Liner notes for Conference

WHM discusses his contemporary Mormon literary realism short story “Conference” and reveals the Seven Point Plot Structure outline for it.

My short story “Conference” was published in the latest issue of Irreantum, the literary journal for the Association for Mormon Letters. The idea for this story came to me while I was flying from Oakland to Salt Lake City on May 5, 2007. I was on the first leg of travel to a second interview for a job in Minneapolis.

I have no notes on what I was thinking at the time, but as I recall I wanted to write about a single, educated Mormon woman, and I wanted her to be at an academic conference in San Francisco held in a fancy-ish hotel.

Here’s the first line I wrote: “Jason, the only other Mormon at the conference had invited her to go out with him and his Medievalist buddes, but he was married, and she had no desire to hang out in a bar and watch him watch his friends get drunk.”

It wasn’t until August 8, 2010, that I returned to the story and fleshed out more of the characters/situation. My notes says that I wrote them while attending church. That’s where I had the idea for Jason to be married to Sara’s former mission companion/college roommate and best friend.

At some point later (I don’t have a date or month), I took the story and put it into Dan Wells’ Seven Point Plot Structure system. It was the first story I ever used the system with — and the first story that I ever outlined in a structural way (as opposed to just a list of fragments and/or scenes). Here is that outline. I find it somewhat embarassing to read now (it seems so slight and clumsy), but I’m going to share it anyway because I want to show how the structure works in a contemporary literary fiction story (all of the other examples I have seen have been SF&F):

Hook: Sara is feeling torn between valuing her Mormonism and seeing it as a liability (and that she is a novelty)

Plot turn 1: everybody is going out — she decides to duck any decisions/conversation and be on her own w/out either part of her two identities

Pinch 1: missionaries showing up at Burger King (or wherever) is a reminder that she can’t just duck her Mormon identity

Midpoint: Sara decides to bring the missionaries in to her world and spend time with them, to basically do the inverse of what Jason is doing

Pinch 2: it’s an awkward fit albeit a pleasant time

Plot turn 2: Jason/Robert shows up and is snidely amused by how she spent her evening — she decides to shame him by calling his wife (which he was supposed to do)

Resolution: Sara calls his wife, but ends up covering for Jason and instead reconnects with herself as a Mormon woman through her conversation

I think the Pinch 2 isn’t quite right. And I need a stronger Hook and Resolution (and I think the actual story has that — it’s just not expressed very well in the outline). But even so, the outline helped immensely. And completing this story by using an outline pushed me farther along my track to get going with writing SF&F short fiction. Something I had avoided because I didn’t know if I could write something with, you know, actual plot.

“Conference” is also the first story that I have written solely from the point of view of a woman (my unpublished story “Dark Watch”, which was completed before this one includes a female POV character, but since it’s post-apocalyptic fiction told in second person in alternating POVs, it didn’t really feel like preparation to tackle this story). It’s also the first full-length short story I have had published (“Gentle Persuasions” was a suite of short shorts, and everything else has been some form of flash fiction/creative writing or another).

I will admit that writing from a female POV meant that there was a slight, extra layer of resistance to overcome to get the words on the page. What helped (other than the fact that Sara is a Mormon graduate student in the Humanities who is only a decade younger than me, which is kinda cheating) was when I realized that the story wasn’t about Sara and Jason — it was about Sara and Megan. Which is not to say that Jason doesn’t complicate that whole thing. As I mentioned to the editor I worked with: Marriage in Mormonism really complicates friendships. In fact, Mormonism complicates friendship full stop. This story was an attempt to illustrate that (as well as a few other things).

Other notes:

1. “Conference” was one of two short stories I entered in the 2011 Irreantum Fiction Contest. Neither placed so it was a lovely surprise to find out later that Irreantum wanted to publish the story.

3. Sara’s best friend in the story was originally named Michelle. Courtney Miller Santo’s story, which appears in the same issue, features a character with the name of Michelle, and her Michelle gets more screen time so I was totally fine with changing the best friend’s name to Megan. I mention this to show that stories are affected by other stories in the journal/magazine/anthology.

4. There is no San Francisco Marriott Union Square. I wanted to be free to make the lobby and bar decor what I needed it to be so I made up an additional San Francisco Marriott.

5. This is a very different creative work from Melissa Leilani Larson’s play “Little Happy Secrets” (and a much less ambitious, complicated, crafted one), but it is covering some of the same territory. Much of this story predates my reading of that play. However, the revisions of it happened after I read the play, and while I can’t point to any direct influence, I think it’s quite likely that the energy of Larson’s work helped push me through some of the more thorny parts of the revisions.

3 thoughts on “Liner notes for Conference”

  1. Fascinating and you have such clarity about process. I can’t wait to actually read it. So funny about Michelle! I would have changed mine to megan if they’d asked!

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