Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sweet and Sour in Writing

When I wrote my first book, one of the complaints I received—and rightly so—was that it only had one storyline. I believe that the reviewer said that it was actually a tale as opposed to a novel. Since then, I’ve tried to make sure that I weave different elements together to enhance the overall story, much the way that one seasoning can bring out the flavor of another.

Recently I read and reread the Counterfeit and Mummy’s the Word, and loved the way both Rob and Kerry used humor to enhance tension. Perfect sweet and sour combination. Here’s a snippet from the book that got me my national agent, using humor to make a scary situation a little more intense. (At least that was the idea.)

“I don’t know if I can make it.” He couldn’t see Two Bears’ light and his own headlamp glowed weakly in the tight confines.

“You’ll be fine. Take off your pack and tell me a joke.”

Inhaling deeply, Cal removed his pack and began to edge sideways down the passage. “I don’t know any jokes.”

“Everyone knows a joke.” Two Bears’ voice seemed inexplicably far away. “And no knock-knocks.”

Cal’s headlamp shot awkwardly toward the ceiling and to his left, leaving him unable to see what was ahead. The air down here was considerably colder than it had been on the surface, and he found himself shivering despite the sweat that ran down his back and sides.

“I don’t—” He began to tell Two Bears that he really didn’t know any jokes, when he remembered a dumb story Craig had told him one night while they were on a stake out.

“Okay,” he said, feeling extremely stupid and scared to death all at the same time.

“There’s these three asparagus kids, right.”

“Asparagus?” Two Bears voice sounded a little closer.

“Yeah, asparagus. So they’re screwing around by the railroad tracks. You know, trying to prove which is the bravest. The first one stands on the left rail as a train comes, and jumps off just before it gets there. Then the second one stands in the middle of the tracks. And he jumps off when the next train comes.”

Cal’s face brushed against the wall, smearing his cheek and lips with a foul, powdery soil. He spat, trying to get rid of the sour, mildewed taste in his mouth, but it didn’t help.

“Go on,” Two Bears called back.

“Well,” Cal tried to draw in a deep breath but his chest wouldn’t seem to expand, “the last kid really wants to impress the other two so he stands on the right track and just as the train gets there, he jumps over the left track. But the train clips him see and he goes flying down the side of the hill.”

Three more sidling steps and he could feel the walls brushing against both his chest and back. “Two Bears,” he called, his heart pounding.

There was no answer.

As he pushed farther into the passage, a sharp chunk of rock, embedded in the earth behind him, dug into his back. Twisting his shoulders, he attempted to readjust his position.

“They, uh, call the asparagus ambulance and these asparagus EMTs start CPR while they rush him to the asparagus hospital.” Cal tried to concentrate on the story, struggling to keep himself from panicking. But he could feel his mind starting to waver.

“And this, uh, asparagus doctor rushes him into surgery, but . . .”

Dirt crumbled from the wall in front of him, falling into his eyes. He couldn’t get his hand up to brush it out. The passage was too tight. He wasn’t going to be able to make it through.

He tried to back out, but somehow he had managed to slide past the edge of the rock and now it blocked his retreat. He was stuck.

“Two Bears, where are you?” he shouted. He tugged on the rope, but it seemed to be jammed as well. Two Bears couldn’t have gone far. When he realized that Cal wasn’t following him, he would come back. Closing his eyes Cal took several long slow breaths, but the cold, dank air felt heavy and lacking in oxygen.

He could feel his heart racing. He needed to relax; getting excited would only make matters worse. Something brushed against the back of his neck, skittered across his skin, and dropping down the collar of his shirt. It felt like a thick, hairy spider, he slammed his head against the wall, and a shower of rocks and dirt cascaded onto him.

It was coming down. This part of the shaft had collapsed before and now it was caving in completely. Panic raced through his body like a wildfire. He slammed his shoulders to the left and right, trying to break free. The walls no longer felt like dirt and rock at all, but rather fingers clutching at him—holding him in place while they buried him alive.

He couldn’t breathe. Hands pressed on his chest and back, keeping his lungs from expanding. A whisper of childish laughter blew across his ear. He stretched his hand out, reaching for any kind of purchase.

Something cold and clammy closed on his fingers, and he screamed.
Chapter 30

“You’re all right.”

Cal gasped, sucking the cold air into his burning lungs. He was standing on the floor of the mine, Two Bears gripping his hand firmly.

“Thought I was a goner. How’d you—”

He turned to look at the shaft, sure that it had caved in completely, and was shocked to see that other than a few rocks scattered across the floor it was unchanged. His backpack and rope lay abandoned on the ground.

“Heard you calling and thought maybe you were stuck,” the old man said, his eyes darting toward the passage.

Realizing that he still held Two Bears’ hand locked in a death grip, Cal unclasped his fingers and stepped warily to the opening. It was narrow, but nothing like the vice that had squeezed the air from his lungs only seconds earlier. Edging over to retrieve his pack, ready to bolt at the first sign of anything out of the ordinary, he crouched and hooked a shoulder strap with one hand. Slowly he stood.

“Guess maybe I caught myself on something,” he said.

“Guess so,” Two Bears agreed, but he didn’t look any more convinced than Cal felt.

“I must have panicked. I thought that . . .” Cal stepped into the mineshaft, letting his words fade away. He was unsure of exactly what he had just experienced.

“It can happen.”

“What can happen?” Cal glanced uneasily back toward the opening.

“Claustrophobia,” Two Bears answered. “Mine fever. Seen fellows enter a shaft for the first time and just run headlong into the walls. Knock themselves clean out.”

Cal had never had problems with closed spaces before, but whatever it was seemed to have passed.

“What happened?” Two Bears asked.

“Guess I just panicked, like you said.”

“Not to you,” said Two Bears, completely serious. “What happened to the asparagus? Did he live?”

“Yeah. But he was a vegetable.”


At 12/05/2006 8:26 AM, Blogger Jason Guinn said...

Jeff Savage,

I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your novel sample. The dialogue in that scene worked well and sounded natural.

I'm a writer to by the way, who just put his blog on this site. I hope you can come check it out sometime in the future.

At 12/05/2006 9:24 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, I really enjoyed this and now I want to read the whole book. The way you mixed the humor with the tension was superb.

At 12/05/2006 11:49 AM, Blogger FHL said...

Did you happen to see Studio 60 last week? They had a running theme on how Harriet couldn't tell a joke. "It was like watching a drunken man trying to cross an icy road."

For a minute there, I thought you were going to be telling a Veggie Tales story. =)

At 12/05/2006 1:31 PM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

This scene is a great example of your ability to walk the fine line between humor and suspense, leaving your readers laughing one minute and tense the next.
It is also a great example of why I so strongly disagree with the way you ended DOA. So here are my two cents (realizing that's about all they're worth :D) on both.
In a previous blog you said a reader asked why you ended DOA as you did. I had the same question. Why would Jeff, talented writer of fascinating characters and roller coaster plots, do such a thing?
I suppose there are some authors who need to use tactics (tools, whatever you want to call them) such as the cliff hanger ending to get readers to buy their next books.
You're not one of them.
I was hooked from the start.
Whether you introduce readers to a really old, dead body, or a dead guy who is up and walking around, we're instantly intrigued because of your skill with both humor and suspense--as exhibited in the above excerpt.
Your characters are hilarious, flawed, lovable--human. As readers we feel like we know them and can't wait to see what they do next in their lives. We feel their angst when say, their best friend is engaged to the wrong person.
Your plots keep us turning pages and guessing to the end.
In short, you do your job well.
HOS ended beautifully, leaving enough tantalizing (but not drive you crazy) loose ends that the reader had a lot to look forward to. Shandra was finally safe. We knew Clay was out of the picture and we were likely to see Bobby more. The note from Shandra's father brought up a new mystery.
In contrast, DOA's ending left me mad. So mad, I've yet to read the Shandra short at the end of the book. After all, if you had time to write a short story, then why couldn't you have added a chapter or two--at least getting Bobby to a hospital or something. Showing him there, with Shandra and Brooklyn hovering over, each vying for caretaker position, would have been somewhat more satisfying-- still leaving a lot unanswered-- yet not leaving the reader feeling quite so cheated.
Aside from feeling just that, I also felt you'd cheated yourself with that ending, perhaps not realizing your writing was already strong, funny, and exciting enough to keep readers coming back for more.
Sitting down with one of your books is like taking a great vacation. You get thrills, have fun, laugh a little--even have a few difficult moments with those around you. In the end, it all turns out well--or it should anyway.
I had a great time riding the DOA roller coaster, but at the end I felt like I was stuck on top, waiting for that last glide into the station. Instead of getting off and saying "what a great ride, let's go again!", I felt like something was broken, and I wasn't sure what or why.
Am I anxious to read the next Shandra? Of course. But I'm also feeling a bit cautious, hoping that whatever was broken at the end has been fixed and we get back to the wonderful characters and thrilling plot I've come to love and expect.
I also miss Cal and Two Bears and hope to see them in print soon.

At 12/05/2006 2:12 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Okay, Michelle, I am in a the middle of writing a scene where my main character is only seconds away from death, while the other main character watches helplessly on, and I’m stopping to respond, because you totally hooked me with your well written and thoughtful response.

I will admit that some people—you and Annette and Julie included—absolutely hated the ending. And I can see where you would feel like it was a cheat or a gimmick to get you to read the next book. But while this may sound totally hokey, that is where the book ended. I did not start with the intent to have my book end there. I did not think, “Aha, what a great way to make people buy my next book.” I did not feel that I needed a trick to make the book complete.

This is a big spoiler alert if you haven’t read Dead on Arrival yet and a little one leading into the next book, tentatively titled, A Time to Die. So don’t read on if you have a problem with that.

The next book begins with Bobby in the hospital. Is he okay? Don’t know. Is he dying? Don’t know. He has lost a lot of blood and is in a coma he may never come out of. How does Shandra feel about this? What do you think? How does Brooklyn feel about this? Ditto.

Is that where you want the book to end? Let me lay out the options I had, and since you are an excellent and soon to be published writer, you tell me what you would do.

Bobby getting shot is a key element in not only the next book, but also the series. It will have a major impact on the lives of all three characters mentioned above for some time to come. This is a not a simple, “Wow that was close. Sure glad he was wearing his bullet-proof vest,” type of thing. Bobby and Brooklyn are engaged. Will they stay engaged? Read the next book. Will Shandra and Bobby ever get together? Even I don’t know that for sure. Will Shandra find someone else? Possibly.

So let’s examine my options:

Get Bobby to the hospital and have the doc say, “He may live or die.” Is that a better ending? It really seems cheesy to me.

Start the next book with Bobby getting shot instead. Ignoring how we would actually end DOA, there are several problems with this. Number one, a book should start with the main mystery. The next book is a mystery, Bobby being shot is a secondary storyline. I don’t think that would work. Number two, I try to make each book stand on its own. Bobby got shot as a result of the PC Holdings issue. If I start with him getting shot in the next book, it wouldn’t make sense to someone who hadn’t read DOA.

Also, a major storyline of DOA is Bobby, Shandra, and Brooklyn. What if I had Bobby and Brooklyn break up at the end of DOA (assuming that were to happen.) Doesn’t that feel just a little too easy?

What if I just leave Bobby and Brooklyn floating somewhere out in the ether? I’m definitely going to get complaints for that.

I certainly don’t have space for any kind of resolution to the issue after the mystery and they are gone during much of the mystery.

Hopefully you see my dilemma. I repeat this is not a device to end the book with a big bang. It is a key part of the overall storyline. It will have an impact for books to come. I just finished Armageddon’s Children by Terry Brooks and it ended with the main character and his girlfriend being thrown off a very high wall. People complained, but I see it as—the story will continue. I don’t think Brooks felt he needed a gimmick to sell his next book. And if I’m not mistaken Martha Grimes ended a book with Inspector Jury getting shot.

If I’d really wanted to be gimmicky I would have ended it with something like; “She smelled the stink of burnt gunpowder, followed the trail of blood with her eyes, and screamed.” As it was, I spend a lot of time with my editor discussing just how to do the ending. Originally I had her just seeing Bobby lying in the pool of blood. But we added her calling an ambulance, pressing the blanket to his chest, and seeing a flicker of possible movement in his eyes. That was just for you guys who hate those types of endings.

If you still don’t like it, I’ll have to just live with that. But I love you for reading my books and caring that much about how they end. It means I’m doing something right.

Okay back to my writing.

At 12/05/2006 4:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I am flattered (and sorry) you stopped writing to respond.

And just who are you killing off now?

I do see your dilemma, and you really don't want me to tell you what I'd have done. Following the romance writer's mantra, I'd have gone on another hundred pages and wrapped everything up in a neat, "emotionally satisfying" package--not what your readers want or expect.

It's also not what I wanted or expected. Honestly, I'd have preferred seeing Bobby in the hospital. I kind of suspected a coma or something along those lines already. Reading your spoiler actually made me feel better. At least I know he isn't going to die--and with you, we never can tell!

The series sounds like it is only going to get better and better. Like it or not, you are appealing not only to mystery fans, but to romance readers as well. The triangle you've created--even before Bobby's coma--was enough that I couldn't wait to see how you worked it all out (sounds like you can't wait to see, either:).

I do look forward to getting to know Brooklyn better. Right now I just hate her guts for stealing Bobby, but if you make her someone Shandra and I have to like . . . ouch. More angst.

Enough said (I left cleaning up dog vomit from my living room carpet to repsond to your blog and, while that doesn't rank up there with a main character dying, I really should get back to it).

I promise not to harass you any more and to take back all those things I muttered under my breath (that a Bishop's wife should never say) when I finished DOA.

I might even pull it from the top shelf of my bookcase, dust it off, and recommend it to a few more people.

Happy writing.

At 12/05/2006 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can understand the angst of the other readers who didn't like DOA's ending. But when I read it, I thought to myself, "Oh man!"

Then I chuckled (well laughed, I think men chuckle).

It was great. It was gripping. And it was fun to have such a different, such a cliff-hanging ending . . . because it sets the book apart from the rest. It went with the entire theme of the book.

And I thought to myself, "This is classic Jeff."


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