Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

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!


  1. great interview. I found it fascinating to know what led up to him writing the novel.

  2. "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."

    That's how I write as well.

    Looking forward to the rest of the interview.
    I tweeted it again for you Karen.

  3. It's how I write, too. I can't outline. I write the scenes as they occur to me and worry about where they go afterward. That's what cut and paste is for. Although I do like to know the ending before I begin.

  4. Langford sounds like a true blooded writer. I want to read his book. And like you you said Karen, maybe sf&f is just not his genre. I hope to see more from him.

  5. On the subject of writing sf&f... I think one of my problems as an sf&f writer is that I want to be too realistic. I'll start writing a scene in a castle, and I start wondering: what kind of stone is the castle made from? What's the room like? What's on the table? What are they growing in the fields outside? What's the weather like? What's the geography? What kind of ice age did this area have? So maybe my problem really *is* that I'm too much of a realistic writer.

    On the other hand, I keep thinking that if I can just research enough and learn to engage properly in my story, maybe it will work for me. I think I learned a lot from writing this novel that might help me with others as well.

    The other part is simple motivation. I like my fantasy stories, but so far they haven't been pushing me the way this novel did. I've also been quite busy, between trying to publicize this novel and some informational projects I took on.

    The real test will be to see what I'm working on a year from now, when I'm back to narrative writing. If nothing has really grabbed my interest by then, maybe I'll just have to wait for the lightning to strike again. On the other hand, I also have to say that I really *liked* writing this novel, despite all the frustrations it involved...

  6. Thanks for sharing this interview, Karen. Great work!

    Jonathan, I'm with you on the auditory reading and writing. I'm like that and there's no turning it around!

    I'm curious about your book. It's nice to learn of a premise that can open our eyes a bit more.

  7. From now on I will see you as Tevya, Jonathan.."on the other hand..." since my high school senior is in the orchestra for his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof, and when he isn't at practice or performance, he is singing the lyrics and the dialogue, or listening to it while on the computer. So I had to chuckle....on the other hand...

  8. You've found me out, Karen. You know that scripture that says a double-minded man is unsteady in all his ways? (Or something like that--I'm too lazy to look it up right now.) One of my persistent vices, I think, is my tendency to keep bouncing among alternatives: "On the one hand... On the other hand... On the third hand..."

  9. Oh man! If only I had the energy to read a book that would make me feel strongly, move me emotionally, or make me rethink the world then I would read this book. The interview, review, and comments all make me wish I had the urge to read an emotional book. Unfortunately, I have only been reading easy, lazy books that are story driven with no character developement or thought-provoking details. Someday when I have a lazy month I will read this book and probably cry.

  10. Jane, actually it's a very fast read that IS story driven. It just happens to have all that other great stuff thrown in as well. If you get your hands on a copy over the holidays, dig in. You won't be disappointed. And it won't take you a month. I read it in a few days, because once I started I couldn't put it down.