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.