Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part III: Interview with the Instigator

In the third of three guest posts, project instigator Mark Penny sits down for a long, hard talk with himself.

First question: Who do you think you are? Why should we trust you to build and operate a Mormon speculative fiction e-collective?

I’m a Mormon. I’ve been in the Church since I was three. I got baptized at eight, served a mission at nineteen, married in the temple at thirty-seven. I have baptized two of my kids and am preparing the third for baptism. I’ve taught Primary, Sunday School and Elders Quorum, been an Elders’ Quorum president, a Sunday School president, a Relief Society president, a Young Men’s president, a ward mission leader, a stake music chairman, a ward and stake chorister, and a gospel instruction specialist (or whatever that position used to be called). Right now I’m the rookie in a bishopric. I pray twice a day on my own, twice a day with my family, once a day with each child, and at varying intervals with my wife. I read my scriptures every morning and pay tithing without fail. We’re a bit spotty on Family Home Evening and temple trips, but we’re trying. Life stories vary vis-à-vis the church. That’s mine in a very cramped nutshell. I take my religion very seriously, but also with a grain of salt.

I’m an author. I started writing fiction in kindergarten. In grade five, I knew I wanted to write professionally. Words and stories just seemed to flow out. To imagine worlds and the creatures in them and to chronicle their goings on were the most natural things for me to do from as early as I can consistently remember. I have a lot to learn as a fiction writer, my craft needs a lot of honing, but writing fiction is like eating and breathing: I can’t not do it—not for long. And I read like Farenheit 451 is a book of prophecy.

I’m a webmaster. In 2005, I started working on a Master of Distance Education through Athabasca University. I wasn’t able to finish the program, because the Canadian dollar went up at the same time as the Taiwanese dollar went down, but I did finish two courses. Through the courses, I learned about social networking. At the time, there was a lot of buzz about a platform called Elgg, designed for social networking in education. The cool thing about Elgg was that when you logged in, you went to a page where all the posts from all the users were aggregated. This meant that every user had regular opportunities to encounter every other user, and that we were all contributing to a theme-oriented community. Blogging was already very popular by then, but although blogs were dynamic (readers could respond to blog posts), even blogs on the same platform, such as WordPress or Blogspot, were not connected in any way. They were like offices in a strip mall: same building, different entrances and exits. There might be signage on the platform landing page, but the bloggers had no central gathering place. The Elgg demonstration site was like a community blog with sub-blogs.

Another cool feature was the ability to form groups. You could post from your blog into or out of a specific group and, of course, access to groups and posts could be controlled by their creators. I know this sounds a lot like Facebook (and maybe MySpace), but the first wasn’t around back then and I have never had any involvement with the second.

I took the degree in distance education in part because I wanted to use the Internet in my language teaching. At first, I thought of using email to give and receive work during the week when students didn’t have classes with me at the cram school. Then I used FrontPage to create The Kaohsiung Youth Bulletin, a static Geocities website where I would post student writing on various topics. After learning about Elgg, I decided to go dynamic and social and create a site where my students could interact with me and each other. In 2006, I rented Webspace from SiteGround and installed the platform. I also installed and experimented with Moodle, a learning management system people were talking about while I did the MDE, and MediaWiki, the platform used by Wikipedia.. Eventually, I encountered Drupal, a content management system that in its basic form works like Elgg, but for which there are so many contributor modules (third-party applications) that you can build just about anything you like with it. Naturally, I installed Drupal on my Web real estate and, once I saw what it could do, phased out Elgg, Moodle and MediaWiki.

So Lowly Seraphim uses Drupal?

Yes. For the moment, it’s on a free Drupal Gardens site. I gave up my Webspace a couple of years ago, because I’d learned what I wanted to and didn’t have a project that justified paying for Web resources. When you’re married to an accountant, you learn to think about things like cost and return. There was perceptible cost but no vindicating return, so I didn’t renew the lease. I revamped my WordPress site and posted fiction, poetry, and model paragraphs and essays there. But I always felt lonely for Drupal. I craved the versatility. When I found Drupal Gardens, I signed on immediately and started building my current blog, Mars Denar. It’s a work-in-progress, but it’s there.

Where did you get the notion to build Lowly Seraphim?

Back when I rented Webspace and built my own installations, I had a site called O-WIRe (The Online Writers’, Illustrators’ and Readers’ e-Collective). A lot of people were posting original fiction on the Internet and I felt like a fiction-oriented social network was something whose time had come. Personal and institutional blogs are great, but they’re segmented. In the Bloggernacle, you see the range and the limitations. We’ve all got (and should keep) our individual blogs created in our own images. They’re great for showcasing and promoting our own work and whatever else we feel like sharing according to the standards and ethics we choose. People can leave comments, and short discussions sometimes ensue, but everything is focused pretty firmly on the author in question. We’ve got at least one more or less static publishing site like EMW, a few dynamic publishing sites like WIZ and Segullah, and discussion-oriented special interest blogs like DBD and AMV. Each has its value and makes a contribution, but each is limited by its setup, its focus and its rules. I wasn’t long involved in the Bloggernacle before I decided we needed a place where people could gather more freely and flexibly. When I saw the quality speculative fiction coming out of the EMW Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest and Monsters and Mormons, I knew the time had come to step up with my particular vision and expertise.

How will Lowly Seraphim work?

It’s up and running now, so you could ask how does it work, but I envision change as people bring new needs and insights to the place, so the simple future is not out of order. The site is evolving even as we speak.

Back in December, Jeff Dunster (husband of Lightning Tree author, Bloggernacle regular, loyal Web friend and black beret supermodel Sarah Blackham Dunster) and I sat down in Google+ to hash out a few principles. Jeff, who runs Drupal sites for BYU-Idaho and knows a thing or two about social websites, wanted a single-clause, simple-verb-set answer to a simple but difficult question: What is the mission of this site? I wanted to cover a range of needs, so after hemming and hawing and doodling with spit for a while, I came up with: It’s a gathering place.

What do you mean, “a gathering place”?

That is a trenchant question with a poignant answer.

The site is called Lowly Seraphim: A Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective. I’m surprised you haven’t asked—

Okay. What is an e-collective?

The Lowly Seraphim motto is “Gathering, Presence and Community.” In our case, people who are into Mormon speculative fiction have one place where they can all get together and really mix it up. Writers can post fiction and discuss it with readers and with fellow writers. Readers can read fiction posts and discuss them with the writers and with fellow readers. People can get to know each other and find ways to serve each other. It’s a cyber-literary gathering of Israel, a Mo-centric hybrid of Facebook and Wattpad.

Which begs the question, Why not just use Facebook or Wattpad?

People can do that if they like. I’m not out to monopolize this corner of opportunity. However, there are advantages to dedicated service. For one thing, everything is under the control of a member of the community, including the database where all the stories and discussions are stored. For another, the community and its interface can evolve in response to the community’s needs and desires.

So what’s Presence?

I see the site developing two kinds of presence. One is the presence of the author. When you’re doing art in an enclosed space, people see it. It’ll be like busking on Main Street. When readers are drawn to the site by authors they already admire or by the sheer fun of a social website dedicated to Mormon speculative literature, they will encounter authors they wouldn’t have heard about any other way. Obscurity will be hard to find.

The other kind of presence is that of the community. The community of Mormon speculative fiction writers and readers will condense from a loosey-goosey accretion disk of a willy-nilly Diaspora into a massive gravitational whole capable of perturbing anything remotely near it. More good Mormon speculative fiction will get written to feed the hungry readers trekking in across the Plains and more Mormon speculative fiction will get consumed, meaning MoSpecLit writers will have greater opportunities for everything from local recognition to full-fledged marquee careers, depending on what the market and the volume and quality of their output can support.

And community?

This is the part I’m really looking forward to.

Back when I was doing the second course of the MDE, the class divided into groups of three or four to study and critique a research paper. My group chose a paper by an Egyptian educational technology researcher called Alaa Sadik. One of the guys hosted our discussions on his blog and I linked to the paper from the blog. Next thing we know, Alaa Sadik himself emails me about the discussion and becomes part of it. He’d caught the link in his site log, gone to the referring comment and decided to get in touch.

This experience was an epiphany for me. In theory, with the Internet as it stands, students, professionals and scholars have direct, rapid access to each other and can benefit from and influence each other’s contributions without the intervention of scholarly publications. This realization led me to invent the SPAJ (Student, Professional and Academic Journal), a combination blog and journal network. At one point I had SPAJAL (Applied Linguistics) and SPAJDE (Distance Education) on my SiteGround account. I was the only member of both networks, but, hey, it was proof of concept.

Now apply that to Mormon speculative fiction. Let’s say you’re an aspiring writer of MoSpecLit. Your first story, “Sariah Smith, Space Exorcist”, just isn’t grabbing readers on Wattpad or Lowly Seraphim or anywhere and you’re not sure why. It’s obviously missing something and you have a vague sense of what it might be, but you lack the technical savvy and critical eye to pin it down and root it out. While reading around on Lowly Seraphim, you’ve discovered that certain authors attract hordes of readers and are happy to interact with them. Some have posts giving good advice and some have posted advice in comments on stories that needed tweaking. Unfortunately, none of them is among your readership, but you know the site motto is Gathering, Presence and Community, so you single one potential mentor out, navigate to his or her user page and leave a message with a link to your story. Within a week or so, you’re getting a response and before long you’re seeing at least some of the light. Meanwhile, some of that response was under your story and the next thing you know, people who follow your mentor are popping in to add their two penneth. You’ve shown promise, humility and initiative, so you’re invited to a workshop hosted by a member of your mentor’s network, right there on Lowly Seraphim. Now you and other neophytes are sitting at the digital feet of a master, say Steven Peck (who’s already got a story up on the site, by the way), and are learning how to turn left by steering right. All this happens because you are a member of a community, among the members of which there are no poor if we can help it.

So helping out will be mandatory?

No more than at church. I think Lowly Seraphim will attract the kind of people who like to help, though. Of course, nobody wants to be harassed, and we’ll have to find ways to give everybody control of how and how often they can be approached for help. There could be all kinds of solutions—maybe some sort of “callings” system where qualified mentors take turns fielding pleas for guidance, and a user block function would be nice to have handy. Once we get off Drupal Gardens and onto rented space, we’ll be able to provide all sorts of enhancements and interventions.

Sounds good. How does the site actually work?

You mean you want a tour?

This will go more efficiently if I teach you a little Drupalspeak: content, views, fields, terms and books.

Content is whatever people post. Responses to posts are called comments and responses to comments are called replies. The beauty of Drupal in this regard is that a given site can create its own content types. So far on Lowly Seraphim we have twelve content types: blog post, book, fiction, interview, news, page, poem, profile, review, conference, forum and workshop. News is the privileged purview of site administrators, but anyone with an account on Lowly Seraphim can add any of the other types, including books, which are collections of posts. Details on selecting the appropriate content type are on the site.

Views are collections of content displayed together, usually as titles and teasers. Lowly Seraphim has separate views for each genre of speculative fiction and poetry as well as for blog posts and the other content types. When you post a piece of fiction, you are asked to select the applicable genres and the appropriate length from built-in fields. The views then filter the fiction post according to the terms you selected. There is even a view called Filter where readers can improvise to taste.

That’s enough to be getting on with, thanks. So, do you think that Lowly Seraphim will make other bits of the Bloggernacle obsolete?

Absolutely not! No more than the Church makes families obsolete. And this is not my lady protesting too much. I expect it to increase the presence of other Bloggernacle sites, from the unknown neophyte’s lonely little blog to the AML homepage to published authors’ online commercial outlets. In time, individuals and groups may migrate to Lowly Seraphim, although I recommend maintaining a separate web presence as well if you’re a really serious author or special interest group.

Lowly Seraphim isn’t about taking over the Bloggernacle or any part of it. It’s about filling a niche and filling gaps. It’s about interacting over content to an extent not allowed by other sites.

Let’s say, for instance, I’ve posted a story called “There Shall Be Time No More”. You’ve read it and you want to talk about it with me or with other readers. You can do that right there, under the fiction post, of course, as on any interactive lit site, but you can also create your own forum about it, or about that piece and anything you care to relate to it. For example, you might want to bring in Danny Nelson and Eric W. Jepson’s “Blood-Red Fruit”, which you read in The Fob Bible. Or, let’s say that on Dawning of a Brighter Day you remarked that it’s interesting to compare Mark Penny’s “The Defection of Baby Mixo” with Steven L. Peck’s “Let the Mountains Tremble for Adoniha has Fallen”, because both are set on Mars yet are so dissimilar (in ways that would not be flattering for me, if elicited, so I shall forbear). You could whip over to Lowly Seraphim, create a forum, then whip back to DBD and post a link to the forum—where the comparison could be discussed at length without overloading people’s browsers or swamping DBD’s Recent posts widget.

What about other forms of fiction beside the speculative? Why aren’t they included?

Someday they may be. I think about this issue from time to time, not least because I write some of those forms, but a pointed spear cuts deeper. And I’m not greedy. Other folks may see what we’re doing with LS and decide to do the same for Mormon westerns, romance, mystery, historical fiction or whatever. I’d like to leave them room to. Besides, it’s the Internet, gosh darn it! All these things can be linked up.

Which brings me to a couple of functions we haven’t discussed. Lonely Seraphim will serve in part as a webring and webportal. There’ll be a block (widget) or page with a blogroll linking to any MoLit website that makes itself known to me, and users can link to and recommend anything they like that bears some form of chaste relationship to the socio-religious aspect of the site.

What about art?

Oh, yes! We want art, but only if it’s free. At this point, everything is volunteer and voluntary. We can’t pay for a thing. I would love to use original art by Mormon artists. Surely there are a few graphic artists out there who would like to contribute to this project and increase their own presence. They are definitely welcome.

How soon can people sign up?

Like I say, Lowly Seraphim is open for business right now. Unfortunately, the free Drupal Gardens site comes with a user limit of five, so we need new digs. I’ve been looking around and I think we’ll be at SiteGround before long, if I can scrape up the cash. There are pros and cons to going solo with the platform, but I look forward to being able to add modules as desired rather than working within the restrictions of the current host. Meanwhile, you can sign up and post a story or so and a few comments before I temporarily block your account to make room for more new users. It’s a pain all around, but so is having a baby.

When you first announced the initiative, people thought it was going to be an online magazine with submission and editing and all that. Will there be anything like that on the site?

Actually, yes! It will take time to get to that point, but I plan on developing an e-zine of the best contributions each month. Initially, the e-zine will be available in a separate view. It’s main purpose will be as a quick look into what we’re producing as a community, but it may develop into something we can package and sell, with money going to the authors and the site (if it gets big and busy, we’ll probably have to rent more space and bandwidth). I hope the editing of the selected material will be a combination of expert and folk editing. We’ll see what unfolds.

What do you mean by “expert” and “folk” editing?

I though we understood each other better than that.

Expert editing is what you get at a magazine: people who are supposed to know what’s good and what’s not and what needs changing and how. Sometimes they’re paid. Folk editing is done by the community, as people respond to a contribution, pointing out what works and what doesn’t and what might work better and so forth.

I hope that from time to time we will even produce work as a community, in the way ethno-geographic communities have produced folktales, fairy tales, legends and myths, only we will do it light years faster and with more skill. Say I write a story and you do a rewrite and someone else rewrites your version and so on until all the fat is off and the muscle is on. There are other ways it could be done, such as contributing specialties. For example, I might put out a premise which you might build sequences around and so on. I think it would be great to be part of a community that helps individuals shine and also does good work together, a kind of free-market united order. But that’s all up to evolution. Some things will catch on. Some things won’t. Some things will catch on now. Some things will catch on later.

Last question: What’s in it for you?

Saving the bottom line for the bottom line, eh?

There’s a pile of good stuff in it for me. In three words: Gathering, Presence, Community. Specifically? I get to hobnob with embryonic giants. I get to drop names, maybe even be a name that’s dropped (but not from the roster, please). I get to post at least three times on a major MoLit blog. I get to see my name in This Month in Mormon Literature, right next to Ender Wiggin (which is pretty close to Orson Scott Card). I get to benefit from the superior pull of better (and better-known) authors. I get to mine the minds of people who know how to do what I’m trying to do. I get to be a mind that’s mined. I get to be part of an artistic movement that serves ethically and aesthetically. I get to fill part of the measure of my creation.

The seagull has landed. The field is white. The shield-backed katydids are on the run.

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5 Responses to Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part III: Interview with the Instigator

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    As my contribution to the cause — if someone can design a flyer, I’ll print up 100 copies or so to leave on the freebie table at LTUE Feb. 14-16. (I’d have to get the flyer by Feb. 12.)

    • Mark Penny says:

      That’s mighty neighbourly. I’ll let my subconscious work on it for a couple of days and get back to you. Unless somebody with a graphic flare wants to take up the task.

  2. I LOVE it when somebody has done the vast, confounding snarly complicated work of modern tech and come up with what sounds like a synthesis.

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