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LDS Fiction: Does Good Writing Matter?

March 24, 2009

The following is also posted at LDS Publisher (along with some great comments):

Does good writing matter? I’ve read a couple of interesting perspectives about this, from Shannon Hale and an anonymous poster at LDSpublisher. Shannon Hale holds that the quality of a book is far less important than whether it speaks to a reader. She gives the example of young readers, who might find a lesser-quality book engaging, a kind of gateway book, that could help them appreciate other works later on. Anonymous explains that books speak to different people different ways at different times; one story might engage someone at one point in their life, but bore them at another.

I think there is validity in both of these points of view. My kids love the Magic Tree House books, and they do not boast superb writing. But for my son, these were the books that helped him transition into chapter books. Hooray! There are many books that I loved as a teenager, that spoke to my angsty soul, that I don’t care for now. And vice versa–I don’t think my teenage self would enjoy the all books I like now. My tastes have changed.

However, while the reader’s response does matter, I also believe that good writing matters in and of itself. There are at least two reasons for this, both of which should be crucial to Mormons. 1-Good writing is honest; bad writing is dishonest, and 2-Good writing allows the reader his/her own agency; bad writing takes away the reader’s agency.*

Arthur Henry King (1910-2000)
, scholar and BYU professor, explains that the best, the greatest writing, is absolutely honest. In fact, it was the stark honesty of Joseph Smith’s personal writing that led directly to Arthur Henry King’s conversion:

When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.

…Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New York clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings, instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:

“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” [JS—H 1:12]

I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it as it is, who is bending all his faculties to express the truth, not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself.

According to King, the best writers in history have worked to tell truth. Great honesty=great writing. I think the issue of honesty is an important factor in evaluating current LDS writing. For example: in an LDS novel I finished recently, the female protagonist is in peril, and in a challenging, life-threatening situation, which she accepts with very little complaint.

But it felt like a lie to me. She didn’t demonstrate the normal range of emotion. I think the author wanted to set her up to be a good person. That’s nice. But this protagonist was just too good. She didn’t feel real. She didn’t feel honest. I felt deceived as a reader–was I really supposed to believe that she was as amazing as all that? I wasn’t given enough depth, enough layers, to feel like it was true.

Also in this book, there were several opportunities for the male and female protagonist to get very upset at each other. And they never did. I assume this was because they were supposed to be falling in love. Okay. But don’t you get extremely upset at the people you love sometimes? Isn’t that kind of conflict worth digging into and exploring? In this book, it was never explored in depth. I believe in love more if the romance includes real obstacles, thoroughly explored and then overcome. Again, it felt dishonest.

Character arcs are a crucial part of being an honest writer. If the main characters do not grow or change, the novel is dishonest. Why? Because events as important as the ones worth writing about in the novel would surely change the characters, and cause them to grow and develop. A novel in which the only change in the character’s status is from single to in love, or from in peril to out of peril, is not an honest book.

On to agency. Arthur Henry King explains that an important aspect of Joseph Smith’s writing was that he did not care at all what the reader thought of it. Joseph’s story was true, and he was going to tell it exactly as it happened, without being sensational or trying to convince the reader of anything. Joseph Smith respected his readers’ agency, to believe or not. He did not use writing to manipulate the reader.

A great practical application of this principle of respecting reader agency is the old-but-true standby “show don’t tell.” Sometimes you do need to tell; it moves the action along. But whenever I’m told too much about a character, instead of shown what they are like, I’m being being forced to believe who they are, instead of allowed to discover them for myself. Whereas, if the author works in character traits through a nice showing scene, my agency as a reader is respected. The more the author tells about a character instead of shows, the less he/she allows me agency.

I love the way the Whitney website phrases the objective of the Whitney Awards:

Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle in the LDS church, prophesied “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” Since we have that as our goal, we feel that we should also honor those authors who excel and continually raise the bar.

I feel that many of the finalists have raised the bar, and I am grateful for that. I also think that an ongoing conversation about what constitutes good writing in LDS fiction is important. In my opinion, what we as a people should be seeking is honest writing, writing that respects readers’ agency. Asking for writing that follows these ideals isn’t being mean. It isn’t being overly critical or too picky. Instead, it’s seeking to apply fundamental principles of the LDS faith in our literature.

*These ideas concerning honesty, agency, and Arthur Henry King are from writer and writing teacher extraordinaire Tessa Meyer Santiago.

Will I need to reboot?

March 20, 2009

I get the boot off tomorrow morning, and I’m scared. I think normal people, when they break their legs, and get their boots/casts off, are really excited about being able to walk and drive again. But I’m walking pretty well right now, and I hate driving, so now that the pain is gone I have enjoyed this aspect of my convalescence. I don’t have to go anywhere. I love it.

But tomorrow, the boot comes off, and that means that I will have to start functioning again. Driving people to lessons, picking them up from lessons, going grocery shopping, going Easter clothes shopping for the kids, all that kind of thing that I’ve been relieved of for the past two months. I’m kind of dreading it. I’m worried about how my leg will hold up under normal pressures. And I’m worried that my toes will malfunction and I will not push on the gas or brake correctly and my car will wreck. See, all these doomsday scenarios are much harder to banish after I’ve broken my leg. Because now I have proof that worst-case scenarios happen sometimes, and I fear them.

I would never wish a broken leg on myself just so I didn’t have to drive anywhere for two months. So not worth it. But since it’s broken anyway, I have been enjoying the perks the last few weeks. Being able to walk without crutches, when I’m also unable to drive anywhere, is fabulous.

Tomorrow I shall be boot-free… unless (bad pun alert) it’s not healing right. Then I will have to *cough* reboot.

LDS Fiction: Romance Plots and Pet Peeves

March 17, 2009

Okay, I’m not into romance as a genre, or even romance in books. Except when I am, and then I love it. I’m so grateful when romance is well done, and so irritated when it’s not. Here is when I am not into romance:

1-When the plot is a bad imitation of the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice:
the heroine/hero take an instant dislike to each other, or at least one of them does, but it’s not well-founded or well-explained. I don’t mind good imitations of the Pride and Prejudice basic plot. But the book has to set up the couple’s initial dislike for each other very well; it can’t just be “I hated him/her at first sight but then grew strangely attracted.” There’s got to be more substance to it than that.

Who does the Pride and Prejudice plot well? Well, Jane Austen, of course. And Shakespeare–Much Ado about Nothing has a similar dynamic. And the movie You’ve Got Mail is excellent at this.

2-When the plot is a bad version of the married-but-still-need-to-fall-in-love romance.
This is when the couple is forced to act married or engaged at the start of the book, but they don’t really love each other, and as the work progresses they fall in love, and eventually they declare their affection for each other.

Mostly this plot doesn’t work for me when the characters involved are boring or cliched. The ending is a foregone conclusion: it’s a romance, and these are the two main characters, so of course they are going to get together in the end. No question. So the author has to build up tension in other ways. I have read cheesy versions of this plot that make me cringe, where it seemed so fake I struggled to turn pages.

But I’ve also read versions that do it well: I really enjoyed the Seeking Persephone version of this plot. Orson Scott Card uses it in Enchantment to great effect also. And, of course, there’s L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. Brandon Sanderson’s upcoming novel Warbreaker uses this plot too. I loved each of these books. I think what made them work was very strong characterization, that overcame the contrived nature inherent to that type of romantic plot.

3-When the romance is all the characters care about.
If it’s all about love, I’m outta there. I’ve thought about this a lot lately; IMO, a successful romance has to have the romance as a side attraction in the characters’ lives. They need to want something else in addition to romantic love, or they run the risk of becoming boring. In The Blue Castle, Valancy wants freedom even more than she wants love. You might not think of Elantris as primarily a romance, but it’s got a great romance going on. Raoden and Sarene both want something besides their romance, though: they have problems to solve, things to get done.

Some books pay lip service to this idea, giving their protagonists a fake task/want/interest, but they spend almost all the time inside the character’s head dwelling on the romance, and nothing on the other task. That makes the task seem not important, and the characters feel flat as a result.

4-When there is constant physical description of the love interest from the other person’s point of view.
It just grates. Note that I said “constant.” I don’t mind description every so often. I’ve never been annoyed by the way Shannon Hale does it–a tidbit detail here and there, nothing too heavy-handed, but enough to give you a sense of attraction and mystery. But no, please don’t tell me what the person is wearing or about their eyes or their hair every time the two encounter each other. Don’t tell me what they are wearing too often. Don’t notice muscles more than once, if that, and be so careful when you do, because it can be over-the-top. Let them fall for each others’ minds and hearts first. Then when you give a physical detail, I will believe and appreciate it more, instead of being irritated by it.

5-When there’s no sense of humor. There’s got to be laughter in the book, they have to make each other laugh, or I’m just not buying the romance.

I have more to say, but my timer has beeped, and I’m off to make green cookies. I do love a good romance. But it’s such a delicate thing, very hard to pull off. Kudos to all who attempt; even bigger kudos to those who do it well.

LDS Fiction and Depth in Mormon Characterization

March 14, 2009

More thoughts on the Mormon characters in a couple of the LDS fiction works I have been reading.

Here is what defines them as Mormons:

They keep the Word of Wisdom.
They are modest and keep the law of chastity.
They have testimonies of a couple of other aspects of the Gospel (pick from the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, prophets, families) that are expressed but not explored or explained in great depth.

The end. Or at least the end in the book I’m currently in.

This frustrates me. I know that in the genre I’m currently reading, it’s tough to build round characters. But there’s a lot more to being Mormon than just keeping the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and expressing your testimony every so often. There’s depth to our doctrine. Also real prayers don’t always get answered as fast as they do in books. The only way to get at that depth is to make liberal use of the “show don’t tell” rule in characterization.

Books I thought did this very well… My favorites are Bound on Earth, Waiting for the Light to Change, and Fool Me Twice. That last one surprised me. Character is often subordinate to plot in that genre. But no; the LDS characters were nice and round, and the non-LDS protagonist, while she was reading the Book of Mormon by the end of the book, did not convert completely yet. The book worked because it had well-rounded characters, and it didn’t try to force their arcs into something unrealistic for its scope.

It’s late. But more on this later.

Book Covers I like…

March 13, 2009

Bound on Earth:

The Goose Girl:

Charms for the Easy Life (a great book by Kaye Gibbons, women’s lit but also kind of literary)

Waiting for the Light to Change

March 13, 2009

The book doesn’t do what I thought it did in my earlier comment. It’s not just cultural Mormonism; there’s a very lovely Wyoming pioneer epiphany at the end. Sarah, the protagonist, both hits rock bottom and is redeemed/strengthened by God. I wonder if there would have been a way to show more of her faith earlier on, without destroying the pain Annette Haws worked to create. I don’t know. It was a really great book though, and one I never would have picked up based on its cover or even dust jacket blurb(sorry, Cedar Fort). So I’m grateful to the Whitneys for introducing me to it. I’m going to see if I can get my book group to discuss it.

The book is a redemptive tragedy, and I would call it Shakespearean except to be candid my memory of the last time I really studied Shakespeare is fuzzy, and I don’t recall all the elements of a perfect Greek/Shakespearean tragedy. But great stuff, though. Recommended.

Book Love and more Whitney talk

March 10, 2009

I feel a little silly blogging about the Whitneys yet again (and I’m still not done; I will yet blog more), but I’ve been reading and thinking about them a lot over the last few days, and I’m not finished reading the finalists yet. A few more observations:

1-As I noted in the comments of my last post, I’ve found another great book with LDS characters who are allowed to crash: Waiting for the Light to Change. I’m not done yet, but it’s excellent. Great writing, great characters. Kudos to Annette Haws.

2-I will name no names. But I will mention here that, in my opinion, many of the Whitney finalist books written by some of the more well-established authors are not as good as the ones written by up-and-comers. And I may not even be thinking of who you think I’m thinking of (untwist that sentence!). It’s almost like there’s a divide, between the people who are going to write what they’ve always written because they know it will sell, and the people who know that if they’re going to break into the market, their book needs to be really great.

3-Thank you, Annette!!!! Annette Lyon has been gracious and so bend-over-backwards helpful to me–as I’ve been reading the Whitney Finalists, I have needed to find copies of them without breaking my book budget. Annette has lent books to me and coordinated others sending to me, and I am so grateful to her. So is my husband, who supports my book habit but not at the expense of groceries. Hop on over to her blog and check out her giveaway and her new book, Tower of Strength (it’s on my list to read… after reading for the Whitneys is over. Or maybe I’ll give myself a break and read it a little sooner…)

LDS Fiction: The Problem of The Gap and Hitting Rock Bottom

March 7, 2009

I’m in the middle of a great book on storycraft, Story: Substance, Structure, and Style, by Robert McKee. (thank you, Stephen Carter at Red Brick Store for recommending it) I’ve got it highlighted every which way.  Even though it’s a book on screenwriting, and I have no interest in that, I feel like it’s finally helping me understand how to craft and structure a good story, something I have wanted to learn in every single creative writing class I’ve ever taken.

I’m also in the middle of judging Whitney Award finalists, since I get to be on the Whitney Academy this year (woohoo!).  I have been impressed with the books I’ve read so far. Surprised and delighted by how much I enjoyed Fool Me Twice, for example, or Seeking Persephone. Not all of the nominees are going to win, obviously, but in every category I’ve finished so far, you could make a case for any of the nominees winning, and that’s a very good thing.

Me being me, though, and me having that storycraft book in the back of my head, I’ve started to think about the problems LDS writers face in crafting good fiction.  Here’s what the brilliant Robert McKee says:

The substance of story is the gap that splits open between what a human being expects to happen when he takes action and what really does happen; the rift between expectation and result, probability and necessity.  To build a scene, we constantly break open these breaches in reality. (page 179)

and then later:

Choice must not be doubt but dilemma, not between right/wrong or good/evil, but between either positive desires or negative desires of equal weight and value. (page 251)

Okay, so what I’m seeing as I read these LDS works is this: in books that are written by LDS authors but published by national presses, where the characters are not LDS, the authors do this.  They create gaps. They break open breaches in reality, they force choices of dilemma rather than doubt. In Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, the lass must choose between lighting the candle and observing her sleeping visitor, or following her original instructions not to meddle.  She’s forced to make difficult choices.  The choice creates a gap.  There’s no safety net for her.

But. In works by LDS authors where the protagonists are LDS, I have often noticed this problem, and it’s huge. The problem is that, for a faithful LDS person, the gap created through choosing in a dilemma is filled by God way too soon. Rock bottom doesn’t really happen. We have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology.  God rescues the characters from their emotional dilemmas, by sending the Spirit to comfort them. Or, in a couple of books I read recently, He provided a miracle to rescue them from a sticky situation.

I am all for the Spirit. I am all for miracles. I believe very much in both of them.  I just think that some of the works I have read so far hand out miracles and spiritual comfort to their characters to the detriment of the story.   I think these authors are wanting to establish the characters as faithful people, and I respect that. I do. But there’s gotta be a way, we have to figure this out, to allow a faithful believing LDS character to totally hit rock bottom.  And maybe even for him/her to find a way out of the dilemma strengthened by the Spirit, but without a deus ex machina event.

It’s tough though. Because if you’ve got an active Latter-day Saint in your book, what your readers are expecting is someone who believes in God, who has a network of friends and family, who has access to the scriptures and the temple and all the things God has given us so that we have a way out of the abyss.

There’s gotta be a way, I repeat, though, because I know real LDS people who feel like they’ve hit rock bottom before.  I have felt like that myself. And we will never get true, powerful, resonant stories, ones full of depth and power, until we show (NOT TELL) the LDS characters in our books feeling faithless and abandoned, and then show them healing.  Not forced healing, mind you.

All this speculation. You are wondering, why don’t I write something myself, if I presume to pontificate about it?

The answer: I am deeply lazy. And I recognize that it’s much easier to talk about writing than it is to actually write. That may change one day. But it hasn’t so far.

Tell Vernene I Can’t Sing on Sunday

January 19, 2009

Ten days ago I arrived late to pick up my daughter from kindergarten.  My toddler announced his need for a diaper change just as we were walking out the door.  So I changed him, and hustled out so quickly that I didn’t bother to put shoes on him.  Or socks.  I grabbed a pair, and stuck them in the back seat.

Daughter was the only kindergartener left.  I hate that.  I parked, and then made a long step to the sidewalk, trying to get over the slushy snow without getting my foot wet.  I misjudged the distance, came down hard on my leg, and felt something pop.  And then I felt intense pain.  And I screamed. I lay with my back on the cement. I couldn’t move my right leg, and I knew that something was seriously wrong.

Looking back, I am kind of glad I didn’t swear.  I don’t swear usually, but a situation like that could bring it out in me, who knows?  Now I know: I am much more likely to mutter naughty words dealing with the aftermath of a broken leg than I am to say them during the actual breaking.

But I was not thinking swear words right then.  I wish I could say that I was praying. I tried that. But what my mind kept going back to was not God, or peace, but instead a litany of all the things I was supposed to be doing that I would no longer be able to do because my leg was broken.  I was supposed to teach nursery on Sunday, and I was supposed to sing in church, and I needed to finish revising my essay for Segullah, and I needed to read all the contest essays and poems, and I needed to organize the papers on my kitchen counter, and figure out my food storage that I had gotten a nice start on over Christmas, and write those Christmas thank yous, and make dinner, and do laundry, and spend more one-on-one time with my kids, and break my board so I could get my next belt, and stay with my New Years diet I’d been somewhat successful with so far.

Daughter’s teacher called my husband and my mom, and then my neighbor.  My amazing neighbor arrived, and told me to breathe, and calm down, both of which I needed to hear.  I couldn’t stop apologizing for the accident. “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The circle of faces around me said “It’s okay, it’s okay.”  Norah’s teacher, the other kindergarten teacher, my neighbor, and now the school principal and vice principal.

They didn’t understand what I was apologizing for.  I am not sure I do either.  I think I was apologizing for forcing them to interrupt their plans to attend to my emergency.  I am not very graceful when someone’s emergency makes me change my plans, and I hated that I was now doing this to them.

I started babbling all the stuff I was thinking. “My son doesn’t have shoes on because we were in a hurry,” I said. My teeth chattered. “And someone needs to call Manolie and tell her I can’t be in the nursery, and someone needs to tell Vernene I can’t sing on Sunday.”

They laughed at this a little.  But on the actual day my leg broke, what first sent me into despairing hysterics was not the intense pain of my leg (broken in three places, it turned out: a spiral break on the fibula, and two smaller breaks on the tibia. I am now Borgified, with screws in place.), but the weight of not being able to keep up with mothering and writing and dieting and editing.  And the weight of relying on so many others to make my life happen.

I need to write a post about all the kind things that have been done for me; so many that I cannot absorb them all.  I will write that post. I am not going to forget. And I am grateful.

But part of me wishes that I never had to be on the receiving end of kindness, that no one else got to see my messy life.  If I hadn’t broken my leg, I would have sung on Sunday.

Sheer Humiliation

January 8, 2009

I did it again. I humiliated myself not breaking a board. And then I humiliated myself worse by handling it badly.

You know that nightmare where you’ve arrived for a test that you know you haven’t studied for and you’re completely unprepared?  So that was me trying to back kick through a board last Friday.  I had been doing this belt jump camp all week, three hours a day of learning all the curriculum for the next belt.  And it went okay.  My form wasn’t beautiful, but then mine never are. At least all the pieces were there. We did not spend much time on back kicks, and we did one practice board break. When it came time for testing, my board holder held it higher than I had practiced that one time, and I came face to face with the reality that my back kick was pathetic.

I left in tears, and then I went home and wrote a clever parody to vent my feelings about the situation, “Breaking Boards is Hard to Do:”  I was proud of myself for turning to some self-deprecating laughter instead of wallowing in self-pity all afternoon.

Anytime I try to do something coordinated, it’s a very vulnerable thing, especially in public.  When I first submitted my writing to Segullah, that was vulnerable too.  But it was different, because I know words, and even though I hadn’t written since college, I knew I could rewrite and make it work eventually.

But this tae kwon do, I have no residual confidence with it.  I’m paralyzed by it, turned again into a clumsy thirteen year old. The next time I have a “you’re not ready for this test” nightmare, I will be dressed in a white uniform, staring at a board that’s held too high, knowing that everyone watching me expects me to kick through it, and I can’t.

P.S: Here’s the parody.

Breaking Boards is Hard to Do (to the tune of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”)
Don’t bring that board right up to me
Staring at it I’m in misery
Cause I have heard, and so have you
that breaking boards is hard to do.

Remember when I kicked so high?
And I split the board the very first try?
I’m only dreaming; it wasn’t true
Cause breaking boards is hard to do.

They say that breaking boards is hard to do
Now I know, I know that it’s true
Oh, drat, it’s my turn again
Instead of breaking boards
I wish that we were doing forms again.

I beg of you, don’t hold so high
Let me give that board another try.
Were those your fingers? Ouch!
Now you know too
that breaking boards is hard to do.