On Writing a Realistic Novel

I’m cross-posting this from my blog partly because I think it’s relevant to our site focus — and relevant to some other recent posts — and because I don’t think very many people even know yet that my blog exists. Thanks for your indulgence.

It’s interesting being the author of a novel about a topic that matters so much to a lot of readers. Sex and religion are topics that people care about passionately (if you’ll pardon the double pun), and when they intersect, there’s little that’s more potentially volatile.

That’s all to the good when people like my book. I’ve gotten some amazing comments from people, not just about how the book affected them as a story but about the positive good they think it can do in the world. I’d like to believe those comments are all true. But it can be especially unpleasant when people don’t like my book — especially those who share my religious beliefs.

Most of the comments I’ve received from believing Mormons have been highly positive. Some reviewers have cautioned that this is a book “not for the faint of heart.” I agree. I recently emailed a friend, “I have to admit that it’s a pretty intense book, so if you don’t feel up to that, it may be better that you avoid reading it.”

Which brings me to the topic of this blog.

A few readers criticize No Going Back for being too realistic and/or not optimistic enough. I don’t have an unequivocally happy ending. I don’t show Paul’s gender orientation changing. I show him describing himself as gay, not same-gender attracted as the LDS (Mormon) Church encourages. I show him going to a GSA club. I show him (and other teenage boys) cussing and making crude jokes, as well as some serious mistakes. I don’t show all the LDS Church members acting perfectly toward him and his mother.

Well, hello. That’s the way the world is. Kids are confused. They make mistakes. They pick up the attitudes of the world around them. They have to make choices, and sometimes the choices they make aren’t good ones. What positive purpose is served in creating literature that denies this?

My goal, in writing this novel — beside telling a story that would engage readers, about characters they would care about — was to depict realistically what an LDS teenager in today’s world might go through in feeling same-sex attracted but also wanting to stay true to his religious beliefs. I wanted to depict fairly both his desires to live his religion and the struggles that might present for him. I wanted to present a story that had a hopeful ending, but also one that took seriously just how hard things might be for my main character going forward.

I’ve written on my website about issues such as gay identity and why my book doesn’t focus much on the possibility of Paul’s orientation changing. What I want to do here is say why I think there’s value in writing a tough, challenging, realistic novel about a topic like this, instead of always writing the happiest, best, or most positive outcome.

I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe it has the power to change and heal all our infirmities — not just those that are the result of sin, but also those that relate to things we didn’t choose, such as same-sex attraction in most if not all cases.

I don’t necessarily believe this change and healing will all happen in this life. In fact, I think we’re given a pretty clear indication in scriptures that in many cases it won’t. However, I do believe we’ll be given strength to meet the challenges we confront in life, if we go before God and sincerely ask him for that help.

I think stories — nonfiction and fiction both — can help us to see and feel better just what the Atonement can do for us. But in order to show the true power of the Atonement, they have to also show the conditions in which we live. If they don’t show realistically what we need to be rescued from, they aren’t really showing us the power that Jesus Christ can have in our lives.

Teenagers, as much as any of us, live in a fallen world and fall victim to it in a variety of ways. Despite that, they too are capable of receiving grace through spiritual realities such as prayer, scripture study, personal pondering, and service in the priesthood. In order to show the power of the spiritual side of things, I felt that I needed to include a small (and fairly tame) dose of the cruder realities of high school as well — in order to demonstrate that the Spirit can operate in the conditions of real teenage life.

The process of change and healing that comes through the Atonement often takes a long time. I think showing it all happening at once makes the Atonement seem like less than what it is — and has the potential to make readers despair when they realize that the reality of the lives they lead doesn’t match what they’re reading. And it can make the rest of us less compassionate by reinforcing a sense that other people’s trials aren’t as challenging as they really are.

I believe that short of God’s ultimate healing, the single thing that helps us most in getting through the trials of life is the support, understanding, and love of other people. I think that’s particularly important in the case of teenagers for whom God is (let’s admit it) largely an abstract concept, and for whom the notion that they might change 10, 20, 50 years down the road provides little if any comfort. Even more than my book is about God and spiritual healing, it’s about the comfort that can be provided by other people — and the damage that can be done when others aren’t supportive and understanding.

There’s a lot that doesn’t happen in my book that I’d like to see happen in the life of a teenager who was struggling like Paul. There’s a lot I’d like to say to him myself, if he ever happened to wander into my ward or family. I hope that by reading my book, other people will be more likely to say those positive things to the Pauls in their lives, or at least to understand a little better what they’re going through. If my book is real enough to do that, I’ll be content.

2 thoughts on “On Writing a Realistic Novel”

  1. The process of change and healing that comes through the Atonement often takes a long time. I think showing it all happening at once makes the Atonement seem like less than what it is — and has the potential to make readers despair when they realize that the reality of the lives they lead doesn’t match what they’re reading. And it can make the rest of us less compassionate by reinforcing a sense that other people’s trials aren’t as challenging as they really are.

    Jonathan, you’ve given the most persuasive argument for honest, realistic LDS fiction since Gene England.
    Coming from a family with many inactive members, I know that the miraculous “faith-promoting” stories published by DB and quoted in church talks and lessons often lessen rather than strengthen faith. Your point that stories that fail to show the depth of a person’s struggle can lessen compassion is a good one.

  2. Hello I just see your site when I am searching for article writing because I am an article writer and I want to read some articles to get me an idea to approach differently in every of my seo writing. Overall nice post Thanks!

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