The making of a novel, part 3—puzzle pieces

Before I put pen to paper, I like to 1) know the characters well and 2) have a decent idea of the major plot points of the story. I don’t need all the specifics, but I want to know the landmarks to be on the lookout for. I knew this book would open sometime before the anniversary of Rae’s father’s death, and I knew the actual anniversary would be the turning point as far as kindness. What I needed to figure out was 1) what she does on that day and 2) what act of kindness someone performs to inspire her to embark on her own crusade of kindness.

The simple act of changing the title from GNR to Bon Jovi answered both of those questions and more. Because I, too, am a fan of Bon Jovi, I knew they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. If Rae’s dad loved 80s rock and loved Bon Jovi in particular, surely he would have wanted to see their exhibit in the Hall of Fame, especially given that Cleveland is only a couple of hours away from Columbus, where my story is set (write what you know). But maybe he died before he got the chance.

So on the anniversary of his death, Rae skips school to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and see the Bon Jovi memorabilia in her father’s honor. When she arrives, the exhibit is closed. Despite all her pleading, the person at the ticket counter refuses to let her in. Enter the kind stranger—an employee who sees her huddled on the floor, despondent, and sneaks her in.

The Bon Jovi change also gave me an idea for the opening of the book. Previously, I’d had the idea to use an 80s rock song title to open each chapter. With the Bon Jovi connection, it seemed obvious that the first chapter has to be a Bon Jovi song. And while I’m still not sure about the whole opening scene, I think it makes sense to open with Rae’s musing on the connection between Bon Jovi and her dad. Here’s what I’ve got:

I like to pretend my father’s mortician was Jon Bon Jovi’s grandfather. Granted, we didn’t go to Bongiovi Funeral Home because we don’t live in Raritan, New Jersey, and Bon Jovi’s grandpop is probably dead too, but if somehow Mr. Bongiovi had buried my dad, it would have made him happy.

Now I just need the right song title….

The making of a novel, part 2—titles

When Rae’s story was intended for adults, the key elements of the narrative were as follows: Patrice’s husband, Derek, had died almost a year before the beginning of the book; Derek loved Christmas, and the book opened with Patrice struggling to deal with her first holiday season without him; Rae was struggling as well, and Patrice didn’t know how to help her—musical theatre was Rae’s one salvation but not something she shared with Patrice. Eventually, Patrice came up with an idea of doing kind things for others as a way to distract themselves from their pain, thus leading them down the path to kindness and, ultimately, healing.

As I’ve started thinking about how to rework the story for a young adult book, I’ve decided to keep Rae’s interest in theatre, but not a whole lot else. Rather than her mom organizing the kindness crusade, it’s a random act from a stranger on Rae’s darkest day—the one-year anniversary of her father’s death—that prompts Rae to explore the power of doing good for others. And instead of her dad loving Christmas, now it’s 80s rock music.

It’s been interesting writing after having attended two writing conferences this summer/fall. I find myself brainstorming with half a mind for what may be more likely to sell. And because I know I’ll ultimately have to write a query letter and synopsis and so forth, I tend to focus my thinking in terms of how I’ll one day describe this book—which led me to the title.

I know publishers often change the title of a manuscript before it gets published, but I’d still like my work-in-progress title to have the potential to go the distance. So while I drove to work one morning, thinking about the main themes of this book—theatre, kindness, and rock—I had the idea of using those three elements in the title. After a moment, I felt I had it: Ghost Lights, Kindness, and GNR.

Excitedly, I told Shawn that night—but I knew even before I revealed the title that he wasn’t going to like it. Sure enough, I got a blank stare, and when prompted, he explained that my title doesn’t tell him what to expect from the book, what it’s about. He likes literal titles—The Hobbit, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I asked him if he would know what to expect from a book titled The Fault in Our Stars or All the Ways the World Can End, he admitted he is not a competent authority on book titles, especially young adult book titles.

So for the time being, Rae’s story is called Ghost Lights, Kindness, and Jon Bon Jovi. Shawn (probably rightly) suggested that my target audience likely doesn’t know that GNR refers to Guns N’ Roses. Switching to Bon Jovi also filled in some other missing plot points in the story, like a puzzle piece fitting into place, but that’s a tale for another post.