Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, June 22, 2009

What Crosses Your Line?


Yesterday I taught a group of 18 year-old boys a Sunday School lesson on section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants. If you are not familiar with it, this section talks about a lot of things, but in particular learning. It even mentions reading good books.

One of the quotes in the lesson manual was from President Ezra Taft Benson. “Today with the abundance of books available, it is the mark of a truly educated man to know what not to read . . . feed only on the best. As John Wesley’s mother counseled him, “Avoid what weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, . . . increases the authority of the body over the mind.”

As I read this section over, my first thought was that as LDS authors, shouldn’t we strive not only to read good books, but to write them as well? Then I came home and read a great column on Meridian Magazine written by Jason Wright—who in my opinion is a total stud for many, many reasons. Here is a quote from what Jason had to say.

“There is obviously a market for R-rated books and I have nothing against those who write them. But this writer hopes to make a living sticking with PG material. I trust my readers to use my words to build mental images that they find appropriate. I'm certainly not the only “clean” writer in the industry, but, if I were, that would be OK with me.”

I liked Jason’s quote because he committed to writing what he felt good about while also not judging others who write books he would not be comfortable with. I think that most authors want to write things they can feel good about. Where things get tricky is when your judgment of what is “good” is not the same as mine. When does a writer cross the “clean” line? Especially if they write books like thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, or even horror, that tend to have more violent action? Or romances that tend to be more sensual?

I remember being at the last Covenant mystery dinner we did. As I was signing books with a bunch of other authors, a woman came up to Claire Poulsen, and said something like, “I really want to use your last book in our ward book club, but my bishop is concerned that there are so many murders in it.” I waited for him to say something like, “Well, it is a murder mystery.” But he said something much more polite that I can’t recall.

But seriously, how many times have you recommended a book to someone, only to have them be offended by something in it? Or had someone recommend a book to you, that you finally put down because you felt it was inappropriate? So where is the line? How do we as authors decide what is appropriate or not appropriate? If we publish with an LDS publisher, it’s easier, because they will make the call—even if we don’t agree with them. But many of us are now publishing nationally—where those lines are easier to cross. Jason also had this to say in describing what he wouldn’t put in his books.

“Mark the date and save this text. I will never use foul, crude, disgusting language or create explicit images of sex or graphic violence.”

That sounds like a pretty clear statement. And again, he’s not saying other authors have to do likewise at all. He’s just stating his view. But even something that clear has its gray points. What is foul or crude language? I’ve seen two books—one by Covenant, one by DB with the phrase, “Go to Hell,” in them. The Covenant one was actually a kids’ series. Does that qualify? It certainly wouldn’t push a movie into R rated status. And what is graphic violence? Let’s say I have a bad guy chop another guy in the head with an axe. (Hypothetically speaking of course, cough, cough.) Does that automatically qualify as graphic violence? What if it happens off screen? Is it okay? What if it happens on-screen, but I don’t have gray matter splattering the walls? (Oops, did I break the graphic violence rule right now by saying that?)

How about explicit images of sex? Are we only talking the actual act of intercourse onscreen? I know an author who recently had to take out a scene where a man admires the figure of a woman in a swimsuit. I don’t consider that graphic, but the publisher did. I heard there were some complaints about a couple of the speculative fiction books that were Whitney finalists having too much graphic violence. As a judge that never crossed my mind with any of the books I read. When I think graphic violence, I think blood and guts. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I have read books that were too violent for my tastes, but none of the Whitney finalists came close to crossing that line for me.

Generally, I would have no problem making a similar statement to Jason’s—and again, I admire the heck out of everything he has done, and continues to do. He is a great example of a successful author doing what he believes in, and backing it up in the national and LDS market. But I am sure that at some point, someone will read something I have written and think it does not meet the guidelines President Benson listed above. So here’s my question for readers and writers alike:

Without judging anyone else, how do you decide what you will read—and if an author, what you will write? Just to make it fun, we’ll turn it into a contest. Saturday night, I’ll pick a random entry and give them the option of getting to read in advance the new Shandra novel or the new Farworld novel. Both will be in manuscript form and both will be e-mailed, to you (think reading on-line or printing out several hundred pages.) Or if you are not into either or those, I will purchase and send you a copy of any of Jason’s published novels.

Post away!


26 Comments:

At 6/23/2009 12:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really want to read your manuscript. I'll say anything you want me to say. Crossing the line is like crossing the bar. All good books go to heaven. Remember who you are when you're reading Savage's book. Don't read past midnight. The holy book goes to bed before 1am (midnight if your under 18). Read Savage's stuff sparingly--its not of the vine, and it won't help your walk and not be weary or find any treasures of hidden knowledge. I know. I've read them all, and look what it did to me.

And finally, for a more provocative comment that may just get me the ms I'm looking for, if its really an LDS book, not just a book with LDS characters, set in an LDS setting or published by an LDS publisher. If it uses an element in the plot that uniquely draws on LDS restoration ideas or themes, then make sure you honor the LDS-ness of it. If your just doing LDS romance, or LDS murder mystery, or LDS horror, or LDS speculative, or LDS fantasy, do your thing. Let the spirit be your guide. Or your publisher. They're great stand ins. But if it is really LDS and you're not sure--well, then follow the prophet.

PS: And if you're really not sure, doesn't that mean the spirit is trying to nudge you away from going there?

PPSS: Send the ms to LDS publisher. She knows how to get in touch with me.

 
At 6/23/2009 12:35 AM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

Anonymous' comment was too dang funny for words. (The first part of it. The rest of it, I took seriously.)

As for what draws my line? My line is different for me than it is for my kids. For instance, I didn't have my dudes watch the 1st Narnia movie when it came out because I felt they wouldn't understand the death of the lion and it would scare them. (Granted, they were 3 at the time.) A friend of mine with a daughter the same age disagreed and was happy to take his daughter. Our lines were just different. I don't condemn him anymore than he would critisize me for not feeling the same way.

That's just an example but the point was, I have my lines and other people have theirs. Sometimes my threshold is higher than others and sometimes it is lower. As for what I write, I totally go with the "if I don't feel right about this, it ain't going in there." At the same time, I try to be honest. People die. People get sick. Mistakes happen. But I try to write this with dignity and respect--not just for a thrill factor.

Thought-provoking post, J. Scott, or Scott, or Savage. Oh ye of many names. =]

 
At 6/23/2009 12:52 AM, Blogger Th. said...

.

My lines for both reading and writing have moved a lot over the years. I really feel like I may have pushed too far with my most recent sell, but I consider this all part of the learning process.

As Saints we have an understanding of agency and like our Father, we need to respect the agency of others in making decisions like these the drawing of these lines.

And we also should be true to ourselves. We shouldn't try to match others' guidelines whether those people are Covenant or Pornofthemonth. It's a matter of prayer, discussion with close friends, and our own agency. Which agency we should respect as much as we respect others'.

 
At 6/23/2009 1:10 AM, Blogger David J. West said...

I like what L.T. said. I do think when I write it has to be honest for what it is-more on that farther below.

Lines seem so arbitrary to me, I don't doubt that standards sway from LDS Publisher to LDS Publisher. It's all about the context, who is reading what and where do they stand on some issues.

NOT PICKING ON ANYONE but I have to laugh that some lady bloggers post pic's of a certain vampire flick-(dudes without shirts on)what would happen if I had pics on my blog of any multitude of other movies posters/promo's/covers (with those of the female persuasion in skimpy attire?) I think I would be run out of town on a rail, or at least ostracized.
My wife says men and women don't view each other quite the same way, so again its all about the context of the situation. I am not picking on anybody just laughing because there is a double standard and thats ok.

I haven't read Farworld yet, I keep loaning it out to the kids in the ward, so I'll get it back when my book (HEROES OF THE FALLEN)comes out this october-but even then I plan on letting the moms and dads read and approve it first on the local ward level because I do wonder about different peoples context of violence.
Its a Book of Mormon series, dealing with Mormon and the end, so its got violence,-can't very well have a B of M story without some violence somewhere- again honesty for what it is and context. I don't have any idea yet what will be too much for some people. I do keep it to the standard that I would be O.K. with my kids reading it when they are old enough to understand it and the wars within the B of M itself- so nothing any worse than whats in Moroni-9. Kapow, it is probably the roughest chapter in the whole Book.

 
At 6/23/2009 2:26 AM, Blogger Josi said...

Interesting question. For me as a reader, I draw the line at details that take me out of the story and, for me, explicit description of sex, violence, or language pops out to the point where the story got lost in it. I know there are plenty of readers that aren't jarred like I am--and in a way I envy it; I REALLY want to read and love Stephen King, but I can't read his stuff. For me, it's jarring. However, I want reality. I find it almost offensive when I read a romance novel that doesn't talk about hormones, or a married couple that never once hints at having an intimate relationship. I don't want to hear the bedframe thump against the wall (jarring!) but I do want the increased breathing and the lingering touch. That's real, and it's a GOOD thing. I also struggle with action packed books where no one is hurt, no one suffers--again, you can leave out the entrails, but there's gunna be blood. I want the romance and the violence necessary to a plot, but not to the point where it overpowers it and appeals only to my base reptilian brain. Too often I think writers go for that reptilian response rather than taking the time to write a scene really well. "throw in a spurting appendage, that will get a reaction!"

As a writer, I feel that if I want to tell a realistic story I should not ignore what would be realistic, and yet is should not jar the reader. In the LDS market, like you said, we have more guidelines--which personally I am very grateful for as it makes it easier for me to know how far I can go--but I appreciate the times the publishers will allow a rule to bend in order to show reality. I know without a doubt (because they send me the e-mails :-) that there are still readers jarred by what I write, and I hate that, but I've accepted that we have different levels. I've tried to find a medium where I feel like I'm being realistic and yet I won't offend the majority of my fan base. And then I pay attention to the reviews, much as they hurt sometimes, to see if I got it right.

I think for each reader and writer it's a process of continual self-evaluation--are we doing our best work and is it something we can always be proud of?

 
At 6/23/2009 3:21 AM, Blogger Th. said...

.

(I want to clarify that everything I said should be understood to include a sense of responsibility to the audience. I'm not all about the ego-toting artist.)

 
At 6/23/2009 4:09 AM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

Oooh, pick me, pick me, I'm really random! *g*

It's so hard to describe exactly where I draw the line at graphic violence. I don't mind if there are fight scenes in the book I'm currently reading, but I know that I do mind if the results of each and every blow are described in the kind of detail you usually only get in medical texts, and if the descriptions of the fights go on and on and on ad nauseum. I can't really say what my limit is until I've reached it, and it varies from book to book, depending on the circumstances.

I suppose it's about the same for sex scenes, although I think my tolerance for them is slightly lower than for violence. In general, when I see a sex scene coming on, I'm more likely to start yawning and skipping pages, which I wouldn't necessarily do for a fight scene.

As for writing, I don't shy away from violence. I try not to gloss over it in one or two words, but I also try not to make too much out of it. And I haven't yet felt the need to include sex in my writing, but if I did have to indicate that a husband and wife were on their way to the bedroom, I'd probably have them waggle their eyebrows at each other, then have a nice, decorous scene change. I was going to include that line from the Bangles' song Manic Monday: "Come on, honey, let's go make some noise," but to tell the truth, I felt distinctly awkward about that, and not only because of any copyright issues. So it'll have to remain at the eyebrow stage.

 
At 6/23/2009 10:11 AM, Blogger Ian said...

Well, the one thing I like about the medium of books is that it is easier to police my thoughts while reading than it is to police my thoughts while watching a movie.

I think maybe I have two different standards when I read a book. I might have higher standards for and LDS themed book than I would for a secular book. I would definitely stay away from any graphic sex in any book. Implied sex is fine I guess.

 
At 6/23/2009 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out www.HolyFetch.com it is a Mormon urban legends website and a lot of fun.

 
At 6/23/2009 11:20 AM, Blogger Carol Brown said...

I don't mean to sound cliche, but I really am looking for writing that fits the 13th Article of Faith. Time is so precious, and I like to read books that inspire me to be better, do better, and feel better.

 
At 6/23/2009 11:24 AM, Blogger Kimberly said...

The line I'm beginning to draw is with relation to my two daughters. I'm thinking ahead to when they're young women and will, hopefully, be the lovers of reading I'm trying to inspire them to be. I'm currently purging my personal library of those books I wouldn't be comfortable with them reading. I don't want to have to explain to, say, my fourteen year old why it's okay for mom but not for her.

I make it a point not to hold the authors I read or the characters they create to the same standards that I myself have. But when the book I'm reading begins to colour my own perceptions, the temptation to set it aside blossoms. If it crosses the line between being different from my own beliefs into affecting those beliefs, I hope I have the courage to set it aside.

 
At 6/23/2009 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny that you posted this today, because I was thinking about this as I was waking up this morning, and really wished I had asked this question of the Romance panel at this year's conference.

I'm not a real writer (I just play one on TV ha ha), but I did dabble in a little romance writing this year, and all I can say is that when I came to that cross-road where there were two plot options - if I went one way, I felt happy and elated, but if I went the other way, I literally felt sick for days, and felt like I had ruined my story.

One has to listen to his/her own heart (and the spirit) and do what feels right, is all I can say.

I'm a lot more picky about what I read than what I watch, but it's because I have more choices.
At the movies, it's pretty much a given that objectionable scenes are going to be there - all you can do is look away, and know it will be over soon. (I rate a movie by how long my eyes stay closed, ha ha) But when I'm reading, I have the option to skim over, or just close the book.
And I do.

...Not a valuable opinion, I just want a chance at the Shandra book!
LOL

Pat

 
At 6/23/2009 12:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Kimberly. Great comment.

 
At 6/23/2009 12:13 PM, Blogger Don said...

Thank heaven for little girls. My 11-year old has called me on a couple of audio books I've had in the car, and caused me to re-evaluate where my line is for reading.

As for writing, I've always tried to write in a way that I would be comfortable having her read. Still, after hearing some of the things that LDS authors were required to change, I wonder if maybe I haven't crossed someone's line anyway.

 
At 6/23/2009 12:39 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I think it all depends on your perspective. I've had evaluators tell me that a scene was too steamy and when I went to look, the part of the scene where the hero stares at the heroine, the tension thick in the air, his eyes never leaving hers, was the too steamy part. I wouldn't have thought that was steamy at all, but it all comes down to perspective, experiences and imagination, I suppose.

As a writer I want to bring readers into my story and have them experience it, but I want it to be realistic without explicit details. As a reader, I want to experience the story, but not anything that I would feel uncomfortable doing in real life. I mean, I'll never be a double agent roaming around the world stopping terrorists, but it's a fun escape to read about for a few hours, especially if it's a book that I don't have to worry about skipping pages because the heroine is hacking people to death or participating in scenes that would make me blush.

Great topic!

 
At 6/23/2009 1:07 PM, Blogger C. L. Hanson said...

I don't like anything with graphic or gory violence, or anything with small children or their parents dying. I'll read stuff with death and violence in it, but I don't find these topics entertaining, so the work has to be especially strong and/or treat the topic seriously for me to like and/or recommend it. (For example: my favorite film is Persepolis, which has horrible violence in it. But it's an amazing story, and the violent parts are focused on empathy and understanding, not played for entertainment.)

 
At 6/23/2009 1:49 PM, Blogger lachish said...

I agree with many of the comments here: it is personal perception. And that perception is framed by our previous experiences and beliefs. What is steamy or gory for one, may not be for another.

What is interesting to me is that my own perceptions have changed. The further I get down that path of purging all darkness from myself, the less tolerant I become to reading about the pursuits of darkness on the printed page. Movies are the same. Some movies I watched when I was younger are too uncomfortable to watch now.

For me, a certain vampire series was almost on the border for being unacceptable to my tastes. When a character becomes "wanton" in a very overt way, it tends to turn me off.

People (and therefore characters, if they are realistic) can choose to do whatever they wish, but they cannot choose the consequences. That is real life. So when a scene is violent or morally out of line, I fully expect there to be consequences for the behavior later. Graphic depiction is not necessary, and I hope the writer will bring to light some of the suffering or guilt for the bad behavior.

That is how I see it. But I am just me.

I think the violence and "romance" needs to have a purpose. If it is there only for shock factor, it is inappropriate.

Just my too cents. Actually, I think I spent about a dollar there...

 
At 6/23/2009 2:59 PM, Blogger Stephanie Humphreys said...

I like to read and write things that I would let my children and my parents read. They can handle some "reality", but there are lines that I won't cross. I remember picking books out of the adult section at the library when I was 13, and I know my own kids do the same thing. My parents also raised me to have certain standards, and out of honor to them, I try to keep those standards in everything I do, including writing and reading.

Having said that, characters have to have real emotions and reactions to the things around them or things come across as sappy and unrealistic. If we can't write a scene where a man stares into a woman's eyes, and say a little about the accompanying emotions, we may as well write about robots.

I'm glad the line isn't more firmly drawn. It's bound to be in a place that wouldn't work for many of us.

 
At 6/23/2009 4:59 PM, Blogger Kate said...

When I read a book I want to experience it emotionally. With that in mind I have to draw the line where I would in real life. In a romance that means the characters should be able to get a temple recommend because my head is living in that book when I'm reading it. As for violence, there has to be an ethical/moral reason for the main character to initiate it. I really like it when the author devises a solution with less or no violence when it appears violence is the only solution. I like surprises. This again stems from me living the book.
I try to follow this with my WIP--an LDS Romance with a dash of suspense. I want my children to be able to read what I write.
And I would be the coolest Mom if I could read your manuscript.

 
At 6/23/2009 6:35 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I watched Marley and Me over the weekend with my kids. Well, it was with mixed feelings since there are several blatant references to sex in it--way more than I can ever remember seeing/hearing in a PG movie. Usually those type of references would go over my 9-year old's head, but in this movie, they were so overt that she commented on each one.

But the movie is more true-to-life than most romantic comedies or dramas that I've seen.

I find myself reading a book, and maybe allowing for some exceptions, if I feel like the story is true to the human experience and not gratuitous.

I started reading A Carrion Death--a rather fascinating mystery set in South Africa. Then it got to a sex-scene, and not that men can't write a good scene, but these co-authors left it so emotional-less, that I stopped reading the book.

If I'm reading a book that I love, then it gets to uncomfortable violence scenes, I'd skim over them. There have also been books that I haven't been able to finish because of the violence. I started reading The Kite Runner a couple of different times. Finally, I was able to read it. It just depends on the point I am at in my life.

I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, and loved it. Other women I know were extremely uncomfortable.

I read The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. It's wonderful, but heart-breaking and goes through the awful abuse. It's target to YA, but I don't think any of my kids are ready to bite off that chunk without being nightmarishly affected.

But as a young teen, I read everything and anything. I definitely see the value in knowing what your kids are reading, and being choosy for ourselves. There are some books that are too dark. And it's important to be selective. Because, yes, there is just so much time.

I also read those Whitney books. I fell in love with the Mistborn series. I didn't so much like the Farland series. Was it the writing? They both had equal levels of violence, it seems. But to me they were no different than watching Batman or Superman.

Being a writer of historical fiction, I can't avoid the violence. Or the romance. But I can avoid the language :-) Thank goodness Nephi didn't swear.

 
At 6/23/2009 8:50 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

One thing I notice whenever Latter Day Saints are asked, not just here but anywhere, what line they won't cross they always seem to hedge and give what I call the temporal or human answer. The response are usually about doing the right thing, but are couched with comments like a little bit is probably okay. I have written things that I am ashamed of because they go against my beliefs (not anti-LDS, just going along the lines mentioned in previous replies. I have also read numerous books that wouldn't come close to holding up to the scrutiny of LDS standards. My feeling is we need to be entertained and we need to choose entertain that is wholesome. So many people feel like I can't be like the prophet, he's the prophet or I can't be like Jesus. But, if we look at the line from a spiritual perspective with an understanding of what Jesus tells us we're capable of I believe things really firm up and the line becomes much less gray. Your LDS publisher may tell what they'll accept to get published, but the purpose of this portion of our journey is much more important.

Please accept my apology for this sounding overtly religious in nature, almost sermon like, but Jeff did open the door with the Sunday School class reference.

Remember we do have our agency. That simply means we can choose right or wrong. We don't get to make the interpretation.

Charlie

 
At 6/23/2009 9:53 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...

The number one thing that pushed me into writing was the when I saw some of the rather explicit romance novels some of my beehives were reading. My own girls were little at the time, but they helped me draw my line.

I decided then that I won't write anything that they can't read. I'm not willing to create something that would embarrass me or my family. So that leaves me committed to keeping my novels PG, especially since my ten-year-old is one of my biggest fans!

 
At 6/24/2009 3:57 PM, Blogger Me again said...

Don't get me started about a extremely popular vampire series that I felt was VERY inappropriate yet people in my ward were letting there 12+ yr olds and up (girls and boys) read.

UGH.

 
At 6/24/2009 6:06 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Yes "Me again"--although I think the "vampire series" is way over-debated, so no debate here. But if we were to compare those books to other YA books in the national market, they are very very mild in comparison.

 
At 6/24/2009 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few of years ago a friend and I started a writing group. Along with a third woman, we met once a week, and over lunch we would read whatever stories we had written during our spare time. While my friend showed promise, she didn't seem willing to improve her skills by going to seminars or writing classes. She ended up happily finding a niche on the internet where her sexually charged Sci/Fi stories are downloaded for a price. When I asked her for the websites, she told me not to read them. They were too raunchy for someone like me. She knows I'm LDS.

It’s a sad thing to admit, but there will always be a “want” for that kind of writing, and it will keep my friend at her keyboard for years.

We all have to make our choices, our own judgments for language, sex and violence based on our values and standards. I know where my lines are, and I won’t let anyone push me past them for love or money.

Jeff, if I don’t win the whole Shandra manuscript in the drawing, could you at least send me the first chapter? I’m not above bribery.

Deb

 
At 6/30/2009 2:19 AM, Blogger Th. said...

.

I think it's worth pointing out that there is no clear and explicit and canonized doctrine on this. This is slothful-servant stuff. If coming to earth just meant following clear instructions, all we'ld learn is to be lackeys. But God is trying to change us into something more than that --- something akin to his peers. That means we have to take some responsibility and figure things out for ourselves. Other examples include Sabbath observance (taking a drive? watching the Super Bowl?), following the Word of Wisdom (eating a summer hamburger? a hot drink of chocolate?), chastity lines (steady dating before eighteen? kissing with tongue?). It's entirely possible for good, honest, recommend-holding Latter-day Saints to disagree on these questions. Because nowhere in the D&C were these things explicitly spelled out for us.

In fact, looking at my New Testament, I don't think Jesus approves of such nitpicky rules. He would just say go forth and sin no more.

 

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