Wm and James talk the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest

By now, most AMV readers are likely (and hopefully) familiar with the contest. And many have probably also read the James Goldberg self-interview at or  his guest post at Modern Mormon Men or his reasons behind running the contest Dawning of a Brighter Day. All good stuff. But seeing as there were still important gaps to be filled — in particular for those who intend to submit — James and I concocted the following conversation. Enjoy!

So James, exactly how good is your paneer masala? And will it be served with rice or naan?

Our paneer masala produces a feeling of elevated well-being and sensory satisfaction that could drive drug cartels out of business. It will be served with both roti and basmati rice, after two courses of appetizers, along with two other dishes and a cool drink of mango lassi, and before a gulab jamun dessert. When it comes to cooking, we don’t mess around.

We don’t mess around with guests of honor, either. If Eric James Stone is not coming up with an alternate system of evolution from another world, he’ll be imagining myths that men might carry (or that might carry men) across the stars. Meanwhile, Mel Larsen will be immersing herself in another culture, showing you how the things people take for granted show where they come from and who they are.

Obviously, we’d love more dinner ticket money in the prize purse. But the dinners are also opportunities to bring together people with healthy appetites and voracious imaginations. We hope an AMV reader or two can join us for what I’m confident will be two incredible evenings.

Let’s say someone wants to . Let’s say that particular someone may, oh, I don’t know, live in Minnesota and be the benevolent dictator of a popular Mormon arts and culture blog. Would eating Indian food before or during the writing of his contest submissions increase the likelihood of his winning? Why or why not?

If you eat during the writing of your submissions (plural), that means you are writing multiple submissions. Which significantly increases your chances of winning, especially relative to people who eat Indian food while they plan submissions which they never actually write.

Studies show that completing multiple submissions is the best way to improve your chances of victory. If Indian food helps lure you to the computer, go for it.

Speaking of entering the contest: wouldn’t all the 22nd century stories need to be Millennium stories? And wouldn’t those all just be: Brother Goldberg went to the temple and worked. Then he spent time with his family. Then he read his scriptures and went to bed. The end.

Actually, my favorite Millennium story goes like this: Satan is bound in Brother Goldberg’s closet. Satan is bound because no one will listen to him. But he’s still there. Whispering. Waiting.

Maybe a lot of time passes–it’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s a day, maybe it’s a thousand years. And Brother Goldberg is happy. Yes, he’s learning, and he’s serving, and he’s enjoying walks around the earth in its renewed, paradisaical glory.

Every night, like you said, he reads his scriptures. And then he goes to bed. But around two a.m. he always seems to wake up, and the whispers match the rhythm of his heart. So he walks over to the closet door. But then he stops there. And he trembles.

Until one night, when the moon shines rusty through the dirt in the air. Brother Goldberg wakes up that night and he doesn’t hear anything at all. So he walks over to the closet, and he presses his ear flat against the door–just to remember, he tells himself. Just to remember how it was before. And when he hears the familiar rush of the whispers, he moves his hand toward the doorknob, and he feels the cool of the metal in his palm…

You’ve loosened things up for this contest (as opposed to the Mormon Lit Blitz one) — entries can be up to 2k words. Are you sure you want to double the work for you and Nicole and the other judges/admins?

We upped the limit because giving us a moment in a distant world is an extra challenge. Careful, disciplined writers may still need over 1,000 words.

I doubt the greater length limit will increase the workload, though, because if we get bored, we start skimming and then quit before the 1,000 word mark anyway. Internet readers don’t feel committed to finish work they don’t like, and neither do we as first round judges. Be warned.

If a story is good enough to keep my attention all the way to 2k, it won’t feel like work to read it. Even under 1,000 words, it should be your goal to keep me from counting the length.

What should writers look out for if they decide to go long?

Don’t abuse the extra space to be careless about exposition. Try to situate us in time, place, and dilemma/scenario as quickly as possible–if you use the extra words, it should be to finish the story in the world, not to still be telling us what world we’re in all the way to the end.

And does that mean if I already have a few stories that long that I don’t need to revise them before I submit (especially if they have already been published)?Actually, wait, that assumes that what you originally said about accepting previously published work still holds true. Does it?

Previously published work is OK, though I’d definitely advise tightening it if you can. Focus particularly on the first hundred words or so and ask yourself what a reader knows at the end of them. Can you orient us quickly and efficiently?

I’m currently in the process of revising my own novel manuscript by reading the whole thing out loud to my wife and tightening. It’s been interesting to see how much we’ve been able to trim it at the sentence level, and how the corresponding reduction of friction for readers is making it easier to connect emotionally throughout the work.

Which era/decades in the 19th/20th and early 21st centuries (e.g. those that have already occurred) do you think are most likely to get attention from submitters and which are most likely to be ignored?

I don’t think there’s a specific decade: I think the key is to mix recognizability with novelty and genuine insight.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’d love to see a story where 1830s and ’40s converts who traveled vast distances to Utah see the distances shrink again when the railroad and telegraph arrive. What would that have been like? In such a story, we’d see the familiar pioneer trope of distance combined with the historical but less familiar reality of early globalization.

I’ve heard a fair number of World War II stories, and wouldn’t mind more, but I’m also interested in stories about young men in or returning from the Great War, or maybe about a European branch during that conflict. Again, the idea would be to combine a familiar trope of saints becoming soldiers, then soldiers trying to return to life as saints–but with some of the less familiar specificity of the early 20th century context.

I have an aunt from Hyderabad who grew up in the early days of the Church there, and who didn’t realize until she was fourteen the tea was against the Word of Wisdom. Surely there are interesting little stories that could be set against a backdrop like that in the early 1980s or so. Stories that make the big narrative of international church growth tangible and small.

Stories that tell a familiar history in a familiar way are less likely to interest me. Stories that have some connection to a larger recurring theme but are rich with surprising specificity are probably more likely to grab my attention.

Where are we currently at with the donations for the prize money?

We’re currently at $170. We’ll continue to raise prize funds up to the day we announce winners, so there’s plenty of time left to make minor adjustments.

I agree with that this phrase is golden: “we celebrate the gospel as simultaneously eternal in its essence and deeply contextual in its manifestations.” Could you elaborate on that more? What do you mean by “deeply contextual”?

Some people think an eternal gospel would consist of unchanging practices and emphases. But Saints don’t live in a vacuum, and so it seems to me that changing historical and cultural context necessitates changes in Church practices and emphases to counterbalance the time and the culture.

My mother once pointed out to me that during World War II, when patriotic fervor ran high, the prophets emphasized peace and brotherhood across national lines. During Vietnam, when protest fervor ran high, Church leaders were more likely to emphasize duty and respect for military servicemen.

From a certain perspective, of course, it would seem that the Church got it all wrong: talking peace during the “good war” with the Nazis and then talking duty during the long tragedy of Vietnam. But from another perspective, the voice of the Church against the ascendant voices in a culture is valuable. Maybe it’s good to warn against both jingoistic self-confidence and would-be revolutionary arrogance.

One of the central ideas behind the I’m a Mormon campaign is that the one gospel may be more visible through the varied lives of its faithful members than through a single set of statements of belief. Can we take that notion a step further and argue that by exploring the varied experiences of saints in different times and places, we’ll get a clearer glimpse at the gospel’s real core?

Finally, what is it going to take for other writers out there to beat me in this contest?

They will need to imagine a past or future moment in Mormonism in detail.

They will need to finish writing their stories.

Their stories will need to be polished enough to make it into the finalist round, and resonant enough to win over voting audiences.

Best of luck!

Thanks, James!

10 thoughts on “Wm and James talk the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest”

  1. Oh, it’s on, Morris. It’s palpably on. And I have access to all kinds of Indian food where I am, so strap in.

  2. The writing will be fun. The reading will be, too. Looking forward to the fall.

    Hmmm. There’s an idea for a title. I’ve got dibs. Can I borrow the closet, James?

  3. In case it’s the latter, you’d better post hours of operation.

    Seriously, though, the Satan-in-the-closet idea is brilliant and deserves to be pursued. If you’ve got no plans for it, I’d like to take it on.

  4. The closet is taken 2-4 a.m, but is free otherwise. Since the Holy Ghost reportedly goes to bed at midnight, I’d recommend the midnight-2 am shift.

    I have no plans to write about Satan in the closet. If I change my mind, I’m still confident that the Satan closet is big enough for two stories. Borrow away and make it your own.

  5. Wm,

    I concede. This time. I just couldn’t get my crap together, though I’m working on a killer concept.

    Good luck, finalists!

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