The Writer’s Journey, Save The Cat, And Holland Bay

A few years ago, I asked a cop, who was also a writer, about the best way to handle a situation in Holland Bay. (Yes, I’ve been playing with this for that long.) He asked me a very important question.

“Who’s your main character?”

I said it was an ensemble cast.

“Let me rephrase that. Who’s first among equals?”

Ah. As this novel owes a debt of gratitude to Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct series, I needed to find my Steve Carella. The problem is the original draft of Holland Bay sprawls. As it went on, it grew new subplots and added characters and…

I didn’t touch the thing for two years. Finally, this year, I took it out, dusted it off, and decided to whittle it down to something readable. After all, a 105,000 word monster is not something you want to foist on the public. Not without some sort of SF or fantasy elements. Even then, I just don’t have that kind of patience anymore.

As I was working on the rewrite of Holland Bay, I read two books, recently reviewed here, on plotting. Both The Writer’s Journey and Save the Cat are geared toward screenplays, but the principles of each translate into novels. Of the two, I prefer The Writer’s Journey, which is more about crafting a novel over a common framework. Reading it, I understood why two movies can take the exact same premise yet be so wildly different in how successful they are. Let’s say someone makes another version of Titanic with the same characters but a new script. And it falls flat. Now a lot of it would be the absence of James Cameron’s talent, but more likely the new Titanic would be a lower budget film where the director and writers didn’t take time to hide the framework of the story. That’s exactly what Cameron did with his big, honkin’ movie. (On the other hand, we likely wouldn’t be Celined to death with “My Heart Will Go On” over and over and over…)

You see it in retellings of Greek myths. Clash of the Titans is a cheesy 1975 claymation film that mostly shows off its special effects. The 2010 film actually has some meat on its bones. Yes, the CGI effects are marvelous, but hell, you even give a damn about Hades, who, let’s be honest, was kind of a dick when it came to Greek gods. (And most of them made Satan look like Milton from Office Space. After all, he just got his desk moved to the basement.)

Of course, Holland Bay takes its cues from The Wire as well. The Wire really didn’t have a protagonist. It had several, and not all of them were cops. Some of the bad guys were cops. Some of the good guys were criminals. Most of the characters were both. Indeed, in the end, only Leander Sydnor, the young, quiet detective on Major Crimes, is the only one left who hasn’t been tainted by the game. And our last sight of him is repeating Jimmy McNulty’s trip to the judge’s chambers to say his boss is an ass and the commissioner is a corrupt moron. And the whole cycle begins again.

The problem with using The Wire is that it’s not a good model for what essentially will be a first novel. Yes, Holland Bay amounts to a reboot of my writing career. But first novels need to be narrowly focused and follow familiar patterns before the author starts breaking all the rules. Along those lines, I think I prefer the advice in The Writer’s Journey over Save the Cat. Journey was about dissecting one type of storytelling to its mechanics and putting it back together. Naturally, not every story is about a hero going off on a quest, which author Christopher Vogler takes great pains to point out. Save the Cat seems to treat the same structure as a religion, calling out some successful movies for “failing.” (The Spiderman example of having a supervillain when there’s already a superhero struck me as a bit dogmatic and stupid.)

Where Save the Cat works is in defining the “beats” of a story. It’s better suited for the science fiction project, which borrows heavily from Heinlein, Star Trek, and to some extent, Harry Potter. (Trust me, it’s its own creature.) But the SF project is a relatively young project. Holland Bay is going to require a bit more thought.