Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Passion of Writing

by Jeffrey S Savage

“. . . his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete.”

“. . . after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It has started up. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he is not careful it will knock him down.”

From Stephen King’s “IT”

What do you think about when your write? The money you’ll make? The pressing deadline? How cool it would be to see your book in print? What you will do once you are: A published author? An author with multiple books out? An author with sales of over x? Your publisher’s top selling author? A nationally published author? A NYT bestseller?

Of course there is a time and place for those thoughts. If we didn’t have dreams and goals we would never write in the first place. Even if those dreams are just finishing what we start.

I tell people not to try and write what sells unless they want to sell what they write. I teach them to research the market, know the competition, learn what publishers, authors, and agents want, and all the stuff that helps you write a book which will sell. I also teach to have a marketing plan, create a web site, blog, promote, promote, and promote some more.

But those are the things that come before and after you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The part Stephen King is describing above is the part that differentiates an adequate book from a pulse-racing, heart-wrenching novel you can’t put down even though it’s two in the morning and you have to get up at six.

I just finished reading a novel I won’t name here. The idea was great, the characters were cool, the setting was fun. But I didn’t care about it at all. Not only was I able to put it down any time I wanted. At times I felt I had to put it down, because it was so hard to get into the story. I kept wondering what the author was thinking about while he was writing it. Was he laughing at the funny parts? Crying at the sad parts? Did his stomach get all fluttery when he thought about people reading the exciting parts? Or was he thinking about how many copies he could sell?

If you’re going to be a painter, strive to create works people won’t be able to turn away from. If you sculpt, make your work so fascinating, so powerful, viewers will feel nearly compelled to reach out and ran their hands across the surface.

If you are a writer, don’t take the easy way out. If you create a character you care about so much she keeps you up at night, I will care about her too. If you taste the salt of her tears when she loses the most important thing in the world to her, I’ll taste it too.

If the obstacles between your protagonist and his goals are so impossible I can’t imagine how he will overcome them, I will keep turning pages even when my eyelids are dropping. If you give me ice-cold winds that whip my hair back from my brow, the musky-sweet scent of sagebrush after a rainstorm in the desert, and the butter and cinnamon taste of a fresh hot scone, I will lose myself in your world.

Of course there are times when the words seep slower than maple sap on a cold Massachusetts morning. There are times when you feel like everything you’ve written is worse than anything ever scribbled by the worst writer who ever placed a word on a sheet of paper. You’ll want to cheat. Just get onto the next chapter. Showing is too hard, so you’ll want to tell. You have a deadline to meet, so you’ll consider just putting in your word count, even though you know it’s not your best work. After all, the editor will take care of it.

Don’t do it.

Don’t cheat yourself and don’t cheat your readers.

Don’t be satisfied with a bloop single or a sacrifice bunt. Dig your cleats into the soft dirt at the plate. Pull your helmet down low and tight. Tighten your grip near the end of the handle where you’ll be able to take a full swing. Shut out the noise of the crowd. Stare out at the pitcher with a sneer on your lips. And when you see the seams of the fastball, swing for the bleachers with everything you have from your heels to the top of your head.

There are plenty of authors out there who are satisfied with good enough. They publish books that are forgotten almost as soon as they are read. But the authors that write with passion—the authors that feel like their stories will knock them down if they’re not careful—write books that live forever in their reader’s minds.


At 6/26/2007 10:27 AM, Blogger Josi said... I need to get back to my book now that my inspiration has just peaked out. Who's taking my kids today? I feel like I could write for hours.

At 6/26/2007 12:36 PM, Blogger Tamra Norton said...

Powerful words, Jeff! And the best stuff seems to emerge after layers of work. It's usually my 4th or 5th time through when my character's voice begins to ring true. I'm working on a re-write right now, and I'm thinking, "wow, that first draft was...not so good." Yeah--writing is work. But when you can finally smell those scones...

At 6/26/2007 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6/26/2007 1:01 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Yep. It sometimes take a lot of polishing to get to get everything out.

Anon, melodrama is exactly the tone I think an author needs to take when they plunge into their novels. If you go in with a sense of adventure and flair, the worst case is that you might over-write a little. But if you treat writing like another day at the office, you end up writing memos.

At 6/26/2007 2:03 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Thanks for the reminder of why we do this, Jeff. Sometime we lose the love of writing and get so focused on the other end of it. I got immersed into a scene the other day and came out the other end thinking, "Oh, yeah! THIS is why I love to write!"

At 6/26/2007 2:58 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I hereby nominate Jeff to bring the scones at our next get-together.

At 6/26/2007 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you mean: "sometimes it takes a lot of polishing to get the melodrama out?" Disgorging a stomach-full of the over-the-top is an excellent writing tool, but are you suggesting we actually let people read what we've spewn?

At 6/26/2007 3:26 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/26/2007 3:33 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Depends how you define melodrama. Of course over the top writing can be just as bad as underwriting. Dean Koontz often kills me with his overly flowery language.

With that said, I think the biggest problem in today's LDS fiction is that so much of it is written with all the passion of a sacrament meeting talk.

I'm more tolerant of an author who seems to go a little over the top than I am of an author who seems only half awake.

Take endings for example. If I work my way to the end of your book, I want the last 50 pages to hold me transfixed. If it's a romance, I want fireworks and moonlight. If it's a thriller, I want wild car chases and gunfights. If it's a mystery, I want twists and turns.

Instead, there are so many novels that end with a whimper and a happily ever after epilogue.

What I am saying is that you can always tone down scenes after the fact. But in my opinion it is much harder to add excitement and passion after the fact when you are editing the book for the tenth time.

Wouldn't you agree?

(Sorry had a typo in the last post. Too passionate I guess. :)

At 6/26/2007 4:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, but aren't your comments about the last 50 pages of myteries, thrillers, and romances more related to inventiveness and plotting? And when we talk about melodrama aren't we talking about overwriting, bringing the camera in to close, smilling TOO BIG, laughing TOO LOUD, jumping TOO HIGH, over ACTING in all its forms and so the editing (even for the tenth time) should bring the writing to a balanced and appropriate dramatic, but not really change the plot lines or inventiveness of the closing scenes?

At 6/26/2007 4:57 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Anon, I think you and Jeff are in agreement here. All he means is that you should write from your heart, not with an eye to the royalty check, rushing through and making it sloppy and weak because you just want to turn it in and get it overwith. Shoddy, weak writing is shoddy, weak writing. And there's a darn good chance that if the writer is feeling excited and passionate about a scene as he/she is writing it, the scene is going to turn out better. I know some of the scenes I've had readers write to me about saying they've sobbed over are the ones I've cried writing. If YOU feel it, chances are your reader will, too. This has nothing to do with being melodramatic.

At 6/26/2007 5:03 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

When you first teach drama to elementary or even beginning high school students, you teach them melodrama. You explain to them that what feels too expansive to them is actually just right for the stage.

Because many of them are naturally and inhibited, you have to break them out of their shell.

A problem I see with a lot of writing is that people want to tell the story as quickly as possible--for any number of reasons. In doing so, they miss out on adding the smells, the tastes, the sounds.

I'm not saying to spend two pages telling me all the flowers in the garden. But I am saying, don't forget as you walk through the garden to mention that the rose petals blowing around your feet and the smell of gardenias that have gone just a tad past their prime.

How many times have you read a book where the writer builds up to what should be a huge and exciting ending, only to have the final scene fall well short? Is it realistic that the final fight is over after two punches? Yeah, probably. But the reader didn't come to you for reality. They came for the illusion of reality.

Did you know the sound effects you hear in a movie or a video game are not recirdings of what the thing actually sounds like? A true gunshot sound seems far too small and weak when heard in a movie. They have to beef it up.

The same thing goes for a novel. Good editing should include a significant amount of tightening. It should also include adding necessary additional plot, scenes, etc.

But just like it is much easier to tell a drama student where to tone things down them to get them to open up, it is much easier to snip away a little here and there from your story than it is to recreate the excitement of the first time you experienced the scene in your mind and put it to paper.

So no, more isn't always better. But my point is that for most beginning and experienced writers less is not the way to start.

At 6/26/2007 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6/26/2007 7:46 PM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

What a great post, Jeff. Thanks for the incentive to keep my butt on my chair for another hour. Ouch! Gotta stand and stretch first!

At 6/27/2007 10:17 PM, Anonymous Marlene said...

I don't suppose anyone will see this because I am so slow, but today as I drove through 90 degree 90% humidty to the grocery store, a convertable passed me, top down, hands floating on the air currents, waggling in the wind. Remembering that sensation, I wondered how one could describe it in words as your blog suggested.

What gives writing that characteristic? Is it the number of adjectives per noun, adverbs per verb? Is it the unique vs trite, often used phrasing? Is it the comfortably known vs the strange, never heard before combination of words or thoughts that calls the reader in? Is it the hours of searching or the sudden inspiration?

We all want to have it, we all hope to reread our work and feel it there, but can we get it from a formula or is it instinctive?

Are there born writers or can we learn?

At 6/28/2007 12:04 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


I'm sure every author has their own style and every reader has their own taste, but I do think there are some things you can focus on to add that realism.

Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Try using verbs that are not the most common. For example instead of saying lightning crashed or flashed, consider lightning exploded, danced, pronounced its judgment, blinded, etc.

2. Try to add at least one sense to every page--funny how much a smell or a sound can evoke an image that a thousand words couldn't. Again, search for tastes or sounds that might not be the most obvious.

3. When writing a scene, try closing your eyes and recording the images and sensations that come to mind. After writing as many as you can think of, consider what the emotion of the scene is that you are going for, then choose the most appropriate sensations to put in.

4. As per the above, always try to use a scene description to convey an emotion. Never simply describe a house, room, or tree, without knowing what you want the reader to take away.

5. You can overuse them, but a creative metaphor or simile can do wonders. Avoid going with the overused or inaccurate.

6. Try reading books whose prose match the type of feel you are going for.

7. Let every one of your characters "earn" their emotions. Don't make them sad without giving enough background for the reader to feel it along with them. Don't make their loses or victories too easy.

Using some of the ideas above let's take the scene you described.

When I think of driving a convertible, I think of:

blowing hair, the sun beating down on my head, bits of paper rustling around on the floor of the car, freedom, noticing every new smell I pass by, loud music, the roar of the wind in my ears, imagining I am flying

The obvious emotion would be joy, or exuberance, but let's be different and go with something like loneliness. That will make my metaphors and images a little different or at least put a different twist on them.

Guiding the wheel loosly with her right hand, she let the fingers of her left hand rise and dive on the sage-scented currents of hot air like a turtle dove in search of it's lost mate. The country station blasting from the radio was upbeat and loud enough to rattle the plastic speaker covers in the doors, but to her the music seemed as far away as the glowering summer sun that should have warmed her tan skin but instead left her feeling strangely more cold.

The foil from a chewing gum wrapper and the crumpled ball of her boyfriend's goodbye letter spiraled aimlessly around the floor of her car pushed by unseen hands. Glancing down at them, she wondered if her path was just as aimless.

At 6/28/2007 1:16 AM, Anonymous Marlene said...

Wow!Jeff, thank you. That really does work, as your example shows so well, and the ideas are workable. The turtle dove searching for its mate pulls in the sense of loss so you are already set to feel her loneliness when you read about the letter, etc. I'm new at the analysis of good writing, just know what I like to read, so this really helps me. Of course now I don't have any excuses do I? (And you didn't even mention my mispelled words! Thanks for that, too)

I am very impressed.

At 6/29/2007 12:21 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


If it wasn't for spell checker I wouldn't be able to write so much as a business letter without looking like a dunce. And even with that I mispelled loosely. (AT least I think that's how it's spelled.


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