Using Books to Write a Book

For Story Structure

Halfway through my story, I stopped to wonder whether I was about to write myself into a messy, meandering plot. I had already outlined my plot points, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything or going in the wrong direction.

I did a quick search and found this incredible book on story structure called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody. Brody took Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and wrote a version applicable to novel writing. I can see how fiction writers might be put off by the idea of applying screenwriting techniques to the novel, but they shouldn’t be. A good movie is no different than a good novel in that they’re both stories. On top of that, screenwriters have nailed the art of inserting turning points in all the right places to keep audiences watching. Novelists should be doing the same.

This book totally appealed to me, not just for the cat on the cover, but because I wrote two screenplays in my twenties (a feature and a short). And although neither were worth producing, learning about the elements of a good story made watching movies and reading books a more informed experience. I became aware and critical of pacing, tension, character arc and motivations, and turning points—and if I couldn’t get invested in a story, I knew exactly why.

Brody does a great job breaking down the three-act structure and where the story beats occur. She goes a step further and illustrates this for different genres, such as mysteries, romances, superhero, etc., providing real examples of popular books for each major genre. I was happy to see that I didn’t have to change my overall plot, but the book really helped me structure the second act past the midpoint and my entire third act. There’s nothing worse than being so invested in a book only to be disappointed by a shitty ending.

For Writing and Editing

After I finished my first draft, I bought Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I read through the book and made pages of notes. I did the same thing with On Writing Well by William Zinsser, but for the sections relevant to fiction. I then combined and organized all my notes into something I could easily reference. That’s not all.

I discovered with all this writing that my biggest challenge was the damn comma. The meaning of a sentence can shift significantly with the presence—or absence—of a comma. So I found a page about the comma on Grammarly and made notes on that one little punctuation mark. Even with that, I still had to reference other websites for even more comma examples and explanations. The comma is like salt: you’re mostly correct in omitting it, but sometimes you absolutely need it to make something work.

Outside of text messages, I still argue that punctuation is essential to constructing a sentence. It’s something I’ve always paid attention to—or so I thought. You use ALL sorts of punctuation in fiction! It’s hard to know whether you should be using quotations or italics, a comma or a semicolon, or a colon versus a dash. A lot of these techniques are relative and can vary from book to book.

For the writing of my novel, I read in eBook format a number of fiction bestsellers and highlighted numerous examples of punctuation for me to reference. My main “textbooks” were:

  • Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  • The Bone Clocks (Kindle sample) by David Mitchell
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
  • The Chick in the Truck by J.K. Lol.

Thanks to these amazing books (except the last one), I was able to handle tricky situations, like where you’d put the question mark if there’s a single quotation mark within a double quotation mark. It depends! Tricky, right? I needed real life examples and working off of these published works gave me more confidence in my writing.

With all of these resources at my fingertips, I was able to start the editing process which got me to my subsequent drafts and now to the point where I’m near ready to publish my baby. Coming soon, my friends! Coming soon…

Author: Donna Fernandez

Author of contemporary fiction.