Lately, I have realized something.
I should never review middle-grade fiction, because I am not a middle-grader.
Lately, I have realized something.
I should never review middle-grade fiction, because I am not a middle-grader.
For the complete list of columns in this series, click here.
While a single point of data eliminates any line that doesn’t pass through the point, sadly it does nothing to narrow down the infinity of possible lines from every point of the compass-rose that do, in fact, pass through that point. And so it is with one-of-a-kind experiences. Such as, say, writing a novel.
You’d think that having written one with which I was more or less happy (though I’d hope to do better next time), I would know at least how to go about the writing part. Sadly, this turns out not to be the case. From a creative writing perspective, the last several years have been spent trying out one method after another. In the absence of any noteworthy success, I’ve felt that I didn’t really have much to share in this forum. Hence the two-plus years since my last Writing Rookie report.
I still don’t have any solid evidence that this has changed. However, I’ve been trying something the last several months that (a) has not yet proven that it won’t work, and (b) has the virtue of being quite different from what I’d tried before. So I thought, why not share? Even if this doesn’t work out, at least it may have the social utility of any publicly failed experiment…
Theric posted a link this The New York Review of Books article on Auden to Twitter and Facebook earlier today. It’s worth reading for many reasons but especially for this line:
Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, he had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.
Get That Gold is a tale of the LDS Restoration, aimed at middle-grade readers (and for families to read together, according to the author.)
I started this story with some trepidation. I always feel that way about books written by writers in this LDS community. I once read something that Angela Hallstrom wrote about how, as a writer of LDS fiction, she didn’t feel she could be a reviewer of LDS fiction. The two were becoming less compatible for her.
I have determined to be both a writer and a reviewer because I feel that I have a kind of duty, if that makes sense. I love LDS fiction. I actually read it, and I read it growing up. Therefore, I am a legitimate part of the audience, and as a writer, I can provide good feedback and some relevant insights about books I read, mingled with real constructive criticism as someone who works hard at the craft myself.
The problem is, this means sometimes I’ll be reviewing the story of someone who has reviewed mine. There can be a feeling, in this small community of “tit for tat,” etc, whether people mean that or not. So I’m just going to state up front, right now: all of you people in this community who are reading my stories? And writing reviews of them? I expect your honesty, and I can handle it. If you did not like something about my story, say so. So that I can improve. If you found dialog disingenuous or forced. If you disliked a character. If you felt my plot fell apart, or my pacing was off. (Mark Penny pointed this out about Lightning Tree, and gave me only three stars because of it. See? I really can handle it.)
Not to say I don’t believe my stories are awesome. I think they are. And those of you who have appreciated and reviewed them, thank you for taking the time to write a review! It really helps motivate us as writers to get feedback not just from our audience but from our peers who are among that audience.
OK. Disclaimers aside. I’m going to say the stuff I’m dreading up front, like ripping off a bandaid.
I enjoyed both Island of the Stone Boy and Get That Gold, but I felt both could have benefited from another round of editing. Not sentence structure or grammar; I think Downing is flawless there. More for story flow, descriptions and dialog. Particularly when description and dialog mixed, I felt jarred a lot. There were some tag echoes, a bit too much description of character movement/action in the middle of dialog, and some of the character descriptions and actions were hard to picture in my head.
OK. I got that out of the way. Moving on:
Get That Gold is eminently worth your time. I loved this story, and I know my kids will love it, and I fully plan on reading it to them as a bedtime story for the next several nights. I was deeply touched by this story. I loved the depiction of Joseph, especially. I was moved to tears at times. I loved the depiction of Emma. I loved Joseph’s family. I can tell that Downing put a great deal of time and effort into her research, and as a reader I trust that. I really enjoyed being transported into the setting and time period of the restoration. Above all, I felt the excitement, the deep and spiritual profundity, of Joseph and his retrieval of the Gold Plates.
There is a slapstick feel about Downing’s fiction at times. Her humor runs to the bad-guys-being-silly-and-getting-hurt sort of thing. While I am not the biggest fan of slapstick, I know this will make my kids laugh a whole lot as I read it to them. As an adult, I probably need to loosen up and enjoy it more, too.
I know that this story has been waiting for a while to be published; that one of the big 3 LDS publishers finally turned it down several years ago because they felt the fiction made light of the sacredness of the Joseph Smith story. I felt the opposite. I felt, after reading this, excited to re-read Joseph Smith History in my scriptures, and the testimony of the witnesses. I felt excited to read the Book of Mormon. I think that this story is a jewel, to be honest. As I read it to my children, I expect it will engage them in the story of the Restoration, and help them to be interested in Joseph Smith as person. I find this to be a vital part of my own testimony and am grateful someone has taken the time to write a story that will help young people see the excitement, the danger, the fun and funny in such an important story.
I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.
Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas… that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation—an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)
The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar—chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him—rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.
I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry. Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture. more
I feel, as a new LDS fiction writer, like I am on shifting, volatile ground right now. I see LDS publishing companies that are smaller and more independent either shutting down business or struggling to stay afloat, while the bigger publishers slowly consume each other until they become one Frankenstien-like conglomeration; you submit to one, and get rejected by all. I read submission suggestions on the websites of LDS publishers and see that just about everyone is asking for literature that appeals to a wider audience than just LDS people. And this recent interview with Lyle Mortimer, who is in fact the CEO of CFI, my own publishing company, leaves me in a bit of a cold sweat. I guess comparatively, it’s not such a bad thing that my first book has only sold around 1400 copies so far. But it also points to a much more worrisome thing… something that maybe isn’t going to go away at all. more
As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:
1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
As far as what makes me distinct… Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them—several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.
2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction? more
At the beginning of 2012 when I decided to both increase my writing rate and focus on science fiction and fantasy, I wondered if I would continue to write Mormon fiction. I ended up writing quite a bit more than I thought I would — mainly because of the two Everyday Mormon Writer contests. But even so, the porportion of non-overt Mormon fiction to overt Mormon fiction that I produced last year was the most un-balanced ever (while at the same time my total word count was the highest ever). When 2013 arrived, I figured that I would cut back on the Mo-lit even more. But then a) I got an excellent idea for a story and b) I decided that I would tithe my creative energies and go ahead and write it.
We’ve discussed this idea in bits and pieces here and there over the years. I’d like to raise it again. I’m particularly interested in hearing from anyone who feels compelled to devote a certain amount of time to projects that speak directly to a Mormon audience.
I realize all the arguments against it: those in other professions aren’t required to tithe their labor, why should we? It’s hard enough to scrape by as an artist and Mormon work doesn’t sell. What if you just aren’t interested in Mormon-themed art?
I also don’t think it needs to be a 10% thing. For artists, especially writers, who make their living from their art, devoting 10% of what they produce in a year to Mormon-themed works that likely wouldn’t sell (or sell for much) seems crazy. Maybe it’s 1 in every 20 works or 100. Or 1 or 2% of a yearly word count. Or whatever.
Nor, in my opinion, does it need to be a tithe in the sense that we give it to the Church for free. If you can make money off it, awesome.
What if you already write Mormon fiction (or nonfiction) or create Mormon visual art? Then maybe your “tithe” should be for a different Mormon audience than you currently write for. Or in a different genre. Or in a more experimental mode. Or in a more devotional mode.
The bottom line for me is that I ‘d like to see more LDS who have artistic talent intentionally addressing Mormon themes/creating overtly Mormon work and see this as possibly a framework to encourage that engagement.