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Monday, October 10, 2011

How to Turn Your Mormon Story into a National Bestseller

by Scott Hales (bio)

Let’s say that ever since your days as a Blazer in knee-high Scout socks or a Merry Miss in whatever it is Merry Misses wear, you’ve wanted to write a best-selling novel about Mormons. So you spent no small percentage of your life coming up with plots and characters that have the potential to become, if written down and translated correctly, the means of bringing about great fame and financial success for you and your posterity.

It’s not like Mormon stories haven't hit it big before. A few years ago, novelist David Ebershoff did just that with The 19th Wife. And get this: they even made a Lifetime Original Movie based on the part of the novel that didn’t require a lavish budget.

Pretty cool.

And don’t forget Jacquelyn Mitchard’s best-seller Cage of Stars and Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, both of which have Mormons in them. Angels even won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and that’s almost as impressive as being on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s more than The Book of Mormon musical can say for itself, having only won a few Tony awards.

But let’s get back to your novel. For you to write a Mormon story with Best-Selling Potential (BSP), you’re probably going to need some help. As easy as the South Park boys make it seem, it’s not easy to tell a Mormon story. Especially if you’ve been a Mormon all your life.

So I’ve drawn up this list of guidelines to help you along as you write a Mormon novel that someone other than your mother and home teacher will want to read. I promise: follow these guidelines, and your wallet will quadruple in size. You might even get an interview on The Today Show.


The quickest way for your novel to become a bestseller is to exhaust half your word count on detailed explanations of unique Mormon terminology. Like “ward” or “Mia Maid.” Never assume your readers know what you’re talking about. Remember, most of them are the same kind of people who rejected you on your mission. You can’t expect them to put two and two together.

So you’ll need paragraphs like this one:

Tom arrived late to Sacrament Meeting. Sacrament Meeting is the religious service Mormons hold every Sunday. During Sacrament Meeting, they usually partake, or eat, of the sacrament, or communion, listen to three or four talks, or amateur sermons, and sing two or three hymns, or devotional songs. According to many Mormons, Sacrament Meeting is the most important hour of the week. On the first Sunday of every month, or regular cycle of the moon, they have Fast and Testimony Meeting, a special Sacrament Meeting…

You get the idea.

Gentile readers eat detailed definitions up. It’s like literary crack for them. The more you define, the more they’ll want to read. But you've got to be careful. Don’t get too detailed. Especially when dealing with the Mysteries of the Kingdom, like the Mother’s Lounge.

Ditch the faith-promoting angle

Nothing gets rejected faster by New York publishing houses than novels that take Mormon spiritual experiences seriously. What they want is disillusionment. That’s hot. And if you throw an excommunication in somewhere, you’ve got gold.

Think about it: if your novel even hints that Mormonism is a valid belief system, readers are going to think that you’re trying to convert them. This could seriously hurt your chances for raking in the lettuce. Think about your bank account, friend.

What you want to do is write a novel about a Mormon—male or female, it doesn’t matter—who takes a “journey of the soul” that begins in a cloistered Mormon home (family prayer, family home evening, no dating before sixteen, a curfew, etc.) and ends either in India or a bar or a bar in India. Along the way, this character needs to have emotional confrontations with his or her parents, during which the verb “to plea” is used three or four times, and at least one run-in with a highly attractive secular humanist who has copies of Foucault and Camus scattered throughout his or her studio apartment. Also, make sure your protagonist first goes inactive in New York City or London. This is crucial.

And don’t forget to define what “inactive” and “excommunication” mean.

Utah = Conservative Dystopia

The goal here is to make Utah as much unlike New York City as possible. So you have to make sure that none of your characters are BYU hipsters—unless they are disaffected doubting BYU hipsters. The success of your novel depends on it.

Exaggerate the crap out of the stereotypes. Think A Handmaid’s Tale meets Leave it to Beaver. Forget that Utah actually has liberals and minorities. Forget that Mormons are really nice people. What you want is a faceless patriarchy with intricate spy networks and lots of pale straight-laced theozombies with parted hair and a seemingly endless supply of Crest White Strips. And if you can find a way to work a Glenn Beck-like figure into the mix, you’ve basically turned water into wine.

Simply put: frighten your readers. Make Rick Perry’s Texas look like a liberal’s paradise.

Polygamy. Polygamy. Polygamy.

Let’s face it: you can’t write a best-selling Mormon novel without polygamy. It can’t be done. Not if you want a bestseller and a Lifetime Original Movie deal.

This certainly worked well for best-selling nineteenth century and early twentieth century works about Mormonism. I recommend reading Maria Ward’s Female Life Among the Mormons, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Eliza Ann Young’s Wife No. 19, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage and The Rainbow Trail, and especially H. B. Parkinson’s film Trapped by the Mormons to become familiar with the conventions of the genre. It also probably wouldn’t hurt to watch every episode of Big Love, Sister Wives, and The Bachelor.

Above all else, you must to keep in mind that no one wants to read a realistic representation of Mormon life. Your best bet is to forget everything you know about Mormons and stick with the tried and true stereotypes. Give the reading masses what they want. And please, in your dust jacket bio, don’t admit that you’re a Mormon. You’ll lose all credibility.

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