Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You Gotta Love the Conflict!

Conflict. If you’re anything like me, the very word conjures up argument, avoidance, ‘peace at any cost.’ In real life, conflict is rarely fun or something I go looking for. But leave it out of our writing, and we can have some serious conflict with editors and readers.

The first step toward understanding conflict is to know what genuine artistic conflict is not. Compelling conflict rarely stems from:

* Slammed doors.
* Slapped faces.
* Misunderstood fragment of overheard dialogue.
* A spilled drink.
* Romance characters tormenting each other with “fake” lovers.
* Characters complaining they are never understood because
men and women can't communicate.

You get the picture. All of the above are actions and events; things that can certainly be the result of conflict and that can make characters angry, but conflict is much more than anger. Authentic conflict often begins long before your story opens and is the motivating spur behind every decision and action your characters will make. In order to uncover as many levels of conflict possible (and to make life near-impossible for your characters) it can be helpful to explore the following seven areas.

1) The World or Society at Large. This is the world your story characters inhabit. It can be as simple as a barren desert or as elaborate as a feudal realm set in the distant future. Whatever it is, it contains problems; problems that can disadvantage and hold your characters back from their goals in significant ways. For instance, a world at war can be set anywhere from ancient times to the present day, from Middle Earth to outer space, but no matter the weaponry used, war always involves great suffering.

At the opposite end, a peaceful, apparently beautiful society can be filled with social injustice or a devastating class structure. Characters caught up in a perfect life may be the most discontent of all. Consider the poor heroine who is engaged to the perfect man, has the perfect job, eats perfect dinners with her loving, supportive parents every Friday night. On the surface she seems happy, but she may be ready to strangle them all.

Including a backdrop of social turmoil to your work will provide your characters with either past negative experience to overcome, or an ongoing situation that creates constant hardship. “High society” with all its rules and traditions, vices and hypocrisies can be a terribly low place filled with dark secrets and psychoses.

2) The Immediate Professional Environment or Workplace. No matter the times they are born into, your characters all have to do something to make a living. Even if your heroine’s sole purpose in life is to be married off to a peer of the realm, this is still her “occupation.” No matter if your characters are nannies or rock stars, advertising executives or harried FBI agents; they will at some stage encounter the monster boss, rival co-worker(s), ruthless or incompetent employees. Sometimes the workplace itself harbors corruption and is a great source of conflict, such as an unethical law firm or a company cutting corners on its products.

3) The Family. Your characters’ families can provide some of the most interesting and complex levels of emotional and physical conflict for your readers. For instance, the vengeful ex-spouse; jealous or dysfunctional siblings; ill, difficult, or rebellious children; a dependent, needy parent. Keep in mind that even if your characters’ families fall into the warm and supportive category, there can be family conflicts that erupt between “good” and “bad” branches of extended families that can sometimes last for generations.

4) The Achilles Heel. Strong characters should each have an inherent weakness that trips them up precisely when they most need inner balance. You can find this weakness by writing character bios, but also by establishing both an outward goal and an inner goal per character. An outer goal is based on “what they want” while an inner goal is “what they really want.”

Your main character’s outward goal will provide much of the plot structure for the entire book. A good method for ensuring that you have filled this goal with conflict is to interview your character and ask what are his or her doubts, fears, and insecurities. For instance, a woman who wants to rescue abused children may in reality be seeking the nurturing and acceptance she never received from her own family. Her efforts to start a children’s shelter might reveal her own need to finally have a home where she, too, can belong.

5) The Hero and Heroine as a Pair. “Opposites attract” may seem to be your most obvious choice, but even if your hero and heroine are a match made in heaven, at some point you will want to make sure that their individual story goals conflict and send them reeling.

6) Secondary Characters. The problems and conflicts of secondary characters can often mirror those of the hero and heroine. Sometimes these problems can add more conflict for the hero and heroine to solve, especially when the efforts of secondary characters to “help” simply mess things up even further.

7) Villains. Villains can be found from any of the above categories and are one of your strongest sources of conflict for your characters. The job of the villain is to try everything possible to prevent the other characters from achieving their goals. The key to writing great villains is to keep them human with a mixture of both good and evil. Your readers and your other characters should continually be conflicted in their feelings toward villains—tricked, deceived, enraged, sympathetic, and horrified all at the same time. And villains should feel the exact same way about themselves.

More than anything, as you write keep in mind that conflict, at least on the page, is good. If you'd like to learn more about the subject, I've written an entire chapter on creative conflict in my book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.

Tip of the Day: Go for the jugular! Read some of your favorite books again and look for the different levels of conflict. While you're at it, go through your current WIP and see if you have used any of these seven conflict areas. What can you include or expand?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Premios Dardo Award, Part III

The last few weeks have been crazy getting my new book Better Than Perfect off to the printer, learning all about Twitter, writing a new manuscript, working the day job. It's been a lot to juggle. The best way I can describe what's been going on is to quote/paraphrase from Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance, "You can have it all, just not all at the same time." That pretty much sums up my life right now.

One happy escape I've had from the "all" is to search out new (to me, at least!) blogs and the people who write them. The following list comprises the last five blogs I've chosen for the Premios Dardo (Top Dart) Award. As before, my choices are to honor personal values and dedication in blog writing. The list is:

Recipients, the rules to accepting the award are simple: copy and paste the award onto your blog; pass the award on to fifteen other blogs and let them know they've been chosen; and link up to the blog that sent you the award. And take your time. I studied the web for awhile before I decided on all fifteen of my choices. To read about the other ten blogs that received the award, please go to my postings of 5/31/09 and 6/15/09. With that said, know that I truly enjoy all the blogs I've passed the award on to and hope you will find other sites that equally delight and inform you.

Tip of the Day: Go slow. Often as writers and creative people we can tend to rush, rush, rush to get a manuscript written or a pot into the kiln, always thinking of the next project without enjoying the current work. Take the time to savor every word, every moment. It only happens once.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Writing the Ghazal

One of the great pleasures of writing is to experiment with new forms and ideas. A few weeks ago I began investigating the “ghazal,” a poetic form that dates back to 6th century pre-Islamic Arabic verse. The idea for this was brought to our writer’s group by Elaine Soto, a gifted artist and writer whose current work concentrates on the Black Madonna. (You can see her wonderful paintings at http://www.elainesoto.com/.)

Elaine learned the following exercise in a poetry workshop she had taken at a writer’s conference the day before our second-to-last meeting:

1. Choose 10 images cut from magazines, personal photos, etc. Attach one image each to a separate sheet of paper. Number each page 1-10.
2. Now write a line for each image.
3. Now match the lines in this order: 8+2; 5+3; 1+9; 10+4; 7+6. Each of these “doubles” forms a couplet, giving you five couplets. If you like, title each couplet.
4. Go back over the lines. If you need a transition or any extra word(s), feel free to add them.
5. Now place the lines together and you have a version of the ghazal.

According to Wikipedia, a true ghazal has a definite form, meter, and refrain. Similar to writing a sonnet or any other structured poem, there are some real rules involved. So consider this version and exercise a very loose experiment and/or writing prompt that you can always re-work to follow the more usual order found in many how-to poetry books. What may surprise you, however, is that your ghazal will more than likely contain the essence of the original intention: “A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of pain.”

Because I can never follow recipes or any kind of instruction without changing something, I decided to set up my images in 10 sets of 2. I took the theme of “doorways” as my starting point, giving me 10 pictures of doorways matched to 10 random images of all kinds of things: rivers, marketplaces, old churches. Next I wrote 2-3 lines per page of images. I then completed the exercise in the order stated above, but I repeated it with my extra lines so that I could have more “verses” within the same ghazal. Confused? So was I! But it was interesting how the lines fit together (or didn’t in some cases) and how I enjoyed the randomness of the piece as well as the overwhelming feeling of the surreal. Poetry to me doesn’t always have to “make sense,” at least not right away or on the surface. Often the peculiarity of a line or image is the very impetus a reader needs to make his or her own leap toward personal understanding and meaning.

So here goes:

Every Breath is a Doorway

The ancients believed the birds carried souls to heaven in their beaks.
My thoughts are never-ending portraits of the past, sepia colored and curling at the edges.
In spring, even the shadows are sacred.
I wear dark glasses to keep the past at bay.
The river is a scarf of green.
In the winter we light lamps, shell peas, share stories of what may not have ever happened.
The light like your smile becomes my touchstone.
Even kings and gilded carriages break down into the dust of decay.
Arches that lead to courtyards and courtyards that lead to only more questions.
A book is a rock I cling to.

A bird alone in winter wind, trusting nothing but life itself.
The thing we fear the most is the sun itself, shining into all the dark corners of our lives.
The church remembered from childhood was shaded by apple trees and superstition.
The sort of glasses I had longed for as a child; dark and mysterious, the kind that hid my tears.
I would never forget the scarves hanging in the marketplace, a reminder of when we had money and throats left to wrap the silk around.
The peas in their blue bowl; no one shells peas anymore, there isn’t the time or the patience.
“She could never grow up so vain,” you said, “as to wear a dead bird upon her head.”
In a house where it is always safe and you know you will always belong.
My dreams are riddled by the dead; the dead and their dark graves forever piling up.
They are columns of stone, carved and set in place by hands no different from my own.

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, and no good thing ever arrived.
Stones from the river are carved into houses, castles, dreams of the very poor.
Flowers cling to an adobe wall.
A flight of stairs to a room no one enters any more.
In winter I look for lighted windows and pretend they are lit for me.
Midnight and still the prince drives by.
I can still hear the children playing, long after they are grown.
“You could always depend on reading,” she said.
Unlike her family, a book could never let her down.
I am a tree at the end of the world.

Tip of the day: Try writing a ghazal. Think “fun and experimentation” rather than “tried and true.” That said, if you enjoy the exercise, do consider taking it to another level and writing a more customary and ordered piece following established ghazal guidelines.