Not long ago, I experienced an epiphany—one of those sudden moments of revelation that James Joyce compared to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
It came to me, as such godsends often do, under the most commonplace of circumstances—a tutorial with a student who alerted me to the existence of a screenwriting manual humbly entitled Save the Cat.
The book, perfectly designed for the Millennial Generation, is a wonder—so clear in its step-by-step instructions that you don’t even have to read it!
A quick glance at the table of contents tells you everything you need to know.
Make sure your hero does something nice in his introductory scene.
Include the fifteen plot points every script must have.
Take care to place those plot points on the correct page.
Do all these things, and you can’t fail to produce a guaranteed-to-sell screenplay!
If I’d only known!
Oh, the wasted years!
Watching all those movies!
Reading all those scripts!
Fumbling around, clumsily trying to teach myself the craft of the screenplay when all I’d have had to do is peruse Save the Cat.
I’m now embarked on a new adventure as a writer.
I’m attempting to write my first novel.
(Well, my second actually. I did my first back in the eighth grade, but the manuscript has—much to the regret of literary historians, I’m sure—been lost.)
I’m attempting to write my first novel, and I’ve vowed not to repeat the mistakes I made when I fumbled my way into the screen trade.
For help, I’ve turned to an old friend.
Acclaimed novelist Ron Carlson.
Author of ten or twelve books of fiction and director of the creative writing program at UC Irvine, Ron has published what I’m hoping is the fiction writer’s answer to Save the Cat.
He calls it Ron Carlson Writes a Story.
An odd title.
I myself would have preferred something along the lines of The Twelve- Step System for Writing Great Fiction.
Let’s see what Ron considers the first step in writing a story.
Finding an idea.
Well, not finding it so much as selecting it.
Ron insists that every experience, whether the author’s own or someone else’s, is a potential seed for a story.
That’s pretty vague, Ron. Can you be more specific?
If an idea, an experience, an image or an event matters to the author, then Ron feels it’s worthy of exploration.
But what are the rules? What are the five elements of a great story idea?
There are no rules, Ron insists, and every idea is different.
All you have to do, he claims, is choose an idea or experience that you the author care about—something that you yourself would like to read about.
Ron chooses, as the subject of his eponymous story, the time he lost a mattress off the back of his pick-up truck.
…I know Ron knows what he’s doing, but…how many of us are going to want to write about the day we lost a mattress?
How is his choice going to guide us in making our own choices?
Well, perhaps he’ll be more helpful when it comes to developing a character or crafting a plot.
No. Apparently not.
He claims that when he wrote the first word of his piece, he had no idea who was speaking and even less idea where the story was headed!
He insists that writing a story is a journey—a journey of discovery, a journey that requires focus, attention and effort—and that the most important thing a writer must do after writing the first sentence is stay in the room.
Resist the temptation to refill your coffee cup.
Ignore the television screen that beckons from the den.
Forget about the chores crying to be done.
The carpet that needs vacuuming.
The lawn that needs mowing.
Barricade your mind against all the wonderful excuses you can invent not to write and stay in the room.
Stay in the room and write the next sentence and the next and the next.
Stay in the room and watch the characters reveal themselves.
Stay in the room and watch the story unfold.
Where are the steps, Ron?
Give us some rules!
Some blanks to fill in!
Some dots to connect!
It’s hard for me to admit because Ron is such a good friend, but the fact of the matter is…
I’d hoped for Seven Days To a Better Novel, and all he’s given me is some malarkey about the mystery of creation and some advice about how to nurse that process along.
I have to face it.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story offers me next to no guidance on how to write my own story.
Do you suppose the For Dummies series includes a volume on crafting fiction?
I certainly hope so.
In fact, I’m going to check into right away.
But in the meantime, I think I’ll send Ron a copy of Save the Cat.
Blake Snyder could certainly teach him a thing or two.
Yes, Ron can claim rave reviews from shabby journals like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but he’s never written anything to compare to Snyder’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
After all, what are a Booklist Starred Review, an NDEA Fellowship in Fiction, a National Society of Arts and Letters Award, or a Ploughshares Cohen Prize alongside a Golden Raspberry for Worst Writer of the Year?