As of yesterday, the Mormon Lit Blitz Contest had received 28 submissions—this with nearly six weeks to go (that’s an entire missionary transfer, folks!) until the January 15th deadline. I realize, of course, that 95% of contest submissions usually come in the two hours before midnight of the final day. These few early submissions are just a hint of what may come, which is enough to fill me with a seasonally appropriate sense of childlike anticipation. In three weeks, I’ll watch my kids react to the sudden but expected appearance of piles of Christmas presents under the tree (with an extremely busy fifteen-month-old, we don’t dare put them out now). In six weeks, I’m hoping the other judges and I will wake up to a poetically appropriate one thousand and one submissions. Ah, sweet dreams!
Well, sweet dreams for an editor who only want the highest quality material, let it come from where it may. Maybe more mixed dreams for a writer who would really love his or her own work to be featured. How can you make your piece stand out in such a deep field?
Today, I offer four suggestions for preparing your submission:
1. Trust your wine to change old bottles.
Within the past week, I have finally gotten around to checking out two works with other people have recommended to me: Barre Toelken’s famous textbook The Dynamics of Folklore and the Roberts brothers’ YouTube series Kid History.
If you haven’t seen Kid History yet, stop reading this post now and go see Episode 6. After that, and after you are done changing back into pants you haven’t wet laughing, we can talk about pp. 269-70 of the 1996 edition of Barre Toelken’s book. Those are the pages where Toelken, in a discussion of how recurring patterns in any culture teach a child “how to get oriented in space and time” points out that a question as simple as “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is a cultural teaching tool. The question itself emphasizes individuality, elevates career choice to a matter of identity, and puts the future far above the present or past in importance.
Kid History seems to deliberately avoid Mormon vocabulary. What seems to be a mission story becomes simply a story about biking with a friend in another hemisphere. What is almost certainly a Youth Conference in another story is called a “Boys & Girls Camp.” But you can’t take the Mormon out of the stories. I mean, who other than a Mormon or an immigrant would have 27 nephews and nieces just hanging around to tell their uncles’ stories in the first place? And where else but in Mormonism is your mom already there at “Boys & Girls Camp” to kick you in the head through a tent when you deserve it?
Kid History isn’t in the preaching business. But it’s still expressing Mormon patterns as normal, quietly saying that you should see family as central to your identity, that it makes sense to live in a ward-influenced world, and that children are important for reasons other than their potential to pay the Social Security taxes which may, hypothetically, someday support us. And what do we owe the inspiration for this Great Mormon YouTube Series to? According to Randy Roberts, the format is inspired by the video series Drunk History. A series which is probably not going to catch on among Mormons anytime soon.
Lesson? When you think about what will appeal to religious Mormons, there’s no one narrow road to success. If the Roberts could riff off the concept of Drunk History and become the sensation they are among the Saints, what can you do?
2. Don’t settle for a second-class first sentence.
According to the contest rules, judges are allowed to stop after an initial teaser of 125 words for prose, eight lines for poetry, or a few frames for a comic. In no more text than would fit on the back of a business card, you need to orient us in time, space, and storytelling style. You need to give us a character (real or imagined) and put that character in a crisis interesting to enough to build a story over. You’ve got to do the dirty work of digging and laying a foundation for whatever coming treasure makes your piece pay off. But foundations aren’t inherently inviting, so you also need to give us a first sentence that will drive us through the rest.
Allow me to demonstrate using the first 75 words of Mormon author Eric James Stone’s recent story “A Great Destiny.” Here’s the first sentence:
“You tend to remember the face of a man you’ve sworn to kill.”
Intrigued? I certainly am. I teach my students that characters are defined by their desires: because we see a strong desire here, we’ve also implicitly got an engaging character. There’s also an element of mystery: why has this character sworn to kill someone—and why is the fact that he remembers his target’s face noteworthy? On a plot level, I already want to know more.
But just as importantly, the first sentence tells me I’m in the hands of a skilled storyteller. “So-and-so saw the man he’d sworn to kill” does nearly the same plot work, but Stone’s use of the indefinite you is far stronger: the casual register of “you tend” creates a juxtaposition with the intensity of “sworn to kill”; the use of a generic statement of principle rather than a direct statement of character intent subtly invites the reader to identify with a character we haven’t even formally met yet.
The first sentence, “You tend to remember the face of a man you’ve sworn to kill” invites me to sit right next to the writer and let him dig and fill the foundation for the rest of the story. In the next two paragraphs, Stone orients me in the world of the story, fills in other important character details, and sets up the crisis:
“As Groshen hoisted a rundlet of wine into the wagon, he spotted the crimson-robed prophet strolling along the village’s main road. Groshen had only met the prophet twice, but he recognized those copper-colored eyes divided by that bulging nose.
“Despite his sudden rage, Groshen carefully lowered the cask into the wagon. He must catch the prophet alone, where no one could interfere.”
Here Stone is acting like a good animator, focusing on salient, telling details and minimizing the degree to which unnecessary details demands audience attention. Without getting lost in the unnecessary, he sets up the story effectively.
Note that the above paragraphs are far less compelling without the strong first sentence preceding them, although they would still lay a clear foundation for the story. You will probably be excited when you find a way to get core exposition into the first 125 words of your story, but don’t let that sense of accomplishment keep you from working more to get a great first sentence.
3. Share you work in your ward before you send it to us.
The idea of this contest is to find works that could excite the avid readers in any given ward about what Mormon literature could do for them. So please: before you send us your work, share it with some people in your ward. Can you make them laugh or hold their breath or talk to you about something they’d never really thought about in that way before? Writers’ groups are great when you need craft suggestions for how to solve a problem, but watching ward members read or listen to your piece should tell you what’s working for your target audience already in this piece and what’s not. Some writers only hang out with people who are involved in the writing business. You probably already have countless strong connections with people from various walks of life: use them. Find out what makes your piece worthwhile to someone who already has plenty of other things than reading it to do.
4. If submissions are presents, make yours a surprise.
I have a lot of ideas of what I would like to see in Mormon literature. That said, I would love few things more than to find writers who combine their creativity with our shared faith and values in a way I never would have imagined.
As you write, think about what might be done as well as what has been done. You are already a living, breathing unique intersection of creativity and faith. Think about what your own unique heritage of each could add to the growing body of Mormon work.