I had my sister read a short story I wrote recently before I queried it off to magazines. It’s about an animal advocate and her boyfriend who reap the full consequences of sneaking deadly endangered spiders (and snakes) onto a terraformed asteroid, none the least of which is the prospect of losing their sanity–and humanity–to the spider’s venom (like my one-sentence pitch?). My sister told me she was pleased that my story managed to avoid what she called “LDS Author Syndrome” for the most part. Except for one moment toward the end where it went from sublime to ridiculous back to sublime. That is, in the face of the other moral challenges my character was facing, and failing at, I scrambled to come up with a good reason why she wouldn’t have sex with her now-deranged boyfriend (because I really didn’t want her to). I could certainly still come up with an excuse, but the excuse I gave–sudden religious reservations (not even my own religion)–felt really contrived. I asked my sister if she thought putting more detail into a not-so-detailed sensual dance scene would help, and she steered me in that it was my character’s reasoning for avoiding sex, rather than other details, that needed to be tweaked to make the situation feel more genuine. And my sister was absolutely right.
I think whenever new authors set out to plot their stories and create great scenes, there’s a tendency to overdo things in some way, particularly in the department of description. For many in the writing world, I would say the “liberal” tendency is to write with absolutely no inhibition: to slather on the sex, violence, and profanity in extreme, not to mention nauseating, and sometimes comically ridiculous detail that’s so over-the-top it’s not even good. Check out the variety of
badly written overdone first chapters you can find on writing communities like Authonomy (bless you, Authonomy). For newbie authors on the other end of the spectrum–the “conservatives”–I think the natural tendency is to hold back on a scene that may be too violent or sensual or cruel or profane or anything else for their normal tastes; or to contrive away a bit of dialogue or detail so that swearing and other unpleasant things do not occur that then have to be written about.
This is where my “LDS Author Syndrome” comes in. (And it has nothing to do with betraying personal standards. You should never write about something you hate, that feels wrong, or that is way too controversial for your level of comfort. You won’t enjoy it anyway. The key is to write genuinely. If you write genuinely, you’ll be surprised at how well your standards will be able to stand on their own two feet). My personal tendency is to be liberal about violence but conservative about sex and profanity (although my written profanity meter has grown more moderate lately). There is certainly nothing wrong if you decide it would be best to focus your fiction in such a way that your characters never swear or they don’t have to deal with serious immorality, or any other topic that might be particularly complicated or troubling to you. Many, many readers–I’d argue all of us at least sometimes–find comfort in a story that isn’t going to betray our moral or emotional expectations in any serious way. But hopefully, if you venture outside your comfort zone just a little bit and allow yourself to get inside the heads of deeply and appropriately flawed individuals (with different kinds of flaws, challenges, and human weaknesses than your own), it will open you up to a greater sense of empathy for the human condition, and, most importantly, teach you that the things you value most will not actually cave in the face of serious moral dilemmas. I think that writing flawed characters, whether dark or heroic, by asking real questions will actually strengthen and tone your value system by helping you establish your own opinions about human nature and learn to trust yourself.
For all authors, both “liberal” and “conservative” (I’m really not a very political person so don’t read too much into this), the key to writing a solid story is about finding the place where content, detail, and impressions are painted in a genuine, meaningful way rather than over- or underdone. Don’t force your characters to be crass if they don’t have to be; and don’t force them to be benevolent creatures that never swear, never struggle with temptations, and never have to confront violence if it also seems unrealistic for the character or situation. If your goal is to write something genuine, even if it means getting thrifty on detail so it doesn’t offend your readers to death or venturing just a little bit into your sensitivities to where it hurts, you’ll create something that will touch readers and draw an audience to hear more of what you have to say. As with everything, practice makes perfect.