Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Deifying the Prophets

by Sariah S. Wilson

My publisher has manuscripts reviewed by several time-tested readers who rate it and give their thoughts and suggestions. I got a recommendation from a fellow author to request those reader's comments as they would help me in editing my novel.

With my first novel, apparently my manuscript got read by one reader and went straight up the ladder. When I got the comments, my editor attached a note saying to take it with a grain of salt. I remember taking big gulps of air, terrified that I would be torn apart and my newbieness laid bare.

Instead, the review was extremely positive, so much so that it said I would change the face of LDS fiction. Stop laughing. That's what it really said.

So, yeah, I was feeling pretty good. Maybe I wasn't that much of a hack.

With my second novel I got several reader's comments. This was a whole different beast. Lots of different opinions - one found my villain well done, another thought he was whiny and not scary. I remember reading the comments, half-expecting verbiage like my first review. Didn't happen.

I think I spent most of the afternoon eating Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The comments They were mostly positive, one of them being extremely helpful once I got past the emotional blow I took.

This time, I had three new readers and I think one of them just didn't care for the third novel (that being an understatement). I started reading the six pages worth of "YOU SUCK" but very soon found myself curled in the fetal position under my desk.

That's not what it really said. The readers try to be constructive and helpful. No one called down curses on my mother or anything like that.

But each and every negative comment felt personal. I don't know why. Cognitively I recognize that these are just opinions and if three other people read the novel they might think I'm the greatest thing since Heimerdinger.

I know that. But it doesn't make it hurt any less.

I don't want it to feel this way. I can't help how sensitive/emotional I am (which I do fully blame my mother for. I had a nice assertive red personality, and she gave me all her blue).

Maybe it's because in book writing, I do feel like I'm putting a piece of myself out there. I think it was Julie Wright (in the LDS Storymakers' book on how to get published in the LDS market and if it wasn't Julie please correct me) who talked about working on her manuscript and likening it to being her baby. Which makes sense - you create it and you have to spend all this time with it, feeding it, loving it, nurturing it. She said she dressed her baby up in its best clothes, sent it out into the world and hoped for the best. When she got her letter back from the publishers, they told her that her baby was ugly.

Now, I know they didn't actually say anything like that, but that was how it made her feel, how personal it became when it was never intended to be that way.

I'm usually okay after a few days (and darn this diet that keeps me away from the good ice cream) and then I can go back and reread the comments without wanting to commit seppuku. After the first painful emotional encounter I wait and then I can disassociate myself from the work and go from there.

I'm in the middle of that wait right now. I've thought over some of the comments given (and finally getting to the part of this post that relates to the title) and realized that something like 90% of the comments boiled down to, "This isn't how Ammon is. This isn't what he would do/act/say. You wrote him wrong."

Stop for a second and think. I want you to get a mental picture of Nephi. Of Alma. Of Ammon. Of Captain Moroni.

How do you envision them? What personality traits do they have? Or do they not have any at all?

I thought about how I saw the Book of Mormon prophets before I wrote novels about them. I honestly didn't think much about them being men at all. They were PROPHETS. Men of God. They were the holiest beings, above reproach in every fashion. They were nearly perfect. They were somber, serious, dull. Do your imaginings fall along the same lines?

But I bet that's not at all how they were. I bet there was laughter and happiness. I bet there was sorrow and sadness. I bet there was anger and jealousy and regret and guilt and passion. I bet they could be arrogant and boastful (even Moses had that problem). I bet they had shortcomings and weaknesses that they battled their entire lives. I bet they dealt with temptation on a daily basis, and that they weren't always successful. And I bet all that because we know for a fact that Jesus Christ was the only perfect man who ever lived.

I think we forget that those men and women we read about in the scriptures were REAL PEOPLE. We know they worried over their children as we do, that they tried their best to follow God's teachings but didn't always hit the mark. We know they must have worried over their fields, over their safety, over their liberty and going to war. So many things that we can relate to.

So when I wrote Alma, I looked at the things that struck me about him. I saw a deep passion in his writing to do what was right. I saw a man totally committed to a course of action - first to King Noah then to the true Gospel. But he himself repeatedly admitted to his weaknesses and sins, which I think gives him an interesting trait and drives much of "Desire of Our Hearts."

But with Ammon, I wondered what sort of man would impress King Lamoni and his court. I looked at some things that Aaron said to him, read Ammon's own words. I saw a man deeply committed to his mission with a great love for the Lamanite people. I envisioned him as a man who loved and had a zest for life. I imagined him being very charming and having a fantastic sense of humor, even in the face of great adversity. I took into account his upbringing in a royal household as a prince of an entire nation. He would have been extremely well-educated. He would have been a great fighter, as culturally leaders were expected to be better than their warriors or they wouldn't have stayed king for very long.

This is why it's called speculative fiction. You speculate. I may be close to the truth. I may be totally off base. None of us know.

But I think it's fun to imagine, to try and glean some specific personality traits from the scriptural account that may not leap out despite several readings.

I think though that there are cultural LDS things that exist that make it nearly impossible for us to envision anything other than what we perceive as correct. If I asked you to think of the court of King Noah, did you get a picture in your head of high priests with conical hats, a half-naked, white-haired Abinadi, a fat king with black hair flanked by jaguars?

I think the real court was nothing like the Arnold Friberg painting. But does our perception make it so that we can't ever accept any other interpretation?


Exercised five days this week, did good on the diet, still need to work on some muscle strengthening. Gained 1 pound exactly.


At 9/23/2007 12:01 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I love this, Sariah -- we don't know much about the prophets but we do know they were men. They were good men, righteous men, but they were men. If we deify them, we're not getting the point, which is that anyone who is willing to heed the Spirit can do the Lord's work.

At 9/23/2007 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been so depressed this week that I could barely even look at the scales, let alone get on. I've developed tendonitis in my left heel, and walking for more than ten minute maximum is incredibly painful. Sometimes even hobbling around the house can make it absolutely burn, and grocery shopping has become a chore as well. I've had to give up my daily walk, and I'm too much of a wimp to ride a bicycle in this wind and weather. I fell right back into my old habits of stuffing my face with sugar, hating every minute of it, but doing it anyway. Yesterday, I did gather up my tiny bit of courage and weighed myself. I'm pretty much back where I started; several weeks of progress wiped out in eight days.

Don't know what else to say.

Melanie Goldmund

At 9/23/2007 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sariah, I think you are doing a good thing just by getting people to think, maybe even question, the perceptions they hold. It does make some people uncomfortable, but there are a lot of others who will follow your lead and start wondering and studying themselves.

Melanie, I understand your feelings. I have MS and spent 5 days a month on steroid IVs last winter. The med makes me ravenous 24/7 and I could gain 5 pounds in three days. The MS makes it so I can't do anything vigorous to burn off the calories, so what do you do? I did try to control what types of food I kept in the house and then did some exercising with hand weights. Didn't take off much but I felt like I was doing something. Now I try to do something active every day, and slowly I'm getting back to where I was--just in time for winter and possibly another round of steroids!
I'd say not to think about the ankle and do things to help you get over the depression that don't involve feet or food.

At 9/23/2007 6:46 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Sariah, sorry about your reader's comments. You need to approach it very matter-of-factly. Think about them for a few days. Then address each and every one. I had one man tell me at a booksigning he didn't want to read my books because he didn't want me to "ruin" the picture he had of Nephi in his mind. On the flip side, I've had people tell me that I've given them more insights to Book of Mormon life than they had ever expected. So there are 2 sides to every coin.

This is why I have several independent readers go through my manuscript before I submit. That way, when I do get a reader's comment that I'm uncomfortable with, I can go back to my personal readers and see if they agreed or disagreed.

I'm writing about Abinadi right now, and the readers will be surprised that Abinadi is a young man in my book--with a lot to lose when he's put to death.

We are fiction writers . . . and sometimes we have to remind others of that.

At 9/23/2007 8:45 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Oh, Sariah! What a true, touching, poignant post. I'm so glad to know it's not just me! There is one evaluator at Covenant who hates every word I've ever written. For that matter, I think she hates me and my little dog, too. (For sure she once wrote a full-page diatribe about how pit bulls should never be portrayed in LDS fiction as anything but the rabid killers she knows them to be.) Aside from me, myself & I, she may be my worst critic. She is also the person from whom I've learned the most on the journey -- on many levels. She's not always right or particularly kind -- more than once Angela censored some of her most acidic remarks only to accidentally resend them later on(OUCH!) -- but she IS always candid, and I greatly respect and appreciate her for that.

I love your book, Sariah -- and admire your stunning gift for characterization! I hope you know how much I look forward to loving all the ones there are to come -- may they legion!

Lousy week for me. Like "anonymous" the MS thing makes exercise difficult on those few days it's not impossible. (But what a great excuse, huh?) :-)

At 9/23/2007 10:04 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Feedback is one of the most valuable--and painful--parts of the process. I've run into similar things with my historical fiction. I haven't had prophets as main characters like you have, but Saints who aren't perfect. I think we tend to deify the Utah settlers as well, and some readers get really irritable when I have characters who might be prejudiced or otherwise flawed.

At 9/24/2007 11:20 AM, Blogger Christine Kersey said...

For the most part I've found readers' comments to be very helpful. The thing I find frustrating is when two readers have completely opposite views. It's at times like that when I realize I just have to go with what I find most plausible and realize I can never satisfy everyone.

At 9/24/2007 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't let them get you down.
And I think Kerry said something like that.
And how do they know what Alma would do/act/say? It's not like they know him personally.
Keep your head up.
One more thing. what's your favorite kind of Ben& Jerry's Ice cream?

At 9/24/2007 10:44 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Sariah, I've had reader comment forms that have read like fan letters and I've had ones that let me know in no uncertain terms that I don't do anything right. There's one who makes comments that are so off the track I wonder what manuscript she read; it certainly wasn't mine. He/she says I need to tell the reader this or that when I've already done so, jumps to weird conclusions, etc. I used to always get kind, helpful comments even when the reader thought I had messed up or needed to explain something better, but now I get some real barbs and some confusing comments from one reader that leave me wondering if I've stepped on someone's toes along the way. Usually, I look at those comments the way I hope writers look at my reviews; they're meant to be helpful and they're meant to encourage those who might enjoy a particular type of book to look at the one I'm reviewing, but not every reader is going to like what I write any more than I like everything I read. Some people aren't going to like what I write simply because I don't write in a genre he or she finds appealing just as I struggle to find good things to say, and remain honest, about genres I don't care for. Good readers, good editors, good reviewers, and I believe good writers learn to accept criticism graciously. That's what makes them true professionals. It's not easy, but we all have to look at criticism from outside our injured egos and analyze it; is this criticism something that can make me or my work better, is it just petty jealousy, does it say more about the critic than the work being criticized, would the reader dislike any work in this genre, is this honest, deserved criticism? And what on earth is the critic saying, the remarks are so ambiguous they actually say nothing. (Can you tell I'm working on a rewrite now too and the readers comments are the most confusing I've ever seen? There is one thread that runs through all of the comments though, and I believe it is a really valid problem. sigh! It's also a difficult one to fix.)

I even get criticism on my reviews!
(That's criticism on criticism-lol)It's no wonder most writers adore those kind souls who send us glowing fan letters.

Two funerals and a wedding have added up to seven out of state trips in four weeks and has raised havoc with diet and exercise. I refuse to even step on the scales, but I promise to do better from now on. Good luck, Sariah, on both your rewrite and your weight loss plan.

At 9/25/2007 12:33 AM, Anonymous Jen said...

First off to Melanie I just have to know - was grocery shopping NOT a chore before the injury because if it wasn't you have been keeping a secret that I need to know about!


I'm WAY to chicken to actually let anyone read anything I write - which is minimal anyway. I have ZERO pretenses of being a writer. But I love to read!! Hmmm...that was not gramatically correct was it??? Did I mention that I am willing to sign up for the independent reader thing?? Back to the point, which is of course the portrayal of Ammon - umm I am not a Book of Mormon scholar or anything, but I didn't think he was a prophet exactly, but a missionary. I think it was J. Golden Kimball that said, "The church must be true or ignoramous missionaries would have destroyed it long ago." Which I probably shouldn't have put in quotes because I don't know if that is the EXACT wording seeing as how there are no swear words in it. Just kidding (about the swear words, not the quotes). So there. Of course they were not perfect beings ready to be sent up to the museum of perfect saints.

What is the title of the book?

I am currently resisting the siren call of a neopolitan ice cream cone. Resistance is not futile! And thanks to whomever it was that suggested the He Did Deliver Me From Bondage book in our eating dramas. I have started reading it and it has been eye opening!

At 9/25/2007 1:13 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

i no longer resist the call of ice cream. I need comfort and I need ice cream. Don't let the readers get you down though . . . really. Opinions are so subjective. I read a book that I hated beyond words, and yet my dear cousin thought it was brilliant. I love Jane Austen and Josi things her writing is boring.

We all have opinions, but that doesn't devalue your work. You wrote a book and had the courage to get it out there. That, in and of itself, is pretty awesome. And since I'm a big fan . . . I can't wait to read it.

At 9/25/2007 10:12 PM, Blogger Katie Parker said...

Hang in there, Sariah! Wait a few days and you'll be able to tell the useful critiques from those that are completely out of line.

At 9/26/2007 5:16 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Independent readers are just people I trust to give me an honest feedback of my manuscript. There's no pay involved, only a mention in the acknowledgements.


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