Focus: Books on writing

CONFLICTED ABOUT CONFLICT? A guest post from Conda V. Douglas, short story maven

Today I welcome Idaho writer Conda V. Douglas. Conda’s had more than 100 short stories published and has written a great book on writing short stories, Write Short to Succeed. Recently she mentioned to me how many stories lack real conflict, so I asked her to share her thoughts here. Welcome, Conda. And congratulations on The Mall Fairies: War winning the Epic eBook Award 2016 for children’s/young readers!

Now to the conflict.

Write Short to Succeed - Conda V Douglas front coverConflict: that most necessary element of writing anything and yet sometimes the most difficult for authors to grasp. Conflict: often the easiest way to construct a story and yet sometimes the most difficult for authors to use. Conflict: a tool that every author needs to know how to use.

One way to learn what conflict is and isn’t is to deconstruct a story or article. For this post, I’m using common romance. Why? Because romances are one type of story that it’s easy to confuse the different elements, conflict with plot, for example.

Most romances are “Girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back.” This is not conflict. This is the plot. The conflict is inherent in the plot. Where is it?

Three questions can lead to finding the conflict:

“What’s the problem?”

“What’s the goal of the main character?”

“Are the stakes high?”

The problem is: Girl loses boy and wants boy back. This is the conflict. She wants what she doesn’t have. The conflict always raises questions. Will the girl be able to get the boy back? How? What will she do to accomplish that?

Her goal is to get the boy back. What she does to accomplish that is the action of the story. When the goal is thwarted—what the girl tries doesn’t work, that leads to more conflict. Now what will she do? Will that work?

The stakes are high because she’s lost the love of her life. It will be terrible if she can’t get him back. The higher the stakes the more conflict there is.

This is why writing coaches always advise to make it as hard as possible on your characters. The more problems, the higher the stakes, the bigger the goals and the harder to achieve those goals, the more conflict there is.

Conflicting questions? Conflicting answers? Let me know in the comments!

Here’s a little more about Conda V. Douglas:

CVD crazy photoConda glories in writing both short and long, always with oodles of conflict. She credits winning the Epic eBook 2016 award in children’s/Young Reader for her title The Mall Fairies: War to using conflict! (And no, it’s not the war that’s the conflict, that’s the action.) Her latest book, Write Short to Succeed, in which she devotes an entire chapter to the vagaries of conflict, is out now. On May 3, 2016, Conda will teach a class in Hows and Whys of Writing Short for Boise Schools Community Education, more details here.

Starting Your Novel, With or Without Zombies

I’m sure there are authors who decide to write a series of novels who know the plot of each book in the series before beginning page one of book one. Anyone who knows me knows I am not among those authors. I simply cannot be that organized. Given the fluid nature of the publishing world, I’m not certain that’s always the best approach. After all, I might need to introduce a zombie in my next book.zombies

Just kidding. I shall stay true to my characters and my genre and write not to the market, but where my passion lies and what works for me. That’s a topic for another post.

As I begin book three in my series of humorous suspense novels, I’ve been reading and re-reading some great books on writing, including James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, a few by James Scott Bell, and Write Away by Elizabeth George. I’ve also found a couple of books to help me get started faster.

The first is Novel Shortcuts, Ten Techniques that Ensure a Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb. Another useful one is How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat.20150713_103833

  1. Write with the end in mind. Figure out at least in a rough, written sketch how the book will end, who will triumph, who will be whumped on, who will laugh last.
    2. The essence of good fiction is conflict. Through conflict, characters and situations change. Write a character arc for the protagonist, the antagonist and any major secondary characters. What does the character want? Why? (Motivation) How hard will she try for it? Will she achieve it? What will she give up to achieve this desire?
    3. What’s the overall conflict in the book? Who opposes the protagonist’s achieving his or her goal?
    4. Every chapter and every scene must have a purpose or it shouldn’t be there. It must contain conflict and emotion and it must result in a change, in the main character or in the plot conflict or in a character’s plot arc (preferably in all of these).

Whitcomb recommends writing a three-part, one pager for each scene or chapter. First describe what will happen (narrative, Joe Friday style, “just the facts, ma’am”). Next, jot down some nuggets of dialog that fit the scene. Then use what Whitcomb terms “heartstorming” to come up with the emotions and the emotional transition that takes place in the chapter. The one-pager can be single spaced, with different fonts or boldface to distinguish the parts.
You might also mind-map each chapter, with the central event at the hub, with emotions, dialog nuggets and clues on the spokes.
Whatever your approach, include notes not just on the plot, but on the characters’ emotional states and how they change through the book.

Once you have these, start writing. I believe you’ll find that having a map before you go will shorten the process, improve the end product and preserve your sanity.

What have you found (books, techniques, tips) to help you launch your books?