Kicking Off National Novel Writing Month With STC Author Jessica Brody
Jessica Brody knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. She started self “publishing” her own books when she was seven years old, binding the pages together with cardboard, wallpaper samples, and electrical tape. Since then, Jessica has gone on to write and publish over seventeen novels for teens, tweens, and adults including 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, A Week of Mondays (a Texas Lone Star list selection), Addie Bell’s Shortcut to Growing, The Geography of Lost Things, Better You Than Me, The Chaos of Standing Still, In Some Other Life (a Junior Library Guilt selection), and the three books in the Unremembered trilogy. She is also the best-selling author of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, a how-to plotting book for novelists, which ties directly into National Novel Writing Month (November).
We caught up with Jessica to find out more about her projects, and why Save The Cat! is such an important book and overall company for writers everywhere…
- When did you decide you wanted to be an author as a career choice and write your own stories?
Well, when I was seven, I wanted desperately to be a writer. But I also wanted to be a mermaid, a princess, and an Olympic gymnast. Somewhere along the way, “adult-ness” set in and I got it into my head that none of these were viable career options (Although I hear mermaids have excellent 401k plans these days). So, I majored in Economics in college and got a job as a financial analyst. It wasn’t until several years later, when I got laid off from that job that I realized my seven-year-old self might have been onto something. And after the US Olympic Gymnastics team turned me down, I set off to write my first novel and get it sold. Just kidding. Turns out, they don’t take thirty-year-olds who can’t do a cartwheel anymore.
- How did you decide on which genre you really wanted to concentrate on with your books?
I still haven’t decided! Haha! Honestly, I love switching genres. It keeps me and my writing fresh and ensures I’m always inspired for the next project. I wrote general fiction first (for adults), then switched to young adult contemporary fiction, then young adult science-fiction, then middle grade contemporary, then science fiction again and now I’m working on another middle grade. I go where the idea takes me. The genre is sort of irrelevant to me.
- You wrote a book about novel-writing based on the guidance from famed writer Blake Snyder. Why was Blake’s Save The Cat! series so important to you as an author getting started, and why did you feel the needed to write your own how-to book based on his advice to screenwriters originally?
It’s pretty accurate to say that Save the Cat! saved my career. I joke that it’s alternate title is Save the Author! When I set out to write and sell my first novel, after getting laid off from my job, I struggled a lot. I kept getting the same rejections from agents: “Great writing. No story.” I didn’t really understand that feedback until a screenwriting friend handed me a copy of Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, which breaks down the immutable laws of storytelling structure into an easy-to-follow 15-step template. The method just clicked with me. And with my story. After using the Save the Cat! method to revise my manuscript (which had already been rejected over 60 times!), I ended up getting an agent who sold the book to a major publisher in ten days. It was pretty life changing. And I’ve since sold 19 more novels using the same method.
But it wasn’t until I started teaching workshops for novelists a few years back that I discovered I actually had a unique perspective on the method that was helping other novelists crack their own stories. From there, I set out to adapt Blake’s original methodology into a book specifically for novelists. And, in using the template to analyze, countless popular novels throughout time, I discovered that Save the Cat! is not only a method for how to tell a good story but it’s also a codification of story. A secret storytelling code, if you will, that can actually be found in all great stories ever told! The fifteen beats that Blake Snyder lays out in his original book and that I similarly lay out in my book, simply break down the fundamental structure of story into an accessible plotting roadmap or blueprint that authors (like me!) can easily follow.
- Overall, your books have made several Best Seller lists and have been published and translated in over 23 countries. What is your ultimate goal here? Did you ever think you’d reach this level of success?
My goal was and always is to tell good stories. I write because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think any writer who sits down and says, “I’m going to write because I want to get rich,” is probably going to fail. Of course, I always hoped my books would do well. But I believe that if you write the story that speaks to you (that won’t leave you alone) and write it well, then the success will eventually come. But if you go into it chasing the success, you’re going into it backward and it will show in the final product.
- National Novel Writing Month is here. Why is this month in particular so important and what will you be doing for it?
NaNoWriMo! Such an exciting part of the year. It’s my favorite thing about November (apart from maybe sweet potato casserole.) NaNoWriMo is when authors all around the world challenge themselves to write a novel (50,000 words) in one month. It’s such a great event because it encourages authors to take their writing seriously and create productive writing habits. You have to be dedicated and disciplined to write 50,000 words in one month and once you finish, you will leave not only with bragging rights (and some pretty cool achievement badges), but also with something far more valuable: the knowledge and proof that you can do it. Faith in yourself is undoubtedly the most important key to writing and finishing a novel. And once you’ve done, it’s so much easier to convince yourself you can do it again.
I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year! I actually have a novel that has to be written and turned into my editor by end of December, so the timing was perfect. I’ll be working on a new middle grade book called I SPEAK BOY about a phone-obsessed 12-year-old girl—frustrated by the cryptic boys in her life—who discovers a magic app that can read boys’ thoughts and uses it to become a popular “boy connoisseur” in her middle school and impress her crush, all the while driving a further wedge between her and her ex-best friend.
- If you could narrow it down to one thing, what would your main tip be for writers who want to put out their first book?
Don’t be afraid to write badly. All writers have awful first drafts. That’s why they’re called first drafts. Sometimes you have to just get through the story before you can make it pretty. I think a lot of new authors quit halfway through the book because they’re afraid that it’s not good. The first draft won’t be good. It’ll be terrible. It’ll be cat litter box lining! But if you can accept that and keep going, you will finish. And once you finish, then you can tackle the job of fixing it. The hardest part about writing a book is getting to that last page. So, like I always say, “Don’t be afraid to write crap because crap makes great fertilizer.”
- Besides the late Blake Snyder, who else in the writing community has been a mentor to you?
I have so many! But the three writers who I have on whatever is the modern-day equivalent of “speed dial” are:
- Jessica Khoury, a talented young adult and middle grade author who has talked me off of many metaphorical ledges and reads all of my first drafts and helps me out of world-building corners that I plot myself into.
- Joanne Rendell, who is also the co-author of my System Divine trilogy. Joanne and I have been friends for years and we really get each other. She’s the kind of person I can talk to for hours and never run out of things to say. She’s also the perfect person to call when I need helping brainstorming a broken plot.
- Jennifer Wolfe (apparently, I am only friends with people whose name starts with J!) – Jenn is an extremely gifted writer of adult thriller novels and screenplays. Not only is she extremely fun to be around, but because she writes genres that I’ve never written (like thriller and horror), she always has a unique perspective on stories. I love batting around ideas with her! She also gives hands-down the best book recommendations in the world.
- What is your next book called and going to be about so we can all be on the look-out?
The next book to release will be BETWEEN BURNING WORLDS. It’s the second installment in the System Divine trilogy (co-written by Joanne Rendell), which is an epic sci-fi retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, set on a distant planet. We call it “Les Mis in Space.” The second book was a beast of a book to write and revise and I’m still recovering from the arduous process. But we’re excited to finally have it out in the world. It will be released from Simon & Schuster on March 24, 2020. But before you read that, be sure to read the first book in the series, SKY WITHOUT STARS, (which is out now). Otherwise the second book will make very little sense.
- Why should everyone continue to read, read, read?!
When I was younger, I used to be obsessed by the idea that I would never ever get to know what it’s like to be someone else. The thought both fascinated me, terrified me, and sometimes saddened me. “This life is the only one I get!?” I thought. “I’ll never know what anyone else is thinking or feeling or experiencing?”
While this is fundamentally true, there’s also a loophole to this rule. And that is reading. Reading is the closest we will ever come to being able to experience what it’s like to be someone else, to walk in their shoes, to live their life, see the world through their eyes, and empathize with their struggles. Reading takes us to new worlds we’ve never been to. It presents us with challenges and conflicts and tragedies we never will encounter in our own life. And it proves to us that although, as a race, we might seem terribly divided right now, we’re not.
Learn more on Jessica and STC here: https://www.jessicabrody.com/books/non-fiction/save-cat-writes-novel/about/