The salty little title of this post came from a conversation I had with an author I was working with who was citing all the many excellent theories she had dedicatedly studied—including Save the Cat—and was working diligently to incorporate into her WIP, but still struggling in our work together to find the heart of her story.
Let me say right out of the gate that this is not an attack on the Save the Cat theory of writing and storytelling. I’m actually a fan of screenwriter Blake Snyder’s system (and Jessica Brody’s adaptation for novel writers). I’m a fan of Michael Hauge‘s Six-stage Plot Structure. I’m a fan of the Hero’s Journey. The W plot structure. Three-act story structure.
All these theories of writing are wonderful tools for authors.
But that’s all they are: tools. Where I often see authors get wrapped around the axle is in maintaining a rigid devotion to these or any system of writing or storytelling theory.
Why the Cat Can’t Help You Write
The author I was working with wasn’t doing anything wrong and hadn’t failed to understand the theories she was working with. She was just too rigidly trying to follow and incorporate all these systems, and as a result was freezing up her creative freedom, her voice, her style—and her story. She was lost in her left brain at the expense of her right brain, the font of creativity.
She had to be reminded that she knew this stuff, that she knew her story, she knew her characters. That she had done the work and it was a part of her and of her creative process, and she could let it all go in digging deeper in our work together in bringing the story to life.
“Fuck the cat!” I burst out on one call, trying to convey that idea to her. (Sorry for the down-and-dirty vernacular there, folks—but editing can be a very down-and-dirty business sometimes.)
None of these writing-craft systems, or any storytelling theory, is a magic bullet or a one-size-fits-all formula. If they were, every writer who followed them would be a major bestseller. Obviously that’s not the case, and it’s not because you’re not adhering to them well enough.
Imagine learning to dance. You study countless steps and moves, you practice them for endless hours, but when the time comes to perform the dance, if you are consciously trying to think of your training and choreography you’re going to trip over your own feet. It’s like having your instructor dogging your every step as you make it. No one can dance like that.
And no one can write like that.
Writing systems like the ones I mention above are how you learn story craft and improve your knowledge, skill, and ability. It’s the equivalent of learning the choreography—running through it over and over.
But when you sit down to write your story, you have to let all that go. The reason you put so much time into studying any pursuit is so that when the time comes to do the thing, you can forget about all that training and let muscle memory and intuition take over.
That’s the spark and the life of your creative product, honed by all the knowledge and experience you have accrued. But you have to let go and trust that you have done so. That it’s all there, part of the fabric of who you are as an artist and a craftsperson.
Read more: “Finding the ‘Right’ Way to Write”
Not long ago I interviewed Barry Eisler for my How Writers Revise feature, and among the many gems he let drop during out conversation was one that really grabbed my focus: that mastering any skill or craft involves three different ways of acquiring the skill: theory, drill, and free practice.
To oversimplify Barry’s explanation:
- Theory is learning the craft—in the case of writing, that means reading craft books, taking webinars and classes and workshops, attending conferences, etc.
- Drill involves what Barry calls “looking for the magic trick behind the magic”: analyzing other stories to figure out how craft applies in action.
- Practice is doing it—butt in seat, words on page.
Forget the Cat
All these many writing theories, systems, techniques—as helpful and insightful as they may be—are just step one: the foundation. They’re how you begin to understand your art form and the skills you’re trying to master: Narrative structure. Character development. Plotting. Establishing and building stakes. Creating and maintaining suspense and tension. Point of view. Voice…and the countless other elements involved in weaving the complex tapestry of story.
Then you have to get out and see them in the real world, how they work—or don’t. This is what I call “training your editor brain,” learning to objectively assess other people’s stories to see what works well and what doesn’t, why or why not, and how the author did or didn’t achieve their ends for the story.
This is where you start to hone your skill at not only diagnosing the problem, where there may be one, but how to address it to strengthen a story.
I structured my book Intuitive Editing around this approach, breaking each story element into its own chapter, and each chapter into How to Find It and How to Fix It sections to help you spot these areas and then address them—and I created a whole course designed to teach authors how to read analytically.
Read more: “How to Read Like an Editor”
And then you take all these skills—what you’ve learned academically and theoretically, what you’ve learned from analyzing other people’s stories—and you write your own. But not by rigidly applying all these principles to your work as you’re creating it. Instead, forget all that theory and write. Don’t hamper your creative freedom by getting bogged down in mechanics.
Forget the steps. Just dance.
Read more: “Leave Me Alone; I Know What I’m Doing”
If you have put in the time and effort on steps one and two—theory and drill—you have internalized these concepts and they are now tools in your toolbox, ready to hand when it’s time for practice: actually doing the writing.
When to Call in the Cat
There is a time to give those tools the spotlight: when you might focus more deliberately and consciously on the elements of craft and how to use them in your writing. But that’s not in the drafting process.
It’s in diagnosing what may or may not be working in the story as effectively as it could, and troubleshooting those areas—aka editing.
It’s in honing and fine-tuning to make sure the story on the page is conveying the version in your head—aka revising.
Read more: “The Three Perspectives of Effective Storytelling”
That’s another reason the second step—drill—is such a valuable skill to develop. Learning to identify what’s working well and what isn’t in other people’s stories—in which you have built-in objectivity that every writer lacks in their own work—is how you gain skill in seeing these areas in your own writing.
And learning to diagnose why something isn’t working, and how it could be more effective, is how you gain skill in addressing the areas of your own stories that may not be working as well as they could.
As valuable as the various schools of thought, writing systems, formulas, and techniques may be, no single one of them is a how-to manual—not for every author.
That’s what finding yourself as a writer and forging your writing career means: figuring out what tool you need when, and knowing how to use it when you do. And that’s different for every writer, every story.
That third step—the practice of writing—is one the cat can’t take with you. You have to shut the door on the cat—and all the other writing systems and theories and techniques you’ve learned—and find your own way, trusting that you’ve internalized what you may need of others’ system to be able to create what works for you.
Learn your craft. Experience it through others’ stories. Then create your own.
Talk to me, authors. How do you use the writing-craft tools you’ve amassed? What role do other people’s systems or techniques play in your finding your own? Do you try to follow a formula, or is your style more intuitive—or based on an amalgam of what has worked for others?
If you want to learn more about analyzing other authors’ work, I’m teaching this year as part of Lorin Oberwerger’s Writing Success series webinars, and you can join us August 31 for “How to Train Your Editor Brain,” a two-and-a-half-hour live online course (with playback for registrants) where we’ll not only dive deep into how to read analytically to learn to identify and address areas of weakness in stories, but feature “live edits”: Attendees will submit a page of a WIP and we’ll practice these skills in helping authors see their own work more clearly.
I’ll also be teaching my popular “Five Steps to an Airtight Plot” on July 20, a straightforward, practical approach adaptable for both plotters and pantsers alike to set you up for success in your first draft, and keep you out of dead ends, detours, and stalled-out stumbling blocks. This course features hands-on exercises, and by the end of it you’ll have a road map for the journey of your story that will keep you on track all the way through “The End.”