Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

How The Prodigal Hour Got Its Title

Titles seem to be one of the elements of writing writers fret over most, and justifiably so. Chances are, titles are the first thing readers see, so they take on a lot of importance. Under ideal circumstances, they somehow carry the whole theme and story all in a quick phrase. My favorites include Needful Things, American Gods, Peace Like a River, and The Silence of the Lambs. All are not just effective but evocative; Stephen King’s Needful Things, in fact, begins with a character discussing the name of the new shop in town, which happens to be Needful Things–“What do you suppose something like that means? Why, a store like that might carry anything. Anything at all.”

And indeed it does. It’s where you can buy anything your heart desires–or at least the fantasy of it. For a price.

Knowing how important a title can be, I always fret over them. Which was why I was relieved when The Prodigal Hour finally came to me.

I was living in Hollywood and enrolled at USC at the time, which means I’d just begun yet another new draft of a novel I’d already written a dozen times since the night I finished the first draft in December 2000. I’d gotten some good advice on the book from a couple of different people, and come to realize that, if I wanted to tell the story, if I really wanted to take the book to the next level and do justice to it, I was going to have chuck it all and start over, and so I had.

I’d written a decent amount of it already–most of the early chapters, with the homicide investigation, and I’d begun to stare down the time-travel elements. I knew I had a chance to really do something special.

Who’d’ve thought a flower would provide the eureka moment I needed? I wouldn’t have, but I remember that was how I realized I could use formatting. I don’t remember why I had flowers, if I’d bought them for someone or just saw one while walking somewhere, but I was already starting to think about how traveling at light speed would change the way one saw the world. Sight is based on light, so I’d started to wonder what would happen if someone started to approach the speed of light–and, even more importantly, of course, to surpass it.

I’d decided in my fictional world that, as Chance and Cassie started to become excited, color and visibility would slowly dissolve from the world, fading first to grey and then to black.

And if they passed the speed of light, I realized, a sunflower would look backward.

That backward sunflower was the break I’d needed. Suddenly I had a strong image in mind, and the more I wrote, the stronger those images became.

Around the same time, I’d started working at Easton Gym Hollywood. I basically sat at the small gym’s front desk, greeted members, checked them in, and made sure they had as good an experience at the gym as they possibly could. I “turned it on,” with the intention that I wanted to become something of an ambassador of sorts to the people working out there. I wanted them to look forward to seeing me every morning when they walked in.

It wasn’t difficult; the members were universally interesting, friendly, and engaging–unfortunately a rarity in Hollywood, where so many relationships seem to come down to a barter system.

I took the morning shift–opening the gym at five in the morning. Every morning.

Now, one of the job rules was that we weren’t supposed to read while we were at the front desk, but shit, I’ll be honest, I had so much work to do for writing workshops and there were so many hours I worked during which there were only two or three people in the whole place, I’d take a book. I didn’t read it constantly. Just during the down moments that came at, say, ten or so in the morning, when the morning rush was gone and other people were still sleeping in and there were only a handful of people around.

I’d just met Brad Listi, who’d graduated from USC’s MPW program not long before, and who’d recently had a novel published, Attention. Deficit. Disorder. Brad had become active and popular on MySpace as he started blogging to promote his novel, and I’d recently picked it up to get it signed when Brad appeared at some SC event or other. I’d met Brad and shaken his hand, and I think we’d talked a little shop (I’d been blogging on MySpace, too, and I think he was aware of my blog, though I’m not sure he read it).

So I’d picked up the book and begun to read it. I found the way it used format fascinating, both on its own and because I was starting to experiment with format, as well. I was doing so to a different end than Brad had, but hey, it all becomes grist for the mill, you know?

One morning, I’d brought Brad’s book to work to read it, and one of the regular members I’d met, a girl named Tiffany, noticed it. It turned out Tiffany had gone to high school with Brad, and they were still at least vaguely in touch, and what a small world, etc. She asked how I knew Brad, and I mentioned I was at the same program, and it quickly became routine that Tiffany and I would briefly chat books and writing and such when she came in every morning. I looked forward to her new recommendations.

I’d kept working on The Prodigal Hour. I didn’t really talk much about it (I tend not to, unless I’m in a workshop. I tend to write closed-door drafts first. Exploring stories on my own before I start talking much about them and getting other people’s reactions or input), and had never mentioned it to Tiffany, but I was starting to write the screenplay for class with Irvin Kershner, and I’d begun to develop it more. I knew the heart of the book, the real engine of it, was in those few chapters of actual travel, and that they needed to be pulled off well, and I’d been working hard on them. Tweaking them, reversing things, cutting things, moving things around.

One morning, I brought a notebook with me when I opened the gym. I’d been starting to work on a sketch outline of the remainder of the book, working out how it flipped back and forth between Chance’s story and Leonard’s, as well as how they’d come together and where. I’d just written the scene in which Cassie’d paused everything around them, and I was working on the scene wherein they actually finally traveled into the past, so I’d started experimenting with how to make that happen. I’d also been thinking about how religion was about to come up, how to convincingly advance the plot, what would make Chance want to travel back in time to ancient Jerusalem.

All those things were all on my mind when I wrote, in my head, a single sentence:

“Back to him again the once-errant prodigal hour returned, and Chance would have . . .”

It gave me chills. It didn’t send a shiver down my spine: I sat straight up and moved to the counter where I dug out a bit of scrap paper to write it down. I didn’t have the ending for the sentence, but I didn’t need it. It was in those first ten words.

“Now that’s the book I want to read,” Tiffany told me as she walked up the stairs to the desk.

I chuckled. “Yeah, I think I just came up with something special.”

I still do, now that it’s out. You can find it here if you haven’t already. I should look Tiffany up to see if she still wants to read it, now that I think of it.

Years later, when I placed as a semi-finalist in Mediabistro’s Book Pitch Party, I met Jason Ashlock, who founded Movable Type Literary Agency, which treats agenting as more akin to management than representation (which is a terrifically forward thinking idea). I didn’t win the contest or gain representation, but when Ashlock told me I had an “Exceptional title,” well, that made me smile. One day I intend to toast him a double of Maker’s Mark in celebration of The Prodigal Hour.

1 Comment

  1. Oh, how I dread titles! Sometimes I get them the same way you described: they arise sort of organically from the writing. Other times, much more rarely I might add, the title comes to me first, and I write toward it. It’s difficult to say which titles catch my attention … Some words just go well together, but I think it may also have to do with what’s going on in my life at the time, or what I have recently read or found interesting.

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