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.

Mormon Easter Eggs and Mormon Veins of Goldin Pariah Missouri


As this post appears, you have less than one day to get into the Pariah Missouri Kickstarter, so open that in a new tab now, so’s you don’t forget.

You may recall that I’ve mentioned this comic before, but that was before I’d read it. Now I have and I’m ready to talk about its Mormon elements.

pariahmissouri01The first thing to know is that all I can discuss at present of the story’s first two volumes as the third and presumably final volume is the Kickstarter’s raison d’être. Therefore I will not be attempting any sort of Meaning of the Work as a Whole or analyzing its Mormon elements with that sort of goal in mind. Rather, my interest today is comparing the Mormon aspects of the two books available now. After all—that’s what the author challenged me to do!

(The author, Andres Salazar, sent me review copies gratis.) Continue reading “Mormon Easter Eggs and Mormon Veins of Goldin Pariah Missouri”

Call for Papers — Mormonism & Spec Fiction (LTUE 2017)

The Association for Mormon Letters is calling for papers relating to the connections between speculative fiction and Mormonism, to be delivered at Life, the Universe and Everything 2017, to be held February 16-18 in Provo, Utah.

Presentations can be shorter (10-15 minutes) or longer (20-25 minutes), and can address any area of intersection between speculative fiction and Mormonism, including any of the following:

  • Works by LDS authors of speculative fiction
  • Depictions of Mormons and Mormonism in speculative fiction
  • History of the Mormon speculative fiction community
  • Thematic and cultural affinities, connections, and tensions between Mormonism and speculative fiction as ways of viewing human life and the universe in general

Student papers are welcome.

Proposals are due by August 31, and complete papers are due by October 1. Papers can be submitted without previously submitting a proposal, but we prefer the advance notice. Papers will be considered for publication in Deep Thoughts, the proceedings volume for LTUE.

In addition to submitted papers, there will be a panel on the appeal of science fiction and fantasy for Mormons. Please let us know if you would be interested in being on that panel.

Queries, proposals, and papers should be sent to Jonathan Langford, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.

The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons

The other day, I woke up and wound up writing — well, this. And so I decided that I might as well share…

Science fiction as a genre has a high and holy calling of engaging us in dialogue with science, the future, and technological change (corresponding to fantasy’s calling to engage us in a dialogue with history, mythology, and the unconscious, but that’s a topic for a different essay). Like most such callings, it is a potential caught mostly in glimpses, seldom if ever fully realized. Yet for all the protestations one hears of simple storytelling with no pretense of oracular or legislative responsibility (Shelley notwithstanding), it is a vocation pursued with remarkable persistence by most of the genre’s writers and never really forgotten by the bulk of its readers. (I speak now of literature. Movies are a different thing entirely.)

Continue reading “The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons”

Revisiting The Reluctant Blogger


Reluctant-Blogger-The_2x3Those of you with excellent memories or a fetish for reluctant bloggers may recall that two years ago today I posted, simultaneously here at AMV and over at MMM and at the AML blog, three takes on Ryan Rapier’s then recent novel. In writing this post, I’m intentionally not reviewing those reviews, but I suspect if you added them up and divided by three you would get a moderately negative take. And if I were to reread them now, I would probably remember all the things I complained about and I might lose my way in this remembrance of the novel.

See, for all its flaws of structure and point of view, I still think about the characters of The Reluctant Blogger all these years later. I think mostly of the protag’s father’s second marriage and of the pain the protag causes his love interest. These things—or, rather, these people are still with me. I think of them regularly.

And, in my opinion, the most important aspect of good fiction is characters who live on in the mind. It’s why Jane Eyre might be my favorite novel. Because I still think about Jane. I love Jane. She’s, like, my very good friend.

And The Reluctant Blogger also provided me with new friends.

So with that in mind, regardless of whatever I’ve said in the past, I recommend it.

Mormon alternate history anthology: background reading

Interested in contributing to (or reading) the Mormon alternate history anthology I am editing (deadline for submissions is March 19!)? Curious about what alternate historical fiction is all about? Here are some works to consider reading:

Mormon Alternate History

For the Strength of the Hills” by Lee Allred. This novella is one of the most re-printed stories in Mormon literature and one of the earliest (if not the earliest) iterations of the sub-sub-genre.  

“Traitors and Tyrants” by John Nakamura Remy and Galen Dara in Monsters & MormonsThis short comic mixes pulp adventure tropes with steampunk and features Erasmus Snow and his plural wives on a trip to Japan.

City of the Saints by D.J. Butler is also a Mormon alternate history steampunk story. It features such characters as Orson Pratt, inventor of the airship, Sam Clemens and his steam truck, and Egyptian antiquities exhibitor Edgar Allen Poe.

Note: Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker is considered to be alternate history, but it doesn’t really fit with what I’m asking for because it involves the use of magic. Alternate technologies are okay with me (e.g. steampunk/dieselpunk) but magic isn’t something I’m interested in for this particular anthology.

Other Alternate History Works/Resources

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. A key text in alternate history, the novel takes place in a 1962 America that has been partitioned in two by the Axis powers Japan and Germany. All the more remarkable in that it is also a meta-narrative about alternate history.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by American Michael Chabon is a key influence on my own alternate history story “The Darkest Abyss in America”. It take place 60 years after a (in our actual timeline rejected) proposal to temporary settle WWII-era Jewish refugees in Sitka, Alaska is passed.

Uchronia is the go-to online database of alternate history works.

The Sideways Award is the major aware in the genre.

There is a lot more out there, but this is a good start. Anybody have other reading suggestions?

His Right Hand (the conflicted review)


Not so many pages into my reading of Mette Ivie Harrison’s new sequel to The Bishop’s WifeHis Right Hand, I decided I was going to write two reviews of this novel: His Right Hand — The Positive Review and His Right Hand — The Negative Review. I wasn’t sure which I would publish first vs which I would let sit on top, but it seemed like a good method to praise what I like and discuss directly what I don’t.

But I can’t write those reviews. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I’d realized that the good and the bad of the Linda Wallheim mysteries are too interwoven to cleanly separate. My concern, however, is that by interweaving them I will be giving the negative more weight. We’ll see how it goes. Ready? Continue reading “His Right Hand (the conflicted review)”

Questions and Answers: Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels

Earlier this summer, I helped start a book club among some of the more mature couples in our ward. (Yes, I’m aware that I don’t necessarily qualify. On more than one count. Don’t even go there.)

For our second meeting, I proposed three Mormon lit titles: In the Company of Angels, Dave Farland’s (aka Wolverton’s) historical novel about the Willie handcart company; Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom; and The Tree House, by Doug Thayer. The consensus went to Farland’s novel. So that was the one we read and discussed.

Continue reading “Questions and Answers: Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels”

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.

Continue reading “Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien”

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!


When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.