think it was Lawrence Kasdan or some other writer who was NOT George Lucas.

In any case, having almost none of your creative work see the light of day has to be depressing. I’m also guessing that in recent years Mr. Snyder made more money selling his books/lectures/advice ABOUT writing screenplays than in actually writing the things. Hehe.

Cover of

Cover of Wedding Crashers

But that was what I intended to write about. Save the Cat is essentially a book about making your story (screenplay) correspond fairly rigidly to the classic Hollywood three act structure. It even goes so far as to break (every) film into roughly a dozen beats and assign exact page numbers in which they should occur. For example: “theme stated” (page 5) or “catalyst” (page 12). All of this can be found on his website.

Now there is some real merit to this structure and it’s certainly very useful and entertaining to be able to breakdown movies like this. In fact, if you want a giggle go to this page where you will find a breakdown of the guilty-pleasure comedy The Wedding Crashers. It’s highly amusing to see a film this silly (but admittedly funny) stripped down to include a Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis dialectic. And I do admit if you are trying to write and sell high concept comedies in today’s marketing executive driven world, this whole formula has to be the way to go.

But I wonder how useful it is to try and fit EVERY story into this exact mould. You could say actually that Save the Cat represents a thesis: yes all movies should follow this fixed structure. The antithesis of course is that interesting ones, the example he uses is Memento, should not. Now Mr. Snyder’s conclusion is literally “Fuck Momento!” (actual quote from the book). But I think that Christopher Nolan is laughing to the bank — just not on that film! — he had to remake it using dreams inside of memory loss.

I myself am thinking that a synthesis is in order. A new universe blending both perspectives. The classic structure does encapsulate A LOT of solid lessons about audience expectations for story telling. Perhaps one should use it more as a toolbox or set of guidelines.

This is specifically relevant in my new novel, Untimed. It does to a large extent follow the classic structure (although certain not with such rigid page number demarkations). But there are questions. I have two ideas in the book that could be considered thesis and antithesis, but their advocates are far more muddled than formula would require. Do I restructure and state each in a more obvious way? Likewise, as is typical with me, my ending does not neatly wrap up all questions, villians, and the like. There is climax, but it’s messy. I like ambiguity, and I have gone to great length to construct a world order sufficiently complex that not all mystery is to be solved in one book. Doing so leads to the standard Hollywood sequel problem, where the followups are just more of the same but missing the best part: the discovery inherent in beginnings. If you haven’t answered all the questions, there is still more to learn.

But a squeaky voice in the back of my head wonders: do I need a more Hollywood ending?

Food for thought.

For other posts on writing, click here.

Or find out about my novels:

The Darkening Dream and Untimed.