Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Birth of a Novel

by Jeffrey S Savage

Let me just say up front that blogging with these six others authors is like being back in high school. I’m not the funny kid. I’m not the kid everyone likes. I’m not the smart kid. I’m not the good-looking kid. I’m not even the kid from a cool different country. Is it any wonder I mostly forged notes and drove my beat-up MG to the beach?

Anyway, since I have nothing funny, smart, likeable, attractive or foreign to write about, I’ll stick to something I know pretty well. So today let’s track the birth of a novel. Ever wonder how that cool looking book on the self came to be?

Well it started out with the desire to have an idea. Not with the idea itself—that would be too easy. You see three months ago, you knew you had a due in nine months. But since you just finished writing your last book, you figured you had a little time to relax. And with that much time to go, you were bound to come up with the perfect idea for your book. In fact you had about a dozen possibilities—any of which might bloom into a full grown book.

Only now it’s three months later and the ideas didn’t pan out. The best one showed up in a CSI episode, you realized the second best one actually came from a Betsy Brannon Green novel you read a couple of years before, and the only other one that showed any promise doesn’t have an ending.

After another month passes, you start to panic. So you figure, what the heck, you’ll start writing the storyline with no ending and see where it goes. You think writing is like riding a bike, all you need to do is get back on the computer and the words will flow out of you like sweet honey from a bee.

Three hours later, you’ve checked your e-mail twelve times, done three on-line Sudokus, balanced your checkbook, cleaned under the bed, lost $535 in computer money playing solitaire, and correctly formatted your manuscript which is currently untitled and has no text. Realizing your idea just needs a little more percolating, you go downstairs and make yourself lunch. Maybe a couple of Lifetime movies will get the juices flowing.

After tapping a two arteries, you finally manage to sit down and type out two and a half pages. And actually they’re not too bad. That morning as you take your shower, you see the rest of chapter one and you quickly jump out of the shower, throw on a robe and type it up. It’s not quite as perfect as you imagined it would be, but there are a few funny lines and a great bad guy.

Finally you start to remember how you did this last time. The creative juices are flowing. Words turn into sentences, which turn into paragraphs, and low and behold you actually have written 100 pages. Everything is working perfectly—right up until the point where the storyline suddenly dies.

We’re not talking a trickle here, the idea faucet is totally off. You twist the mental knob as hard as you can and nothing happens. Okay, you think, it’ll come. This always happens. You’ll just force out a few pages and everything will fit together. Maybe you can write a chapter or two ahead. After a week and a half, panic sets in. Why did you start a story you didn’t know the end of? Do you have any idea how hard it would be to throw away a hundred pages and start over? You swear that from now on you will create a complete chapter by chapter outline before you start writing.

Maybe if you go back and read over what you’ve already written you’ll get the juices flowing again. Only when you reread your work it sounds awful. Did you really think it had any chance of success? You are an idiot. This is crap. Your editor is going to kill you. Hoping for some guidance, you ask your family to read it. After you promise a dozen back rubs and three dinners out, your spouse agrees to read what you’ve got. After silently reading all of your pages, your spouse gives you this incredibly helpful piece of advice. “It’s not done.”

“Right. I know it’s not done. That’s why I wanted to know what you thought.”

“I think it’s too short. And there’s no ending.”

“I understand. But do you like it? Do you have any ideas?”

“I won’t know if I like it until I know how it ends. Why don’t you finish writing it and I’ll read it then.”

After another fruitless week you decide to give it up and start over. That night, just as you’re falling asleep, it comes to you. The piece you were missing. What if Mr. X is really Miss Y? And what if Miss Y killed Mr. T? Which explains what his ghost is hanging around the cemetery. And you could put in a really funny part at about page 145, where you make fun of that lunatic mystery writer.

Finally everything is flowing. Only you need to write 200 pages in three weeks. Of course that’s the three weeks that include the class you forgot you are teaching, the family vacation, your dental surgery, and six book signings for a novel you can hardly even remember.

Working feverishly, you manage to get the 200 pages done. It costs you the love of your children, two years off your life, ever ounce of patience your spouse has, and the friendship of your dog. Whenever you carry a handful of paper out of your bedroom, everyone in the family runs screaming, “Don’t make me read anymore,”—including Rover.

This is when you find out who your real friends are. You see, they are all working feverishly on their novels too. And when you ask if they could read your entire manuscript in the next 24 hours and give you feedback, they actually say yes. Of course when you get their comments back, none of them agree. One thinks your bad guy is too evil, one thinks you need to make your bad guy more evil. One thinks your chapters are too long. One thinks they’re too short.

Taking all their advice into account—and promising you undying devotion and future editing—you finally move six chapters around, rewrite your beginning, change the name of the bad guy and give the landlady a southern accent. By now you are two weeks late, so you do a hurried line edit and turn your manuscript in. The day after you turn it in, you find seven typos in the first chapter.

Then you sweat blood. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve published, you are suddenly sure the one before was the last that will ever be accepted. Every minute you don’t hear back from your editor seems like a day. You are positive your manuscript will be rejected. And why not? You’re not a real writer anyway. You’ve just been lucky until now. You call or e-mail everyone you know and whine at them until they reassure you that they have never read anything better than your books. This goes on until the editor calls you, and miraculously the committee has accepted your book.

The editor tells you everyone loves your book. Reader feedback is great. The committee is really excited. There are only a couple of very small changes they need you to make. No problem, you think. Probably they want another couple of your hilarious jokes or a different eye color for the best friend.

Then you get the manuscript. It turns out the two minor changes include three scenes that need to be completely cut. The ending doesn’t work. One scene that is too violent and one is too risqué. You need to change the point of view and combine two characters into one. And you’ve got exactly seven days to get it all done if you want to make your release date.

Seven sleepless days later, you turn in the changes. Of course, not all the changes, because one of the scenes is vital to the story, the ending sets up the next book, and the point of view is required. Unfortunately you and your editor don’t see eye to eye. But the cover is done, although you haven’t seen it yet. The title has been changed, but your editor would editor would rather not talk about that until you agree on the point of view.

Finally you hate the book and wish you’d never seen it. You and your editor are barely speaking to each other. Your kids refer to you as “that man.” You actually like the cover and you’ve almost learned to live with the new title. You look over the galleys, suggest a couple of last minute changes. Get a few of them through and finally you’re done.

Until it’s time to cut 50,000 words for the book on tape.

It wouldn’t even be worth it—except for the fact that it’s your baby, your editor was right (most of the time), your spouse and kids read the book and like it, and a couple of months later you see your books on the self of the local bookstore, where you overhear someone saying, “I just read that new book. It’s awesome!”

Thank goodness you have nine months until the next one.


At 3/13/2007 12:00 AM, Blogger Josi said...

ROB!!! I told you he stole my writing journal, cleverly changing the gender, wife and dog part (I have a husband and goats) but I knew he'd done it--how else could he be so FRIGHTENINGLY accurate! Yikes. I'm at the slow trickle right now, in my third trimester, with 200 pages cut and about 75 that work okay. If I could only find the plier to turn the broken knob just a quarter turn more and build up a little water pressure around here. Dang this was right on!

At 3/13/2007 1:32 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Jeff, I kept laughing out loud while reading this post. Brilliant! Boy am I relieved to find out I'm not the only author who struggles!

At 3/13/2007 4:30 AM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

Whatever you're doing it works well. I haven't read Dead on Arrival yet but I love everything else. As I remember it you were sweating blood last year at the convention because you were trying to meet a deadline. It seems to become you.
keep up the great work all of you.

At 3/13/2007 11:31 AM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

You might have mentioned all this a few months ago . . .

At 3/13/2007 11:58 AM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

Jeff, What are you doing, giving away our trade secrets? How are we supposed to keep up our image as these incredibly talented individuals who dash off best sellers in our spare time? Even my bishop thinks I have this fun little hobby and now that I'm no longer a reporter, I don't have to worry about deadlines. I don't go around telling people that I no longer worry about brain freezes; I just have major episodes of brain dead. By the way, I'm in the maybe if I go back to the beginning and read through it again stage with one book and the holding my breath the rewrite works with another. Ah! Such an exciting life we live.

At 3/13/2007 12:37 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Way to blow the cover, Jeff. It's not the most glamorous process, is it? Here I am in the middle of frantic rewrites trying to make my own deadline--and with the next unwritten novel looming ahead of me. I have no clue what it'll be about, but I do know where it will take place in my historical series. I have only a vague idea of a main character, but zero plot ideas at this point. Right now I'm trying to focus on the rewrite and not panic and instead assure myself that yes, a story WILL come, because it always has in the past. Breathe, breathe!

At 3/13/2007 3:49 PM, Blogger Mark N said...

I used to think it would be really cool to write a book, if only I could think of something to write about.

Now I'm not so sure.

At 3/14/2007 9:41 AM, Blogger G. Parker said...

Jeff, Jeff, Jeff! You crack me up. Gee...that give us hope! You still worry that your work won't be accepted! But hey, I have to tell you, you're funny in your own way, it's not quite the same as high school, everyone here at least likes you...LOL

At 3/15/2007 7:18 PM, Blogger Carole Thayne said...

Jeff, you hit it right on the head, perfectly. Thanks for making my day after struggling to bleed out three pages of writing.

At 3/18/2007 12:34 AM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Hmmm. I think I'd better get to work. I've put off all my edits this weekend to read blogs and write newsletters. You just reminded me how much trouble I'm getting myself into.


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