Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, July 02, 2007

On Books

by Jeffrey S Savage

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a little scattered when it comes to the genres I write. My standard joke is, “People say, you’ve written a high-tech thriller, an Old Testament-based drama, a mystery series, and a horror novel (now we can add in YA fantasy.) Do you have a short attention span or what? To which I reply, ‘I’m sorry what did you say? I wasn’t listening.’” Based on the polite laughter I get when I tell that story, I’m reminded why I am not a stand up comedian.

But the fact of the matter is that unless something changes, I will be publishing three different novels next year to three potentially very different audiences. I thought that today I’d give a little background on how this came to be. It may not be the most exciting thing in the world to most of you, but at least you can look forward to Rob’s post tomorrow. If you are interested, come join me. If not, go check out what the Babes With Books have to say. Or was that Hotties in Heels? Whatever. Just ask Rob. He’s always trying to hang out with the female LDS writers.

Dark Memories
Genre: Horror/Supernatural Thriller

After publishing my first two books with Covenant, I really wanted to try and expand into the national market. The book I started on was another high-tech novel called 21. I promised myself I would send out queries by the end of that year. Even though I was only about half-way through with the novel, I went ahead and sent out the queries. While I don’t generally recommend this idea, the results were phenomenal . . . phenomenally bad. Out of twenty queries, I got not one request for a partial or a full.

Something about having absolutely no one interested in my novel made me rethink my premise. (And permanently shelve that book.) Sitting at my desk, I tried to come up with a can’t miss hook. Something every agent would want to read.

The idea I came up with went something like this:

In the mid 1960’s six second graders become lost in an abandoned gold mine in a small Utah town. Eventually five of the children are found, but the sixth is never recovered. After nearly a month of looking, the search is called off and the mine is blasted closed.

Forty years later, someone is killing off the survivors of the mine incident. All clues seem to point to the ghost of the dead six year-old boy.

Police Chief, Cal Hunt—an ex LA homicide detective—must uncover the secret of what really happened in the mine all those years ago, and why even the potential victims refuse to talk about it. But learning the truth requires him to accept the presence of the supernatural and reevaluate the recent death of his wife.

Armed with only a hook, I began sending out e-mails queries (again, something I do not recommend.) By the time I had sent out five queries, I already had three requests for partials. This was partly due to a much better story and partly due to the fact that my queries for 21sucked rocks.

Realizing I now had to deliver, I quickly whipped out three chapters and a synopsis. My original synopsis was for a police procedural thriller with a supernatural twist. But Jacky Sach, the wonderful woman who eventually became my agent, pointed out that the strong point of the whole story was the supernatural angle, which kind of disappeared in the end. Reevaluating my story, I realized she was completely right.

I grew up on writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ira Levine, Poe, and other authors of the night. I felt confident I could turn Dark Memories into a truly scary yarn. But at what cost? Would the people in my ward shun me? I remember telling a woman in my ward that I was writing a horror novel, and her responding with, “Well, I guess that’s what sells.”

Fortunately I got some good advice and realized there is nothing wrong with writing a scary story. In fact it might even be unique to write a story that kept people up at night without bad language or gratuitous violence. Apparently I did okay with it, because my agent told me, “Your book kept me up until 2:00 in the morning. I actually finished it at 11:00, but couldn’t get to sleep until 2:00.”

The good news was that I got a great agent out of the deal (I highly recommend Bookends, Inc.) The bad news was that while we came very close, we never sold the book in the national market. Lots of publishers liked the story; they just didn’t have a spot for it. Finally, it too went back to the shelf.

Then, about a month ago, I was talking to my wonderful editor and good friend, Kirk, at Covenant, and the conversation got around to that book. “I know this is crazy,” I said. “But do you think Covenant would ever consider publishing the first mainstream Mormon horror novel?” He thought it was a great idea and it appears that he has convinced the rest of the staff. I believe there are a lot of LDS readers who love a good scare, but could do without the profanity and gore. I guess we’ll see if that’s true.

Shandra Covington Series
Genre: Mystery

After Into the Fire, I went for about three years without publishing another LDS novel. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire, but more a lack of time. What with abandoning a half-finished novel, writing another, and getting an agent, I was kind of tied up. But my mind kept going back to the LDS market. Cutting Edge had sold extremely well, but I felt I would be pigeonholed into writing only guy books if I did another one like it. Nothing wrong with guy books except that 80% of all people who buy LDS books are women.

Into the Fire did not do nearly as well as Cutting Edge, and I learned a valuable lesson. Understanding the market is key to publishing any novel. There are mystery lovers, people who read thrillers, a huge romance market, etc, etc. But how many people walk into a store saying, “Gosh, I wonder if there is a family drama based loosely on the life of Job, but set in modern times?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my second novel, but it didn’t sell for beans. And the fault for that lies squarely on the fact that I build up a following with one type of book and followed it up with something completely different. Even today, at signings, people say, “Cutting Edge? I loved that.” But almost no one recognizes Into the Fire. It’s like your favorite steak place suddenly changing the menu to sushi. Sushi is good too, but you didn’t love the place for its fish.

Determined not to make that mistake again, I researched the market carefully. People say write what’s in your heart, not what you think will sell. That’s fine advice if you are writing just for the sake of writing. But if you have dreams of one day making a living in the business, it helps if you write something people want to buy. My research revealed a couple of things. Romance is the top selling genre—but there are already a ton of great LDS romance writers, and even if there weren’t I’m not inclined toward writing romance.

The second top selling genre is mystery. While there are several great LDS mystery writers out there—led by our own Kerry—I thought there might be room for another. Especially if I could make my mysteries different enough from the rest to stand out. I also learned that the top selling mysteries tended to be female first person series. (It’s funny that Kerry and I both came to the same conclusion and launched the same kind of series at the same time.)

I felt like it was a risk on my part to write female first person, and Covenant was also more than a little wary. But it just felt right, and besides, I had something to prove to Jennie Hansen. When she reviewed Into the Fire, she rightly questioned my ability to write in depth about female characters. I wanted to either show her I could write about women, or eat my humble pie, and admit I was hopeless at it.

It’s also fortunate that I have a wonderful wife as my first line editor, and a critique group of excellent writers, all of whom are either women or very effeminate (James.) I am now finishing up my third Shandra book, and she is a character I absolutely love coming back to. I feel like there are many more good Shandra stories to tell as long as people are willing to keep reading them.

Genre: YA Fantasy

Early last fall, I had lunch with my good friend and author extraordinaire, James Dashner. Over lunch, he was going on and on about Shadow Mountain, and the amazing things they were doing with the YA fantasy novels, Leven Thumps and Fablehaven. He had built up a great working relationship with two great individuals there, Lisa Mangum and Chris Schoebinger. And was close to getting a deal for his novel, The Thirteenth Reality.

I’ll be the first to admit that while a part of me was really excited for James, another part of me was really jealous. Ever since my first book came out, I have dreamed of being a full time author. Based on the numbers James was telling me, that was a real possibility for him. And perhaps the best part of it was that Shadow Mountain was achieving their success in the national market. How cool would it be to actually have your books carried by national chains all across the US? And to have the chance of selling movie rights?

But while I was more than a little jealous, I knew I could never compete in that market. For years, my brother Mark, who is ten years younger than me, has been telling me to write a fantasy series. He and I loved all the major fantasy writers. Even more, we loved playing all of the fantasy RPGs together on the computer. Ultima, Questron, Alternate Realty, etc, etc. He was convinced I should write a fantasy.

I, on the other hand, kept telling him I couldn’t do it. “I write mysteries, thrillers, horror even. But I wouldn’t know where to begin on a fantasy.” Somehow though, I couldn’t shake the discussion I’d had with James. As I drove home, I thought about a story I’d had in mind for a long time. Honestly I didn’t have much more than an idea. But as I drove, pieces suddenly started to slide into place. Characters, scenes, plot. It all sounded cool as all get out in my mind. But that didn’t change the fact that I couldn’t write fantasy. I loved reading Harry Potter, but creating a whole new world was another story entirely (pardon the lame pun.)

The problem was, I couldn’t shake the idea in my head. I had a third Shandra book to finish. I needed to get my national agent another shot at the national horror market. I couldn’t write the genre. But the story wouldn’t go away. “Fine,” I eventually told myself. “If you want to get it out of your head, sit down and try to write it. Once you prove to yourself it’s impossible, you can get back to writing what you know.”

Several hours—and 5,000 words later—I sat staring at my computer screen, dumbstruck. I was writing a fantasy. And although I was not impartial in the least, I thought it wasn’t too bad. After that, I found I couldn’t write anything but the fantasy. It was a little scary and a little exhilarating. I kept waiting for the story to dry up, but it never did. In fact, my YA book ended up longer than most of my adult books.

I won’t bore you with all the details of getting my book accepted at SM. Suffice it to say, that I just kept waiting for someone to say, “What were you thinking? You have no business trying to write a new genre and certainly not to an age group much younger than you’ve ever tried.” Instead, people like James Dashner, and Julie Wright, and my wonderful wife Jennifer, and my nine-year-old son kept telling me to keep on writing.

Waiting to have lunch with Chris and Lisa two weeks ago, may have been one of the scariest things in my life. Scarier than the Wicked Rollercoaster I rode at Lagoon, a few days before. And MUCH scarier than asking my wife to marry me. (At least I was pretty sure she was going to say yes.) But thanks to the support of a lot of good friends and family members, I stuck with it. And although I could barely taste the fish I was putting in my mouth, they never told me my book sucked rocks.

So there you have it. Somehow I’m going to go from having no books coming out this year to possibly having three coming out next year—including one I really thought might never see the light of day. And if everything goes just right, my dream of writing full-time could come true in the next twenty-four months of so. I’m not sure what to make of it myself. In fact, I honestly have to keep reminding myself it’s really happening and is not just an extension of one of my daydreams.

I guess if there’s anything I could share from the whole experience, it’s don’t listen to the nay-sayers. There are lots of people who will tell you that getting your books published is a long shot at the very best. That you’d be better off spending time on your yard or taking up golf. And don’t even think about making money writing. That’s for real authors, not regular folks like you and me, who only have a good idea.

But the truth is that someone has to write those best sellers. Someone has to create books that make people’s hearts pound and keep them up at night. Someone is going to be the next Grisham, or Steele, or King, or Grimes, or Grafton, or Rowling. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be you. And most importantly of all, don’t listen to the little voice inside your head that says it’s stupid to even try. Instead remind yourself that if Savage can get published anyone can.


At 7/02/2007 10:33 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

Jeff, that's so funny that my comment made you set out to prove you could write from a female point of view. It was a comment of yours that convinced me to try writing a western!

At 7/02/2007 11:29 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

It's been fun to sit in the backseat and watch this unfold as part of the critique group. And for future readers of that horror story, let me warn you that we made a rule at one point that Jeff wasn't allowed to read last when working on that book. It was just a little too creepy reading about murderous ghosts and then walking out to your car in the dark . . .

At 7/03/2007 1:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I usually don't read horror stories because I like to sleep at night and not lay awake listening to every creak and rustle. But for you, I'm going to make an exception. What you've written about Dark Memories makes me look forward to it immensely.

Melanie Goldmund

At 7/03/2007 3:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I'm convinced that you should be a much better friend of mine, based on a single word in your (quite lengthy) blog:



At 7/03/2007 8:41 AM, Blogger Writer, Rejected said...

I like the lengthy blog entries. I feel like I'm spending quality time with another writer. Hey, speaking of rejections, check out my blog called Literary Rejection on Display. I think you'll get a kick out of it, esp. if you've had a book that didn't sell. Me, too. Different genre, but same idea.

At 7/03/2007 8:56 AM, Anonymous rob wells said...

Wasn't Questron one of the Transformers?

And Jeff, can you blame me for hanging out with female LDS writers instead of you? They smell better.

At 7/03/2007 9:15 AM, Blogger Josi said...

This is an awesome 'years in the life'--I appreciate you sharing this, Jeff, it's always inspiring to hear how other authors do it. I need to have you autograph something quick, so I can say I got it before your career went to stratosphere.

At 7/03/2007 9:55 AM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

Babes with books . . . Hotties in Heels . . . wonder why we didn't think of those great titles?

I can't wait to see Dark Memories in print, Jeff. It's scary, but it is also a great read. Congratulations on the pay off for a lot of hard work.

At 7/03/2007 10:05 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Jeff, I doubt I'll read Dark Memories. Just reading your query letter freaked me out.

I need to sleep at night.

I think lots of people will buy it, though.

I'm still freaked out.

At 7/03/2007 10:06 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Thanks for telling your story. It is inspiring to hear the path you took and why you wrote all the different genres. I am looking forward to all your new books because I read just about every genre anyway :)

At 7/03/2007 11:35 AM, Blogger James Dashner said...

Nice story, Jeff.

Glad to know you finally admitted that your only goal in life is to be like me.

This is the first time I ever shaved before and after reading a blog post.

Just kidding! This is awesome, and you are THE MAN.

At 7/03/2007 6:26 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

When did you start shaving?

At 7/03/2007 10:02 PM, Blogger Jennifer Leffler said...

I look forward to reading all your new books even the horror one. Thanks for the insights into your path to becoming an author.

At 7/04/2007 10:38 AM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Jeff, Dark Memories scared the socks off of me in a way I truly loved. Farworld was so good I droned on about it for hours to my husband who kept saying he wanted to wait until it came out on cd. And I refuse to read another shandra book until you're done with the series, since i hate getting to the end of a book and wanting to knock your punk head off your punk shoulders. Seriously I loved this post. And James is old enough to shave? My, how our little jimmy has grown up!

At 7/05/2007 10:31 PM, Blogger Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Isn't this blog post about 5,000 words long? J/K. Anyway, I'm jealous as heck---all those years I've tried to publish national MG/YA, and you do it on the first try---but that's okay. Maybe I'll fit well into that most-popular LDS romance genre if the words keep coming like they have been for me. In the meantime, you're stuck with reading my stuff as long as you continue to come to critique. Those crazy "Writers in Heels" might get rampant on you if you start missing as many meetings as he-who-will-remain-nameless (remember, JD, we've only actually been in the same room critiquing ONCE in all this time.) Soo you all when I get back from visiting the big DW (Disney World for those who didn't want to figure out that mystery.)


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