Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Your Expectations of an "LDS Book"

by Sariah S. Wilson

So I wondered (on this blog a little while ago, and I would link you to said past blog, but I'm too tired) what standards an LDS author should have in the national market - whether our characters should adhere to our beliefs if they were not of our faith.

My question now is how much wiggle room do we have in the LDS market?

I'm talking about leaving out the obvious - the gratuitous or graphic scenes. But with that excluded, do you have certain expectations about a book put out by a publisher like Covenant or Deseret? Do you expect the characters to be LDS? Do you expect there to be storylines and themes that are similar to your own life?

Would you be surprised to read a fiction book put out by an LDS publisher that didn't have any LDS characters or beliefs included, and was simply a good, clean read? Or would you prefer to go to a national market to find a book like that?

If the book could not contain LDS characters (let's say it was a book set in medieval times, and by that I mean the actual era and not the pizza place), would you have an expectation that the characters would be religious? What if they weren't religious? Would it bother you?

I'll answer my own questions to get the ball rolling. I don't have expectations of an LDS publisher other than that I know I won't come across a not-fun word or something inappropriate that would make me put the book down. I think I might even have a lower expectation when it comes to those publishers because in the past (before writing and getting involved in the market) my experiences with LDS books were all bad. I'm not sure I read one LDS fiction book that didn't leave me seethingly angry by the end of it because of the sheer amount of suckitude (the past being at least 15 years ago). It turned me off to the market entirely. So when I read really good LDS fiction books (which happens so often now), I think I'm always sort of surprised (not shocked, but just happier than normal) because of the basis my expectations were built on.

I wouldn't mind a book put out by an LDS publisher that didn't have any conversions or baptisms or LDS characters. I like the idea that because I know the publishers' standards, I would know that even if the book was not overtly LDS, it would still be something I would be comfortable reading.

As for a book outside the LDS realm, I don't think I would expect it to be overtly religious because there have been lots of very good people throughout history that weren't necessarily overtly religious. It wouldn't bother me if the characters weren't.

What about you? Would you read a book published in the LDS market by an LDS author that wasn't LDS in nature?

For today's fun self-publicity, Katie Parker, genius that she is, has done a review of "Servant to a King." You can go to her blog and read it. And let me just say that the thing I probably like most about the review (besides the fact that she is so intelligent and has such obvious good taste) is that Katie GOT IT. She got the point of the book, she understood what I was trying to accomplish, and it had the effect on her that I'd hoped to have on readers. (And hopefully the review will want to make you go out and get your own copy, in case you haven't already.)


27 Comments:

At 10/04/2008 11:37 PM, Blogger Lisa Anne said...

I am not a wonderful writer such as you and the many others on this blog. I even envy the frog for his gift of words, but I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your book. The relationship between the two of them is fun and sweet. This is one of my favorite stories in the Book of Mormon and you brought it into a whole new light. I loved how you brought up the relationship of Ammon and his brothers. Very touching, very fun. Thank you.

 
At 10/04/2008 11:41 PM, Blogger Anna said...

As long as it's a good, clean novel with a good story and good characters, I don't care if there is LDS themed stuff in it or not.

I do enjoy LDS books, where things turn out happily or the love interest is converted.

But really, there is such thing as a book having too much perfect ending. Not everything in life is peaches and cream, even in the LDS life. You have many good LDS people that have their own issues to deal with, whether swearing, controlling their temper, etc. We're not perfect, and I don't think characters need to be perfect either.

If an author, who is LDS, writes a book that doesn't have LDS characters in it - I would hope that they would have their main characters be good upstanding characters. But like I said, no one is perfect. But if they can have basic moral values that everyone should live by, then I don't care if the character swears a little. I prefer they not write the words. You know, put something like "she swore under her breath".

 
At 10/05/2008 12:12 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I like first and foremost, well-written books. The LDS themes aren't the most important thing to me. But that's where I turn when I want clean reading and so that's what I get. But I'm totally content if I find the occasional LDS published book with no overt LDS themes. In fact, I really like the mix and prefer it when my fiction doesn't have a message. I have scriptures for that. Good stories with good, moral people don't have to have an actual moral to be of good report and praiseworthy.

 
At 10/05/2008 2:51 PM, Blogger The Margin Wight said...

Here is an issue I have struggled with in my own writing. I don't say the following to be critical of any author, LDS or not, but only because this is what I have concluded thus far in my writing life: The Story is The Thing. Period. What makes a good story is conflict. What makes good conflict is when some character or other force has enacted against the protagonist in some negative way, and the protagonist must struggle and overcome. To get caught up in the debate of whether a character should swear or not, or whether a character would pass a temple recommend interview, IN MY OPINION, such as it is, does a disservice to the story. I think there is a doctrinal and historical foundation to support an honest exploration of evil through literature, but I won't impose on you here with all of that. Neither do I think a writer has to offend any reader to get across the reality of evil within the story. Still, I think there is something to be said for being true to the characters we create. We have to operate under the assumption that our characters have a life of their own if we hope to create solid literature. I think we can take the classics as our guide in this. How did Flaubert deal with adultery? How did Dostoevsky deal with murder? Here we may find instruction for how to proceed. What I do not think we should do is cater to a standard that betrays the essential truthfulness of our story. I do not think that gratuitous sex or swearing, for example, should be imposed on the writing to gain popularity; and neither do I think we should wash out our character's mouths before putting them on the page, simply because we might offend a reader by doing so. Anyway, this is feeling a bit like a rant, so I'll sum up and go away. Be true to greatness. Be true to the story. Be true to the characters. If we do this, then the story will ring true to the reader. That's my take on it.

 
At 10/05/2008 6:46 PM, Blogger Jennifer Leffler said...

One of my favorite LDS authors is Dorothy Keddington and her books have nothing LDS in them. They are clean adventure romances that I love. Just because someone is an LDS author does not mean they have to write about the church. In my opinion.

 
At 10/05/2008 6:55 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

The main characters in my books aren't always LDS (Some Sweet Day, High Stakes, Wild Card)My characters don't always live up to LDS standards... But my overall theme always falls within the scope of my personal moral values which are, of course, LDS. Many years ago a high school teacher I deeply admired (Methodist by the way)taught me that in all my writing it was important to be true to myself. My characters may do things I consider bad, but the reader isn't left feeling their actions are okay. I admire many writers, both LDS and not, but two LDS writers I consistently enjoy are Josi Kilpack and Julie Wright, because they share my philosophy of writing in a gritty, realistic fashion without resorting to the easy out of using offensive language or excessive gore, yet they get their message accross as clearly as those who do. To answer your question, no, I don't think an LDS published book has to have LDS characters, conversions, doctrinal themes,etc. They only need to be clean and uphold moral standards we members of the Church have committed ourselves to maintain.

 
At 10/05/2008 9:07 PM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

First off, Sariah, thanks for an awesome read in The Nephite Who Love...er, Servant To a King! I grew to love and appreciate Ammon as a real person. And that feisty Isabel! Wonderful!

To answer your question, yes. Like Margin Wight said, the story's the thing.

I'm hoping to break into the LDS market with a book that tells a good story with good people up against some very tough circumstances. I had to remind myself a few minutes ago that yes, it does have conversions and baptisms, but it's not the usual sort.

 
At 10/05/2008 11:34 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

I have a more narrow definition of the LDS novel than most. I don't mean to be disagreeable, but I would like to voice a couple of thoughts.

Many of the novels published by LDS publishers today, peopled with LDS characters, and even depicting some LDS ordinances like baptism would fail to qualify, in my view, as LDS, because they don't, at their core, have a theme or tell a story about the uniqueness of Mormon restoration belief.

In my view, in order for a novel to qualify as LDS it should have one of two things going for it: a reflection of LDS restoration beliefs or reflect LDS culture.

1. The novel should have, as its central underlying theme, some unique characteristic of Mormon culture or society. Anne of Mormon gables. Fiddler on the Covered Wagon roof. You get the picture.

2. The novel should have a theme or story that is based on some unique LDS restoration belief, doctrine or principle. A novel about Christ isn't LDS. A novel that has as its theme or part of its story the resurrected Christ with a body of flesh is uniquely LDS. A story of Christ appearing to the original twelve apostles, no. A novel of Christ appearing to ancient Americans yes. A novel about other world dimensions isn't uniquely LDS. A novel about the pre-existence certainly is. A novel about forgiveness, redemption and grace is not. A novel about forgiveness, redemption and grace coupled with good works is uniquely LDS. Stories about faith in God? No. Stories about faith in a God who looks like us? Yes. Stories about miracles? No. Stories about miraculous events performed by authorized servants exercising priesthood power? Yes.

Somewhere in our LDS story-telling we forgot that novels flowing from the miracle of the restoration qualify as uniquely LDS. Instead, we tell a lot of stories we label as LDS inspirational stories or stories of LDS spiritual themes when, in fact, they are not LDS at all. We're even sometimes boastful of the fact that a non LDS reader would never know. And why would they never know? Because they little or no restoration themes operating beneath the story.

I would suggest that if our stories were more uniquely LDS they would appeal to non-LDS readers. You can get inspiration and spirituality from a thousand publishers. But where are the uniquely LDS, restoration-inspired themes in our stories? They're out there, waiting to be uncovered and given life on the pages of your novels. Are we afraid of the didactic label? Teaching as well as entertaining? Critics are weird beasts. They often label anything they disagree with as didactic. Preachy. Forget the critic. Write from your heart. You can base your theme, your story, your ideas on the multitude of uniquely LDS restored gospel ideas about mankind, God, forgiveness, repentance, grace, etc. and you can do it without didactic overtones.

Maybe its time we started uncovering those LDS themes in our LDS writings and let the world see into our LDS souls instead of reflecting the light of the world in the stories we tell.

David G. Woolley

 
At 10/06/2008 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anna Buttimore said...

This is really helpful and interesting - thanks. My new publishers (Leatherwood) have just asked me to write a non-LDS romance, and I was a tad confused and unsure about whether the readers out there would be OK with that. I agree entirely with you - it doesn't have to have baptisms in to be a good, clean book. My books will always be clean, good takes a bit more effort.

 
At 10/06/2008 10:34 AM, Blogger Josi said...

I have to agree with Margin in that the story is the most important thing--and agree with David in that simply plugging in an LDS character does not, in and of itself, make a book "LDS", however, I don't think a book needs to revolve around a theme of restoration principles to qualify or that we can expect to write something outside of LDS standards for it to be effective in this market either. Both are great elements, but setting out to write about, for example, forgiveness, can come across as flat or contrived, while ignoring the standards expected by the readers can turn of a reader as well--both elements can end up working against what the story really is. I've read some LDS fiction that if you took out three sentences, could be considered non-LDS, and yet the standards were still high. I've read other LDS books that were so drippy with moral and messages that I got dizzy with the rolling of my eyes. In my opinion it can go either way--the story can be lost in the message and the message can be lost in the story--either way the result is a sub-par product. The key is to find the balance of both while, as both Margin, David, Jennie, and other's have said, write from your heart and put the story on the page in a way that doesn't offend those writers that don't want the gratuity and doesn't seek to convert the already converted.

 
At 10/06/2008 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I publish with one of the larger publishers in the LDS market. They routinely do reader surveys that then help them determine what to put on their publishing schedule. In spring of 2008 they did a survey and the results were rather surprisingly slated toward "Not LDS but with high standards". They were tired of hearing about church meetings and testimony building. They were tired of feeling preached too and led to some discovery of principle.

If we go back to Sariah's original question, would you read a book in the LDS market that didn't have LDS characters; according to my publishers sources, that's exactly what they want.

 
At 10/06/2008 12:49 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Josi & Anonymous:

What the LDS market would like to read and what is or is not an LDS novel are two different beasts. One is a reflection of the market. The other is a classification system for novels, which does digress from Sariah’s question, but I couldn’t help myself.

With the LDS market demand for high moral standards that are not aimed at "converting the already converted", the criteria for what is LDS has drifted in the same direction toward anything written by a Mormon that has high standards.

Many Mormons are writing solid, high selling, generally moral novels, however they shouldn’t necessarily be classified as LDS. The use of LDS settings or LDS characters doesn’t necessarily qualify the novel as LDS.

In my view, for a novel to be classified as LDS it should either be inherently about Mormon culture OR the underlying theme or the story and its inter-connected plot lines should be tied to LDS restoration themes, principles or doctrines. The business of what sells and the proportion of what LDS authors write or LDS publishers publish shouldn’t dictate the classification of what is an LDS novel.

LDS authors may want to consider the possibility of writing more LDS works. Ones that resonate with the underlying themes of the restoration or the revolutionary spiritual ideas that resulted from the restoration. They are out there, waiting to be written. They could be stunningly entertaining and exciting yet those restoration pearls goes un-harvested.

The market is asking for less preaching and more entertaining, interesting stories. What could be more entertaining and interesting than the themes that emanate from the restoration?

David G. Woolley

 
At 10/06/2008 1:55 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Mr. Woolley,

You are so much fun to read and debate with. I agree completely that being written by an LDS author or even having LDS specific content does not necessarily make a novel an “LDS” novel.

Where I might choose to quibble is with your definition of works which “resonate with the underlying themes of the restoration . . .” To my mind that would include anything which, according to the 13th Article of Faith, is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.”

Therefore, a novel need not be about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or anything uniquely LDS to qualify as an LDS novel. In fact, a novel could have no LDS characters, no LDS specific themes, and be written by a non-LDS author, and still resonate with the underlying themes of the restoration. If I were to break novels down by category, I think I would do the following.

LDS published novels: Include any novels published by an LDS publisher and targeted at the mainstream LDS audience. Content is appropriate for wide scale LDS distribution. Storyline may or may not be LDS specific.

LDS targeted novels: Include those novels which are aimed at the LDS market through content and or theme.

LDS written novels: Are novels written by LDS authors, regardless of the audience.

Novels containing LDS content: May be pro or con LDS. May be targeted to an LDS, non-LDS, or anti-LDS audience.

 
At 10/06/2008 2:01 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Oops, forgot the one I was talking about above.

LDS worthy novels: May be written by LDS or non-LDS. They may include specific LDS references or not. But their message and content are uplifting, enlightening, and carry the message of the Savior, whether outright or implied.

 
At 10/06/2008 2:39 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 10/06/2008 3:20 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 10/06/2008 3:39 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Hi Jeff:

In my view there is a difference between the LDS market for novels and what is actually LDS fiction. The 13th article of faith was lifted from the epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians who pre-dated Mormonism by many centuries (Phillipians Chapter 4: 8, use this link: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/philip/4/8#8).

The business of marketing and selling praiseworthy novels to Mormons does not categorize a novel as LDS. That classification denies the thousands of praiseworthy novels that have nothing to do with LDS themes and are not driven by any demand in the LDS market. There were thousands of novels written about Christ prior to the advent of Mormonism. Are they to be retroactively added to the collection of LDS works? President Hinckley mentioned Charles Dickens’s short work about Christ in a conference talk a few years ago and sales of that work soared at Deseret Book during the following months.

Dickens wrote his Christ-centered work about the same time LDS Pioneers were making the long trek to Salt Lake Valley. It was a praiseworthy work. It was virtuous, lovely and of good report. You can’t get better reports than from a prophet of God. Does that make Dickens’s work an LDS work of sorts? Probably not.

A novel about Joseph Smith or a novel about the restoration is certainly LDS. A novel that diminishes Joseph Smith or the restoration is not an LDS novel. It is an anti-LDS novel. A completely different category worthy of the anti-Whitney award.

I mentioned this in my previous two comments, but let me be more clear:

Novels do NOT have to be about the Book of Mormon in order to have, as their major theme or underlying story, ideas gleaned from the Book of Mormon.

Novels do NOT have to be about Joseph Smith in order to have, as their major theme or underlying story, ideas gleaned from his prophetic revelations.

Novels do not have to be about the restoration in order have, as their underlying theme, ideas gleaned from the restoration of gospel principles, doctrines or practices.

Take as an example, the major restoration theme of the relationship of man to god. Joseph Smith restored the idea that man is not simply a toy in the God's great sand box, but rather that it is the “work and Glory of God to bring to pass man's immortality and eternal life”. The idea that man is divine is attributable to Joseph Smith’s restoration of the gospel. It was so revolutionary at the time of the restoration it was like lightning from heaven. That restoration theme alone (man's divine and eternal nature) is the stuff of themes for hundreds of LDS novels.

The idea of a modern covenant people is the fuel for a “Fiddler on a Covered Wagon Roof” and a hundred other covenant-related themes. How frustrating it is to read author after author who believes that the culture of Mormonism is rooted in our quirky names (Lavar, Levan, Levell), Relief Society table decorations, and waiting for a missionary to get home. It’s even more frustrating to read author after author who uses, as their major Mormon cultural theme, modern social dilemmas like infidelity in marriage, child abuse, or addictions. These are not LDS stories, these are US cultural themes. Latter Day Saints are not the only people who deal with those problems through prayer, faith or a religious leader’s council. What makes us unique and what should be at the root of LDS cultural works of fiction is our covenant nature. The idea of a covenant people defines our association, our close-knittedness, and the very underpinnings of our culture. Why so many novels about our clannishness and virtually none about our covenanted-ness? Are we so blind to the beauties of the restoration that we, unwittingly, confuse pop culture for Mormon culture and diminsh by sheer proporation (or lack of proporation) our reader's understanding of what it means to be Mormon and believe in the restoration of gospel covenants? Covenants are a restoration theme that defines our culture and which could drive the writing of hundreds of LDS novels.

Another restoration theme, revelation, that God speaks to men today, could fuel thousands of LDS novels.

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of restoration ideas about atonement, revelation, repentance, etc. that could be the stuff of great LDS fiction. You do not have to write a book about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Pioneers to write about restoration themes.

If not for the restoration, there would be no Mormonism and no LDS fiction. The restoration is what makes us LDS. It’s what sets the LDS apart as a people. It is what makes us unique. It is also what sets apart LDS novels from other uplifting, praiseworthy novels. We should seek after both, but to call praiseworthy fiction LDS gets a few things backwards.

Even the apostle Paul might agree with that.

David G. Woolley

 
At 10/06/2008 6:01 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I noticed that Jeff didn't toot his own horn (or maybe he just doesn't want to remind us that he left us hanging in his OTHER series) but his Shandra Covington books are a bit of a mix. The main character is LDS, but it's not overt. Overall, there are not many references to LDS culture or theology, yet it feels like an LDS novel.

 
At 10/07/2008 12:57 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Jon (and by default Jeff):

There are thousands of novels like the Shandra Covington series where the main character is Catholic, Budhist, Muslim, Athiest, Presbytarian, Quaker, Baptist, Agnostic, and Lutheran. Do those novels feel Catholic to the Catholic reader? Likely not.

Most LDS novels published these days should, in my view, not be categorized as LDS fiction. They could be called works by LDS authors. Or fiction for and about LDS. But not LDS fiction. That is a smallish category reserved for distinctly LDS novels. And what is distinctly LDS? The restoration. Restored doctrines, covenants, scriptures, principles, ordinances, etc.

It doesn't need to remain a smallish category. If more authors jumped in and wrote LDS Fiction the genre could grow. But right now good, well-written, inspirational works by LDS publishers,and LDS authors far surpasses the number of woks of LDS Fiction published each year.

It isn't a big deal. Its a rather fine distinction, but to be fair, what makes the Latter Day Saint faith unique also makes LDS fiction unique. There has been too much blurring of that line. Too much of a big tent mentality. In my view, not all works by LDS authors or works featuring LDS characters or LDS settings should characterized as LDS Fiction. They just shouldn't.

 
At 10/07/2008 1:15 AM, Blogger Steelefamily said...

I am new here but thought I would add my two cents. I love LDS authors who write books not centered on the church. I like the standards to be there, but it is easy for me to share a clean book with non members that they too can enjoy. When they are not members in the book, but have the same basic principles, it helps me share the gospel and principles through characters that the reader falls in love with and respects.

 
At 10/07/2008 1:27 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

One way to look at the category of LDS fiction is to define it as fiction published by LDS publishers and marketed specifically to the LDS market. Under this definition, Jeff's Shandra books would be "LDS fiction"(because even though they contain very little LDS content, they weren't marketed nationally), whereas I wouldn't classify an Orson Scott Card novel with LDS references as LDS fiction (because it's not aimed specifically at the LDS market). In this sense, LDS fiction can be more of a marketing category than a specific comment on the LDS-ish-ness of the books.

In LDS fiction, I expect a clean story where sin is not glorified. I don't care if the book has a lot or a little LDS content, as long as it's well written and not cheesy or preachy.

 
At 10/07/2008 10:28 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

I suggest three categories:

1. Fiction by LDS Publishers

2. Fiction by LDS authors

3. LDS Fiction

LDS fiction would likely qualify in all three categories, written by a Mormon and published by an LDS publisher, but not necessarily.

Stephanie Meyers would qualify in the Fiction by LDS authors but not the other two.

A few of Jennie Hanson's work would qualify as fiction by an LDS publisher and Fiction by an LDS author, but not necessarily LDS Fiction. Jeff's Shandra would fall in a similar category.

But then maybe this is all just too technical. Maybe blurring those lines and putting up a big tent for everyone to gather under is the way to go. On the other hand, it would make library and book store cataloging much simpler and it would allow for a better analysis and review of LDS Fiction.

Just my weird opinion.

 
At 10/07/2008 11:52 AM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I think I'm lost.

But to answer Sariah's original question, yes, I'd read fiction put out by LDS publishers that is not LDS-specific or targeted in any format.

I guess that's the whole point of the Shadow Mountain imprint.

 
At 10/08/2008 1:14 AM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

What do I expect of an LDS book? Well, after reading many of these posts and, like Heather, becoming more confused than not I will simply say I expect an LDS book of the something Pres. Monson wouldn't be ashamed to read. I believe Pres. Monson has probably read books that are not specifically written by LDS authors, but bare a high standard or offer some kind of uplifting theme. So my expectation is if the book, whatever the title, is good enough for our prophet it will good enough for me.

Charlie

 
At 10/08/2008 2:14 AM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

WOW. I agree with Josi and Stephanie. What they said, that's what I say.

David Woolley, you are ABSOLUTELY EXHAUSTING! But very funny and insightful. I'm famous because I gave you a quote for the back of your third book. Just for fun, I checked out the paperback version, and it's still there! :-)

 
At 10/08/2008 10:37 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Nancy:

You're right. I am going to crawl back in my hole and keep from exhausting readers.

You're famous, that's why they asked you to write a blurb. Thanks for doing that. You are very gracious and certainly merciful.

Until the groundhog sees his shadow, I'm officially going under ground.

All the best,

David G. Woolley

 
At 10/08/2008 11:34 PM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Oh dear. Don't go underground on account of my outburst! You really are very funny! And smart! And exhausting can be a good thing- helps people sleep well.

Not that your writing puts people to sleep.

Ok, enough.

 

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