Conflict Schmonflict

Don’t you hate people for whom everything comes easily, or seems to?  Everything goes smoothly for them, they never have any glitches, and if they do they always know the right person to call or where to seek answers.  Those of us who struggle with the daily details of life resent them.

Of course, you could argue that there are probably hidden areas of their lives that are seething with conflict.  And here lies interest.  As in real life, conflict in a story shows character, in how your protagonist reacts to it and how he handles it.

Ashley is the protagonist in your imaginary novel.  She is pretty, accomplished, has a loving boyfriend named Garth and a wonderful family.  She sees her parents regularly, she and her siblings get along, and she has a well-paying and engaging career (insert fabulous job here).  Everything is perfect.  If Ashley goes through the novel without any of these details changing, the reader will fall asleep.  Ashley is boring.   Ashley could also be described as author wish fulfillment.  Either way, who wants to read about someone whose life is perfect?

Something has to happen for Ashley to keep the reader’s interest.  Something she holds dear must be threatened.  Her boyfriend could break up with her.  Is that enough?  Well, it might be, if it drives her to change her life somehow or she meets someone more dramatic, as in a women’s fiction or romance tome.  In a thriller or mystery, her boyfriend could kill or be framed for killing her parents.  She could stand by him and poof, there goes the job and the siblings.  How will Ashley find her way out of this dilemma?  Fantasy or horror could find Ashley fighting monsters from a parallel dimension who threaten her perfect life, a zombie serial killer or aliens taking over her town.

Each scene must lead to more conflict or the reader won’t care about Ashley anymore.  You must set up the character so that the reader will believe she is capable of handling the conflict and won’t simply fall apart.  She should have some lurking problem area where her reaction will let us know her better.

In Robert R. McCammon’s 1990 novel Mine, the pregnant protagonist Laura is concerned about her struggling marriage.  She hopes the new baby will bring her and her distant husband together again.  The character begins the novel with conflict already in place.  Laura isn’t sure what to do about her husband, but she knows her baby will have all of her even if he doesn’t have his father.  McCammon gets to explore Laura here, and we can see her personality, her doubts and her fears about the future.

Back to Ashley.  Say you take the thriller/mystery angle.  Perhaps you could set up some uncertainty with Garth, or with his relationship to her parents.  Maybe the parents don’t like him, but Ashley knows he is a good man.  Her faith in his integrity presents a problem later.

Ashley comes home from her job one day to find Garth in her apartment, covered with blood.  He runs out the door and vanishes.  The police come and tell her that her parents are dead, killed with a knife that has Garth’s fingerprints all over it.  From there begins the character’s quest to clear her boyfriend’s name and find the real killer.  How will she do that?

Because you took the time to establish doubt about Garth’s integrity earlier, the conflict has more legs.  Ashley will not only have to search for her parents’ killer, but fight the harsh attitude of her siblings, who may believe Garth actually did kill them.  Why else would he run?

The search for a killer and a man’s innocence will work fine by itself in a mystery.  In a straight thriller, you might have to ramp up the conflict and make it more dangerous.  In Mine, for example, Laura’s baby is kidnapped from the hospital.  Unfortunately for her, it’s not an ordinary barren woman who takes little David, but a deadly fugitive radical named Mary Terror, who is following her hallucinations to her former lover and the leader of their now-defunct underground group, baby in tow.  The life of Laura’s child is in jeopardy, a powerful motivator.  Desperate to find her son, she takes it on herself to follow Mary and the action begins.

Laura has to grow to meet her challenge.  She finds herself doing things she never imagined she could do.  The errant and useless husband is discarded.  The only focus she has now is to find her baby.  Along the way, numerous problems arise that add to her frustration and fear, and keep the stakes high.

Keep the conflict moving.  If Ashley could walk out the door, find a mysterious letter that clears Garth’s name and turn it in to the police, then the story would be over.  It helps sometimes to think in terms of a film adaptation; since film has to get to the bare bones of the story quickly, extraneous asides are often eliminated.  You can use this as an exercise to draw out the conflict and keep it focused.  Ashley could start getting mysterious hang-up calls, and her car might be disabled, or her life threatened as she gets closer to discovering who killed her parents and why.  If you build on the original conflict and thwart her repeatedly as she goes, she will have to think laterally to get around obstacles and change to meet the new challenges.  This will keep the reader engaged in her plight.

And don’t forget to give her a reason to keep going, like Laura saving her baby.  Could she begin to have doubts about Garth herself?  Sure, if it will make the story more interesting.  But something should happen to convince her that he is innocent, and that he needs her help.  Otherwise she might give up entirely and move on.  The reader probably wouldn’t buy that; he/she would want to know everything and if you don’t deliver, you’ve lost a reader.

You should give Garth some face time as well.  His conflicts will allow you to introduce the villain who framed him and provide a link to Ashley through that character or the difficulties he/she sets up for her.  Weave a web of intrigue for her to navigate.  Let her save, or try to save, her boyfriend.  How it ends is up to you.

Whether your character’s conflicts are internal or external or a mixture of both, every scene you write must drive the resolution of that conflict.  If you prefer to have your character acted upon, make sure you have a good reason for it.  Most thriller readers prefer a protagonist who helps himself, but in the right story, a victim can make an engaging character provided she has some degree of autonomy.  Even if Ashley does fall apart, she has to make decisions sooner or later, even if they’re bad ones.  In literary fiction, a helpless approach might work if you’re exploring your character’s inner life.  In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber’s character did nothing in the real world, but in his mind was a daring and brave adventurer.

Give your character stuff to do.  Her actions and how she deals with conflict will establish her as a well-rounded person.   If you have noticed any good examples of conflict you would like to share, please note them in the comments.

Shiny New

Today I made a red lentil dahl, an Indian dish composed of lentils with spices cooked in oil.  The recipe didn’t call for them, but I added onions because I like them, and used minced garlic instead of garlic powder.  I also used red lentils instead of brown.  I like brown but I didn’t want to wait for them to cook.  I’m not very knowledgeable about Indian cuisine, but I like to experiment a bit.  The recipe, which I found online, was quite tasty even though the poster said it wasn’t strictly authentic.  Not all my culinary adventures turn out well, but this one did.  Now my house smells like cumin.

It’s good to try new things.  Writing in different genres and forms is the only way you will discover which ones fit best.  Some experiments might not be successful, but where would we be if we didn’t try?

Poetry, for example, isn’t my strong point, but every once in a while I do come up with something.  I envy those who write strong verse, whether it rhymes or not.  Good poetry has a rhythm, a power to it that goes beyond the words.  You can feel it in the best stuff even when you read it to yourself, and it’s spectacular when spoken.  I’m afraid mine isn’t that good.  Yes, okay, here’s an example.

Shining like a new penny, in pocket black

Tell me where the hiding place is

For your deepest feelings.

Tell me what is lurking in the darkness of your soul

Or do you even know?

Is it worth the copper glow?

Or is it dull and ordinary, telling by its smudgy worn texture

How many times you have taken it, and worried it,

And tried to give it away?

How many times was it returned to you, and

Did you polish it again

Before you tried to give it to me?

I don’t know or care who held it or how long it wandered.

I’ll take it and hold it,

If you give it freely,

If you love with all your heart.

That was the result of a writing exercise using a cliché, in this case “new penny.”  The point of the exercise was to use words in a new way, ascribing meaning to them through metaphor or interpretation, and made them fresh.  For me, poetry is playing.   I don’t know if I succeeded, but it was fun.

New forms and expressions enrich your work, and trying new things in life do the same.  There is research and there is doing something or experiencing something firsthand, like making dahl.  If I were to write about an Indian woman cooking for her family, I would need to know not only how her food is prepared, but what it smells like, how it tastes, its texture and color.  If I have never experienced Indian cuisine, I would not know these things.  Telling readers about the recipe is fine, but no description beyond that doesn’t give the writing any real flavor (pardon the pun).

Not all writers work this way.  Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, wrote authentically about Transylvania without ever having been there.  For some people and subjects, research will suffice but for others, knowing is better.  I prefer to have a little feel for what I’m writing about.  I have a story lurking in the back of my head about a mountain climber.  I’ve learned a few things about climbing but have never attempted it.  It’s something I would like to try, if I could get over my fear of heights, but given that it’s an expensive sport and there are no real mountains where I live, this one is going to have to wait.  The sport is simply too technical to describe without attempting to learn more.

Besides authentic detail, trying new things enriches you.  It keeps your brain working and stretches your emotional range.  All this makes your writing better.  You don’t have to be a closeted recluse to write.  Get out there and live.

Please share in the comments how your experiences have translated well into your art.

What Title Page?!

I’ve been following an excellent blog called Author! Author! by Anne Mini (the link is in my blogroll, or click on the title in this post).  She has dedicated her time to giving writers very detailed advice about everything from character-building to contracts. For some weird reason my browser hates to magnify her page, but I’ll squint because everything she says is worth it.

Her last series of posts is on manuscript formatting.  Now, I thought I had that down.  Turns out that a newbie like me is also an idiot who doesn’t know poo from Pooh.  Her advice has prompted a spate of revision from which my poor book will hopefully emerge in a more marketable form.

Before reformatting, I had to address word count.  Most genre books average around 80,000 – 90,000 words. A few push 100,000 but not many, unless you’re talking about fantasy, which can end up with crazy word counts because of the need to establish an alternate universe.  My crime thriller started at 110,000, then during rewrites swelled to 125,000.  At last revision, it had gone down to 112,200.

The longer a book is, the more paper it take to print, the more it costs, and it’s less likely an agent is going to bite.  It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but it was still too damn long.  4100 words have come out and are still bleeding from the page.

As I posted in “Slice and Dice,” extras can go bye-bye and will reduce your count considerably. A long description of a place or someone’s outfit can take up a lot of room.  So can interior monologue. It’s tempting to go all stream-of-consciousness on the reader when your character is contemplating something, but keep it short.  I cut a ton of blah-de-blah and I’m still doing it.

Stephen King once said, “I write like fat ladies diet.” On and on and on.  If you’re Stephen King, you can do whatever you want.  Under the Dome is huge; you could use it to stop a fire door.  But go back to some of his earlier works, specifically Carrie, his first published novel, and the difference is vast.   Carrie is noticeably shorter.  Experience doesn’t always mean longer books, but by the time you publish forty-plus novels, you better have a handle on what you’re doing.  Under the Dome is long because it has to be, and because SK’s publishers know that his fans will buy it even if they have to cart it around in a wheelbarrow.  You, the unknown, will not be so lucky.

With blogs like Ms Mini’s and other sources of information, proper formatting for a book manuscript isn’t some arcane knowledge writers must travel to a guru’s cave to learn.  There really isn’t any excuse except being too lazy to seek it, or too egotistical to believe that one’s precious manuscript might need reformatting, editing or some other help to catch a jaded agent’s eye.

Fonts can make a big difference.  I’m not talking about shrinking from 12-point to ten.  That would cause severe eyestrain and land your manuscript in the round file immediately.  I mean choosing a professional font, which is NOT Edwardian Script or Jokerman. I was using Courier New, an acceptable font that is easy for me to read, but it’s bigger than Times New Roman.  When I changed fonts, the page count went down so far I wasn’t sure I was looking at the same book.  It looks better, too.

It’s still too long.

One caveat:  when extensively revising and reformatting, don’t forget to regularly SAVE YOUR WORK.  Something went wrong with my document and I lost all the chapter reordering and cuts that I had done past a certain point.  I had to redo them from scratch.  Lucky for me my notes page remained intact.  Blargh!

I’ll let Ms Mini explain the finer points of professional manuscript formatting to you.  Please read her blog.  If you learn as much as possible about proper presentation and querying, then the only excuse you’ll have left for the file box full of rejections is that you just can’t write, or you’ve just quit trying.

If you have any comments on the subject of formatting and presentation, please share below.


Check out some famous people’s workspaces:

Some people say they can write anywhere.  They prove it by sitting in public with their laptops while life goes on around them, sometimes noisily, happily tapping away or even scribbling in a notebook with an old-fashioned ballpoint pen (mercy!).  Others must have complete silence, or at least its approximation, and an isolated room before they can concentrate.

The space doesn’t matter, as long as it’s compatible with the individual writer’s needs.  If you have a family you may have to adopt a room or an alcove in a busy house and call it your own and make a rule about when Mommy’s door is shut, she is not to be disturbed.  Conversely, if you live alone, you can move around the house or even take the laptop in the backyard without fear of being disturbed.  You can write in a treehouse, if that’s the best place for you.

What are some of the elements that make a good writing space?

  • It should be comfortable.  Whether that means a nice squishy office chair, all blanketed up on the couch or in bed, or the recliner in the den, you shouldn’t have to think about physical discomfort when you write.  The temperature should not be extreme; too cold and you can’t type, too warm and it’s hard to concentrate.
  • Your supplies should be at hand.  I learned this in college when writing papers.  Most people who have a dedicated office already have everything organized.  If you are making do with a corner of the kitchen or family room, make sure before you start that your materials are right there.  It’s a pain to have to get up and fetch a book or load the printer.  Check before you sit down so interruptions stay at a minimum.
  • Not too cluttered.  It’s hard to work amidst piles of teetering pages, books, scattered receipts, rolling pencils, etc.  The mess starts to get to you and you might stop working and start cleaning.  Or, you could end up berating yourself for your lack of organization and retire in self-defeat.
  • Noise levels.  I work better when I have something to ignore, usually music or sometimes the TV, set on low.  You might want a more quiet space, or enjoy playing thrash metal while you pen your latest tome.  Doesn’t matter if it’s loud or soft; whatever helps you get into your trance state.  If you like working in public, your tolerance to noise is probably pretty good.
  • Good lighting.  You can’t work if you can’t see, and straining your eyes will give you a headache.  If you work on a computer, take frequent breaks from looking at the screen.  Even moving your eyes to a different part of the room will give them ease.  Don’t make the screen too bright, either.  Most computers let you adjust that either on the monitor itself or in the Control Panel.

You know to print out a hard copy for editing, right?  Not only will it rest your eyes, but people cannot read effectively on a computer screen for a length of time.  (Kindles aren’t the same, or so I hear.  I wouldn’t know because I’m not spending $400 on something I can’t take into the tub with me.)

All of this holds true for homework, if you’re a student.  A good study space will help your grades immeasurably.  My writing center is on the couch, under a blanket, with the TV on and music playing in my headphones.  I used to do homework there before I finished school.  I can adapt; I’ve written at work, at lunch and at my desk during downtime.  The headphones are a must so I can block out any noise from outside or other people, like in the lunchroom.

I haven’t tried working in a coffee shop or other public venue; I might when I get a smaller netbook with a better battery.  For now, the couch is comfy and since I don’t have a roommate or spouse at the moment, it’s easy to concentrate.

Wherever you work, remember that it is your sacred space, to be used for writing only if you can manage that.  If you keep it so, when you sit down you’ll be ready to go.  If you don’t have a dedicated space, have preparations that get you into the groove.

What’s the best place for you to work and why? Let us know in the comments.

Unnecessary Roughness

On Sunday, I watched Super Bowl 44.  (Okay, I admit, I watched the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet first!) Since I’m not a football fan and don’t have a particular team allegiance, I like to root for the underdog (in this case, the New Orleans Saints, trailing up to the second half) and then switch to whoever is winning (Saints again, in a streak of luck thanks to an intercepted pass and a clear field right to the end zone).

The ease with which professional athletes move about the field got me thinking how many hours of practice these guys have to go through before they make it to this point.  The Super Bowl is the penultimate football game, the Holy Grail for fans and players alike.  It’s the football equivalent of winning a gold medal to wear that ring.  No one can ever take that accomplishment away from the Saints, even if their next season blows.

You have to practice to do anything well.  Few of us arrive on earth with perfect skills in anything. It takes practice to learn to walk, to eat, even to talk.  We practice when we learn to scribble our names in cursive, to do math, to paint, figure skate or play the cello. When we struggle, we don’t tell ourselves “Work a little harder;” or “You can do it,” or even “I think I can, I think I can.” No, what’s the first thing that pops into our heads?

“I suck.”

Why do we do that? I do it when I’m fighting to learn a figure skating move.  I’ve been trying to learn the Lutz jump for a long time now. I can do a half Lutz (not a full rotation), and it’s a beaut:  I vault up off the ice like Michael Jordan.  Attempting the full jump one day, I got some hang time in which I felt the pull of gravity leave me for a second.  It freaked me out so much I popped the jump and hit the ice like an anvil.  If I could only get the full rotation, my Lutz, even though it will probably always be a single, will be spectacular.

If only I didn’t suck!

I think the reason we say that to ourselves is because sometimes the effort tires us so much we lose sight of why we’re doing it. Our reward is the prize, accolades, medals or that coveted spot on the bestseller list. Who cares what number it is, just so our name appears under that heading in the Sunday paper?

Do the football players dream of the Super Bowl? Sure they do.  But why do they play? Their chance of making it is slim, at best. Being picked for a team that has the chops to make it and consistently plays its best game every week throughout the season is no guarantee.  Actually playing at the Super Bowl is no guarantee of winning.  Look at that lovely moment on Sunday, where the stars aligned and the underdog team’s player caught the ball and turned to see a blessedly empty field in front of him, and ran toward the beckoning end zone like a lover through a meadow.  The opportunity was there, and he was ready, because—say it with me, kids!—he had practiced.

Lots and lots of practice.  When the moment came, he was ready.  We can do it and we will because we take the time to rehearse the scenario.  What will we do if we win the bestseller lottery? It’s almost guaranteed NOT to happen, really.  If we don’t, what’s to stop us from berating ourselves and giving up entirely?

We do it because we want to.  Because we love it.  I don’t skate because I’ll ever win a gold medal (although I did, just not at the Olympics).  I go out there in the cold wet rink because I love doing it.  It’s the only sport I do.  I can’t play tennis or basketball, and I can’t run either. Even when I hit the ice repeatedly or get hugely frustrated because I can’t get my arms and legs to do what I want, I keep doing it.  Eventually, with practice, I’ll get it.

Writing is the same way. Granted, with skating you need coaching, but there’s a lot a writer can learn on her own.  At some point people will have to read it so you can get feedback and know you’re on the right track.  But it takes practice to get it right, so don’t tear yourself down if you’re having trouble.  The same things I said in a previous post, Feed Me, about criticism that it’s best to ignore, apply here. You’d be upset if someone arbitrarily said you sucked, wouldn’t you?  You shouldn’t do it to yourself either.

Don’t be hard on yourself; learning is a process. It takes time.  Learn to take that negative thought pattern and nip it in the bud.  Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you tell yourself you suck.

If you have any hints or tips to help banish negative thinking, please share them in the comments.


Anyone ever call you a fanboy or fangirl? It’s supposed to be an insult, an implication of slack-jawed devotion to a TV show, movie, anime or band.  Fanboys and girls are stereotyped as obsessive geeks, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with their drug of choice, whether it be Star Wars, Star Trek, LOST, Radiohead, or The Dark Knight.  I admit to a modest collection of movie t-shirts myself, including Harry Potter and Watchmen (yes, Virginia, I read the graphic novel).

Do writers have fans? Yes, they do. I can tell you I’m a total Stephen King fangirl.  I used to send him a Christmas card every year.  No, really.  I don’t do it now because I stopped sending cards out altogether.  At the moment, I’m enamored of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  Their series of co-written thrillers starring cultured FBI agent and master of disguise Aloysius Pendergast absolutely rocks.  I sent an email to them via their website regarding leaked information about the plot of Cemetery Dance and Lincoln Child sent me a gracious email back. That was a thrill for a fan, let me tell you.

How do people handle having fans? I can’t say how I would, since I don’t have any yet.  It’s something worth thinking about if you’re pursuing a career where your work will stand in the public eye.  Even companies that produce a product, such as sneakers, have fans, or rather, happy customers who will unofficially endorse said product at the drop of a hat.

If I do end up with a group of fans, whether it’s ten or ten million, I would do well to remember that they are the ones who are buying my product, my books.  I’ve worked in customer service for a long time and I know that rude behavior will drive them away, perhaps into a competitor’s arms.  Since I have my own slavish preferences in literature, film, music and TV, I can count myself among them.  It would be the height of arrogance to look down on them.

Just for fun, here are types of fans I’ve observed:

  • Gary Geek – He may or may not have started a fan club or belong to one, but there’s no denying he is the most devoted member of all Fandom.  This is the person who might be labeled a fanboy.  He can wax endlessly on the minutiae of whatever show, book series or film he is enamored with.  Unless you share this obsession, it’s best just to back away slowly or you will be sucked into an endless discussion of why Peter Jackson left Tom Bombadil out of his film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, or the rules of the Dr. Who universe. He loves all aspects of his chosen obsession and is open to new interpretations, so long as they make sense.  He’s not above making fun of posers or wanna-bes who haven’t achieved his level of devotion, but express a true interest and he he will happily induct you into his world.  The word geek used to be an insult too, but now it’s a label Gary wears proudly.
  • Debbie Dabbler – She doesn’t care that much about Star Trek; she only thinks Chris Pine is cute. She may wear fangear, but only as a fashion statement and not a lifestyle. A true fangirl would wear it all the time, not just until the franchise has run its course.  Debbie is a hanger-on at first but may become a true fan later, or just move on to the next fad.  Either way, she will enjoy it.
  • Susie Sneer – She makes fun of fans, but is secretly a fan herself.  She says she wouldn’t be caught dead actually watching Twilight, but she’ll have read the books.  Perhaps she has clandestine comics under her bed, or hiding in the closet.  Whatever her passion, she keeps it under wraps, whether to avoid teasing or simply to enjoy it on her own.  She might read fanfiction or even write her own.  If you discover her, don’t out her. Let her emerge on her own.
  • Arnie Academic – Like Gary the Geek, Arnie is a serious fan, but in an intellectual, literary sort of way.  He’s most likely to be a book fan and not a movie one, perhaps involved in studying the languages of Tolkien or serious, socially relevant science fiction.  Arnie is the fan most likely to be labeled elitist, because he thinks his interest in certain material is loftier than yours.  He is also most likely to be a purist who chafes at adaptations that don’t stay absolutely true to the material.  Arnie can be grating if he is a snob.  If he is gracious, seek him out, because he’ll be the one to help you come up with a way to sneak pop culture into a scholarly school paper.

Whoever your fans are, remember to thank them. We’ve all seen the phenomenon of snobby writers, arrogant athletes and jerky musicians who, upon attaining their dream, seem to ooze contempt for the people who paid their hard-earned money to see their work.  Once you reach a Stephen King level of fame, it becomes nearly impossible to mix and mingle with them directly, but if you get the chance, be nice to them.  They will remember their encounter with you the same way they remember the bully or the nice girl in high school.

These are your customers.  Treat them right.