Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Little Conflict is Good

I  had an eighth grader write me last week and ask, "What is it publishers are looking for when you want to get published?" 

How can you narrow this down? They want good grammar and clean punctuation. They want correct spelling and Times New Roman and double spacing. They want a lack of -ly adverbs and purple prose. They want crisp dialogue. They want characters they don't mind hanging out with for a few hours. They want something they've never seen before. They want something that will sell.

All of this, of course. But maybe more than anything, I think they want conflict. They want something to happen.

"Ask yourself this," I wrote her back. "What is it your character really wants, more than anything? What is keeping him or her from getting that? What does he or she do to overcome those obstacles? If you can answer those questions, and your reader can, too, you've got yourself the start of a good story."

One thing that used to drive my last advisor up the wall was the way I ducked out of conflicts. Every time some big problem would bubble up between characters, one would leave the room. An argument would break out, they'd leave. A crisis would arise, they'd rush away from it.

"Stop it!" He told me more than once. "This is where it's just starting to get good!"

It was hard for me to write through those scenes, keep a character in the place where the heat was high, because I don't know how to do that myself. I am the one who ducks out of conflict. I avoid confrontations. I deflect conversations that start to get hot.

Over the past weeks my husband and I have been trying to figure out what to do about my graduation. I chose to go to a school all the way across the country. I chose to begin and end that school in January, meaning I finished up my thesis six full months before graduation ceremonies.

The plan was for our whole family to go out for graduation. This was the plan when I started - has always been the plan. I wanted my kids to see the reward for the last two years we ALL have sacrificed for. I wanted the family picture to hang on the wall. Graduation - the whole cap and gown and hooding and pomp and circumstance - is utterly important to me. I missed my college graduation when I got a job and moved cross country. I was not going to miss this one.

But finances are tight, and five airline tickets and hotel rooms are not cheap. In the last few months we decided the kids wouldn't go. It would be just me and the husband. Until we started crunching numbers for that.

He keeps bringing up the topic. Do I need to go? Does he need to go? As important as it is, is it worth the thousands of dollars it might cost to fly out and stay for a few days for a simple 30-minute ceremony and dinner after? When we begin to get down and dirty about the details, there is always something else for me to do rather than hash it out. The dog needs walking. The kids need putting to bed. I need to get dinner going, or the dishes done, or a phone call made. We can recheck airline prices tomorrow; they might go down. I'll call around for cheaper hotels tomorrow.

I don't want to answer this, because the answer is yes. It is that important to me. And how can I say it is important enough to spend money we don't have?

And the answer is also, I don't know. Because many of my friends won't be there, having already graduated last June, or having new jobs now that won't allow the time off. What if not even my husband is there; is it still worth walking across the stage? What if we spend the money only for me to feel more lonely being there than not being there?

Last night, we sat down, the dog out and the kids in bed, the dishes done. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the way I now make my characters stay in theirs. Talk it out. Address the problems.

I wish I could say we came to a good solution, but this story isn't finished yet. We came to the decision that we had a little more time before needing to make the decision. I'll hunt down more information. We'll crunch numbers some more. We'll go through this all again.

What I've learned is that conflict may make a story more interesting, but I'd take some easy answers in my life a little more often. And I'm okay with happy endings.


  1. This is some really good writing advice. I'm really wrestling with what my main character wants right now. I refuse to move forward until I know. I hope I know at some point.

    I really hope you can go to your graduation. You have earned it.


    1. I know what you mean. Often what my characters want is something really vague. I wonder if genre fiction is easier in this regard? The girl wants the guy. The guy wants to save the planet. The detective wants to find the murderer. What my character wants seems to change from chapter to chapter!

      I hope I get to go, too. Of course, a picture with the Pacific Foo Dog is not exactly the same as the Nittany Lion, but I'll take what I can get. :)

  2. Yeah... I'm very sentimental so I too hope you can go!

    We've got two weeks to decide if we're going to the Juno awards. It would actually be cheaper to drive two days across the midwestern states to get to Saskatchewan from Ontario... the numbers have been crunched and so far we might be able to get it under 2 grand for the whole trip but I need that money for other things! But this is a work trip. It's valuable. He's got two projects nominated. Gahhhhhh. I might not care this year.

    Plans change...

    Conflict - I've had to do a lot of confronting in my life. I wish I could say it gets easier. When I'm writing a conflict scene, things go way outta control which is way better than real life going that way!

    How cool is it that a young writer reached out to you for advice!!

    1. Wow. See? My initial response is, "You HAVE to go to the Juno awards!! Damn the costs!" It's so much easier for me to make that decision for YOU. :)

      Congrats to the hubs on TWO project nominations! He is a rock star!

  3. I really do hope there's a way for your whole family to witness your graduation. Years ago when my Mum got her teaching degree we ~ all her kids ~ went, it was important for us to witness her getting what we'd seen her work so hard for. Of course there were no travelling expenses involved. And money can sometimes get in the way of our plans and dreams. But, again, I do hope you all can go.