Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conflicting Conflicts

Last time I told you that giving your people more than one conflict helps the reader care about them.  Usually one is more personal than the other, although they can be related. 

In my plot class I talk about the secondary plot. In that context, let’s consider the movie Die Hard.  The big, obvious conflict is between a cop – McLane - who wants to save a group of hostages, and a terrorist whose true objective we don’t get to know until almost the end of the film. But note that McLane is also wrestling with a more personal conflict with his wife and we are not allowed to lose sight of that conflict throughout the film.  It’s easier for us to relate to that more personal objective. That helps us relate to the character.  Just like in Rocky (the example I used in a previous blog) I have never wanted to get punched by a heavyweight champ but HAVE wanted a woman to love and respect me, so that goal helps me relate to the character.

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  It might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis.  Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, of course he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but SHOULD he?  Yes, many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Remember, conflict is about character.  In a good novel, or movie for that matter, the protagonist will grow and change during the story. It is the conflict that makes that change. Overcoming each challenge forces our protagonist to show the strength, or determination, or quick wits we want to see in a heroes, and the challenge the conflicts present force him to change.

And since conflict makes a story, so you need more than just conflict between the primary protagonist and antagonist. There should be some sort of conflict in every scene. What if everyone in the scene agrees on what they want to do? Then they can still disagree on how to do it, or when.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Punch Up Your Writing with Conflict

Last week I talked about the importance of conflict in your fiction.  Conflict, as I stated then, is a function of your characters’ motivations. Your protagonist and antagonist must need to have or do things, and those things must be in conflict. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. The characters may even think so themselves at first.  But you, the writer, need to know the deep down reason why their opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot. If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  And if only one is deeply invested, readers will wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

As an example, let’s consider Rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. Yes, it’s a boxing movie, but how much of the film is actual fighting?  That’s good evidence that, as i said earlier, conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title.  Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important. But he also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. There’s another lesson here: note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain.  He doesn’t have to be evil.  And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of the movie is not about who’s the best boxer. It’s all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain his goals.  Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything.  Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

To help us care about your protagonist it is good for him or her to face more than one conflict. Next week I’ll talk about how to use multiple conflicts to raise the stakes and strengthen characterization.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When Conflict is a Good Thing

At the recent writing symposium put on by the Virginia Writers Club I discussed conflict and suspense – two elements i have to lean hard on to create crime fiction. Without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. And without suspense, readers have no reason to get to the end of your story. Suspense draws your readers thru the story to a satisfying conclusion.

You may think that the genres I write makes these elements easier to use.  In fact, they apply to all fiction worth reading. But to be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Suspense is not mystery.

Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about human motivations.

Suspense is a function of plot.  It’s about pacing.

Today I’ll talk a little about the use of conflict. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist – the person we cheer for – needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist – the person we boo – has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down. In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found. Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So before you start plotting your story, decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what all he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next you need to attach an emotional context to that goal. In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal? Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation. Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation. “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain. Dig deeper.

Next week I’LL dig deeper into different kinds of story conflict and offer some good examples to follow. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Verb's the Word

I don’t even know if they still teach parts of speech in grade school anymore, but back in the dark ages when I attended public school it was required learning. Back then they taught me that sentences were all about the noun and the verb, with everything else cast as helpers. And sometimes, those other words don’t help at all. But as a person selecting books for publication, and getting my own work out there, I can say that one of the best ways to upgrade your writing is to upgrade your verbs.

Genre fiction is almost always about the action, one way or another, and that’s what verbs represent. The subject of each sentence, the main noun, is pretty much fixed. How you describe what that person, place or thing is doing is the difference between an interesting statement and a boring one.

The easiest and least interesting verbs to use are forms of the verb to be. You know… it is, you are, they were, etc. Those words simply denote existence, and are almost always the worst choice.

Likewise there are the most common terms for movement that have dozens of cooler synonyms. Like go, for instance.  Sure he went home, and maybe he walked home (better) but he could have run, skipped, raced, sauntered, wandered or found his way home in several other ways. He hit the ball but he could have slammed it, whacked it, clobbered it, smashed it… you get the idea.

Here’s a short paragraph I’ve stolen and re-written from a recent submission we received:

A crystal chandelier was overhead and below, the tile floor was black and white.  Fresh sunflowers sat on a tea table in the center and beyond it an oak banister went up a marble treaded staircase. She went from this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

Now that is perfectly serviceable prose, and delivers the message – it’s real nice here but she ran away anyway. BUT here’s what the author really wrote:

A crystal chandelier hung above my head and a black and white tiled floor flowed before me. A tea table in the center held fresh sunflowers and beyond it an oak banister led the way up a marble treaded staircase. From this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

I hope you can feel the difference. This is not purple prose, not flowery or wordy. But by choosing better verbs she has made the descriptive passage much more inviting.

So after you’ve laid down your first draft go back and stare at every verb to see if a stronger one is available. This will also help you to eliminate adverbs (helpers that don’t really help your writing) and even prompt you to occasionally slip in a better noun. SO, did she speak softly, or did she whisper? Did the light shine brightly or did it glimmer? And did you write that passage succinctly or did you compose some terse, pithy prose?  

Sunday, July 24, 2016


In May of 2012 my two partners and I officially incorporated - we formed Intrigue Publishing LLC and nothing has been the same since. Going into business changed not only our lives but the lives of the dozen authors we have signed contracts with (aside from me of course.) It is amazing how much has changed in that time.

We started with a focus on four genres and that hasn't changed, but received submissions have varied a lot. We've gotten a mountain of crime fiction manuscripts and published a few. Death and White Diamonds has won two conference awards so far. Likewise, we've seen a pretty good stack of Young Adult tales and put some fine ones out. I can't explain why Girl Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie (our content editor's favorite Intrigue book to date) is not a best seller. It's a fabulous, well written tale. On the other hand the equally wonderful Y-A The Boy Who Knew Too Much won an award at the Love is Murder Writers Conference. 

On the other hand, we have yet to receive a contemporary drama manuscript we like enough to put out there next to B. Swangin Webster's Let Me Just Say This and its sequel, Let Me Say This Again. And we had been in business for three years before we got a romance we loved enough to publish. This fall Center Courtship and The Inheritance will explode onto the scene (at least, I think they will.) In all the genres we cover, we are determined to publish Writing That Can't Be Ignored.

We went into this business thinking we'd move a ton of ebooks and that if we called enough bookstores we could get our books onto the shelves one store at a time. Ebook sales have not been what we expected but now we have an arrangement with Small Press United (a subsidiary of Independent Publishers Group) who have people who call bookstores to get books onto shelves. We've recently been able to pay someone to call bookstores to set up book signings, allowing us to put new authors on limited, local tours. Liza Brown, author of Center Courtship, already has three book events  - two at Barnes and Nobles stores - for her book which we will release September 15.

From the beginning we have sent books to all the major reviewers hoping they'd notice us. It has been a steep hill but we've made progress bit by bye. The aforementioned Center Courtship is our first title accepted for review at Publishers Weekly. BTW, Jacqueline Seewald, author of The Inheritance, has previously been reviewed by PW so we're optimistic about a repeat.

From the start we have endeavored to behave like the big guys: pay advances and royalties, promote our authors, work to sell other rights, publish award winning books, etc. So far, I think we've earned a reputation as a legitimate, professional and author-friendly house. I'm probably inordinately proud of that.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Windup… And The Pitch

As I write this I’m halfway through a great weekend at the Public Safety Writers Assoc. Conference. I’m here as both a writer AND publisher, so I have had the pleasure of taking pitches from other writers. Some of those pitches were excellent, but on a panel I was asked what makes a good pitch. Since it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll share that information here too.

First, please don’t bring a manuscript. Or a printed synopsis. Or anything else for me to read. You want me listening to you, not reading while you talk. In fact, there’s no need to hand me anything except a business card if you have one.

It’s good to start with your elevator pitch. That’s something you should already have in your arsenal – a 30-second response to the question, “What’s your book about?” It’s the plot of your novel, boiled down to its basic essence. And don’t read to me. You should know your own book well enough to lay it out for me. Do practice what you want to say. You should be able to do this in a relaxed manner without stumbling and stuttering.

Next, tell me the basics I want to know to eliminate the most obvious possible objections: the genre, the length, the fact that it is finished, Tell me who the intended audience is. If you can compare your story to another popular novel, or compare your protagonist to another fictional hero, do so. That tells me you’re familiar with your market.

Then, tell me a little about yourself. If there is a reason you’re uniquely qualified to write this book (A SWAT team member writing about a SWAT team, for example) let me know. If you have prior published works, tell me so. Have you won writing awards? Been blurbed by a big name? Share that stuff. And if you have any natural platform tell me what that is.

All that will take surprisingly little time but when you’ve gotten this far, it’s time to be quiet. I’ll have questions, and want more detail on some of these points. I might ask about your protagonist, or why you wrote this particular story or what you’re working on next. The point is, stop pitching when you’ve finished your pitch and let me ask what I want to know. With luck, our conversation will end with me asking you to send me a synopsis and some chapters.

And yes, I am expecting several submissions from the current Con.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Submitting To A Small Press

As the editorial director of a small press - Intrigue Publishing - I’ve learned that there are many misconceptions about who we are, what we do and most importantly, how to work with us. I’d like to try to clarify some of that confusion.

Our relationship with any author begins with a manuscript submission so let’s start with how that goes. We don’t have pre-readers – all the principals of the company will read your book before we make an offer. Our acquisition process considers three things: you, your story and your writing.

Because we’re a genre fiction house any manuscript we are attracted to must have a good (read interesting) story. Often a well written synopsis will reveal that. Like many small presses we specialize in specific genre: crime fiction, family drama, romance and young adult. If your story doesn’t fit into one of those categories it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s not for us. And note our name – we are looking for stories with intrigue! It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Generally our President, Denise, determines if the story is for us. If she says yes, the book comes to me.

As the Editorial Director I focus on the writing. But before I evaluate the prose I evaluate the submission. Did the author read and follow our submission guidelines? Like many small presses we specify the font, size and margins we want. I look to see if the header is what I want, if the pages are numbered, if it’s double spaced. If your manuscript doesn’t look professional, and if you didn’t follow our submission guidelines, I may never read any of your prose. If I do, I’ll evaluate the strength of your writing. Have you mastered the basics of spelling, grammar and sentence construction? How well do you handle pacing, conflict, tension, suspense and character development? Does your story have a nice hook at the start and build to a big and satisfying finish? At the end I ask myself “Was it fun?”

If I love it, it goes to Sandra, our Marketing Director. She will read it with a different consideration – can we sell this story? Do we know how to market it and who to market it too? If her answer is yes (and she loves the read too) she’ll go to the internet looking for you. We need to know if you have a platform – a group of people already predisposed to want your book when it comes out. AND, do you know how to make friends and get them on your side? She’ll look for a web site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and a blog. She’ll want to see if you’re engaging, and even more important, do you post frequently? A web site advertising events that happened a year ago is worse than no site at all. The same goes for a Facebook page that you haven’t posted on in a couple of weeks.      

If we love your story, love your writing, believe we can do you justice marketing it, and believe you’ll work with us to make your book as good as it can be and get it into the hands of readers, you’ll get an offer from us. I’ll talk about what that’s like next week.