The evolution of A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius

William shows the process from initial idea to finished story for “A Ring Set Not With Garnet But Sardius”

We’ve been talking about writing short stories over on the AML’s Discord server, and while general advice is good (and the advice given was great), I think it can be useful to see specific examples of the processes we tend to describe in often abstract, terms.

“A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius” from my BCC Press collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories is my longest gestating story—from initial idea to publication—to date. So I thought it’d be interesting to both writers and readers to track the evolution of the story. You do not need to have read the story to find this useful. Nor will I be spoiling the ending.


The White Shoe Irregular, a sort of low-key McSweeney’s contemporary, was the first publication to ever feature my work. Quinn Warnick ran the site from 2000 to 2003 and at one point held a first paragraph contest, which I won third place in with this paragraph:

Other than a flannel shirt, the most essential accessory for retrieving a squirrel carcass from the thicket of juniper bushes in Mrs. Whitlock’s front yard is an axe handle. The line kept rushing into her mind as she crouched in the back seat of a black and white, post-war Wartburg that was violently gliding along the brick streets of Cluj-Napoca. The driver braked hard and the young gypsy boy beside her, head shaved and wrapped in a cloth diaper, pitched forward, slammed against the front bench seat, and slid onto the floor. She thought he was going to start crying so she grabbed his right hand, gently pressing her fingers into his palm. The boy looked up and then began shaking her hand with childish vigor. “Hello. How are you today, Mr. Brown?” he said in a trim voice. “I am quite well, thank you,” he continued. Her eyes shimmered with incomprehension. He tried again. “Hello. How are you, Mr. Brown?” Her eyes shone with uncertainty. He tugged at the diaper on his head and began to yell. “Hello! Hello, American lady! Lucky Strike! Lucky Strike! Dallas! J.R.! Whiskey!” He paused to reload his breath. “Change money!?”

I cringe to read it now. And not just because of the writing. I didn’t know until a couple of years later that most Roma don’t like to be called gypsy. The opening line is one of those grabby lines that’s overused in short fiction. The comedy to it is too desperately trying to be a cool kid.

However, this image of a young woman huddled in the back seat of a speeding Wartburg alongside a young Roma boy persisted.

Like several of my stories, it spun out of my memories of my LDS mission to Romania. The Roma boy with a diaper on his head because he had had lice was someone I actually met in an orphanage in Bucharest. And there were a handful of post-war Wartburgs in operation in Bucharest when I lived there.


In 2003, I decided to revisit the story. I don’t remember why or where I intended to submit it. But here are the first part of my notes:


Notes for story based on paragraph above:

–drop the shimmering with incomprehension bit


Julie – exchange student from BYU working in sector 1 orphanage (that has Michael Jackson playground) for the summer.

Gypsy boy – paduc! – she notices that the usually indifferent staff took pains to keep him out of her sight/way

Attends LDS branch – You – tach-h. Calinescus wanted to share picks from their SLC trip; Stanescus wanted to talk about their daughter – temple square mission, etc.

Dani – Roma – talked briefly. One day J. mentions gypsy boy. Dani asks for description – she has photo (or not, but develops roll of film?). He has strange look on face as looks at pic.

Later, J. is waiting for subway , a man comes up to her and introduces himself as the king of the gypsies – tall, long gray overcoat, wearing loafers like most Romanian men – thin mint nylon socks.

The notes go on for another 380 words to complete a very, very rough outline.

And yet for all its’ roughness, the key fact of the story is there: a young, female BYU student agrees to kidnap a young Roma boy from an orphanage and receives a tin of caviar and a garnet ring as thanks for doing so.

A day later I add a bit to the garnet ring idea:


“I have something for you as well,” he said, reaching his hand into his coat pocket and taking a step closer to her.

Her eyes were fixed on his closed hand as he stretched it out. When his arm was fully extended, she blinked out of her reverie and held her hand out. He cupped his hand, and then tilted it, his fingers were extended and hovered right above her palm, but did not touch. She felt the weight on her palm and looked down. It was a silver ring set with a large round rough-cut, garnet. She went to slip it onto the index finger of her left hand, but it was too large so she moved it over to the middle finger. It clinked against her CTR ring.

Now I can’t tell you where all of the above came from—I don’t remember. But I can tell you the process by which it happened: I returned to that terrible paragraph I wrote and decided to turn it into a short story. And I did so by asking myself questions: who was this young woman and why was she in Bucharest? How did she meet the young Roma boy? Why would she agree to steal him from the orphanage? Who would help her take him and how? And if it was the self-described King of the Gypsies, what would he reward her with?

If I had written the story at this point, it would have been a work of literary realism with perhaps a bit of humor added in. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t. And I’m glad about that because of what the story became. First, though, another phase takes place when it’s still in its lit-fic stage.


On 1.3.09, I refine the story idea just a bit—it’s only 171 words of added material, but the key part is that I specify when it was set and figure out why the main character might choose to actually liberate the boy from the orphanage:

why her? Need someone boy trusts so won’t make a fuss when he is taken, can bribe several people and be assured they’ll stay quiet, but not everybody. He wants it known by people that he has done this, but the boy still needs to be stolen – would be undignified to reclaim the boy. People would think that he (or rather his daughter or son) dropped him off in the first place.

Time period? – 1996-97? early days of internet, no cell phone

I’m not sure why I revisited this idea at that time. But it’s probably because I was going through my ideas and decided to look at this one and realized it needed a bit more work done on it.

I keep everything in text files. I have one huge list of ideas, but once an idea becomes fleshed out beyond 10-200 words or so, I create a separate file for it, and every so often I go through those and see if I have any additional ideas—or if I feel motivated to write the story.

This is six years later. And less than 200 words of activity. But it keeps the story alive.


More than ten years later, I revisit the idea again. This is in July 2019. At this point, I’m looking for stories to add to the collection of strange Mormon stories I’m planning. I restate the story in brief:

tell the story of the female BYU student in the early (mid?) 1990s who steals the gypsy (Roma) boy from the orphanage and hands him over to the “King of the Gypsies”

And then I add the experimental/speculative element:

As part of that include later–days later, months later, years later, decades later, just: later

And give some examples:

later – cans of caviar are confiscated at the airport because she had no receipt for them

later – would try caviar for the first time at …

later would see a TV report about the marriage of the daughter of the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies and he looked nothing like the elegant, tall, silver-haired man

It’s all very rough, but it’s this idea that unlocks the story. How and why do certain moments, especially ones we have in our twenties (this wasn’t going to be a story about childhood or adolescence), reverberate throughout our lives?

This is important because if you’re writing a story just to relate events, then it’s quite likely that it’s not going to be a very interesting one. Don’t get me wrong: character, plot, and setting are all important. It’s just that it’s helpful to arrive at a point where you understand what your story is about. Not that you need to be able to explain it as a thesis statement or whatever, but you do need to have a vague notion of what you’re muddling your way towards.

And when it comes to speculative fiction and/or experimenting with form/structure etc. in a story, it’s going to be a lot more satisfying if those elements tie in to what the story is about.


Still no first draft written, though!

Another phase of ideation happens: a full outline. I don’t always write an outline before I write a short story. In fact, I often don’t. But because this had been in development for so long, I had the pieces for it, so here it is—note that I wrote this out in long hand and then typed it in and while doing so added a change [in brackets] and had a section where I couldn’t read my own writing [also in brackets]:

{April 21, 2020}

Scene 1: lice

Scene 2: discussion at church about orphanage with several sisters

Scene 3: lunch with another student (who has gypsy complaints?)

Scene 4: scene from orphanage, something semi-suspicious or weird

Scene 5: a warning [skip this – not needed]

Scene 6: initial request from church member and refusal by protag

Scene 7: request made by “gypsy king” in metro station, protag will consider it

Scene 8: break from orphanage–ride along w/dude who helps street kids, she decides to do it

Scene 9: [illegible], break out, Wartburg

Scene 10: with the gypsy king

Scene 11: denouement

For each scene we need at least one “later”

Characters needed: –orphanage director –two workers (older women) –1 worker (maybe student intern) younger who speaks some English –lunch friend, other BYU student –women at church –female church member connected to the gypsy king –Roma boy in orphanage –drive/bodyguard for king –translator for king –customs officials

Note: need to suggest that the garnet ring has powers – how she gets through customs, also something lucky related to her children. GK: since you have made my family whole I will bless your future family

Not all of these characters and scenes made it in as written here. But it’s pretty close. I don’t know whether you need to outline your short stories or not. What I will say is that if you’ve never done it and you have a hard time finishing first drafts, then you should try writing an outline for your next few stories. It’s important to learn how to see the shape of a short story—even if for some stories you write that shape remains in your head. Being able to see the shape and diagnose where it needs to be pared, expanded, excised is key to successful first drafts and revisions.

Novels, by the way, are different. They need an outline/structure even if it’s one you write down after you’ve written the first draft. It’s impossible to keep the full shape and flow of a novel in your head, and it’s so much easier if you have something to write toward. That doesn’t mean you need every chapter and scene rigidly written out. But you need to know the height of your wall and once you finish a row, it’s good to figure out the bricks you’ll need to lay the next one and where this sits in relation to the last row.


Finally, a day later (April 22, 2020), I write the beginning of the story:

Later – much later – she would realize that there was nothing wrong with treasuring certain things up in her heart, but initially [NAME] felt guilty about lying to her parents about the origin of the garnet ring she wore on her right hand next to the sterling silver and onyx CTR ring they had purchased for her in the BYU bookstore the year she turned sixteen. Not guilty enough to tell them the truth, of course. And definitely not guilty enough to stop wearing the ring. But guilty nonetheless even though she was fairly certain she had technically done nothing wrong. Had indeed righted a wrong even if the precise details of both the initial wrong and her righting of it were murky to her.

Later, they would grow murkier.

Note that this isn’t the beginning of the story you read in the collection—nor is it even the one found in the first draft. But it sets the key template for the prose. The use of later/much later. The mixing of precise details with abstract observations. And the sense that this event sets our main character on a path where she is willing to push a bit on the edges of things.

I find writing the opening of a story the best way help me determine if the story is ready to be written.


I write the first draft from May to June 2020. It comes in at 6,961 words. Long for a short story, but justified, I think, by the fact that the story it’s telling isn’t just the initial set of events the idea started out with, but is telling Michelle’s entire life story. Earlier, I had abandoned the idea of using “On Sunday” or “On Tuesday” to indicate scene changes and structure the story. That all comes back after I realize that if I’m going to hop around time with the laters and much laters and much much laters, then I need something to ground the events of the main story.

As I write, I keep pushing the story into the future. It becomes science fictional, but not strongly so. As I write about the garnet ring, I realize that whatever supernatural power it has needs to be subtle. If you’re going to write (for lack of a better term) literary SF&F, then balancing out the literary memetic and speculative elements becomes very important.

I also make the decision to not break out dialogue into its own paragraphs. This is a reader unfriendly decision, but I want the story to flow in chunks, in units.

And, after the tense switching gives me trouble in the first few paragraphs, I decide that the story needs to be told entirely in present tense. Another thing that might turn off readers (and does me as a reader at times), but makes sense to me for this story because of how I’m playing with narrative time. Everything can be in present tense because we’re using the ‘later tags’ to indicate changes in time.

At one point, I panic and realize that garnet is not one of the precious stones mentioned in Revelations. But then, after searching online, I realize that garnet and sardius can sometimes be mistaken for each other and the mistake becomes the main character’s as well and adds to the resonances I’ve been building in the story.


I completed the first revision on July 16, 2020. The story came in at 7,357 words. Often for a revision, I will create a bulleted list of items that need fixing. It’s important that you give yourself at least one day, generally four, ideally a week or two between completing the first draft and revising it. There needs to be some distance in order for you to recognize what needs fixing.

I didn’t create a bulleted list for this revision. All I wrote was this: “husband is referred to as both just husband and as Mark–change instances to Mark, also decide which laters really add to the story and which don’t and also look for other insertion points”

Fixing continuity errors and enforcing style choices is an important part of revision.

Even more important, especially with your first revision, is getting the balance of scenes right, making sure the story opens in the right place (beginning writers often start their stories too early) and that the ending is the best ending (this is where I will often brainstorm 2-5 [but as much seven to ten] other ways I could end the story). For this revision, I keep the original ending, although I break the final paragraph into two pieces.

With speculative fiction the continuity and the balancing are intertwined. You need to explain enough but not over-explain. Often the word count should go down, but I tend to under-write, so mine usually goes up from the first draft to the second draft.

After Draft 2 is where I might get feedback from other writers. But I’m no longer in an active writers group, and, to be honest, this is not a story I was interested in getting feedback on because I had such a particular vision for it.

That being said: feedback is good. Get it if you can. It can be hard to get good feedback. There is a lot of advice out there about this, and especially on writers group. Unlike some of the other writing advice you find, most of the advice on writers groups and critiques is good.


If my first revision has gone well, then I can often get away with one more revision. That wasn’t true when I was first started out as a writer. And even now some stories need more radical changes from draft one to draft two (or three, four, five, etc.) than happened with this story.

But this last draft focuses on line edits—polishing the prose. I typically want the word count for the line edits revision to go down. This is the revision where you tighten everything up.

This one took place July 24, 2020 and came in at 7,332 words. Only 25 words fewer than draft two, but with more words changed than that, and a draft I’m happy with.

And so, almost two decades after the first idea, “A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius” is ready for to be included in the manuscript for The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories.

Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist

Amber Gilchrist is an independent writer of fiction that is unapologetically LDS and aimed at a general audience. When I set into reading her newest novel, The Librarian Shoots a Gun, it was with the intent of studying how she grounds her general readers in LDS culture–what she feels a need to explain, and how she does it without interrupting the flow of her story. Continue reading “Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist”

Submissions due Saturday for Mormon alternate history anthology

NOTE: the deadline has passed and submissions are now closed.

Just a reminder that submissions for the Mormon alternate history mini-anthology I’m editing are due by end of the day Saturday, March 19. End of the day = midnight Pacific Daylight Time. Although I won’t be up then so if it’s in my inbox when I check my email Sunday morning, it’ll be okay. Be warned, though, that I have to get up for church meetings, and I’m on Central Time so it’ll be early Sunday morning (plus, it’s the Sabbath, then: Saturday is a special day — it’s the day we finish stories that feature Mormons in alternate historical timelines).

If you haven’t even started writing yet, don’t despair. There’s still time! A 1,500 words flash piece or even a 3-4k short story can easily be written in a day or two or four. So get to it!

Short on ideas? Here’s where you can get some:

Good luck! I eagerly await your submissions.

The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship

Back in July I made the claim that most Mormon writers shouldn’t worry about the spectre of excommunication (and then complicated that with several caveats). Not everyone agrees with that assertion. And, to be sure, the climate for Mormon fiction writers is unevenly distributed and could change (and please note again: I’m talking about fiction writers — nonfiction is a different thing entirely). But assuming I’m right about that, does that mean the Mormon fiction writer is completely free to write what they want to write? Or will be they be tempted (or perhaps even coerced) into self-censorship? And is self-censorship always a very bad thing to do? What follows may be obvious, but I hope that by structuring my thought this way, it’ll be of some use in teasing out notions of self-censorship and Mormon fiction writing.

Writing is Communication

Writing fiction is an act of communication. But it’s a special act of communication: it’s one in which the author is demanding (or at least suggesting) attention. It’s saying: this is something I have created that is worth spending time (and money) on. It is an act of one-way communication, and the author sets the terms of the communication. Granted, especially in the age of the internet, readers can react to the work directly or indirectly with the author, but that’s not the same act of communication as what the novel or story or poem demands. There’s a level of formality in presenting a completed creative work. But the very nature of that process, that one-way act of ego means that the author has ultimate control of what goes in and what doesn’t go into a work. What doesn’t go in is self-censorship. It also may simply be good communication and good artistic creation.

All Writers Are Part of Communities

That writing is communication is especially true because very few writers create (or publish) in a vacuum. For all their introvertedness (a cliche, but one that so often fits), fiction writers are part of various communities and usually want community approval (or at least attention) for their creative work. Otherwise they’d write only for the drawer. Certainly, it’s complicated for writers in that they may prefer certain communities pay a certain kind of attention to their work over other communities (and other kinds of attention). And some communities you are born into and some you fall into and some you consciously choose. We all have family members, friends, peers, agents, editors, critics, community members, fellow fans/enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. It’s a complex melange that is constantly in flux. But being situated in communities means that there’s no such thing as a pure creative work-to-reader transaction. The creation, contents, packaging and distribution of creative work all happen within a welter of community concerns, attitudes, histories and relationships.

Mormon Writers & Community

I have mixed feelings about claims of Mormon exceptionalism. But I do think that in some ways Mormons may present a special case (or at least a different case) when it comes to self-censorship and community. It’s possible that issues of self-censorship might be more difficult for some Mormon writers to navigate. But I don’t know about that. While it’s true that Mormon writers may have to worry about busybody ward members and concerned bishops and inflexible stake presidents, it’s also true that very few writers are not part of a community (or communities) that have certain ideologies, sacred cows, discourse boundaries, etc. plus those who formally or informally boundary police the community. Very few writers have relationships only with people who think exactly like them. In very few instances is art going to not lead to the potential for friction. This is especially true of minority literatures where, like in Mormonism, you have communities that because of their minority status are concerned with how they are being presented outside of their community.

The big exception, of course, is that while other communities may shun or ignore writers who offend them, because Mormonism as a culture is interwoven so deeply with the LDS Church, the act of excommunication is somewhat more draconian than the way other communities police their boundaries. Although as I wrote in my previous post, it’s not clear that it’s something to be actively feared. And, of course, how draconian it feels as a threat is dependent on the fiction writer’s interest in remaining in good standing with the Church.

All Writers Self-Censor

Because writing is an act of communication and all writers are parts of communities, I believe that all writers self-censor. Self-censorship happens along many lines. Sometimes it’s self-censorship driven by fear of how people  will react to their work if it is published un-self-censored. Sometimes it’s self-censorship where the author realizes that they don’t actually want to communicate what they originally had thought they wanted to communicate or they need to do it in a different way because by doing so they will be able to better communicate with their audience (sometimes that comes because of feedback from a good editor). Sometimes it’s not a matter of fear of how people will react, but the realization that what your art may be pushing you towards isn’t going to lead to a fruitful ongoing relationship with people (or with the field as a whole or with your personal artistic legacy). And beyond that, I also believe that writers self-censor in what experiences they intake that fuel their creativity, and what projects they choose to focus on, and what forms they pour their creative energies into, and what world views (ideologies) they have active in their brain. All creative endeavor comes down to individual acts of selection that create a unique work. While there are times when that process is more self-conscious than others, and I do think that the initial act of writing fiction is usually better when it isn’t quite so self-conscious, the fact remains that all writers self-censor.

But What About Artistic Integrity?

What about artists being true to themselves? By giving into self-censorship aren’t they violating artistic integrity? Maybe. Like most things, it’s a matter of degrees. Some self-censorship could be a rather damaging violation of artistic integrity. But I think that’s less likely a problem than we might think*. Besides: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I believe that art comes from struggle and conflict and that means it inherently doesn’t have integrity—it’s not a gestalt, a whole. It’s a process, a dialogue. And there might be formal or ideological or poetic or psychological concerns or models that work themselves into the struggle of creation that are actually leading your work in the wrong direction. Sometimes the ingredients in the alchemical process aren’t the right ones (or the right amounts). Changing up those ingredients might not be self-censorship. They might just be self-correcting.

And the problem with creating art is that it’s so easy to be dramatic and self-indulgent about it. To feel like what you have to say needs to be not only said but heard and only in a way that is true to your particular vision (at that particular point in time). The problem with that is that all of us who write fiction** are damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills using a set of vocabularies, syntaxes, narrative shapes, etc. That are also limited. And the problem with that is that our fiction goes out to damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills to interpret it. That’s what’s so scary about it and also what’s beautiful about it. It’s good to have a well-wrought final product. But I doubt that any final creative products are works of pure integrity.

And note that I haven’t touched yet on market concerns and how those impact fiction writing. That’s another seit of concerns that warps works of fiction (although very often not as much as one would think and sometimes in ways that are just fine). Note also that this post is only about self-censorship. Actual censorship is a different topic albeit one that can cause writers to self-censor***.

There Will Be Offense Taken

All of the above means both that whatever you do, you’re going to offend someone somewhere. And that whatever your artistic vision, there’s no shame in being mindful of your relationships, of your communities. If you care about people, take care not to offend them (or to make sure that the relationship is such that you’ll be able to work through the offense). Or: don’t worry about other people. Unless you want to. The choice is yours.

For me the question of self-censorship is an insidious one because it lures the artist too much into self-indulgent romantic notions about authorship and creativity that needlessly create friction between the artist and those around them. Presenting fictional narratives is a fraught, hubristic act. Things could (will) get messy. Do the best you can to make sure what you’re presenting communicates what you’re trying to communicate in the best (most beautiful, most rhetorically effective, most formally interesting) way possible and don’t worry about the rest. Until you need to worry. And then either dismiss the criticism or take it in and learn from it. Either heal and nurture the relationship or let it go. Self-censorship is not this one-time thing that violates a potentially perfect work of fiction. It’s editing. It’s an act of communication and community negotiation. It’s doing the work.

Self Censorship & Inspiration

So that’s where I’m at on the the issue of self-censorship. But I have a specifically Mormon wrinkle to add (although this may also be useful other people of faith): Let me first acknowledge that I have an instinctive distrust of writers who talk about inspiration. Not that I don’t think that it doesn’t happen (I believe that it does), but because I think it’s too often used as a label to short-circuit criticism of work that is amateurish, sentimental and/or didactic. It sets up the readers. How can you argue against inspiration? (Incidentally, the same is true of self-expression. How can you argue against expression of self?). Heck, even if it isn’t couched in terms of inspiration, I have a distrust of any special claims (this is for the good of, this accomplishes, every person like this/who is this must read this…) made on behalf of ideological work that a story is supposed to do.

But while I have an instinctive distrust of talking about it, I also believe in seeking it. It seems to me that Mormon fiction writers shouldn’t worry about self-censorship during the initial act of creation. They should create what they feel compelled to create. However, it also seems to me that they should seek inspiration before/as they create, and they should (as we’re asked to do with other choices in life) test the final work against inspiration. If that process then causes you to go back and edit the work, then do it. In other words: revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship. If one feels good about the work as is, then it is what it should be. If one doesn’t, then changing/editing it isn’t self-censorship—it’s acting on inspiration. But here’s the trick: you must be brutally honest with yourself in the process and you have to be worthy (and, yes, that’s a loaded word; I leave what that should mean up to the individual author). You have to strive to be humble about and a skeptic of your own work. Not an easy thing to do. But I believe that it’s worth doing (even though I fail to do so over and over again and too often feel buffeted by various ideological and aesthetic winds).

But Wait: One More Thing

I’m not going to end on such a sappy (although valid and sincere) point. I have one more thought for Mormon fiction writers: self-censorship is only a problem if you have an interesting point of view. It’s only a problem if you’re suppressing or marring work that is unique and truly interesting. It’s only important if something valuable is lost when you self-censor. Most fiction writers aren’t that interesting. Before you worry about self-censorship, worry about that. I’ll expand on that harsh-seeming pronouncement in my next post: Mormon writers and courage.

* I speak mainly about U.S. Fiction writers here. The United States has lax libel laws, fairly strong freedom of speech laws, and diverse marketplaces for distributing creative work. The situation may be very different for Mormon fiction writers of other nationalities.

** And really all of us who tell stories (which means all of us).

*** Censorship and Mormon fiction is an interesting topic and were it pervasive, I could see how it could lead to widespread self-censorship among Mormon writers. We’d need verifiable data points to determine that. All those I’m aware of only pertain to employees of the Church (including CES/BYU). Andrew Hall’s comment on the post on excommunication provides a few data points. I have heard of a couple of others. But the boundaries on those aren’t clear and times change, and it’s also not clear what bearing that should have on Mormons who aren’t employees of the Church. I’d also note that employees of other major socio-cultural institutions often face some of the same issues.

Liner Notes for Fast Offering

My short story “Fast Offering” was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Dialogue (if you’re not currently a subscriber you can buy a PDF copy of the story or issue individually — or even better sign up for a subscription and get access to it right away as well as to all of Dialogue’s archives). Electronic subscribers got access to it a couple of weeks ago. Print subscribers should soon receive their copy (if they haven’t already). Whatever way you access it, note that the issue also includes poems by AMVer S.P. Bailey and Emma Lou Thayne plus a bunch of other great writing.

The following liner notes to the story don’t contain any spoilers:

1. “Fast Offering” is the most traditional Mormon short story I have written: it’s solidly in the faithful realism school of Mormon lit (e.g. contemporary literary fiction that deals directly with Mormon [often Utah Mormon] characters and assumes that the LDS Church is true but complicates what that means for the lives of the fictional characters depicted) and features a setting—a small southern Utah town (Kanab) in the early 1980s—a situation-adultery—and a character—a precocious deacon—that scream faithful realism so much that I almost didn’t send it into Dialogue. This is not a William Morris story, I thought, with a bit of chagrin. But, of course, it very much is. I just had a moment of denial about it.

2. I didn’t plan on writing this story. It snuck up on me. Indeed, the idea for it came to me a few months after I had decided to take a break from writing Mormon fiction except for the occasional Mormon Lit Blitz entry. What caused me to fall off the wagon? I read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro in June 2014. Two things from that reading experience infected my mind and wouldn’t leave without the exorcism of writing the story: 1) the detailed, merciless attention Munro pays to the emotional lives of her characters and 2) the way that she is willing to switch point of view characters in a short story. I probably could have fought off the first. The second, however, was a formal experimentation thing and that’s like catnip to me and all of a sudden my mind came up with a uniquely Mormon way to transition point of view changes throughout a fairly standard literary fiction short story. The idea occurred in June. I wrote 1500 words of the story, sat on it for a few months, and then wrote the rest of it in October and November.

3. The story originally had two more point of view characters and was 3,000 words longer. Dialogue Journal’s wonderful fiction editor Heather Marx suggested that I pare down the povs and reduce the story down to a more traditional ~6,000-word length. She thought it needed to be more a short story and less the start of a novel. She was right. So I made the cuts. I’m very pleased with the end result. I may also have plans for the characters I axed. But right now I’m not focusing on Mormon fiction. I’m back on the wagon and writing only genre fiction. Of course, you never know what might knock me off it again.

4. “Fast Offering” takes place in Kanab, Utah, in the late spring of 1981. The main character Welden Shumway lives in the third ward of the Kanab Stake. I lived in the third ward of the Kanab Stake in 1981. The story isn’t autobiographical in the sense that I was only 9 in 1981, the adulterous couple and the house they live in are completely made up, and I was pretty happy to live in Kanab when I was kid and, other than a vague idea of attending BYU, never thought about whether I might need to leave the town up some day up until we moved away the summer I was 12. On the other hand, many of the physical details are pulled from memory. And the overall sense of what small town Mormon life is like is somewhat autobiographical, although it’s also been warped by the passage of time as well as my reading of Mormon fiction. This story might be as much Doug Thayer fiction as it is William Morris memory. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

5. After reading through the prior four points, I’m frustrated by the reluctance I sense, that it’s almost an apologetic, as if I have to explain the existence of the story because it conflicts with my own personal sense of who I am as a fiction writer and a voice in the world of Mormon Lit. There might be something to that. But I think there’s something else going on. “Fast Offering” feels like an inflection point for my Mormon fiction writing (that, remember, I’m not actively pursuing at the moment). I don’t think that it’s all that different from the stories in Dark Watch and other Mormon American stories (now available—your purchase supports my Mormon alternate history anthology) — not on the reader end. But on the author end it felt very different. And it’s frustrating to me that this is the story that feels like that. Partly because it is somewhat autobiographical; partly because it is faithful realism; partly because I don’t necessarily like the characters I write about in the story (even though I love them). It feels like both a step backward and a step forward.

6. Stay (patiently) tuned?

Mormon fiction writers and the spectre of excommunication

I recently had a Twitter conversation with Mette Ivie Harrison about an experience where at an author appearance in Logan she met an LDS author who was afraid to be honest about their Mormonism in the current climate because of the possibility of excommunication. I’m not going to repeat the particulars of the conversation because I don’t think it’s fair to transport the context of a Twitter conversation with its character limit constraints to the longer form of blogging. So instead I’m going to start with an observation and then a claim based off of that observation.

The Observation

Most Mormon fiction writers who leave the LDS Church do so because they become alienated from it. That’s not a good thing or (I hope) an inevitable thing. It also often leads to active members of the Church dismissing their work, which is often (but not always) unfortunate, especially since I think Mormons should seek to develop a better of understanding of the Mormon experience when it doesn’t match up with their own.

But for this post I want to stick with the formal relationship of an author with the LDS Church. The reason for that is that over my 17+ years of interacting with the Mormon literature community, I’ve periodically seen a conventional wisdom expressed in various ways that the great Mormon novelist will inevitably be excommunicated. Or more generally: LDS writers can’t write candidly about the Mormon experience because then they’d be excommunicated.

The Claim

I’m going to make a claim about this fear and then complicate it. The claim is this: Mormon fiction writers don’t need to worry about excommunication because of the content of their fiction*.

Complication 1: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction exists alongside with affiliation with other activities/groups that could lead to excommunication. That is, it’s possible that fiction could be used a data point in showing that the writer is actively working against the LDS Church, but if the concerns are limited to what is represented in the fiction then all current evidence suggests that

Complication 2: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction isn’t well-wrought fiction. That is, if you’re writing polemics against the LDS Church or crossing hard boundaries (certain depictions of the temple or LDS Church leaders) then, yeah, that could be a problem. But that’s not good fiction. And that’s not honest fiction either.

Complication 3: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about fellow members reporting their fiction to LDS Church authorities. My understanding is that this happens (or happened — I have no idea if it’s ongoing) to Orson Scott Card quite a bit. If one is a believing, active LDS in good standing, then this won’t be an issue. If one is not, then it could be because it could precipitate declarations of honesty on the part of the author that could lead to disfellowship and potentially excommunication.

Complication 4: Mormon fiction writers who specifically write for the LDS market** need to worry about their relationship with the LDS Church. I believe that hypocrisy is deadly for writers of all stripes and active LDS who become disaffiliated*** from the Church should stop writing for the LDS market. I recognize that that’s a harsh stance with difficult social and economic consequences and deserves a longer treatment (which I may attempt at some point).

Complication 5: All of the above is in relation to Mormon fiction writers who specifically write about Mormonism and/or target the active LDS audience. I’m trying to think of a scenario where writers who don’t write Mormon content could find themselves in a situation where their fiction impacts their Church membership. I suppose Mormon writers of erotica could be at risk for excommunication. I don’t know how much of a risk, although I imagine it would largely depend on what kind and how out they were as an erotica writer.

So except for Complications 4 and 5, I don’t see how the Mormon writer of fiction with doubts, fears, stances that differ from the LDS Church, etc. is in a different position from any other member with doubts, fears, differing stances, etc. And 4 and 5 relate to specific marketing categories an author has a choice to engage in or not. In other words, excommunication shouldn’t be a worry for LDS writers vis a vis their fiction.

But all the above is specifically only about the content of the author’s fiction in relationship with the Church. When it comes to the act of writing fiction itself, a different dynamic may be in play. Because while excommunication is something that either happens or doesn’t, there is a complex matrix of personal, familial, and social relationships and beliefs that impact the Mormon writer when they go to write fiction. That’s what I’ll be exploring in my follow-up post: Self Censorship and the Mormon Author.

For now, I’m interested in discussing:

1. Any complications I have missed
2. Any complications I have I downplayed too much
3. Why the fear of excommunication persists among Mormon authors even though none have been excommunicated for their fiction****

*For non-LDS readers, excommunication is a formal process by which members of the LDS Church may be restricted from some aspects of Church membership or lose their membership in the LDS Church. It is generally reserved for acts like adultery, murder, felony crimes, etc., but there have been a few instances when members of the Church have been disciplined for what they have said. Largely, that is because they have specifically arrayed themselves against the Church, but they’re also complicated cases with, naturally, differing views on the ultimate reasons for the excommunication as well as a variety of dynamics and individualized situations and information that often is not public. For more, see Church Disciplinary Councils at

**This is where the LDS vs. Mormon terminology is useful (even though I dislike dogmatic usages of the two terms in opposition to each other) in that by LDS market I mean the publishers and retail outlets that specifically market to faithful, active members of the LDS Church. The Mormon market, in my view, includes the LDS Market but also brings in any and all publishers, retailers and audiences who are interested in work about the Mormon experience.

***I am not going to attempt to delineate what level/type of disaffiliation should trigger a voluntary removal from the LDS market. That’s a matter of individual conscience.

****As Andrew Hall reminded me on Twitter, Brian Evenson did lose his position at BYU because of concerns over his fiction and Neil LaBute was disfellowshipped for his portrayal of Mormons and violence in his fiction. Both eventually became disaffiliated from the LDS Church.

On the Possible in Mormon Styles

Raymond Queneau
Raymond Queneau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing this–after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?

My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of styles–either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]

Cover of Exercises in Style

In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.

For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:

On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.

So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own styles–who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shed”¦”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?

I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.

Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.

In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:

First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.

[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:

  • testimony
  • church lesson (as delivered)
  • sacrament meeting talk
  • priesthood leader interview
  • Monsonian
  • lesson manual
  • handbook
  • bloggernacle post
  • profile

I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?

Artists of the Restoration part IV: Restorationist Manifesto

This series spun out of a post that I wrote that expressed a desire to build Zion through creative effort. Previously, I wrote about Mormon history and then situated that and Mormon cultural activity within the core Western aesthetic streams of Romanticism and Modernism/Postmodernism. I put you through all of that because I wanted to lay the proper groundwork for a manifesto (of sorts) that outlines a set of practices or set of elements or layers that I think will help Mormon artists situate themselves as Restorationist. I don’t suggest any specific aesthetic techniques or socio-political stances. I can’t help you escape Romanticism, Modernism or Postmodernism (although I may write about that more later). There is no Zion apart for us to flock to in order to escape assimilation. For Mormon artists, what we have is our personal activities and relationships and the community and rituals and ordinances of the modern LDS Church.   

Please note that the following is specifically for those who consider themselves active LDS. And it’s simply my opinion. But I hope that it’s a way of thinking that other Mormon artists will find useful. Continue reading “Artists of the Restoration part IV: Restorationist Manifesto”

Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.




At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against–cold rationalism, industrialization–had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.). Continue reading “Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM”

Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist.

I began with a reductive history of the LDS Church. Now I do the same to Western culture.




Previous and then parallel to the Restoration/Separation and Accommodation/Assimilation history of the Church runs a different process: the aesthetic response of artist to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Romanticism and its offspring modernism and postmodernism (more on them later) are the only dominant aesthetic discourses that Mormons have ever known. To understand them is to understand how the particulars of Mormon art play out.

Thousands of pages have been written on Romanticism so this is going to be an incredibly reductive summary, but the narrative goes something like this: Continue reading “Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism”