Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Publisher, Zarahemla Books

This is the last of my three-part interview with Jonathan Langford, author of No Going Back. How did you submit your work to Zarahemla? Query? Finished ms? Had you submitted it anywhere before Zarahemla took it? How long was the work in process from submission to publication? Did the story change much through the editorial process?

I’ve known Chris Bigelow — owner and operator of Zarahemla Books — for a long time, and admired his work with Zarahemla Books. Chris’s stated goal with Zarahemla Books is to publish “provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity.” That’s a good description of the niche I feel No Going Back falls into. It’s more frank than I imagined Deseret Books or Covenant would have been comfortable with, but in the end it’s pretty orthodox. From the time I first started thinking about this novel, it seemed to me that Zarahemla Books would be the ideal place to publish it.

Back when I was trying to decide whether to write the novel or not, I queried Chris about it. He said the idea sounded like something he’d be interested in seeing. That was back around the end of April 2008. So I knew that if I could just do a good enough job of writing the story, I had a good chance of publishing with him.

Once I had a complete draft in early March 2009, I sent a copy to Chris, who sent it out to a couple of readers. Meanwhile, I also sent a copy to several readers, such as LDS playwright Tom Rogers and BYU English professor Steve Walker. My readers and Chris’s readers all gave positive reports, so at that point Chris tentatively agreed to publish the novel, conditional on his own positive reaction, since at this point Chris still hadn’t read it.

Chris prefers not to do much story doctoring with the manuscripts he accepts, and his preference is to read a manuscript only once, while he’s editing it. So what I wound up doing over the next several months was recruiting a whole bunch of people to read my manuscript, then taking their comments and using them to make the story as good as I could before submitting the final version to Chris. I also recorded these readers’ reactions as a kind of ongoing pool of evidence about what people liked and didn’t like about the story and whether they thought it was worth publishing, which I later passed on to Chris.

Some of the changes I made were fairly important, though none altered the actual plot of the story very much. For example, one reader commented that Chad was accepting Paul’s orientation too easily. I realized he was completely right. I went back and changed that by making Chad pretend to be more okay with it than he really was and try to hide that from Paul. It amounted to only minor changes in terms of actual revised text, but I think it made a significant difference in improving the realism, adding a certain underlying tension in the first half of the novel, and making Chad’s ultimate character growth more meaningful. I also did a lot of tinkering with the conclusion, and adjusted several plot threads along the way. Mostly, though, the shape of the story didn’t change much.

It was early May when I handed over my revised manuscript to Chris for his edit. He would read a section, embed comments and changes, then send it to me for my response. I’d send it back, then he would continue on from there. After reading a couple of chapters and verifying that he liked the style and direction of the story, he sent me a contract, though it was still understood that he might pull out if he ran into something he truly disliked. Fortunately, that never happened.

Chris’s edits were mostly about making individual scenes flow more smoothly and clearly. Patiently, he unsnarled (or forced me to unsnarl) who was talking when, the logistics of what was going on in some scenes where it wasn’t as clear as it should be — stuff like that. He also helped me tone down the language some without losing the effect I was trying to achieve, which I’m quite grateful for. And he reminded me that YouTube hadn’t been invented yet, and so Paul and Chad couldn’t spend time watching YouTube videos over spring break. I can’t believe I hadn’t bothered to check that one. (I did my best to make every detail as historically accurate as possible. For example, every video game mentioned in the story exists and would have been available on the boys’ game systems at the time they played it. I even found a website where I could check the weather in Oregon each day for the timeframe I was writing, though I didn’t always follow it exactly.)

Chris’s editing process took about three months, due to other commitments on his part. On August 2, he emailed me with the final segment: “OK, here you go. I thought it ended very well on all counts. Loved the book, felt some real eye-welling emotion several times. I think we could have a real winner on our hands here, if we can get the right people to help us get the word around. I'm very happy to be publishing it!” Happy words for an author to hear. Then desktop publishing, proofreading, and priting, all of which took only about two months — very fast, from what I understand. The official release date was October 5.

That is really fast! And very interesting to learn how you and your publisher handled editing. Finally, what would you hope readers will take away from your novel?

I hope they’ll care about the characters and what has happened to them over the course of the story. I hope they’ll feel like they know a little better what it’s like to face the kind of challenge Paul faces — but also that they’ll see it as in some ways an ordinary part of life, not fundamentally different from the challenges all of us face in striving to live as true followers of Jesus Christ. I hope it will make them think and feel.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Interview with Jonathan Langford--"The Novel"

Welcome back, Jonathan. This part of the interview is about your novel itself. I can't imagine anyone being neutral about No Going Back. What kind of response have you received from readers?

Reactions from those who have actually read the book have been mostly positive, though there have been exceptions. Some people who wanted to like the book just aren’t engaged by my characters or writing style. Some don’t like the coarse language used from time by time (not everywhere, and not gratuitously) by teenagers in the book, though no one has told me it was bad enough to stop reading. A few people find the story depressing or disappointingly unresolved, because Paul’s problems don’t all get solved by the end of the book and because there’s no guarantee that things won’t be hard for him going forward. And I’ve had a couple of eccentric reactions to the story, including someone who called me and my publisher latter-day Korihors for supposedly buying into the gay agenda, though what I’ve presented in this book is faithful to the Church’s position as I understand it.

Yes, that is really an odd accusation, because your novel is very supportive of the Church's position. I think every bishop and stake president should read it.

Some of the comments I’ve gotten from people are really amazing. I have to believe that’s because the story I wrote has clicked somehow with something inside themselves. I’m a great believer that the stories we read are collaborations between the author and ourselves as readers. I feel privileged to have had some people care so deeply about my story and its characters. (A selection of reader comments, together with links to reviews the book has received so far, are available on my website,

There are quite a few characters and varied POV’s for such a short novel. What was your reason in using so many points of view?

Actually, No Going Back isn’t all that short — about 110,000 words. (It’s my understanding that 80,000-100,000 is standard length for most novels these days.) I take your comment as a good sign, though, since it suggests the book was a “quick read” for you.

It was a very quick read. I'm amazed that it's over 100,000 words, I figured about 60,000.

I never wanted the story to be just about Paul. A big part of it is the reactions of the people around him, together with things that are going on in their lives that interact with his story. Multiple points of view seemed like a good way to do that, though it made me nervous when I realized that I was essentially tackling multiple characters each of which needed to have his or her own motivations and change process over the course of the story.

My favorite characters are Chad and his dad, the bishop. (Besides Paul, of course) Do you have a favorite character? One who kept demanding and getting more “screen time”?

I like pretty much all the characters — even Sandy, the bishop’s wife, who everyone tends to find a bit irritating. (Okay, I admit that I find her irritating too, but she has positive qualities as well.) Possibly the most fun character to write was Sandy’s friend Ella, who we see only a few times but who is quite vivid in my mind despite that.

I found the bishop's wife character irritating,too, although I understand her purpose in the narrative and why you gave her a POV.

I do have some favorite scenes. Paul’s conversation with the bishop in chapter 10 — that was one of the first scenes I wrote, and it’s a scene that’s absolutely crucial to the story as a whole. Some of the scenes with the GSA. I also think the scene where Chad accuses Paul of being suicidal is hilarious, if it’s not too gauche to find one’s one writing funny. And the scene toward the end where Brother Schmidt bears his testimony. Those are some of my favorites.

My favorite scene is when Paul has his second interview with the bishop, told from the bishop's POV. I loved that scene. Were any of the characters based on real people? Do you know any young men like Paul?

None of my characters are specifically based on anyone, though obviously there are some aspects that remind me of one person or another who I’ve known. Paul in particular isn’t modeled after anyone, though I’ve read and listened to a lot of experiences of individuals who are same-gender attracted, LDS and non-LDS both — usually from adult men looking back on their adolescence.

Thanks, Jonathan. It's always interesting to get the author's insight into his work. Next up will be the third and last part of this interview--"The Publisher."

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Writing Process--Interview with Jonathan Langford

This is the first part of my interview with Jonathan Langford, author of No Going Back. I divided it into three sections--The Writing Process, The Novel and The Publisher.

Jonathan, I have a few questions to start with that are tied up together. When did you first start writing No Going Back? Is this your first novel? What was your motivation for writing it, and where did you get your idea for this story?

Yes, this is my first novel. Not the first one I’ve tried to write, mind you. I’ve been trying to write fantasy novels off and on since I was a teenager. I love science fiction and fantasy, and being a sf&f writer has been something I’ve always wanted to do. Back in my mid-twenties, though — about the time I got married — I pretty much gave up on that. Instead I did a variety of other things, such as working on a graduate degree in English (which I never completed) and ultimately getting into informational writing and editing, mostly in the field of education, which is what I do for paid work.

About 8 or 9 years ago, after I’d pretty much lost hope of ever doing anything with my creative writing, something happened. It was like a timer went off in my head saying it was time to be a story writer again. So I started working away on some fantasy stories in my spare time, but I found it slow going. Everything I tried seemed to keep stalling, for one reason or another.

A year or two into that process, I was participating in a discussion on AML-List, an email discussion list sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters. One of the list members, who is same-gender attracted but also a faithful member of the Church, was talking about how for people in his situation, there’s relatively little understanding either in the Church itself or in the gay community. That led to a broader discussion of the relative lack of Mormon fiction dealing with homosexuality, and particularly with characters who have these kinds of attractions but nonetheless are committed to staying in the Church.

The discussion sparked an idea in my head for a short story about a same-gender attracted LDS teenager who would come out to his best friend, and the various challenges they would both face as word spread in his ward and school. But I didn’t do anything about it, because, heck, that wasn’t a story I particularly wanted to write, even if I thought someone ought to be writing it. Besides, I was trying to write fantasy stories...

Skip ahead a few years. It’s New Years 2008, and I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to try once again to do something with my writing. As part of my process, I mentally trot out story ideas and look them over. Thinking about my gay teen Mormon story idea, suddenly I start to see ways it could be expanded into a novel. And I start writing.

Probably the biggest single motivation for me to tackle this story was that it actually was going somewhere, unlike my fantasy stories (which still aren’t cooperating with me that well). For me, a big part of the motivation for writing is the thought that someone out there might care about what I’ve written. In the end, I decided that I was okay with writing a story that I doubted would ever make me any money (LDS publishing being what it is) but that might matter to some readers — and that might possibly do some positive good in the world.

I should clarify that my goal in writing this novel was not to change the Church’s position on same-gender attraction. As a believing member of the Church who is thankfully not in one of those scary leadership positions, I am of the opinion that if a course correction is needed on this or any other doctrinal or policy matter, I’m not the one God will talk to about it. Rather, I wanted to write a novel that took the Church’s position as a given, but also showed the challenges that might be involved in living that position.

Interesting that you wanted to write sf&f--perhaps realistic fiction is your genre instead. What is your method of creation? When do you write? What elements need to be present for you to do your best work?

One of the things I discovered was that writing a novel was, for me, quite different from the other kinds of writing. For example, in my informational writing, I’m the king of outlining. Writing my novel, though, I found that outlining didn’t work. I had a general sense of the plot and a lot of the scenes I knew were going to happen. Rather than create a detailed outline, though, I found it was better simply to jump ahead and write a scene that was grabbing my attention, even if it wasn’t going to show up for another several chapters. Doing that helped to give me a sense of where the plot needed to go in order to make the scene turn out (more or less) the way I’d written it. It also let me keep working on something else when I ran into a thorny plot problem or something else I needed to figure out before proceeding with the main line of the narrative.

I’m sure I did most of my composing at the computer, but sitting at a computer with nothing to do except work on my stories tends to make me freeze. Besides, I have to spend a lot of time in front of the computer anyway for my paid work. So a lot of the time, I would compose scenes in a spiral notebook and then transcribe them into my MS Word document later.

Some of my most productive writing sessions were times I would wake up early, unable to get back to sleep. I composed several scenes sitting in front of the downstairs fireplace at my in-laws’ over Christmas break, early in the morning before anyone else was up. I also (I hesitate to admit) did a fair amount of composing during Church meetings. The ideal combination seems to be a low-pressure situation when there isn’t something else I’m supposed to be doing, but also when I don’t feel like I’m under the gun to produce text and can just let it flow without worrying too much about it. It’s all about whatever we need to do to trick ourselves into getting words on the page...

I’ve read a lot of writers who say it’s best just to let everything come out in the drafting process and then worry about improving it later. That doesn’t work for me. When I let myself write sloppily the first time around, it makes me hate my own writing even more when I go back and look at it later, which in turn makes it harder for me to write. So I do a lot of hesitating and starting and stopping and mental editing while I’m composing my initial drafts, but that seems to work better for me.

Over the course of writing No Going Back, I learned to notice when I was starting to push myself — when the writing was starting to get off-balance, when I was throwing words onto the page without feeling like they sounded right. (I’m an auditory reader and writer: I hear the words on the page as I write them, and a lot of whether they work or not comes down to whether they sound right to me.) I discovered that it was better to stop writing once I had reached that point, because anything I wrote from then on would need to be rewritten later. So my novel was written in little pieces, one or two small chunks a day. Despite that, it was done awfully quickly: most of it in less than a year, from May 2008 to the end of February 2009 for my first complete draft. Still, that’s less than two pages a day, by my calculations. It’s evidence that if you just keep chipping away, you can actually produce something, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re making much progress at any given time. Now if only I could apply that to my other stories...

I wrote a series of essays about my experiences as a first-time novelist over at A Motley Vision, a Mormon arts and culture blog.

Thank you, Jonathan, for your insight and thoughts on the writing process for No Going Back. I'll post the next installment in a few days. Watch for it!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Upon reading "No Going Back" by Jonathan Langford

I am not comfortable with the topic of homosexuality, especially as it is presented in our culture today by gay rights groups. Therefore, No Going Back is meant for a reader such as I. It presents the Church's stand in an open way without preachiness or prejudice. It also presents the general stance of everyone else, also without preachiness or prejudice. And it presents a 15- year-old-boy named Paul, a good Mormon boy like any of our kids or our neighbors' kids, who realizes he is gay. The book opens with him sharing the information with his best friend, Chad.

The rest of the novel involves the people around Paul and Chad--their families, Chad's friends, the Gay-Straight Alliance group at school, the bishop. There are many characters and several points of view, which Langford skillfully weaves in and out around this one central issue of Paul's same-gender attraction. The character development is incredible. Read it if only to see the artistry with which Langford creates his cast of players. Even minor characters come to life on the page.

I found No Going Back to be a deeply spiritual, faith-affirming story that is neither contentious nor agenda-driven. In fact, it's a refreshingly honest look at all sides of this issue. Paul's dilemma and his subsequent pondering of what this means for his life now and in the future touched my heart and soul. Think of it. What happens when a young Mormon teen, one who has planned his entire life to serve a mission, to marry and have children, to be an active, committed member of the Church, comes of age and discovers that he likes boys the way he should like girls? Paul must decide what to do, and the first person he turns to for counsel is his bishop. Still, the final decision must be Paul's. Will he follow the advice of his well-meaning friends at GSA, or will he stay true to his covenants and follow his bishop's wise counsel?

This isn't a topic I have discussed much with my sons in their growing up years. Why would I? I'm a Mormon mom, and I didn't suppose it would ever be an issue. My seventeen-year-old son came into the room while I was reading, and we had a bit of a strange dialogue.

I said, "Maybe you should read this book. It's about a Mormon young man who realizes he's gay. Maybe you know boys like this." (I just wanted to see what he would say.)

His response shocked me. He said, "I wouldn't want to read it, because then I might start thinking I was gay."

I said, "You're not gay!" (I know this because he really, really likes girls.)

He said, "I know." Then he said, "A kid at school sent out two texts last week. The first one went: This is really hard for me..... The second one went: ....I'm a homo." (And yes, this boy is an active Mormon.)

Our kids today hear about this topic probably a lot more than we do. Some of them may be afraid they are gay. Especially considering that sexual confusion is typical during the adolescent years, with same-sex crushes being a common occurrence. Reading this novel can educate parents and teens in a positive way, through the gospel viewpoint of same-gender attraction and morality, rather than through the common viewpoint of "Do whatever makes you feel good."

No Going Back is a fast read, even quite funny in places. I could hardly put it down. It is richly layered and complex, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, a finely written tale of depth and meaning. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to more realistic fiction from Jonathan Langford.

Purchase your copy of this excellent novel from Amazon, the BYU Bookstore, or from the publisher's website

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does Publishing have a Future?

So many elements seem to be conspiring to drive publishers out of business. Bookstores are struggling due to a variety of reasons-- the current economic climate, the decrease of the reading public, the ease and economy of purchasing one's books online, the influence of the media on one's reading choices that makes everyone want to buy the same book rather than try something new. These are just a few reasons; I could add a lot more and I'm sure you could, too.

At the same time, countless people want to write and get published. Thus the rise of the vanity presses, the self-publishing services, the we-will-publish-you-if-you-pay-us companies, the POD companies like Lightening Source and many others. When millions of people are writing books and craving publication, willing to pay for the privilege, companies will then arise to fill this huge market.

With the news that Harlequin is now offering a vanity imprint, I am wondering what all this means for the publishing industry. Clearly here's where the money is--publishing for a fee. Forget about quality, or promotion, or marketing, or even getting the books into bookstores. Why should these publishers care? They already have their profit.

Is this the future of publishing? Brick and mortar bookstores closing while millions of books are available online, e-books, on websites, etc? And the reading public can pick and choose according to their interests? Publishing company particulars no longer mattering? The struggling small press having to switch over to charging author fees in order to survive?

I am shuddering here. I don't like this picture. And I shall do my part to help the small press in any way I can, such as posting a review here on Zarahemla's release, No Going Back by Jonathan Langford, an excellent book which I want to promote in my own small way. Watch for it on Friday.

Monday, November 9, 2009

24 Hours London by Marsha Moore

This is Marsha Moore holding her new book 24 Hours London, which is on its way to me! Don't you love it when you win a book prize and meet a new author at the same time? Out of dozens of commenters on Nicola Morgan's blog, I was picked to win 24 Hours London. I can't wait to read it cover to cover and plan my trip to the UK!

And congratulations, Marsha, on the release of your first book! May it be hugely successful!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Writing Quotes--a Few of my Favorites

"Precision, clarity, and a personal rhythm. Above all: to treat words as if they were people." John Hersey

"If the sentence reads right to me, if it has flow, I don't give a damn whether it's grammatically right or wrong." H. Allen Smith

"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." Ernest Hemingway

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it." Jesse Stuart

"The writers task is to take one thing and let it stand for twenty." Virginia Woolf

"...the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat....The writer's duty is to write about these things. It is his privelege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."
William Faulkner