“Then why read novels?”

In a recent review of a newly-published novel, I concluded that its “polemic” emphasis made me like it less than I might have otherwise.  Every plot point seemed to be put there in service of an argument against something, a heavy-handed set of choices I began to find distasteful not far into the book.

So an astute friend asked me pointedly, “Then why read novels?” After all, my friend said, you have to concede that the author has a point and wants to voice it. Well, sure. An author has every right to do that.  But my friend meant, I think, to make me look hard at my own choices. If, she was saying, you don’t like a novel to make use of polemic discourse (as Jane Smiley defines it in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), what do you like — or want — or need — when you choose to read a novel?

An excellent question, which I’d like to tease out a little here at the beginning of a new year, since “novel” means “new” and so far, 2017 is a pretty novel year, and now’s as good a time as any to think about why we should or could want to read novels. (Which I think we should. And short stories too — though I’ll save a discussion of those for another post or two.) For what purposes do we Mormon writers and readers employ novels that might be the same or different from anyone else’s purposes? Do we employ novels in a peculiarly Mormon way that differs from how novels have ever been employed? At first knee-jerk, I don’t think so. But let’s look.

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Divine Rights of Writers

I’ve been making my difficult and sometimes dreary way through Clyde Forsberg’s ninety-eight-dollar tome Divine Rite of Kings (review arriving shortly), wishing I could see the good. His thesis is generally nasty: Mormonism, like its parent organization the Masons, is racist, sexist, empire-building and xenophobic, and no good can come out of Joseph Smith or his minions. He quotes sources without establishing their ethos — so many it makes my head spin, just taunting me to say this is exhaustively-researched and thoroughly cited — but mostly the book tastes bad, an eight-course meal in a foreign country whose ingredients don’t agree with my stomach and whose spices and oils never smelled right from the start. I’m almost done, and I haven’t found a way to recommend any of it.

Details will come later, in the review. Significantly, some other things have been going on this month that deserve attention. The election – yeah, that. (I hereby vow not to write about the nasty there. You’ve already heard too much.) But another thing going on right now is Nanowrimo.

NOT nasty.

Pretty nice, in fact.

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Tips for Bringing your Setting to Life

 David Farland often teaches writing workshops, and has trained a number of people who went on to become international bestselling authors—people like Brandon Sanderson in fantasy, Brandon Mull in middle-grade fiction, and Stephenie Meyer in young adult fiction.  He’s also the lead judge for one of the world’s most prestigious writing competitions for science fiction and fantasy.

Here’s a lesson on setting.

Years ago, I was reading a book on writing by a teacher from the American Film Institute.  She said near her opening something to the effect of, “Here is a list of the top 50 bestselling movies of all time.  Look it over, and see what elements they have in common.”

I quickly scanned the list, and in a matter of moments found three similarities, but to my astonishment the author followed her list by saying, “See?  They have nothing in common.”  She had failed to observe what was instantly obvious.  The first thing that these films had in common was that they were all set in another time or another place.  By that I mean, whether they were science fiction, fantasy, or historical, they all worked hard to transport their audience out of their chairs.

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Writing Compelling Characters

This post is a blast from the past on my blog. I originally delved into this topic two years ago, here. Since I’m still doing revisions on my next novel, I’ve been looking at each character, examining them to make sure they have their own motivations, quirks, unique personalities, and mannerisms. This was a great reminder for me. Hopefully it will help you when you place your characters under that magnifying glass.

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Too Much Mystery: The Fine Line Between Intriguing and Annoying

I’m happy to have a guest blogger this month–welcome Michael Young!

Too Much Mystery: The Fine Line Between Intriguing and Annoying

by Michael Young

No matter what genre of story you are writing, you probably want to throw a little mystery in there. It’s one of those things that keeps readers turning pages.

There is, however, a fine line between leaving a mysterious trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow and leaving them hopelessly confused.  If you make your story too mysterious, then you risk losing the reader altogether.

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From The Writer’s Desk: Must Writers Suffer?

I’ll admit it. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve lived thirty-seven fantastically charmed years. I’ll spare you the sunshine-laced details of my history, but I’ll sum it up this way: good parents, good friends, good spouse, good kids, good job. I feel sort of like Hemingway’s Robert Jordan who says in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “I am of those who suffer little.” Continue Reading →

The Writer’s Desk: To the Nameless Guy in the Steam Room

So, Nameless Guy, you’ve written a 900 page book—which is not yet finished.  You want to know if I am acquainted with publishers at Little Brown, so maybe I could nudge them into reading your masterpiece.  Nope, I don’t know anyone there.  You want to know if you can get published without an agent.  Well sure, you have at least a slug’s chance in beer.  But if you really have written a masterpiece, then get an agent.  That means that you will need to finish your work.  Nobody gives advances to unknown authors for their good ideas.

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The Writer’s Desk: Writing Epiphanies

Novelist Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of fiction writing. One of the most evocative essays in the book is called “Against Epiphanies.” Though Baxter is critiquing American culture and literature in this incisive essay, I believe his assertions have unique resonance in Mormon culture.

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Agency and Storytelling

I just finished reading well over 100 entries to Irreantum’s fiction and creative nonfiction contests, narrowing them down to a set of semifinalists over which our contest committee can wrangle.  Reading all those stories and essays can be a bit of a slog, it’s true.  But it’s also one of my favorite things to do as Irreantum’s editor.  (In fact, I like to do it so much that I’m staying on as Irreantum’s contest coordinator after stepping down as editor at the end of this year.)

One of the reasons I enjoy it is because I’m a great lover of stories—stories of both the true and made up variety—and it thrills me to see story after story after story, each one original in its own way, being made about Mormon experience.  Some of these stories are better told than others, it’s true, but even the most amateur entry contains a kernel of a tale.  And the best stories?  (And there are some really good ones this year, I’m pleased to say.)  The best ones kept me glued to my computer screen, had me wiping away tears, helped me yearn or thrill or discover right along with the protagonist. Continue Reading →

The Writer’s Desk: On perfection

In baseball, it’s possible for a pitcher to achieve perfection.  A perfect game is one in which no batters are allowed to reach base, either via error, walk, or basehit. Every single batter is retired: twenty seven up and twenty seven down.  Perfect games are very rare at the major league level, with only twenty since major league baseball began its record-keeping.  And yet, there have been, improbably, three so far this season.  (Bear with me on this: a relevance to Mormon literature may yet emerge.)

The first took place on May 9, pitched by Oakland A’s lefthander, Dallas Braden.  When scouts talk about young pitchers, they differentiate between ‘stuff’ and ‘command.’  ‘Stuff’ refers to raw talent–how fast can this young man throw the ball, with what kind of diabolical movement.  ‘Command’ refers to control.  A pitcher with good stuff and poor command may be able to throw the ball 98 miles per hour, but with little idea where it’s going, for example. Dallas Braden epitomizes a pitcher with mediocre stuff but superior command.  His fastball tops out at 85 mph, but it  goes exactly where he wants it to go, and he changes speeds admirably.  He’s otherwise known as a fun-loving and admirable young man–still trying to solidify his position as a big leaguer, but a guy who’s known for running out on the field during rain delays and sliding on his belly on the wet grass.  May 9 was Mother’s Day, and it turns out Braden’s own mother passed away when he was a senior in high school.  He dedicates all his games to her, offering a little prayer at game’s end. Continue Reading →

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