by Anne Bradshaw, BJ Rowley, Gordon Ryan, Josi S. Kilpack, Julie Wright, Linda Paulson Adams, Linda Shelley Whiting, Lisa J. Peck, Marsha Ward, Rachel Ann Nunes, Shirley Bahlmann, Thom Duncan, and Tristi Pinkston
So you decided to become a writer for the LDS market.
Good for you!
There are few things more rewarding than a job that allows you to share pieces of who you are and what you believe. You will discover a sense of satisfaction as you put your thoughts and feelings into words to present to others.
The LDS market can be tricky, however.
The scriptures tell us to read from the best books, and our leaders tell us to make sure that the literature in our homes is uplifting. It can be difficult to find nationally-published books that follow those guidelines, and that’s why the LDS market is booming.
Let’s take a look at some of the various genres and categories in the field and find out what is most likely to be successful with the LDS audience and what is generally not acceptable.
Let’s start with the popular action-adventure novel.
The main concern with writing books of this genre is the violence that generally accompanies it. Violence is a fact of life. But graphic descriptions of violence do not attract LDS readers.
Gunplay should only be used when needed. Hunting game would be an obvious exception. But when people are shooting at each other, use care in not using vivid wound descriptions.
[Rachel] I remember one particular scene in my adventure romance novel Love on the Run where there is a huge shoot-out between the bad guys and the good guys in a remote cabin. Though the main characters get away, a few of their companions don’t make it, and more than a few of the bad guys are killed. But there’s no mention of blood. Plenty of falling over and lying still, but no mention of blood until much later when the FBI agent comes on the now-quiet scene. Even then it’s not graphic.
Does the lack of blood lessen the impact?
Perhaps for some, but I think LDS readers generally will appreciate your reserve, and a skilled writer can transmit the feeling of mayhem without being graphic.
This is also true with violence.
They will fill in the gaps within the realm of their personal experience. For example, a younger reader will imagine the scene much differently than an adult. Our job as the writer—and it’s an obtainable goal—is to create scenes that appeal to a wide range of LDS readers.
Keep in mind that no matter whom we intend our audience to be (i.e. adults), many of our readers are very young, and their LDS mothers who buy the books are more concerned about violence than is the world at large.
Use your writing skill to create tension; it drives up sales far more than those vivid descriptions of blood and horror.
[Tristi] Millions of murder mystery novels are available for sale every day. We all enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out whodunit before they strike again. But murder can be messy—and that’s where caution comes into play with an LDS novel.
The human body contains a lot of blood. This is not a bad thing while we’re alive; in fact, it’s very useful. But once a body is dead—especially if it was murdered—it may just come out, sometimes all over the place. And that is not good in the LDS market. Gory descriptions of blood and guts are not found here. Generally speaking, if a murder takes place in an LDS novel, it’s alluded to in vague terms and hints.
Why? Again it comes down to the offense factor. There is no way to safely judge how much blood ought to be allowed in the book, so it’s best to take the high road and stick with hints. Many readers “gross out” easily, and you want to keep their business. Do what you can to stay within the realm of acceptability.
[Julie] A murder mystery written with artistic skill doesn’t need to succumb to the shock factor of blood and guts. A writer can focus on the mystery . . . the unseen rather than the seen. If you work it right, you can end up with a mystery that twists and turns and surprises the reader at the end with someone they never would have suspected. Using blood and guts to hold a reader’s attention is kind of like action thriller movies that focus entirely on special effects but leave the plot to fend for itself.
If your plot isn’t thickening, you’re going to have watery sales.
A good example of a plot with unexpected twists is the movie Signs. The movie was portrayed as an alien attack, a suspense thriller to keep teens up at night, but looking deeper into the plot, you find a story of a man who had lost his faith and, through the circumstances of aliens attacking his home, rediscovers his faith. The aliens were the catalyst, but they weren’t the plot.
Make your plots rich enough to disallow cheap theatrics. Your readers will know the difference, and the LDS market insists on a higher standard. Don’t confuse this with thinking you can’t put in any detail. We are supposed to show and not tell, and with practice, editing, and rewriting, you’ll find the balance that will tantalize, yet not offend.
[Tristi] When it comes to the LDS market, Science Fiction and Fantasy are new and emerging genres, even though they’ve been national bestsellers for decades. Few LDS publishers have wanted to risk producing speculative fiction until recently. And those who do have been very particular about the subject matter.
Why is this such a big problem?
It’s a safe bet that there are hundreds and thousands of Church members out there who are avid Trekkies or Star Wars fans or Lord of the Rings movie die-hards. In addition, there are vast numbers of members who regularly read science fiction and fantasy novels. Their testimonies or basic understanding of the plan of salvation are not necessarily challenged by such far reaches into the unknown or impossible. It’s just for fun. It’s make-believe. It’s entertaining and fascinating. We all understand that.
It’s also a safe bet that many of those same folks also enjoy reading LDS fiction on occasion—even historical fiction, where minor events are created and words are put into the mouths of well-known scriptural figures. (Think of The Work and the Glory or Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites.) Testimonies aren’t necessarily challenged by these stretches of the imagination, either.
The problem arises when the two are mixed into one forum, when doctrinal subjects become speculative, which I would term LDS Speculative Fiction. When the words “LDS” and “Speculative” are used in the same breath, hackles are raised, as well as eyebrows.
In this day and age, with the fullness of the gospel revealed, we all have a pretty good idea about what will occur in the future, who really lives out there in the deep recesses of outer space, and how our world will eventually end. By and large, we don’t like it when those truths are challenged—even in the format of a make-believe, fictional book.
For instance, suppose you read a science fiction book about aliens from outer space who visit our world, select a few random earthlings from the downtown streets, and suck them up into their spaceship for scientific study. This is nothing out-of-bounds or unusual. There are numerous books, plays, and movies based on a similar premise.
But what if you get to chapter four, and you’re suddenly made aware that two of the earthlings being studied by the six-legged Martian scientists are dressed in suits and white shirts and ties, with little black nametags fastened to their jacket pockets? Mormon missionaries on an alien spaceship? Hold on! All of a sudden you’re mad. You slam the book shut in revulsion, and throw it across the room at the opposite wall—right over the trash can.
Why? Because you “know” this would never happen. Your knowledge and testimony of the gospel have been challenged, sacred things tinkered with, and “pearls cast to the swine,” leaving a bad taste in your mouth. It seems sacrilegious.
Great care must be taken, when dealing with science fiction or fantasy, that the things you present are not misconstrued as sacrilege—and it is possible to accomplish this.
For example, in Linda Paulson Adams’ book Prodigal Journey, the story is set in future times surrounding the second coming of Christ. This could be tricky business. But Linda expertly crafts a story, not about the Second Coming, but about two ordinary young people in love—who just happen to live during this eventful time in earth’s history. As different things happen throughout the story, it’s very easy to assimilate those things into the realm of “what might be” or “could happen,” based on what we know and understand. Nothing really challenges our beliefs, even though great liberties are taken to invent possible scenarios, characters, and events—including an encounter with Christ Himself. It’s all believable.
It’s a fine line to tread, but it can be done successfully.
The other option, of course, is not to mix the two, and just stay away from mentioning the Church altogether, as James Dashner does in his popular new series, The Jimmy Fincher Saga. It’s pure science fiction, entirely out of the realm of normality, and yet thoroughly enjoyable and non-offensive. Dan Yates does a similar job with his Angels series, giving us a fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to the afterlife, without throwing in obvious doctrinal elements. Both authors are LDS, and their books have all sold successfully in the LDS market.
Novel-length romantic fiction has become very popular in the LDS market. Let’s envision your novel for a moment. You’re on a roll. You have a great plot and compelling characters.
Let’s take a peek at how you’re doing.
Do you have a knock-out ending? It has to be happy, or it’s not a “romance.” This genre is well-defined and specific. There are certain rules and guidelines—such as the happy ending—which cannot be broken for the story to stay in the genre and please the romance reader.
In the LDS market, a host of additional rules apply to what your readers will tolerate when it comes to romantic interludes between your characters.
Take the following example:
Ron turned to face Christine. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said, reaching toward her.
How you proceed from this sentence forward will determine just how well you do in the LDS market. As Latter-day Saints, our code of complete chastity before marriage and total fidelity afterward sets us apart.
“But it wasn’t going to be graphic!” you say. Explicit scenes clearly don’t belong in an LDS romance. That’s generally not the argument. Debate comes into play determining just what is acceptable, and what is not, in the so-called “gray areas.” This is where it gets sticky. Each person has individual limits for what is offensive or too graphic. The writer may come up with something they feel is completely appropriate, yet a reader takes offense.
In my historical novel Nothing to Regret, the main character and his girlfriend become parents of an illegitimate child. This baby proves to be an important catalyst to the story—the reason for living that my main character so badly needs. But I wanted to downplay the scene where he and his girlfriend had intimate relations, and focus instead on the other issues at hand. I used the following words to describe that event:
She covered her face with her hands and began to cry. I wrapped her in my arms and held her, stroking her hair, kissing her face. She turned her lips up to meet mine and we kissed, at first gently, then passionately. A half hour later she climbed out of my bed and stood, saying, “I must leave.”
This is as close as I came to describing what actually took place. I didn’t feel it was appropriate or necessary to say more or spell it out in detail. Even so, a few readers were still offended by what I wrote. One woman commented that she doesn’t read books like that, and another said she was ready to put the book down when she came to that part.
I can understand their feelings. I would certainly never try to determine for someone else what they should think and feel. But from my perspective, this illegitimate child was necessary to the story, so it was necessary to bring up how it came into being.
Interestingly enough, when my friend Josi Kilpack read the book, she wasn’t sure where the baby came from. My reference was so vague that she hadn’t picked up on it—the same passage that had so greatly offended these other ladies. Go figure!
[Julie] After I read that scene, I also wondered where the baby came from. It was too quick for me to catch it. Not that I needed a big hot-and-heavy make-out scene, but I was a bit confused. This is a prime example of how every person is unique and will respond to things differently. Something that you consider innocent might be shocking and appalling to another person. And something you find shocking could be a walk in the park for someone else.
Tristi’s portrayal was tastefully handled, and her protagonist’s remorse later was real. It helped to make that scene acceptable.
[Rachel] In sticky situations like the one above, there will always be some people who will be offended. Always. The trick is to do as Tristi did, and make it as inoffensive as possible for the majority of people.
Some people might advise us to simply stop writing stories that have issues like this, but we can’t. These things happen in real life, and for our stories to seem real—to be stories that readers will care about—we must mirror real life. The way Tristi handled the scene above was the only way she could have written it for the LDS market.
[Tristi] Whenever there is debate over the appropriateness of a book’s content, the LDS publisher invariably gets caught in the middle. After all, they want to sell books that appeal to the largest possible audience. Sometimes they have to make tough editorial decisions that may rub the author the wrong way. It’s not moral issues alone that force a publisher to cut scenes; it’s the very real fact that if the reader is unpleasantly shocked, they will not continue to buy, which is bad for authors, publishers, and even LDS bookstores. But since you simply can’t predict what will shock someone, it’s a hard line to walk.
[Rachel] That’s the truth. I have a friend whose publisher once raked her over the coals for the phrase, “His hand lingered near hers.” We couldn’t believe it! We’re talking about hands here! But the publisher had received some complaints, and for a while was ultra-sensitive to anything that might make someone—anyone—feel uncomfortable. My friend ended up compromising on a lot of issues, but still managed to kept his hand lingering near hers.
[Tristi] So what do you do when the audience is clamoring for romance, for something that will send that warm—chaste—thrill down the spine? There’s a huge market for romance. How do you satisfy that craving without breaking the rules of LDS publishing?
Let’s go back to Ron and Christine for a minute.
Ron looked deep into Christine’s eyes. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said, reaching toward her. He traced the soft outline of her cheek with his finger. “I never thought I’d find a woman like you.” Taking her hand in his, they turned toward the fountain. “Every drop of water looks like a diamond,” he said. “Like this one.” He pulled a ring from his pocket and held it up to the light. “What do you think? Is this as pretty as the water in the fountain?”
“Prettier,” she said with a gasp as he slid it on her finger.
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, feeling the warmth of her lips against his with a tingle he could only compare to electricity.
So far, so good. We’re satisfying the desire for romance without taking things too far.
He ran his hands through her hair as they kissed, feeling the silky strands sift through his fingers like sand. Nothing had ever felt so right as her closeness, knowing that she would soon be his forever. He slid his hands down her arms, pulling her closer, then reached around her waist until her soft form nestled against his chest.
Okay, wait! We’re starting to push the envelope here. One more description of how she feels against him, or if he moves his hands any farther, and we’re done for. To be safe, I might even delete that last sentence altogether.
A great thing about literature is that fiction readers generally have wonderful imaginations. You can convey a sense of romance and intimacy without spelling everything out. You can drop enough hints that readers can dream up the rest if they like, and stay within the bounds of what the audience will accept.
[Julie] Tristi is right. People have wonderful imaginations and don’t need to be patronized by a writer that refuses to let them use it.
Another thing to remember with romance is that the “warm tingle” doesn’t have to come from physical interaction at all. In my novel Loved Like That, the heroine and hero never even kiss. And yet the book is filled with all the spine tingling warmth of being in love. Some readers complained that they expected at least a kiss in the end, but others have said how pleased they were to find such a wonderful ending that was totally cheeseless and non cliché.
The ending worked perfectly, and here’s why: sometimes people don’t have to kiss or make physical contact to show how they feel—if what they’re feeling is real.
One of the most romantic dates I ever had in my life was when we went to a make-out point, crawled in the back seat of my car, and read The Forgotten Carols by Michael McLean together. We played a song on my tape player at the end of each chapter. We were there for hours. We never kissed once. In spite of the lack of smooching in a very smoochy place, that night will stand out forever in my mind as a perfect, shivering, tingling, wow-I-am-in-love night.
Consider this when you’re writing. Think of Sleepless in Seattle—a perfect romance, and not one kiss between the two of them in the whole movie. A skilled writer can make it work, if they put a little effort into it.
[Rachel] One of the tests I put my romantic scenes through is whether or not it would be appropriate for my young daughters to read. Girls as young as eleven read LDS romances, and this is another reason we need to be very careful, yet at the same time cultivate realism. We don’t want to inspire inappropriate emotions in girls that are too young, but neither do we want to paint a rosy hue over very real feelings. LDS women are looking for realism, and girls need to know that there are problems with relationships. Bad things do happen to nice people. Emotions can get out of control. This means that we need to either show restraint in our characters, or show the consequences of their mistakes. Regardless of the plot, we cannot be explicit.
[Tristi] LDS readers, for the most part, have made it clear that they want books to be free of profanity. An occasional swear word was once acceptable, but not any more. There has been a notable shift in the market in the past few years to avoid any type of profanity or vulgarity in LDS novels—especially if you’re publishing with the larger publishers who have retail outlets and who are very aware of customer complaints and expectations. The smaller publishers have also tended to follow this trend.
A possible exception lies where there’s a non-member involved. (Sure seems like those non-members get away with a lot, doesn’t it?) Generally speaking, a non-member can let something slip from time to time, but they should make an effort to watch their mouths when they’re around members, and they should never, ever take the Lord’s name in vain. Some of the lesser swear words may make it in, but using the name of Deity will not be accepted, regardless of who says it or under what circumstances. Neither will vulgarity in any form. You should check with your publisher in regards to their house rules on swearing.
So what do you do if you want your character to swear, but don’t want to use an actual word? Let’s pretend for a moment that Clay, Christine’s old boyfriend, has just found out that Christine is engaged to Ron. He’s not one bit happy about it, and calls her to beg for forgiveness.
“Clay, it’s over between us. I’m sorry, but you and I want different things in life. Ron is perfect for me, and I know I’ll be very happy with him. Please don’t call me again; it’s too painful, for both of us.”
Clay held the dead receiver in his hand, hearing her words echo over and over in his mind. How could she be so cold? He had truly loved her, and he thought she loved him. Cursing aloud, he slammed down the phone.
This is all that’s needed in a case like this. The readers will fill in for themselves, using their own imagination.
Consider a historical novel where a mob is chasing Church members. You simply cannot have them shooting over their heads (to avoid the blood and murder we discussed earlier) and have them yell, “Oh, those darn Mormons!” Sorry, that just doesn’t work. Some “mild” profanity may be necessary, but other descriptive options should really be explored first.
Keep your audience in mind and use your best judgement. If in doubt, leave it out. Sometimes trying to second-guess the LDS market can be a tricky and risky thing to do.
SHORT FICTION AND POETRY
[Rachel] Unfortunately, there’s not much of a market for books of short stories or poetry. This is true, not just in the LDS market, but nationwide as well. If LDS-themed stories and poetry are your heart’s desire, you should be aware that there are few places that will publish them as collections. Even Jack Weyland experienced a long-term challenge finding a publisher for his collection of short stories. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, just that these things typically do not sell enough copies to be worth the financial risk a publisher takes on each book they produce.
But what if short fiction or epic verse is still your true love? Well, begin by giving it a better chance. Check out Chapter Three in this book on writing and submitting articles, where you’ll find information on how to submit to periodicals and magazines. The rules for submitting short fiction and poetry are about the same.
If your book of poetry comes back rejected, this is likely not based on your writing skill, but on the market. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Mormon Milton or Shakespeare, it’s a matter of sales and business. People simply don’t buy short fiction or poetry in the amounts necessary to make it worth the printing, editing, and marketing costs.
Recently the Ensign, New Era, and Friend magazines stopped publishing fiction at all. They might occasionally print a poem or two, but these are also rare, and submissions are often reserved for special contests. Check each magazine for guidelines on whether they accept fiction and poetry submissions, and how to send these in.
Irreantum and Meridian do accept fiction and poetry with LDS themes, or that are written by LDS writers. (Contact information for these and other LDS periodicals is listed in Chapter Three on Articles.)
You could also try the many periodicals and contests listed in the Poet’s Market andNovel and Short Story Writer’s Market if your work is aimed for a broader audience.
[Tristi] If you chronicle events that actually took place, you have more latitude with the subject matter you address.
For example, violence was a daily occurrence between the Saints and the Indians in the early days of the settlement of Utah. Lee Nelson’s series The Storm Testament discusses scalpings and all sorts of things that are considered quite violent. He gets away with it because while it is fiction, the books describe actual events, or events similar to those that actually took place.
But he is still mindful of the audience and doesn’t stray into graphic depictions.
A straight nonfiction book, We Were Not Alone by Karola Hilbert Reece, tells the story of an LDS family living in Germany during World War II. This family endured many difficult things during the war, including the near-molestation of their daughters. Because the book is factual, it is tolerated in the LDS market. Were these things written as fiction, they would not be as easily accepted.
[Rachel] I agree with Tristi. If the above-mentioned scenes had been fiction, they would have to be much more carefully written to be accepted in this market.
And to reiterate Tristi’s comment on not being too graphic, remember that nonfiction doesn’t give the writer a license to portray unnecessary details. The girls in We Were Not Alone came very close to being abused, but we still don’t need a line-by-line narrative of every little detail.
When writing my novel A Heartbeat Away, which was inspired by many national kidnapping cases, I had to be very careful in portraying how the kidnapper attacked his young victim. It didn’t matter that in real life, kidnapping victims are often raped repeatedly, tortured, and killed in various horrific ways. I didn’t need to go into detail to bring out the fear my character felt:
He pushed me back into the rough, sandy dirt. I fought him with all my might, careless of the pain, but that only seemed to urge him on. I was so scared and mad and sad all at once. And also glad that Meghan wasn’t here. This would have destroyed her. But I was strong. I would fight. In determination, I scratched at his neck. He answered with a fist to my jaw that made bright pinpoints of light echo in my skull.
When I couldn’t fight anymore, he began to do things to me. I was ashamed and glad for the darkness, even though I knew none of it was my fault. There was a lot of pain, but that was just the beginning.
Months before when I heard on the news about a child dying from a beating from his own parents I had said to my mom. “Don’t you think that God took away his pain so he didn’t feel them hurting him?”
I’ll always remember the look on my mother’s face as she sat very still, pondering my question. Her blue eyes seemed bluer and turned inward, as though searching deeply. “I think,” she began after a very long while, “that we don’t really understand a lot of things. This life is so short. The pain that baby felt, while very terrible—unacceptable—was also very short. And it is that pain and suffering that will stand as a testimony against those people on Judgment Day.” She sighed. “I really don’t know the answer, honey, but I do know that whatever that baby felt, or what any innocent person feels when they suffer, will eventually be swallowed by the love of Christ in the life to come.”
Well, I can tell you that I felt what my kidnapper did to me. Every sickening little bit. I thought at any minute I would die from the pain that seemed to go on and on in wave after wave of agony.
That was as far as I could go to depict realism while still retaining my LDS readership. Note the break in the attack as the girl thinks about the baby on the news. This puts a little distance between my reader and this unthinkable act of violence, and also justifies my reasons as an author for including even this brief description of her pain. What follows after is quite different (my character’s experience with the afterlife), allowing readers to recover and feel joy again.
The bottom line is that, either with fiction or nonfiction, we must use care with the portrayal of all our difficult scenes.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
[Tristi] Most books can handle one or two scenes where the author pushes the envelope, then backs away. Ron and Christine might get away with a passionate kiss by the fountain. A few drops of blood might make their way into a mystery or thriller. But be careful.
For instance, suppose we prolonged that kiss by the fountain. Ron takes Christine home and walks into the apartment with her. They turn on the light to find Christine’s roommate Monica lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the room. If we’ve described the kiss with lots of detail, and then describe that blood with lots of detail, that’s probably more than the market will bear. Decide what’s most important, then don’t play it up too much. Sex sells in the world, but this is one market where sex does not sell.
This doesn’t mean that your options are limited. It may seem that way, knowing that you have to choose your words carefully. Sometimes it may seem unfair that you have to change what you’ve written in order to please these faceless people who will someday read your book. You can’t control what they like anyway, right? True. But it pays in the long run to pay attention to market trends. You may be writing for the love of writing, but you do want to make some money, at least enough for your publisher to want to keep publishing your work—or at least buy ink or toner for your printer!
Sometimes authors either write for art or for publication. In many cases the two cannot coexist. If you write for publication, you must know what your market wants and give it to them. Being an LDS author means you can write for publication without compromising your own standards, and that in turn becomes your art.
When you screen out from your writing those things that might give offense, you find the opportunity to reach into a vast reservoir of words to create an experience of beauty for your reader. As mentioned before, you can plant in your reader’s mind a picture so real and so vivid that you can drop the merest hint, and they will know exactly what happens next.
The beauty of it is that in every reader’s mind the scene will be different, the “what happens next” will be different, and you have created a thousand possible stories living in the hearts and imaginations of a thousand different people.
Down the road, as you master your craft, the chance to break out of the LDS market and go national might come along. If you have attained a good following in the LDS market—largely by staying true to their standards and expectations—you will look very attractive to national agents and publishers. (Maybe even as good as Christine looked to Ron!) Since you are successful in your own genre, they are more likely to take you on and see what else you can do. You will gain a readership that will span the population of the country, not just LDS readers. At that point you might think you can write what you like without the restrictions of the LDS realm.
A word of caution, though. As you go national, your LDS readers may go with you to see what you write next. If you stray too far from LDS guidelines, you may lose the respect of those readers—and they might choose not to read your work anymore, even those books written for the LDS market.
[Julie] Don’t mind my little Jiminy Cricket voice here, but you also have a degree of respect you need to maintain. Sometimes self respect cannot be bartered away for the price tag on a garish, bloody murder scene or a sex scene that leaves nothing to the imagination.
If you plan on going national, make certain you outline your limits of what is and is not acceptable to you. After creating your boundaries, stick with them.
In an acting class I had, my teacher explained the need for us to set our standards now so that when a contract was handed to us with an obscene amount of money being offered, we didn’t compromise ourselves for a price.
The same can be true for writing.
Don’t feel you need to cater to the perceived wants of a national market in order to succeed. By setting your standards now, you will be able to maintain that level of self-respect and dignity that you demand of yourself. Though it may at first appear that LDS writers in the national market are hiding who they are and what they believe under a pen name, some choose to use a pen name for marketability.
For myself, I have a chosen pen name that I plan to use for the books that I will write for the national market.
I did not choose a pen name so that I could hide my standards and write about raucous debauchery and sin, but simply because Julie Wright isn’t exactly marketable as a name. I love my name, but it doesn’t really ring. My standards are carried throughout my writing regardless of whether or not the piece is meant for the national market.
I confess to being more light-handed with what I put into my nationally-intended books than with what I put into my LDS fiction, but not so much that my LDS readers would feel scandalized if they stumbled onto a book under my pen name.
Regardless of where I intend to publish, I couldn’t write an explicit sex scene (I’d be blushing too much) nor could I write a scene with the graphic details of a brutal murder. These are elements that honestly don’t entertain me, and I feel that if I can’t entertain myself when I write, then I am helpless to entertain anyone else.
[Rachel] I agree completely that you need to decide now what you will or won’t write—even for the national market. I’m headed in that direction myself, and while there are many things I feel good about writing for the national market that wouldn’t make it in the LDS market, I think it’s vital to maintain our personal standards.
WHEN A CHARACTER STRAYS
[Tristi] As seen in some of the examples above, we can’t always avoid difficult circumstances in our LDS books. What do you do if your character has strayed—physically or spiritually? In order for this to be acceptable in the eyes of the LDS readership, the character must have consequences. The following are examples:
A character is disfellowshipped or excommunicated from the Church.
A character feels deep sorrow for sins, repents, and turn his or her life around. (And make sure the straying scenes aren’t too graphic!)
If a character has suffered a loss of testimony, he or she finds it before the end of the book.
Sometimes the “strayer” could be the “bad guy” or a minor character, and the main character helps them work through the problem.
It’s amazing how many lives have been touched by reading a book about the power of the Atonement. As a character makes a mistake, then finds grace and forgiveness from the Savior, the readers can feel the strength of that forgiveness in their own hearts, and testimonies can be strengthened as they read.
If your character isn’t a member of the Church yet, serious transgressions can be more easily forgiven by your readers. Maybe the character has a “past,” comes into contact with the Church, and repents. LDS readers will forgive a sinning non-member a lot faster than they will a member who strays.
A perfect example is found in Nothing to Regret, when Ken comes in contact with the Church for the first time. He was unaware that intimacy with his girlfriend was wrong. His parents had taught him to wait until he was in love—and he truly was.
But when he meets the missionaries and learns about the law of chastity, his heart is broken as he realizes that he has broken one of the Lord’s cardinal commandments. He suffers deeply as he seeks forgiveness for everything he has done contrary to the will of the Lord. He is forgiven and is baptized into the Church, and later receives his temple endowments and marries in the temple.
Because Ken was a non-member at the time of his sin, it was easier for my audience to accept what he had done. Several of my readers have made the comment, “Well, he wasn’t a member of the Church at the time. He didn’t know any better.” As they saw Ken bear the difficult burden of remorse for his sins and repent, the readers were able to forgive him. The reader’s forgiveness of a sinning character is something to strive for; you want the reader to feel compassion and sympathy for your character so they will want to know more about them—what happens next. Many of my readers have asked for a sequel.
Another warning—a hallmark of LDS literature is weaving gospel principles throughout the story. Yet readers can’t stand being preached to throughout the book. With my character Ken, it was best to show the consequences of sin and the blessings of obedience through the character’s actions rather than to lecture on doctrine.
GETTING ACCEPTED BY STORES
When an LDS book rolls off the press, and sometimes before, the publisher sends a sample copy to Deseret Book and to Seagull Book and Tape. They review it for market appropriateness. If they feel it falls within the proper guidelines, and that it will sell reasonably well, they will agree to carry it in their stores. This is very important for your book, for the following reasons:
Approval sends the message that it’s a worthwhile book. Your book passed a rigorous and demanding review process and was found acceptable.
Approval attracts readers. If LDS readers know your book has been approved, they feel safe in buying it, knowing it won’t contain anything objectionable.
Approval convinces other stores to carry your book. Deseret Book and Seagull set the trends. If your book is approved by them, other stores will want to carry it, too.
Disapproval puts an automatic black mark on your book and possibly your name. There’s a strong chance many LDS readers won’t want anything to do with it.
If Deseret Book and Seagull refuse to carry your book, you have other options. Some independent bookstores may stock it for you. You can also list your title on Amazon.com, you can create a website and sell it there, and so on. But without the two major stores backing you up, you may have a difficult road ahead of you.
Still, if you want to be an LDS author, and write stories that inspire and uplift Latter-day Saints, it only makes sense to use good judgment in your content. Despite the transgression my character committed in Nothing to Regret, the book was accepted by Deseret Book and Seagull and became part of their inventory. Its messages of the Atonement, repentance, and forgiveness, are woven into the story.
I’m grateful that these two fine stores chose to recognize the story for what it was.
Have fun, be creative, and be mindful of your boundaries. As you do this, you gain a readership that knows they can trust you and will eagerly look forward to reading your next book.