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  1. Book Review: Save the Cat!

    July 31, 2016 by Diane

    Save the Cat!

    As ye who follow this blog already know, I’m rewriting my first novel. It’s a manuscript I wrote one November as part of the National Novel Writing challenge—fifty thousand words in thirty days—all written by the seat of my pants.

    Not surprisingly, it’s fifty thousand words that don’t add up to a solid plot.

    After reading this plotless draft, I knew I had a lot of work ahead, but not a clue as to how to rewrite the mess. It had major problems, but I didn’t know specifically why.

    The ship was sinking, and I was ready to bail.

    Enter Blake Snyder.

    Blake Snyder was a successful screenwriter who wrote Save the Cat!, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat! Strikes Back! If there’s anyone who knows anything about plot, it’s a successful screenwriter.

    “Save the Cat” is a term for the scene in the movie where, as Snyder puts it, “…we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

    Blake Snyder’s secret to a successful story.

    Snyder realized that every great screenplay can be broken down into fifteen “beats.” These beats set up the story, force the hero to change, and propel the hero to the moment of win, lose, or draw. Without these beats, the screenplay lacks a spine, lacks a character arc, lacks a compelling story.

    Each beat occurs at set points in the script, and Snyder pins it down to the specific pages, starting with the opening image, down to the final moment, with all the turning points in between. He even came up with a beat sheet that we can all use to “beat out” our story.

    But what’s the story about?

    Good question. If you haven’t nailed the answer, you can’t beat out the plot. Snyder gives clues to help writers narrow down the theme and then come up with a solid “logline” that sums up the story in one sentence. Once the writer has a grasp of the theme and the logline, it’s a matter of mapping out the beats, and breaking the beats into scenes.

    At last! A map to the treasure!

    Now I knew what to look for, and where to look. To plot my novel, I asked myself:

    • Is the opening image opposite from the closing image?
    • Is the theme stated on page X?
    • Did I set up the hero’s world on pages X – XX?
    • Is there a moment that changes that world, and a moment when the hero makes a conscious choice to change course?
    • Is there a clear shift into Acts II and III?
    • Do the “bad guys close in,” is there a “dark moment of the soul,” do I reveal a solution to stories A and B?

    And so on…

    I know, sounds like a lot to take in. But Snyder simplifies the process. He gives examples from real movies. I recommend that you do what I did: with beat sheet in hand, and some DVDs of movies in the genre you’re writing, map the beats. They’re all there, just like Snyder promised.

    As I read Save the Cat!, light bulbs went off in my brain. All of this applies to novel writing! Just change the page numbers for each beat to match the number of pages in the novel I’m rewriting. 

    How?

    Enter Jessica Brody.

    On her site, she provides a template you can download for novelists. Fill in the number of words your novel will be, and the template automatically updates the page numbers to correspond with Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats.

    But what if you’re a pantser, not a plotter?

    As a seat-of-the-pants writer, am I selling out by following something that sounds formulaic? Here’s the way I look at it: a jazz musician improvises on a melody in a specific key; a dancer improvises based on the music. The form is the bowl that holds whatever recipe we dream up and whip together.

    Just get the book!

    I can’t recommend Save the Cat! highly enough. No matter where you are in the process of writing a novel or script—from first draft to rewrite—trust me, Blake Snyder is the guide you want for your journey.

    In fact, buy all three books. Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies gives a complete breakdown of the fifteen beats for movies, by genre, for “every story ever told.” Save the Cat! Strikes Back! elaborates on the process of building scenes, and offers a slew of advice for when you get into trouble.


  2. Book Review: The Germ Files

    February 28, 2016 by Diane

    The Germ Files

    Jason Tetro spent fifteen years researching microbiology at the University of Ottawa, so he’s a germ expert. Or a hypochondriac. Being an expert hypochondriac myself, I opened this book with some trepidation after reading the bold red type on the back cover: “SOME GERMS ARE OUT TO GET US.”

    Yikes.

    I plunged bravely onward, opening the book at random to a page about honey. With its proteins, antioxidants, minerals, fructose, glucose, sucrose and fermented antimicrobials, raw honey can attack bacteria known to cause cavities. Sweet! But wait, that’s not all. Once swallowed, it prevents heartburn and damage to the stomach wall from acid production. How cool is that! And just how does honey manage these miraculous feats? Because in it’s raw form (that’s unpasteurized, folks), it’s fermented, containing several good bacteria and their byproducts.

    Byproducts? Oh, geez. I don’t want to know.

    Flipping to another page, I discovered that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, two species of probiotics, not only help you digest food, they release a plethora of vitamins and minerals in the gut, help prevent the onset of the trots, and…check this out…keep us calm. And oh, by the way, they seek out and destroy bacteria “known to cause rotting and human infection.”

    “GET ME A BOTTLE!” I hollered to no one in particular. And then this caught my eye:

    Where do the people who produce probiotics for consumption find their bacteria? Well, in milk or some fermented material…maybe.

    Or human feces.

    Wait! What!?

    Specifically, baby feces. What better subject for gathering specimens than an infant with its gut full of strong bacterial species.

    Feeling woozy yet?

    Fear not. After all the testing in the laboratory to see if said feces bacteria can survive stomach acid, bile, and loss of oxygen, and have the ability to cling to human cells in the digestive track while dueling with potential pathogens and not harming its human host in the process, those who remain victorious are used for probiotic development. The end result is far, far removed from that sweet little baby’s behind.

    Whew.

    This book is filled with fascinating tidbits. From hygiene to beauty products, health, food, diet, childcare and yes, even sex, the author does a bang-up job of explaining how germs impact us for the good or ill, where they come from, how they live (and die), how they protect us, and how to avoid their harm. And he does so in a highly readable, entertaining yet informative fashion.

    If you want to live in harmony with those 137 trillion freeloaders that you’re harboring, read this book.


  3. Book Review: The Secret to Peak Productivity

    February 7, 2016 by Diane

    The Secret to Peak Productivity

    If there’s a secret to peak productivity, I want to know what it is, because I’m overwhelmed by all the things I want to do, need to do, and would do if I had the time. So when I saw this book in the library, I snatched it and scurried home.

    The secret? A Productivity Pyramid based on a version of Maslow’s Pyramid. Who’s Maslow? The brainiac who spelled out the five levels to self-actualization, numero uno being our basic needs. Until those are met, we can’t move up the pyramid.

    The Productivity Pyramid works the same way. Until we master the first four levels, we can’t reach the fifth, the realm of possibility. And what are those five levels? Read on.

    Level 1: Physical Organization

    Are you a clutter bug? If so, you might not be as productive or relaxed as you could be if you had easy access to what you need when you need it, and a clear space for clear thinking. Luckily, I’m obsessive about neatness, so this step I’ve conquered. But if you’re not a neat-freak like me, have no fear: you can use the three T’s to sort the mess:

    • To toss: stuff you don’t need. Like greasy fast-food wrappers and expired coupons.
    • To do: stuff you need to take action on. Like…bills.
    • To keep: all that important stuff you need to file away. Like your 2001 tax return.

     

    Level 2: Electronic Organization

    Are you overwhelmed by emails? Yeah, me too. What to do? The author suggests setting up electronic files to sort your emails into, which is highly appealing to those of us with OCD. Just make sure that all those filed emails aren’t piling up like invisible clutter. Also, limit the number of times you check your email, no matter how addicting it is to check. Three times, tops, should do it. I’ll add one more tip: unsubscribe to all those newsletters that you don’t have time to read. Like the one about how to submit queries to agents, when you haven’t even started writing your novel.

    Level 3: Time Management

    Here’s the step I want to master.  How does one get a handle on managing time? By utilizing the three P’s:

    • Plan: all the stuff you want, need, and have to work on. Of course, this could take a shit-load of time if you have a never-ending to-do list.
    • Prioritize: decide what’s most important, then next, and so on. Surfing the web probably doesn’t qualify as # 1, 2 and 3. Contrary to what you and I might think, we don’t need to know everything about everything on the internet, now.
    • Perform: commit to doing all that stuff, starting with the most important. Hint: it’s not Twitter.

     

    Level 4: Activity-Goal Alignment

    Here’s some interesting questions: Is whatever you’re doing, or adding to your to-do lists, or spending your time on, in alignment with your goals? Do you even know your goals? Hmm. This is another step I could brush up on.

    Level 5: Possibility

    More questions: What do you want to do or be? What’s the big picture of your life? Well… um…hmm. Time for the five E’s:

    • Enjoy: spend time doing what you loved to do but stopped doing. Sleeping doesn’t count.
    • Engage: spend time with people, friends, family, community. Yep, that means socializing, my fellow introverts.
    • Enable: spend time taking care of your health, home, and welfare. Get out of that chair for the love of God.
    • Evolve: spend time taking whatever you currently enjoy doing to the next level. That doesn’t mean more chocolate.
    • Explore: spend time seeking out new challenges. Yes, that means (gulp) stepping outside of your comfort zone.

     

    Now, you might be thinking: all of these action steps are well and good, but who’s got the time to do them? Just reading about the T’s and P’s and E’s makes my head spin.

    Well, I discovered one more tidbit of wisdom in the book. And it’s on the last page.

    Are you ready?

    Drum roll, please…

    Stop saying: “I don’t have the time.” Instead, say: “I had more important tasks on my list,” or “I have other priorities.” So that you’re living in the world of choice management, rather than time management.

    And that, my friends, is the biggest secret of all.