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Which is Most Important: Character, Conflict, or Crisis?

Book with heart for writersAs I’ve been reading around in the Indie-verse, I’ve found a couple of books I’ve decided not to finish. As both a writer and a reader, I’ve thought about what triggers me to abandon a book.

One feature that has stuck as a cause for my reaction can be summed up in advice Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest provided at the Writing Day Workshop I attended in Indianapolis in October:

Begin with conflict, not crisis.

Typewriter with questions marks

In other words, writers I’m deciding sadly to give up on often begin with their characters in crisis. But Klems’s advice reminds me of a cruel but vital truth:

If I don’t know your character, I don’t care about her. If I don’t care about her, I honestly don’t care if she gets her brains blown out.

Sorry, but there it is.

Gangster with gun

When these writers begin their books, they have three Cs to deal with: Crisis, Character, and Conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to state that, of the three, Crisis is the least important!

I know, I know: begin in medias res. But not when the folks in medias are just names on a page.

Can you pile on character, conflict, and crisis in opening scenes? I thought I’d try an experiment to find out.


Sally found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. She stumbled backwards. He fired. The shot narrowly missed.

Crisis, big time. And a couple of what Paula Munier calls “micro-story questions,” the elements that help to deliver what she calls “narrative thrust.” Who’s shooting at her? Why? Will she escape the next shot?


Okay, I’d read on to the next bit. But if the following three pages consisted of her efforts to flee his escape, I’d be flipping ahead to see whether things got more interesting than an abstract flight-and-pursue.

What if, instead, you read:

Of course Mark was going to pull the trigger. When he threatened, he always delivered. Sally flung her hands up, stupidly, since they wouldn’t stop a bullet, and sprawled on her butt on the wedding dress jumbled on the tack room floor behind her. The gun went off in a brain-numbing explosion, the bullet slamming into the row of bridles hanging just above her head.

Beautiful sexy girl with gun

Take that, Mark, you scum!

We still get to the crisis pretty fast, but now we have many more micro-story questions. First, we’ve got conflict: these people have a history. It’s not just a question of why he’s shooting at her, but what between them has happened before to trigger her recognition that this isn’t a joke. “Why and who?” becomes “How does she know this about him? What has he done to make her think this now?” There’s a whole history of people in those queries.

More importantly, that wedding dress. Wedding dress? How in the world did a wedding dress get in the floor of that tackroom? And why a tackroom? We now know that these people somehow connect with horses, and that someone (Mark? Sally?) has just been through (or approached) a wedding. And he’s the determined sort who shoots first and asks questions later, while she’s (at present) a bit reactive and self-derogatory (calling herself “stupid”). Conflict and character as well as crisis—leading to a cornucopia of story questions! And all in the same number of sentences, four.

Some of my writing group colleagues are absolute minimalists and would opt for the first austere and abstract version. But to me, pure action is not nearly as engaging as action involving people I know or people I’ve been made deeply curious about.

An experiment like this leads to me be suggest that if you must demote one of the three Cs, let it be crisis! What? Start flat, with just characters in conflict? Well, yes.

Torn up drafts

As Stephen King argues, narrative tension arises not from wild, boisterous action but from people in “situations,” where they must react to each other and to the problems their situation presents.

True, you can’t spend pages on this development. It has to happen in that medias res moment, through careful pacing and selection of details.

As an illustration of how little we need a doomsday crisis, consider these opening lines from Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist:

They said the typewriter would unsex us.

One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force. Unforgiving. Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.

Typewriter publish

We’ve got character, even though we haven’t met the speaker. We’ve got conflict: That nameless “they” is already on trial! I haven’t yet read this book Will I? If it lives up to this crisis-deprived opening, you bet.





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Quick Tip: Build Character with Stage Business

Typewriter publishIn my recent exploration of indie novels about horses, I’ve noticed a way that some of these authors could enliven their stories considerably: by making smarter use of stage business.

By stage business, I mean the interactions between characters and their environments, usually involving elements of setting and, in particular, props—the things they handle as they respond to each other.

Most of the authors I’m reading quite rightly use stage business to give readers a sense of setting, to give us a sense of “being there” in the scene, and to punctuate dialogue—for example, to break up a long speech. But this element can work a lot harder than it often does.

Coffee mug for writers

Make that cup of coffee talk!

For example, let’s look at the possibilities offered by a fairly common scene: people sitting around a table drinking coffee. To frame the dialogue, we’re told, “He took a sip of his coffee.”

I guess he would, if he’s got a cup and it’s likely to get cold. So there’s really no information here.

But what if:

He waved the nearly full cup around so violently she was afraid he’d sling the contents onto the spotless white table cloth.


In his huge, clumsy hands, the mug looked as fragile as bone china.


He lifted the cup with both hands clutched around it, as if grateful for its feeble warmth.

Suddenly, “taking a sip” tells us something about the character and the situation he finds himself in.Happy editing!

Here’s another example.

She put on her cowboy hat. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”

There’s a big difference between that bit of info and:

She snatched up a dusty cowboy hat stained and dinged with long use and smashed it onto her short black curls. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”

Lady 2 promises a lot more action once we reach the corral than Lady 1. Now that hat talks!

True, it’s important to practice this strategy in moderation. Pacing a scene requires an author to balance forward momentum with information, no matter how exquisitely revealing that information seems to be. I once got slapped down pretty good over a character fidgeting with a paper clip through a long scene. As I recall it, my reader’s marginal comment was, “That paper clip is really getting on my nerves.”Typewriter and flowers

In drafting, as is usually the best move, over-generate. Come up with stacks of double-duty stage-business gems. Then glean for the one best one, the one that really delivers the “telling detail.”

What are some of your best “stage business” lines? I’d love to hear!Book with heart for writers


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Indie Writers: Do you WANT two-star reviews?

Recently, as part of my education in self-publishing, I’ve expanded my reading to include indie books about horses, as my own republished novels feature racing backdrops. My selections have mostly been prompted by mentions in Goodreads groups and the “customers also bought” list at Amazon.

In the past, I’ve tended to stick with books off “year’s best” lists, like those at NPR or the New York Times, so this new reading has taken me into new territory. It has also led me to do a lot of thinking about what works for me and what doesn’t—and whether I’m managing to purge my own writing of a pile of sins.

And it has created a dilemma I’ve read that others face: whether or not to review a book when I can’t give it at least a three-star rating.

As a teacher, I’ve seen enough students’ faces fall to know what a strong critique can do to the kind of relationships I’ve been enjoying through social media, even when the comments are intended in the most constructive of spirits and embedded in the most voluminous praise I can conjure. Do I really want to hurt people whose conversations I’ve enjoyed? And as the recipient of more than one one-star review (in places that, sadly, mattered to a budding career), I know how it feels.

But as I read this new-to-me category of book, I found myself thinking about what’s potentially lost when readers hold back from honest, thoughtful reviews because they’re negative. And I began to wonder:

Do authors of indie books WANT to know what turns readers off?

Should they?

I’ve increasingly subscribed to the view that we don’t know what we’ve written until a reader tells us. We’re too close to our work. Even if we know what to do, what not to do, it’s often only when a sharp reader points out the pitfalls we’ve stumbled into that we realize that we’re in them up to our necks.

Of course, we all know that some one- or two-star reviews offer nothing constructive. The reader didn’t like sci-fi, but reviewed a sci-fi novel and gave it one star because of the sci-fi conventions the reviewer hates! I admit that I am less likely to give even well-done category romances more than three stars, because of the predictability of the plots and conventions I find problematic.

But I’ve given five stars to a very good romance, one in which the circumstances of the predictable elements are so unique and intriguing that I forgot I was technically reading a romance.

So would an aspiring indie romance writer want to know what kept her book from rising in my ranks?

True, she’d have to come in knowing that accepting potential one-star reviews does lay the task of sorting the gold from the pique at the author’s door. Personally, I learned from my negative reviews (although I couldn’t help wishing that my editor and I had been a little more in sync so that we could have headed them off). While I didn’t completely rewrite the book in question, when the chance came to revise for self-publication, I did spot things that had flown completely under my radar the first time around. And I got put on notice about my most persistent pitfall as a writer: the tendency to complicate my plots way too much.

The author of a book I’m reading now commits so many of those writerly sins we all hear about so often that I wonder whether I actually might have something useful to say to him/her. Far too many characters; characters whose relationships with each other and the plot, let alone their goals, are unclear; way too much classic “telling”: in short, can a review serve as a mini-beta reading? Or is it better to hold off on that kind of reading until the author asks?

So—one- and two-star reviews:

Should we as readers write them?

Should we as fellow authors risk writing them?

Should we as authors WANT them?

What qualities make a bad review worth the pain?

What do you think?

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3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop, October 24, 2015

Novel!It’s unusual to find a conference that changes the way I think about my novel and about myself as a writer. This one-day conference, less than a day’s drive away, did just that.

The Workshop featured presentations by Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com. The basic fee covered four all-group presentations by Klems and a “first-page” critique by four agents of randomly selected submissions. Participants could pay extra for ten-minute pitch sessions with up to six agents and for a personal query-letter critique by Chuck Sambuchino, author of a number of books and blogs on writing as well as humor books.

Klems’s presentations covered a huge amount of nuts-and-bolts information most valuable to writers who had not attended many conferences or mined the web for information on the business of writing. The pitch sessions were well-coordinated; all three of the agents I queried were generous listeners. The published schedule did not build in meals or receptions for the social networking that many writers find rewarding.

So what made this conference so productive? Two things: Sambuchino’s critique of my query and the “first-page” session, at which some 20 or so of the first pages submitted were thrown down and stomped upon.

First: Query-Letter Critique

I didn’t receive Sambuchino’s comments until the Thursday night before the conference, and Friday was hectic, so it was evening before I could settle into my motel room to digest the veritable armada of comments he had supplied. Everyone reading this can probably empathize with my stomach-twisting lurch when I realized that the back-of-the-book blurb I had workshopped over and over with multiple audiences was No Good. Basic questions—what is Michael’s wound, his need? What is at stake? How does this event lead to this one?—still loomed. Sambuchino wanted A LOT more information than any back-of-the-book was going to accommodate.

The feeling of utter inadequacy that settled over me produced a complete rewrite. Was that the right strategy? All I know is that when I sat across from agents and talked from the notes they were glad to let me use, not one broke in with a confused frown to tell me I wasn’t making any sense. (Believe me, this has happened.) There’s no experiment that could tell me whether my response to Sambuchino’s comments made the difference. But I do know that when I revise my query letter, the pitch itself will look a lot more like the one I wrote Friday night than the one I have now.

Lesson learned? First let me talk about

First Page Armageddon

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Note to Self: Four Editing Rules to Follow THIS TIME!

Do you have rules for your own self-editing sessions? Can you suggest some I ought to apply?

Editing a manuscript that I wrote some time ago has actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The story’s there, almost solid; now it’s time to make sure nothing in my style, my pacing, my voice, keeps it from getting across. Line-editing this novel is a lot like cleaning out a closet and finding out which of my old treasures really are treasures and which ones are junk.letter scatter novel

And the thing that’s great about cleaning up the text of your novel: it’s not quite as likely as a closet to get cluttered again.

Actually, “self-editing” is a little bit of a misnomer. A lot of what I’m doing as I revisit the manuscript of my long-shelved “Sarah” novel is responding to the comments and suggestions of my wonderful Green River Writers critique group (see here, for example, to learn more about how and why they’re wonderful). But at the same time, coming back to my writing after a hiatus changes the way I see and hear it. Distance makes the heart grow smarter? Or am I just hearing myself through other people’s ears now?

Since those of us who want to be read (and published) need more than anything to know what we sound like outside of the wind cave of our own brilliance, I hope I’ve assimilated the collective wisdom of my writing group, in which people just plain tell me when I’ve made them start checking the number of pages to see how much more of my brilliance they have to take.

Typewriter and flowersHere are four editing moves that give me consummate pleasure. Who would have thought that slashing a big X across half a page or a black line through a sentence could be so fun? Continue reading


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Comma Power

I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.

I had an intuitive understanding of this power from my manipulation of my own prose as a fiction writer. But I credit Martha Kolln’s textbook, Rhetorical Grammar, for making concrete, as an object of explicit study, what my instinctive ear told me. I never succeeded in passing on to many students a real, self-conscious understanding of how vital such a simple little mark can be to communicating precisely what we want readers to hear: there never seemed to be enough time to think much about style in the classes I taught. But if I had it to do over again, I would indulge myself by finding that time. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, but by golly, punctuation is a tool! We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning (a simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite). But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and in this regard, the comma’s a tough little drill sergeant, lining up every word in its place.

So: some disquisitions on commas. Rather, on what I think is going on with commas, with thanks for Kolln for systematizing these observations for me.

Today, emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:

There is in fact a reason for what happened.

Now add the commas in the most obvious places, around the “interrupter,” which grammar books tell us commas should, actually, set off:

There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.

To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the second sentence, as in all uses of commas in this way, the emphasis is cast on the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads

There IS, in FACT, . . .

So we get increased attention to the “facticity” of what’s being claimed. The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.

But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence, I would assert, in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,

There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.

This effect is, in part, due to what Kolln calls the “it cleft,” which I’ll investigate in a later post. But the commas hammer home the shift to emphasis on “REAson,” telling readers that this reason is going to be the focus of the ensuing follow-up.

I want to look more in upcoming posts at the comma’s power to break up sentences and direct utterance as words transfer from page to mind. For now, do you have examples of how commas control words in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?


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First Lines of Novels: What Works?

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.–My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.–Paris Trout by Pete Dexter

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.–The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.–A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

I’m collecting first line of novels that I think provide particularly good models and possibly rules of thumb for those of us hoping for just that one read. Why are these so important? I can’t help remembering my trip to the Backspace Conference in New York, sitting around a table for a “two-pages-two-minutes” critique with editors and agents. Reader after reader got stopped before getting past one-minute-one-page, or in some cases, thirty-seconds-one-paragraph. “This is too familiar,” said the agent. “I’ve heard this a million times before,” said the editor.

That experience impressed on me something my own experience as a browser in bookstores confirms: yes, the language of your whole book has to sing, but if you want people to pay the price of the concert, the first line has to be so high and clear and pure it blasts through their earphones as they’re passing on the street.

I thought I’d spend a few posts thinking about why these are examples of first lines that did that for me, in hopes of deriving some ideas as to how it’s done. I’d love it if readers would post their own favorites, with some speculation as to what makes the lines work. Be specific! Don’t just tell us “I like this” or “It works for me.” Why does it work? How does it work? So we can see whether we’re hitting your criteria in our own efforts.

Obviously, it’s not that the first line carries the book. The paragraphs that follow have to bear out the promise. But I do think that one strength of these lines is that they do make a promise. We read on to see if that promise is going to be kept.

Okay, the Daphne du Maurier line: what promise does it make?

It’s actually fairly simple at first glance–this is a haunted place. Only something bad can be set in motion here.

That promise resonates for me because I’m a firm believer in the truism that in narrative, only trouble is interesting. Promise your readers upcoming trouble in twelve simple words and they will at least finish the paragraph.

There’s more going on, though, I submit. This, like Rebecca, is to a great extent a Gothic novel, and “the old days” conjure the fatally romantic past that, in Gothic novels, no one will escape. The old days aren’t gone; they’re hovering in the shadow cast by this nameless “they” whose memory just won’t be expunged. The whole atmosphere of the book emerges: something looming. Its shadow is that of the noose.

I hear the rhythm of the sentence as well:

They used to HANG men /at Four TURNings /in the OLD days

It breaks into three parts, like a poetic stanza, with an accent on the next to last syllable of each phrase. We almost have three anapests, with a falling syllable after each. There’s all kinds of literary and neuro-cognitive speculation as to why rhythm captures us as it does; suffice it to note here that the accented moments are the central moments that almost deliver a message in themselves: HANG, TURN, OLD. Something old is going to turn on us and deliver us to that noose.

I’m going to finish the series before I try to generalize some rules from this example. I’m curious whether I’ll see the same things in all four.


Filed under Finding agents, Learning to write, Working with editors, Writing and teaching writing