Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Only a Paper Moon

A charming old popular song says "It's only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sky." That metaphor goes through my mind as I reflect on my experience at the LDStorymakers conference this past weekend. That's LDS story makers. I don't know why the cutesy way of writing it. Maybe that's what attracted some of the air kissing wannabes I saw there. Networking is one thing but I saw so much sucking up you'd have thought it was a lemon festival. Among about 450 people from Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona and Colorado, I knew three. I wanted to be a part of this group because I'm a writer, I'm LDS, I've been married 40 years, and so I write about being LDS and being married. That's what my writing teachers always taught me – write what you know. And I thought that's probably what motivated everybody else to be there.

However, I'm not a mainstream LDS writer, and perhaps that's why I felt alien. At meals and in conference lectures, people very often introduced themselves as writers of science fiction, mystery/suspense, fantasy, historical fiction, Young Adult (YA) fiction, or romance. I didn't hear another person introduce themselves as a writer of contemporary drama. In fact, I didn't even know that's what I wrote until I interviewed with an editor from an LDS publishing company who said that's what he'd call it. The best part about that is I have less competition and potential for a bigger place in my own genre.

All or most of these writers are aiming at commercial success on the national scene, not that there's anything wrong with that, but I have a different view of my purpose. I write LDS fiction for a general adult LDS audience because I have something to say to them. I particularly appreciated Anita Stansfield's discussion of her life as a writer, the sacrifices she's made, and coming from someone whose 47th book will soon be out, that was important. It was particularly pleasing to hear her refer to her talent as a gift. Obviously she has respect for it, and that respect has driven her career. I don't read everything she writes, but I was impressed with that attitude.

On the other hand, I heard nationally successful writers discuss only the need, or not, for an agent, and the circuitous twists on the road to success. No references to gifts or reverence for their talents. The contrast with Anita's attitude was stark. There was something a bit smug about them, something of the "nyah, nyah, I made it and you didn't" from a few of them. Presenters who give their spiel with a "Gol, how can you be so stupid as to not know this" tone were more than a little abrasive.

This whole idea of writing for a particular niche audience is new to me. When I was in college, one of my writing teachers said, "If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience." Consequently, I had no answer for an editor I interviewed with several years ago who asked me who my audience was. I didn't understand the question. I write for people who read LDS fiction, particularly adults. In fact, a male friend of mine who has read my contemporary fiction particularly enjoyed it because it wasn't like most of the books out there that are loosely referred to as "women's fiction." I hate that designation. Men who read what women read are more likely to understand the women around them.

That same editor asked me why I write, and my answer – "I can't NOT write" – apparently wasn't good enough. My books were rejected by his company. But I have never stopped thinking about the question because some day I hope to come up with a satisfactory answer. I write because, like Anita Stansfield, I have a gift and not to use it would be a sin, regardless of market trends. I write because I have a story to share with my LDS people. I write because I can't edit what I say once I've said it. (That's why I can write brilliant dialog.) I write because I love the language. I write because it's thrilling to make both sides of my brain work together.

And so I go back to my own basic motivation: When LDS lives and marriages are falling apart all around us in an environment where values are slowly corroding, why are we writing about vampires and the housewife from Orem who's secretly a CIA agent and saves the world while still getting her visiting teaching done? I'm just sayin'.

Ultimately, the irony of art is that it IS only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sky, but the story that takes place there tells vitals truths about life, exposes significant insights, and gives readers Aha! moments they might not get anywhere else. Artists create an artificial place populated with artificial people in order to reveal truth to real people in the real world. I love irony. That's good enough for me.

By the way, after reading the first five pages of my manuscript and and discussing it with me for ten minutes, the editor at Covenant asked me to submit the entire manuscript. That made up for everything else about the conference that didn't sit well with me. But now I'm chewing my fingernails for the next few weeks until I find out what the verdict is going to be. I hope they agree with me that this is a book whose time has come.


Romance Queen said...

Very insightful! I've been where you are many times. Keep up the good work!! And thank you for your kind words. I'm glad to know that something I said made a difference.

jenheadjen said...

Great blog, Pam! Anita sent me a link to your blog, and I've been enjoying your posts, the quotes you shared, and your thoughts! I'm eager to see what Covenant does with your manuscript!

jwise said...

I hope things go well!!!!! You're right--it's time.

Mary said...

I've never thought about the irony of fictional characters teaching real people. Interesting thought.

I'm sorry the conference wasn't what you were hoping it would be. You'll have to guide me to the truly helpful people/groups. I have some stories I want to share, but I feel like I'm lacking the talent. In eight months I've written only a little more than the first chapter of the book I want to write. I know the bare bones of the story, but my words seem so inadequate. When you say writing is your talent, did it come naturally or did you have to work at it? Maybe I should just get the bare bones down and then rewrite and rewrite.

Congrats again on a successful meeting about your manuscript.

Marta O. Smith said...

Were we at the same conference? We must have been, because I went to Anita Stansfield's class too, and found it to be just what I needed to hear at that time.

I'm sorry you weren't able to meet some of the truly wonderful people I have come to know from attending the Storymakers Conference, both published and unpublished authors. I guess with 460+ people in one place, you can only get to know a fraction of them.

Rebecca said...

I found this post very interesting. This was my first time at Storymakers, and I got so much out of it and met a lot of wonderful people.

One of the stories I'm working on is a lighthearted romance. I'd been struggling with the non-seriousness of it, like I could be writing "more important" things, but I'd been feeling like I should work on that particular story.

I came to the realization while talking to Julie Wright that there is a place for lighthearted literature as well. I can tell you that during some of the trials our family endured last year, having some lighthearted reading to escape with for a little while would have been so helpful.

After all, even the pioneers held dances on the trail.

It's interesting how different people can have completely different experiences at the same conference.

Good luck with your work!

Jordan (MamaBlogga) said...

I totally agree that art and fiction can help teach us truths about life. But I don't think that writing about vampires precludes that--and the conference actually changed my opinion about that.

I have never and may never read Twilight or see the movies, but I was really impressed when Dave Wolverton/Farland talked about Stephenie Meyer's motivation for writing those books. She wanted to promote chastity and morality, which I understand is an explicit and implicit motif in the books. I know the books have, as Dave said, made readers examine their own lives and choices.

Stephenie chose to promote morality through fiction to a national audience—I and certainly respect her a lot more for it.

(And there are dozens of examples like this: Dan Wells wrote an internationally-published horror novel about a teenage psychopath that's about overcoming the natural man, etc.)

Noble M Standing said...

Wow. I don't think we were at the same conference, even if the name and the speakers were the same. I've been to this conference three times before and not once walked away with the same impressions.

While I agree with you and Anita (who's work BTW is amazing) that writing is a gift and something I cannot ignore. I definately disagree with you on genre and whether the goals of going national arent for the LDS people.

I have some amazing mainsteam stories in my head but I can't write them. I wish I could too, because they deal with serious issues like depression, abuse and things like that. However, I'm a sci-fi, urban fantasy writer not a womens lit or romance writer. It's in my blood and it's what I love and seem to do well in.

Maybe when the sci-fi finds a home, or when my writing maturity has grown a little I will be able to tackle those things that I feel need to be said that are "main stream". Untill then, I will write what I love because to ignore a gift from God is to tell Him you don't like what he has given you.

Sorry you had such a negative experience. I look forward to this weekend all year long. I came home this year on cloud nine ready to tackle the hardest revision I have ever faced.

Nichole Giles said...

Wow. It seems as though you weren't at the same conference as I.

My first thought is to wonder who you considered "air-kissing" wannabes? Because these same people are all now a part of a group you just joined.

My second thought is that if you really have such low opinions of LDS authors who write for the national market, you will likely not do so well in the LDS market either. The fact is, the LDS market is very small, and has become saturated with thousands of talented writers. Those of us who choose to write nationally do so in hopes of not only being published, but finding an audience for our work. To use our God-given talents to enrich the lives of others.

Orson-Scott-Card once gave a lecture in which he said something about LDS authors writing nationally, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genre because we've been raised to believe in things we cannot see, something bigger than ourselves. It's the truth.

But it's unfortunate that some people have a need to belittle others for their style of art or craft.

I hope you someday find a conference that does meet your needs. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I'm excited to see what happens!