Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Titles, Outlines, Why Rob is a Stupid Head, and Cords

First of all, let me apologize for getting this in so late. Publishing is kind of like the army. You wait forever to get things going and suddenly have to do everything all at once. So, having survived the audio book abridgement (Rob I hate you for not having to do that!), the edits, and the proof-reading all over the course of a few days, it’s nice to catch my breath.

A couple of random writing thoughts here:

First—Titles serve one purpose only, as do covers. That is, to sell books. Sometimes I’ve picked them out and sometimes they’ve been picked for me. (Although I have always been asked for my input.) I thought I had a killer title for my first book. Cut Throat. This was kind of a dual play on words. The book was about the cut throat nature of the high-tech world, and there was a symbolic allusion to a cut throat trout chasing after an attractive fly that could actually get it killed at the end of the book.

My publisher changed the name to Cutting Edge. At the time I was really ticked off. I thought (and still think) that my title better represented the story. What I didn’t realize was that Covenant was going hard after the male reader market, and the cover of the book looked like a computer motherboard. Turned out they knew what they were talking about because the book sold very well.

Think about the titles of recent books you’ve picked up and read lately. Most of them tie into the book somewhat, but all of them are designed to catch your attention and get you to look inside. When you decide on a title for your book, consider what will the attract the audience you are writing for.

Second—Stephanie was talking about the end of her book and how she didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. That is my favorite way to write. You throw a bunch of fun characters into a situation and see what they do. It’s definitely easier and quicker to write with a tight outline, but it’s really cool when you surprise yourself.

Third—Rob, you dumb head, don’t you know that the whole reason for having a family reunion near your home is so that when everyone else is stuck in their tents with screaming kids, you can be in a warm bed, having taken a hot shower, and watching your TIVOed episode of 24! You’re young, but you’ll learn. (Okay that wasn’t a writing thought but it’s fun to mock Rob.)

Fourth—Just like in real life, characters in your book are connected to other characters by cords. Some cords are fragile little things that can break under the slightest breeze and others are big honking cables like the kind that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge. In a good novel, what happens to one character has some kind of effect on every other character. They key to a good book is helping the reader discover the links between your characters without hitting them over the head or introducing too many characters all at once.

In A Taste For Fear the whole town is going to be affected by the evil, along with my four protags. Obviously I can’t show every person who lives in the town. But I need to introduce a representative sample of men women and children (and dogs, Kerry) so the reader gets an idea of what is going on in households all across Desolation. But at the same time, it’s scarier if you have a connection to the characters before I scare the life out of them. You never know who is going to survive and who isn’t, so you are always on edge.

I had two choices in how to go about this. The first is favored by authors like Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. They like to introduce a new character every few chapters of the book for the first half of the novel. You have no idea how or why the characters will come together by the end. (In other words, what cords bind them and how strong those connections might be.) This is great for building suspense, but it has a few drawbacks for what I wanted to accomplish.

The first problem is that if I introduce a bunch of minor characters one by one, the reader may start losing track of who’s who and not caring. Second I want to build up a bond between the main protags. Also, I am dealing with a small town which makes it harder to play that kind of angle.

Personally, I prefer following one character and tying cords to other characters as we go along. The teacher meets the principal who shows him several students. The teacher hooks up to different students in the classroom and follows one out. The student leads to his mother. Then we jump to the student for a while, who is in trouble for getting a bad bad grade in school and plots with his best friend to sneak up to the writer’s house at night. When his mother leaves for work, we briefly pop back to the principal’s house, where his trusty dog Bandit smells something strange and disturbing in the woods. As the creature closes in, we go back to the mother who is hosting her nightly talk radio show. (Which incidentally the principal is listening to in his garage.)

If we do this right, you enjoy all of the scenes without getting frustrated. As the book progresses, we’ll spend more and more time with the main characters while interspersing terror among the townspeople along the way. In the section below, notice how many people you meet (hopefully without feeling overwhelmed.) Do you think Ms. Pensmith, who you haven’t even met in person yet, is going to come in contact with something creepy and crawly over the next few days?


Standing before a class—or in this case sitting cross-legged on his new desk—Bill felt completely in his environment. It didn’t matter whether he was in Toledo or Timbuktu. He got a kick out of opening students’ eyes to the world in a new way most of them had never even considered up to that point in their lives.

“Put your books away,” he said as the bell rang to signal the start of class and several students began to dig into their backpacks. There was a light smattering of applause from a few of the students along with several “cool”s and a “sweet.”

“Are you the substitute teacher?” asked a gum chewing blonde girl who looked to be about fourteen.

“Ashley?” Bill asked, checking the seating chart.

She nodded.

“Nope, I’m the real thing. You’re stuck with me until the end of the semester. From Plymouth Rock to the Industrial Revolution, if I read my syllabus right.” Now the applause turned into moans.

Bill raised his hands in mock indignation. “How can you boo me? You don’t even know me yet.”

The Goth boy who he’d seen playing the guitar banged his forehead with his fist and rolled his eyes. “History’s boring.” There was a general murmur of assent from around the room.

Bill checked the list of students again. “Andrew?”

The boy rolled his eyes and tugged on the silver skull hanging from his left ear. “Splatter.”

“Sounds messy,” Bill said to the amusement of the rest of the class. “All right then, Splatter, give me an example of something boring you’ve covered so far in this class.”

“Freedom of religion,” the Goth answered immediately, showing he’d been paying attention even if he hadn’t wanted to. “Who cares about the Protestant reformation or the Church of England? What does that have to do with life?”

The other students watched closely—perched on the edge of the seats, elbows on their desks, leaning forward to see how the new teacher would handle this. Here was the point where you either hooked them for the rest of the year or lost them completely. Bill ran his fingers through his curly black hair and tugged on the end of his beard. “Who’s your favorite band?” he asked.

The boy blinked and looked around as if not sure he’d heard right. “Cinema Strange.”

Bill nodded. “I’d probably lean more toward Black Ice but fair enough.”

The boy blinked again, but this time Bill could see at least a touch of admiration. “You listen to death rock?”

Bill turned to a slouching boy with a black Stetson pulled low on his forehead and a suspicious lump in his left cheek. “What’s your favorite band?”

Little Texas,” the boy drawled, sitting up.

“I’m a Willie Nelson fan myself, but I wouldn’t turn down a chance to see Little Texas if they ever get back together. Now spit that chew in the trashcan and don’t let me see you bringing it to class in the future.”

The cowboy got up and spit a brown lump into the metal wastebasket, all the while watching the new teacher.

Bill turned to the girl with the gum. “They Might Be Giants or Three Doors Down?”

The girl’s eyes widened. “They Might be Giants.”

“Great, now spit out your gum. The only thing I want in your mouth in my class is your tongue and I don’t want to see that unless you can catch flies with it.”

Turning back to the whole class—all of whom were watching with real interest—he held out both hands and got off the desk. “The greatest band of all time is undoubtedly The Stones. But the wonderful thing is I can’t force you to listen to my favorite music just because you are young and ignorant. You can worship at the shrine of whatever icon melts your butter.” There was general laughter throughout the room now, and no one was sleeping.

“That, ladies and gentleman is freedom of religion.”

* * *

“Don’t forget I want you to come to class tomorrow prepared to compare and contrast the American colonies with the Rebel Alliance. I’ll be looking for a page and a half on which founding father most reminds you of Yoda and how England might have used Darth Vader,” Bill called out as the bell rang signaling the end of school for the day. He was back on his desk again, legs crossed as if he were preparing to begin meditation. His elbows rested on his knees and his slacks hiked up enough to reveal red and blue Mickey Mouse socks.

Slinging packs over their shoulders and tucking books under their arms, the students headed out into the hallway. “You don’t suck much,” Splatter said as he passed by.

“Back atcha.” Bill nodded.

The cowboy in the black hat stopped in front of the desk. “You really like country or were you just saying that?”

Amy’s Back in Austin is one of my all time favorites.”


Bill reached out to rap his knuckles on the can of chew in the boy’s shirt pocket. “Give that stuff up. Chicks are turned off by guys with brown teeth. And they’re really turned off by guys with no teeth.”

The kid shrugged with a shy grin. “I’ll think about it.”

One of the last students to leave was a boy with shaggy brown hair and John Lennon glasses, Westin Holbrook. As he left the room he dropped a sheaf of papers into the garbage.

Curious, Bill got off the desk and retrieved them. It was an English assignment, dated the week before—a story of some kind. Ms. Pensmith, 3rd Period was printed in the upper right hand corner. The title, Houses of the Unholy, had a few flecks of tobacco on it from the trash. Bill brushed them away with the tip of one finger and read the first paragraph.

A tremor of revulsion ran through the girl’s body as she wrapped the tattered black shawl more tightly around her shoulders and stepped into the crypt. The damp and cold seemed even worse in the confines of the small building than it had in the storm outside. Red and gold leaves chased across the stone floor like pieces of a broken sunset. The stink of decay hung in the air like the perfume of the dead.

Creepy and a perhaps a little overdone, but all in all not too bad— especially for a high school freshman. He flipped to the last page and grimaced at the message scrawled there in red pen.

D –
Why do you insist of turning in this filth? The last thing the world needs is another Stephen King. Try reading some Milton or Hemmingway instead of filling your head with blood and awful creatures. Horror is for the voyeuristic and weak minded!!

No wonder the poor kid threw it away. Obviously Ms. Pensmith was the wrong audience for this work. Bill stepped through the classroom door. At the end of the hallway he saw the boy close his locker with a bang.

“Hey!” Bill shouted. “Westin, wait up.” He ran down the hall, dodging students, clutching the papers in his hand. This was good writing. One day the kid would wish he’d hung onto it.

Swinging his backpack, the boy pushed through the double glass doors that led to the parking lot. Bill reached the doors a few seconds later and pushed through them into the bright afternoon sunlight. Hands on his hips, he tried to catch his breath from the sprint. This altitude would take some getting used to.

The parking lot—nearly empty that morning—was alive with a profusion of children and vehicles. Boys and girls weaved in and out of the slow-moving lines of cars and trucks with seemingly no concern for personal safety. Teenagers honked and waved to their friends while younger kids climbed into their parents’ cars. By far the majority of the vehicles were SUVs and pick-up trucks.

Shading his eyes with one hand, Bill scanned the chaos for Westin’s blue and yellow polo shirt. He thought he saw him standing by a hunter green truck with a couple of other guys. But when the boy turned his head, Bill realized the boy was several years older than Weston.

As he was about to give up, a battered old station wagon—one of the kind with wood paneling on the sides and a rear-facing back seat—drove past. Weston was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Hang on!” he shouted waving the papers above his head. The boy looked studiously forward as the car passed by, but the driver glanced in Bill’s direction. She was an attractive woman with cropped brown hair the same color as the boy’s and a small upturned nose. Bill placed her somewhere in her mid to late thirties.

She tilted her head questioningly and Bill pointed to the papers. As the station wagon’s brake lights flashed red, the boy slunk low in his seat.


At 8/11/2006 11:13 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I'm not a stupidhead, I'm rad to the max. There's a fine line there.

At 8/11/2006 11:47 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

What's rad to the max is this story, Jeff. Love the characters already!

(And Bandit practically swooned when I told her you were naming a character after her. It IS after her, isn't it?)

At 8/11/2006 12:38 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Of course it is!

At 8/11/2006 7:52 PM, Blogger Karen Hoover said...

Ditto to what Kerry said! LOVE the characters. Can't wait to read the whole thing.


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