Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ask the Editor: Writing Conflict

Stella asked: My biggest writing weakness is conflict: I don't have enough of it. Could you give some examples of well-crafted conflict in novels or short stories? I'm not so worried about the obvious, good-versus-evil conflicts (Gandalf v Sauron, Nurse Ratched v Randle McMurphy); it's the ordinary conflict between friends that I'm looking for, and the action that stems from it.
A friend came up with a great example with Scully and Mulder, the two X-Files protagonists who disagreed ALL THE TIME.

Examples of well-crafted conflict?  If it's on the bookstore shelves it's likely packed with well-crafted examples of conflict--and multiple examples per novel.  

Conflict is everywhere in fiction and in real life.  

First, it's worth it to define conflict.

In fiction, conflict is the thing that causes characters to act.  And that's not always evil and it's not always overt. Conflict can be subtle.  Conflict does not necessarily have to be a struggle or a fist fight.  It can be as simple as the need to make a decision, the desire to make a decision, the failure to make a decision.  In fact, a story's primary conflict isn't usually evil, even in a good vs. evil story.  Evil happens all the time, but doesn't always cause people to act.  For example, human trafficking is a real thing that happens every day in probably every nation of the world.  But have you done something about it today?  Ever?  Has the presence of this evil caused you to act?  Probably not.  So the conflict in a good vs. evil story is the character's decision and why he makes it.  Why does he choose to fight?  Why does Steve Rogers choose to undergo those secret tests that turn him into Captain America?  There's the real catalyst.

But what if someone you loved were caught up in human trafficking?  Example: The film Taken, starring Liam Neeson.  How much time had he spent battling human trafficking until his own daughter was kidnapped for just such a nefarious purpose?

Action happens when the evil personally impacts a character, inspiring or sometimes forcing a reluctant character to act.

But, as Stella pointed out, conflict isn't always about good vs. evil, and it isn't always so in-your-face.

To begin with, conflict can be divided into two neat little boxes: Internal Conflict and External Conflict.  

Internal Conflict occurs within the character's mind or body.  Self doubt or guilt, desire for change or inspiration.  As you can see, not all internal conflicts will be negative, or good vs. evil.  Sometimes it's as simple as wanting something more out of life.  Maybe a decision that needs to be made.  Maybe as simple as which color carpet to choose.  Even the internal conflict that arises from an inability to make a decision.  Internal conflicts can be considerably more subtle than external ones.  Internal conflicts are also those that dig into the heart, that reach out to our sense of empathy.

External Conflict occurs outside the physical being of the character.  Some event happens that causes the character to want to act or change, or forces the character into action.  For example, a fire in your house would force you to act in order to save your life.  Liam Neeson's character was forced into action by his love for his daughter.  Millions of Americans were inspired to action by the events of World War II, growing victory gardens, women entering the workforce in huge numbers, out of a desire to help our boys overseas.  Thousands of Europeans were inspired to act in the service of those around them--families hiding Jews or supporting resistance efforts.

One World War II example of both kinds of conflict (because while internal conflict can exist alone, external rarely can) can be found in Cori Ten Boom's autobiographical book, The Hiding Place.  Ms. Ten Boom describes the internal struggle their family underwent as they were faced with the external reality of the suffering of their Jewish neighbors.   They were inspired to act, to help, but only after their own internal struggle over the safety of their own family.  In addition, much of the remainder of the book is Cori's internal struggle, her decision to not give in to despair despite the horrific external forces that were seeking to force her to do just that.  As is clear in her narrative, sometimes the resolution to these conflicts occurs only in the heart and in the mind.  In every way she appeared to be giving up, giving in, as she externally obeyed the commands of her captors.  But internally she was conquering them and herself through the way she chose to think. 

But I don't think Stella is asking for a lesson in the definition of conflict in fiction.  

I suspect the real question is, "How do I identify conflict in a story?"

Because that is 3/4 of the battle. If you can clearly identify the catalyst that spurs your character to act, and secondarily, how that character resolves that problem (or fails to resolve the problem), your story is already written.  Because that's what stories do.

Stella asked for examples.  Here are several from Flash Fiction Online.  

By way of exercise, read each story.  Identify the catalyst that causes each character to act or change in some way--the conflict.  Be careful.  There may be more than one.  Can you identify the main conflict, as opposed to secondary ones?  Identify the result of that action, or the resolution.  After the given links I'll give my take on A) the conflict or conflicts and B) their resolutions.

Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion (Flash Fiction Online, November 2009)  I use this story a lot when giving examples of, well, pretty much anything.  Mostly because I loved it then and I love it still.  
Kolkata Sea (Flash Fiction Online, July 2010)  Super subtle conflict here.

Irma Splinkbottom:  The main conflict in this story is Irma's own self confidence.  At the root of it, that's what causes her to act, that's what she is up against.  She thinks she can do better than those know-it-all scientists, so she acts.  With measuring cups and microwave.  The story resolves itself in Irma succeeding externally, but learning an internal lesson in doing so.  Of course, she did have to pay with her life.  

Kolkata Sea: As I stated, the conflict is subtle in this story.  What is it?  What is the thing that causes the character to act?  I would argue that it is love and longing.  This story is less a character piece than it is a setting piece. It explores how the world might change in a globally warmer future.  But it has characters who act within that tableau.  Something has spurred them to do so.  The mother wants to show her son her past.  The son wants to honor his mother's longing for that long ago world by scattering her ashes over the submerged city--the resolution.

The Pony Spell:  The conflict in this story is much more transparent--actually several conflicts.  There is the 'good vs. evil' struggle between the wife and the witch that results in the witch acting (Which is good, which is evil?) by casting that spell, which immediately brings up conflicts within the family of what to do with the wife-pony and is the catalyst for the main conflict--that of what to do when the witch offers to change the wife back.   There is the additional conflict of the witch's guilt at her actions, which is resolved when she offers to change her back.  The final resolution is humorous: Husband decides to leave the wife as a pony and everyone is happy, except maybe the wife.  

Peace-and-quiet Pancake: A couple of different points of conflict in this story.  A story really rarely ever has just one.  First is the conflict between the woman and her father--a tense relationship flipped upside down with the daughter becoming the caregiver.  The second is the conflict within the woman at her observation of the father and child in the waiting room.  What should she do?  All her struggles and resolutions are internal.  Nothing happens externally, she does very little externally, to change things within her environment.  The changes, the decisions, are within herself.  The resolution is in her coming to terms with her relationship with her father.  

Honeybee: In Honeybee, the conflict is an external one that spurs the main character to action.  The disappearance of the honeybee is the primary research objective for our character who, in the end, bends the rules to save them--resolution.  Her decision to act is spurred on additionally by the internal conflicts caused by love and longing.  Again, that love and longing.  They're powerful conflict devices and used often.  Really, we see them in the Pancake story and The Pony Spell in addition to this and Kolkata Sea.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Look Like a Pro

The single best way to attract an editor's attention and be taken seriously is to look like a pro.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that every tiny detail of your submission looks like you know what you're doing, like you've done your research, like this whole writing thing matters.

The tiniest detail.

But too many writers fail to learn these things.

Granted, in the world of online submissions, it doesn't matter quite as much as it used to.  It's easier than ever to make manuscript alterations when it comes time to actually publish a submitted story.

But appearances really do matter.

So here's my list of those tiny details that show me you're serious about this writing thing.  I want to publish authors who are serious.  Most items are followed by a link to an article I found particularly helpful.  I expect you to click through and read them:

1.  Your cover letter 

Your cover letter should be short, sweet, and to the point.  Recognize that cover letters for short story submissions and cover letters for novel submissions are NOT the same.  You should NEVER include a story synopsis in a short story submission.  The story is short enough.  It can speak for itself.  Plus I should be able to figure out the basic gist of the plot by reading the first few paragraphs, because that's how short stories should be structured.

The following article is pretty good, but outdated for online submissions, which make up the VAST bulk of short story submissions these days.  I do NOT need to know if your manuscript is disposable.  It's electronic, not paper.  What I do with it at the end of the day doesn't have an impact on the rain forests or on my nonexistent mailroom clerk.  And, obviously, you don't need to worry about a SASE.

2.  Your title

How important is a title?  I can't overstate how VERY important a title is.

There are TWO aspects to your title.  The first is format.

This is Jr. High School grammar, folks.  Don't make me open your manuscript to find this:

this is the title of my story

On your keyboard there's a key, a pretty big one, that says 'Shift.'  Use it.  Use it correctly.

Here's a great little summary on capitalizing story titles.  Short, sweet, and to the point:

If that's too much for you, here's a neat little capitalization tool:

Correcting that title: This Is the Title of My Story

The other aspect of title is its character.  Is it interesting?   Have you given more than 20 seconds thought into what it should be?  Does it catch my attention without being more creative than the actual story?  Does it accurately reflect the nature of the story?

One story we had submitted had a title that made me certain the story was going to be humorous.  The story was none of the sort.  We published the story, but the author had to change the title.  The only reason the story passed muster at all was that it was good enough to overcome that title snafu.  Your story would have to be REALLY good to do that.

The following may be the ONLY article on the internet about writing a story title.  Fortunately it's pretty good:

3.  Guidelines

Every short story market has submission guidelines.  Every short story market has UNIQUE submission guidelines.  Every short story market EDITS their submission guidelines from time to time.

If you're submitting with a short story market for the first time, thoroughly read the submission guidelines.  Read them, study them, heed them TO THE LETTER.  Double check that you didn't miss anything before hitting that Submit button.

If you're submitting to a short story market for the first time in 6 months, REread the submission guidelines  Things change, new reasons for new rules arise.  New editors take over.  New owners mix things up.  Just for me, take another look.

4.  Your Manuscript

Most of a market's requirements for your manuscript will appear in the guidelines.  If you read those guidelines your manuscript is likely to be just fine.

But the truth is many authors don't actually read the guidelines, and if they do they consider themselves 'above the law,' or they think they're being clever by making alterations to their manuscript that will 'catch the editor's attention.'  Yeah.  They catch my attention, but not in a good way.

You know those WalMartians?  Sure, they catch EVERYONE'S attention.  But let's be realistic.  Are you going to ask THIS on a date?  That's probably what she's dressing for, misguided as she is.

When you try to be clever by using ANY font other than Times New Roman or Courier New, or by adding illustrations, or by including an artsy title, etc., you're making me cringe.  You're making me stare like a rubbernecker on the freeway.  Deer in the headlights.  I just stopped taking you seriously, and that WILL have an impact on my reading of your story.

Here's a great article on standard manuscript format.  Remember, combine proper format with a thorough reading of the guidelines.  Sometimes markets will ask for minor alterations of manuscript format.  Again, there are points in this article that are not relevant to online submission, but your manuscript should still 'look' as described in the article:

5.  Clarity

A few thoughts on clarity:

First, if your story comes to a scene break, DO NOT denote it by adding extra spaces.  Those extra spaces can become lost at the end of a page or can seem like a mistaken extra paragraph space.  I don't know.  Sometimes, honestly, I can't tell.  Make sure I understand where your scene breaks are.  It makes you look smart.  I like to publish smart authors.

Denote scene breaks like this:

This is my story and I'm going to take a scene break.


Now I'm starting a new scene.

See that pound sign?  (Shift-3) That's the quickest, easiest, least intrusive way to denote a scene break.  If you want you can use an asterisk (Shift-8)*.  That's acceptable too.  Please do not use anything else.  Please include an extra hard return between the scenes and the pound sign, as shown.

Second, make it clear where your story ends.

People are not perfect.  I'm not.  You're not.

Simply putting THE END at the end of your story makes both of us certain that the entire manuscript downloaded properly and that you ACTUALLY intended to end the story where you did.

For good measure, add a hard return AFTER typing THE END.  Some word processing software will do crazy things in conversion.  For example, if you are submitting with Submittable and writing using Open Office or Libre Office, then converting those files to .doc files, Submittable's software will chop off the last line of  your manuscript.  If that last line is a blank space then you'll be fine.  If it's THE END, no harm done.  If it's the last crucial line upon which the entire story resolves itself, you have a problem.

6.  Copy Editing

Please understand that word processing software is imperfect in its ability to identify every spelling or grammar error, and that they are completely clueless on the issue of word usage.  So if you type 'form' instead of 'from' the software isn't going to alert you to it.

You MUST eyeball edit--with your own eyes--your story before submitting.

Understand that I'm making the assumption that you are grammatically proficient. You should know when to use its or it's, your or you're, there or their or they're, lose or loose, lightning or lightening.  If you've just read through those and are scratching your head in confusion, you'd better look it up.  Plenty of online grammar guides out there.  (True confession: I'm still so unsure of 'effect' and 'affect' that I generally just avoid using them.)

If you are NOT grammatically proficient, I suggest you pick up a high school grammar guide and get back to basics.  Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a good place to start, and it's free online, here:  

Know how to punctuate and capitalize correctly.  Know how to handle dialogue.  Learn about run-on sentences.

An opening paragraph with even a single grammar or spelling error will speak volumes to me.  Remember the WalMartian?

Don't get the idea that I demand perfection.  I don't.  (Another true confession: A reader recently pointed out one of those spelling errors that wouldn't have been dinged by any grammar/spell-check software.  'One' instead of 'on.'  To my credit, it was NOT in the opening paragraph.)

I'll tolerate an error or three.  Needles in the haystack.  But if it's fresh grated Parmesan on my Olive Garden salad (you KNOW you let your server keep grating longer than is good for you!), not so great.  If it's white cat hair on my black slacks, even worse.  No matter how great the story, how good the writing style, I won't be able to see that past the copy mistakes.  Because what that says to me is that you didn't give a damn.  If that's so, why should I?

As a writer you should be making every effort to make me happy, to not waste my time.

Think and act like a pro.  Learn what you must to make it happen.  The more you learn the better your writing will become.  The better your writing becomes the greater your odds of publication.