Friday, March 22, 2013

Got Conflict? If so, your novel will be a best seller!

For some writers, writing is a private, personal thing. But for those of us who like to communicate with other writers via Facebook, writing has become a very public thing. We visit a certain friendly Facebook page on a daily basis and, once there, post our fears, foibles, fantasies as well as our vices, vanities and even victories! We share writing prompts, family stories, and prayer requests.

A new thing we have been doing is "Word War-ring." And what exactly is that? Basically, for a previously-agreed upon length of time (usually an hour), those who want to participate write as much as they can, as fast as they can, all for the inspired purpose of generating the greatest number of words in that sixty-minute time period.

For example, this afternoon a few writers (including myself) "battled" it out during two different 60-minute sessions. I didn't do as well as I had wanted to primarily because I was watching (with the audio muted, of course!) a few games of March Madness. But the main thing was to force myself to work on Ahnak: Edelin's Revelation (even though the "battles" of March Madness were being fought at the same time). And so I did!

I guess you could call it "accountability," if there's really a need to find another motivating factor. For me, I like "warring" for "words" compared to writing in isolation. But what about just setting a timer? Or even just asking a family member to keep track of my time? The answer is easy: it's fun to "compete" with other like-minded writers. Yes, it would be nice if Wifey wanted to "war for words" with me, but she is not much of a writer. And what kind of competition would that be for a "seasoned veteran" like me? Har Har!

There is conflict in writing. Writing something, especially a piece of fiction, that someone will enjoy enough to actually pay a few bucks for can be stressful. Yes, there's even tension when writing, the tension that comes with facing deadlines (even if those deadlines are entirely self-imposed).  Conflict, stress, tension ... are they the same thing? Yes, for the most part. But in the process of writing a novel, it might be best to see them as three different things.

But what about the task of creating conflict between characters -- then to create stress and even tension in the reader -- what are some simple, but effective ways of doing this? 

Here's what some stress-producing Writers' Cafe folk think. 

"Conflict should always be introduced as quickly as possible. If your first three chapters are backstory and other throat-clearing, delete them. Readers need to know a lot less before the story starts than you think they do."

"If nothing much happens in the first four chapters, maybe you're starting your book in the wrong place. I try to start my books when 'something changes'. But, frankly, if this is the first novel you've ever written, stop stressing over it.  Write whatever you want, put it in a drawer for a few months, and then re-read it. You'll learn more from doing that than you ever will agonising over whether you're starting it correctly."

"The conflict should at least be hinted at. A good way to bridge that tension gap would be to have a protag walk by a newsfeed talking about the worsening crisis, have his TV run in the background talking about clashes, maybe have a note arrive in his mail to receive a physical examination (for the draft), something like that. You don't have to start with a nuclear explosion, but the reader should get a hint that something big and potentially very bad is going on."

"Just write the story how you want to. It's a learning process and you learn by doing. Absolutely write the story the way you like to have a story told, and write the story that you want to tell. Simply be aware that readers expect certain conventions to be followed and if you want to sell the story, you have to take that into account. You can have an exciting science fiction story with no one ever becoming physical with someone else. Conflict doesn't necessarily mean a physical attack on someone. Conflict can be as mild as a child asking to be excused from the table to watch TV and the mother saying he has to finish his vegetables first. The kid says something like, 'But Mom, I'll miss the beginning.' Kid wants to do something. Mother prevents him. Conflict. A clash of wills. It can also reside within one character. Your protagonist sees an accident and wants to help but also wants to remain unnoticed. If he helps, he'll be noticed; if he doesn't help, he'll feel bad. Conflict. An inner clash. The conflict makes the reader want to go on: Will the child get his way, or will the mother? What will be the result in either case? Will the child learn to hate the mother, grow up spoiled and self-centred? In the second example: What will the protagonist do: Help or walk away? What will that cause in the future? Will he be discovered and hunted? Will his inaction eat away at him, leading him to a greater danger down the road? Read on to find out. Conflict, as another responder told you, should begin as soon as possible. Yes, you can have a protagonist that the reader won't particularly like. It's a more difficult process, and you'd be advised to ensure he has at least some likable characteristics. If we're not going to like him, then he'd better interest and intrigue us. But again, this is if you are writing for a wider public. If you are only writing for yourself, for practice or for joy, it doesn't matter."

"Readers today are impatient. Cut to the chase and get on with it. Nobody ever moaned about a story that was TOO exciting."

"Tension does not equate action. Does the reader know and understand that the main character will die if he does not get to play this game (or something equivalent)? We need to understand the stakes before we can care about the character's success or failure."

"I'm of the school of thought that having action or conflict in place as early as possible maintains the reader's attention and keeps them moving from chapter to chapter... not every chapter may need it, but certainly at or near the start you should have something to grab their attention and build the compelling curiosity/urgent need to keep turning the pages. The longer you keep them hooked, the more chance you have of winning them over and getting them to finish your book instead of discarding it for something more exciting/interesting/with a brighter cover/etc. For my works I always try to have an action sequence in the Prologue or First Chapter, and when I've written something without it I'd always go back and rewrite based on the beta readers experience. However, it's all a learning process and as each book (or chapter) is written you do gain deeper understanding in refining the craft and style required to make a book compelling. (DISCLAIMER: I've been writing books for the last ten or so years, but have only just started publishing in the last six months -- so my advice should be taken with a grain of salt!)"

"I don't know about sci-fi, but I definitely know in fantasy, you need to draw the reader into your world and its characters as soon as possible. It doesn't have to be some uber-battle or anything. It needs to be something that will make the reader want to keep turning the page to see what happens next. The first chapter is critical in getting the reader's attention. Too much buildup and it loses its power to capture a reader, and the story gets long, drawn-out and boring."

"I think people worry too much about forcing ACTION to the front of the book. It just has to be interesting in some way. Now, typically, backstory isn't all that interesting, even when it's interesting. As long as the character is doing something, trying to acomplish something that's interesting, then most readers will give it a chance. So, it's simple: just be interesting."

"A common mistake beginning novelists make is not recognizing they may need to write themselves into the story, but the reader will not appreciate that info dump, it's not the story. If you do, you'll get plenty of one star reviews such as 'this sucks,' 'I got up to chapter three and nothing happens.' You said you feel this way, so your readers will, too. They're not dumb; they pick up on this stuff. The biggest mistake I've seen from gamers that try to write books, is they write it like a game. They introduce characters that are not necessary to the plot and will never be heard from again, go off on too many red herrings, have way too many sub-plots so the 'story' gets lost, leaving the reader unsatisfied and confused. Make sure you have an over-riding story arc and every scene drives the story forward. Throw out those first three chapters and start with a mugging, for example, to find your conflict. It doesn't have to be action; it can be emotional, but it has to be there. Intersperse back story as needed, sprinkled in lightly."

"What works in an RPG does NOT generally translate well to fiction. Games tend to often rely on 'what do the rules let me do?' instead of 'what is the logical course of events?' Anyone who has gamed for a significant amount of time has dealt with 'that guy' who decides to pick pocket the King not because it serves any purpose, but because he has +16 ranks in Sleight of Hand and figures he can get away with it. Or the guy who just intimidates the guard instead of trying to use diplomacy because he is level 12 and can wipe the floor with the generic level 3 NPC guard. The most important thing is not to immediately jump to ACTION per se. The most important thing is to immediately engage the reader. As a reader, it doesn't matter to me if your character gets mugged or is fighting a dragon unless I care about the character one way or the other in the first place. I either need to care about the character's well being OR want to see him get what is coming to him. I don't have to like him. It's OK if I despise him, in fact, so long as I despise him enough that I can't wait to see him ripped to shreads by the roaming band of trolls! All that said, don't try to edit as you write. You will never finish the book. Get the thing down on paper. Then put it away for a month. Come back to it, and read it with fresh eyes. Then edit out everything that does not relate to the story you are trying to tell. Sometimes we gamers get too smart for our own good and we throw in NPCs that serve no purpose or plant false leads as if we are trying to string along players. Go back and pull out the stuff that either A) does not relate to the plot B) does not relate to character development and C) does not relate to world building. If it doesn't move forward the plot, build the character, or create a sense of place, get rid of it. Then put it away again for a week or two. Now go back and see what you are missing. Where is the character development weak? Where is the world building too thin? This is the best way I have found to handle it. If you try to "fix" it while you are writing it, you just get in your own way."

"An RPG need only be interesting to the five or six people seated at the table. Even if everyone else thinks it's crap, if it accomplishes that it's a resounding success. But follow that standard, and you'll get five or six readers. And you'll have worked hundreds or thousands of hours to get them."

"One thing to keep in mind when deciding how to start is how long you have to hook your reader. Amazon's The Look Inside preview is, I believe, 10% of the entire piece. So unless your story is over 220,000 words, your potential readers aren't going to get to even see where the story actually starts. However long that 10% works out to be, the one thing you have to do in it is make your potential reader care enough to become your actual reader. There is no one way to make a reader care: appeal to their emotions, appeal to their sense of curiosity, appeal to their sense of schaden freude, etc., but make sure you do it in that 10%, or you won't get many people reading your book. And the ones who buy without looking inside will likely be ticked off when they read the story and it doesn't even get started until almost a quarter of the book is has gone by."

"I don't think you should cut your story to start right at the mugging or dump the reader directly into an action scene unless you are setting the tone up for the rest of the book to be hard-hitting and able to keep up that pace. As a reader, I hate being dumped directly into an action scene right off the bat, except in the very rare instances where it is done well with out being confusing. This is especially true for Sci-Fi and Fantasy that requires world-building and explanation. If your book is taking place in some distant galaxy or alternate world, for example, you should ease the reader into it gently, avoid info dumps and BAM action scenes where the reader is trying to figure out what all is going on suddenly and, at the same time, trying to visualize the world it's taking place in. As a writer, I recommend writing your story how you are comfortable writing. Asking for advice on how to write your story will get you two hundred different answers from two hundred different people. Prologues are not pointless, in fact I think they are a lost art-form that are perfect for setting up the tone of your book for the reader and giving them a gentle push into the shallow end of your universe before dunking their head under water, like many books seem to do these days in chapter 1 in an attempt to grab readers who may have short attention spans."

"I wanted to mention that the genre (sci-fi, fantasy, literary, horror or mainstream fiction) is irrelevant to telling stories. Yes, some genres have 'expected' conventions, but the best writers create the conventions and don't pander to audience expectations.  Give them something new. By this I mean, learn pacing, mood, setting, emotional hooks, character development, foreshadowing and metaphor.  Tension and conflict can be established with nothing more than the choice of adjectives.  Good writing , imho, is not a string of connected action sequences or explanations of why the action is necessary, rather it is a portrait of people experiencing life.  The best sci-fi, again - imho, are the stories that connect the human experience of the far off world to the everyday present day reader. So, my advice is write the story how you see it unfolding.  Prologues are great, when done well.  Whether or not you start with an action scene depends on the character and type of story you want to tell as mentioned before. My other advice is to connect the emotions, history and personal conflicts (resolved and unresolved) and attitudes of the main character (all characters really) with the narrative.  He should be consistent in thought and action, and with his history.  This is one way to make him human in the 'show, don't tell' tradition. It is also a great way to get the reader to give a [crap]. These literary tools (devices?), when done well, create character empathy.  Not sympathy - empathy.  And this is what resonates with readers and one reason that books become bestsellers. Writing is actually pretty tough to do well. Write it and then work on theme, reinforcing it, character development and structure."

"Throwing my opinions in: 

--Keep it interesting (character or world building, intrigue, tension, action... all of these can be interesting, it doesn't always have to be conflict)
--Don't break accepted formatting and/or grammar conventions/rules UNLESS you have a valid reason to do so (I like it better that way isn't really a good reason when it comes to grammar and formatting)
--There are no "rules" when it comes to writing, just accepted convention and expectations. Again, break them if there is a valid reason to do so.
--Write the way that YOU find pleasing. If others like it, you will be able to do it again and again with relative ease.
--Expect that no matter what you do, there will be people who will ding you for it. That's just the way it is.
--I'd get opinions from "non-writers" about your work before I'd seek critique from writers. You want to know, above all else, if your story is engaging. Writer's tend to notice the little things that many readers do not.
--Expect that your style will change over time. One of the great things about digital publishing is that you can see what works for your readers based on their reviews and emails. As long as you are willing to change and adapt as you see fit, your success (monetary) should only increase over time."

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