Writer’s improvement hell – conflict

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Conflict. All by itself, the word isn’t so imposing is it? Much of the time it’s used to describe something extremely real and horribly bad -but it’s somewhere else, not a whole lot to worry about. If we drop it into the writing context though, it suddenly grows to 300ft, sprouts wings and has a thong of flame. This thing will kick your ass. It’s a huge imposing beast that, from one angle, looks like a world dominating demon, on the other, might be a fresh pile of dog poo in your front yard. Either way, there it is – causing problems.

Conflict is what makes a story. You don’t have one without it. Yet, I feel like it’s one of the lesser talked about aspects of writing. I picked up my Fiction First Aid book, which is a pretty reliable resource for debugging problems, and flipped to the index. Characters are covered over the course of some 50pages, while the topic of conflict is packed into a mere 4 pages! Now, I’ll concede that lots of the conflict comes from your characters, but conflict is what causes the suspense in your story. That suspense is what keeps the reader thinking Then what? and turning the page instead of going to bed.

As I face the completion of the first full draft of my book*, I’m starting to think about** polishing and all the little bits that need to be shored-up or just flat re-written. Now, this is where the writer’s improvement hell comes in. One of these things is tweaking things so that the conflict is present in a way that keeps the reader interested enough to continue turning the page. There’s conflict a plenty in the book, what’s I think is still lacking is that extra bit of suspense associated with it.

Sounds like you know what needs work, so what’s the problem?

Well, first of all, I THINK I have this problem. This is a case where I’m too close to the work to precisely see where these problems are present. The few people who have read the early drafts so far haven’t said this is an issue, but I think it’s going to take a full draft before someone might take a look back and say: you know what? this book just wasn’t exciting enough***. Not only that, I’m not entirely sure how to fix the problems without overdoing it or just plain missing the mark. My solution is to try and look at the story as a reader instead of the writer, and try to understand where a little more suspense is necessary. Another thing I will do is ask others to read the work to see if they found it interesting and compelling enough to continue. Finally, I’m planning on taking a break from editing as it nears the end. It’ll be time to do a bit of reading and thinking about how other authors manage suspense, or fail to, and use that as my guidebook when I go back over it again.


*Curse you chapter 19! – in the end, I will defeat you. I will OWN you. You won’t have any choice but to do my bidding. Then, we’ll see who’s laughing.
**Read: Become paralytically consumed with, really
***Read: Needs more suspense – the conflict wasn’t resonating.

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Chapter transitions and Jameson 18

I’m working on a transition between my unexpected chapter 14, and chapter 15. Chapter 15 is a lovely bit of the story because I’ve had it drafted since my story was little more than a sketch so it’s pretty well polished. The problem I’ve got though, and have had since the chapter was originally written, is that I’m still struggling to develop a good transition from the previous chapter. Trying to work this out brings me back to well worn ground. How do you open a chapter? Chapter 1 feels like a special case, for starters, you haven’t got to connect it to a previous chapter, and also you don’t have to worry about starting it in exactly the same way as the previous chapter –because there isn’t one. My horrible, awful and cringe-worthy habit is to start them out with the main character waking up. I hate it and yet inevitably this is where I’m drawn. Just being aware of this unfortunate habit gives me the opportunity to address it, and believe me I am. I really don’t have a good solution for this except to say that it’s probably not a good idea to always start your chapters with the same kind of action, unless there is some very specific reason to.

Fortunately, my problem with chapter 15 isn’t that the main character is waking up at the start of it for the 10th chapter in a row. Instead, the issue at hand is specific to pacing. In chapter 14. The action concludes and the main characters are orienting themselves for the next leg of their journey. In chapter 15, they reach their goal and the action resumes. In between the end of chapter 14 and their goal in 15 are two days of travel. I don’t particularly want to spend a lot of time describing their journey down the road or insert some sort of additional conflict as they go. I could add a bit of conflict here before they reach their goal, but it feels like adding unnecessary events that I’ll just need to cut anyhow. For now, I think I’m going to start with a description of the landscape as it has changed over their two days, and use something like a flash-back to describe those two days of travel. The summary will probably cover no more than a few paragraphs, but to work, I think it’s going to need to be longer than a few sentences. Then, I’ll just continue plugging away at trying to have all of book one into a full draft. After that, I’ll go back and start revising, one problem at a time. Looking at chapter transitions is going to be one of those things, I think.

As I’m writing this, I’m working on a little glass of Jameson 18 year (neat, if you must know). My brother-in-law gave it to my wife and I for Christmas. It’s frikin’ excellent. Smooth with hints of pear and cinnamon. It’s really excellent stuff and I highly recommend it.

A daily fight

Just a single thought tonight. It seems like every day, I trip over something else about writing a novel I hadn’t considered, or somehow sheds light on a problem in a way I couldn’t exactly see before. Sometimes this is nothing but helpful, and I have one of those aha moments where it makes sense and I’m ready to get my hands dirty. Other times however, the new insight feels like a punch to the gut. It has brought to light a problem so big, it requires structural changes to the story or a tremendous amount of thought I hadn’t expected.

I suppose as my head spins from one such revelation, today’s take away has been that writing a novel is not a matter of just stringing together events, people, and description. Sure, these are all part of it, but it’s not the sort of thing that can just be dashed out with the expectation of having something anyone would invest the time to read. I could go on about this, but not tonight. I’m tired. Perhaps more later.