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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict by Jo Beverley

Let's give a big Noodler welcome to guest blogger, Jo Beverley, member of RWA's Hall of Fame and winner of five--count 'em FIVE--RITA awards. And there's more! Read on.

Hi everyone.

You'll have to forgive me if I seem a bit ditzy, but to use a good old English term, I'm discomnockerated -- but in the best possible way -- to report that A Lady's Secret will be on the print NYT for a third week. And it'll be up! 10.

You know the old saying -- you have to be crazy to work here? That sums up the writing biz. We get pushed down and boosted up, and sometimes there's no logical reason for one or the other. Sure, A Lady's Secret is a great book. I know that's boastful, but sometimes things come together, and we know it.

I liken it to making bread (and if you've never done that, you should.) As we work the dough we know if it's good or not, because we can feel beneath our hands whether it's alive or not. Good dough reacts to the warmth of our hands.If we dimple it, it rises back up like a chuckling baby. It's a lovely thing, and it's what we want when we're writing a book.

In my opinion, there's no such thing as a bread recipe, and no rules or structures for a good book, but there's two that come close.

1. Cut the boring bits.
2. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

Back about 25 years ago (yikes!) one of the first writing talks I went to was about conflict and how it was key to a good romance. Took me years to accept it properly and a lot longer to really understand it. If I do.

I'm half way through a new book and I've just gone back a few scenes and given my plot a dislocating twist which will probably mean that about 20,000 of my precious words after that are heading for the misty never-never land. But the tone and pace of my book had become too tranquil. Something had to happen. Why did it take me so long to realize the dough was dying?

You're probably stuffed to the eyebrows with wisdom about conflict, but so was I. I still didn't get it until I began to grasp that it's not really the plot, it's the spark that fires the plot engine. It's what makes things happen. When things aren't happening - boring bits, saggy middles - it's because that spark isn't there or is weak.

So put it in! And in a nutshell, that means make the characters' lives difficult -- very difficult. Another excellent word for conflict is "barrier."

What stands between the characters and what they want? Does it truly challenge them? Low barriers, or barriers that can be sidled around don't provide a spark, and we can't fool the reader on that one. We can try to say that Cinders can't go to the ball because she doesn't have the right shoes, but unless you've set it up right the reader can see a dozen ways around that. When Cinders finally decides to steal her sister's, paint shoes or her feet, or go barefoot the reader is saying, "Well, duh!"

The key here is the conflict hinges on the character not being very smart or ingenious, and that's hard to pull off for a hero or heroine.

On the other hand, powerful barriers can rise from human nature. For one character, walking into a party of strangers is no big deal; for another it's Mount Everest. As can be finally revealing a shameful secret, or calling a family member on an old wrong. Done right, readers will empathize with that completely because they know they would fight not to have to do that, or because they know people like that. That can even be a key plot driver for a long time - an inability to face a particular situation or reveal a buried secret.

Let's talk about conflict/barriers/uncomfortably and stressed characters.


Remember, at the end of the month we're giving away a signed Jo Beverley book to one lucky commenter. And that book will be......A Lady's Secret! So comment away.

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At 6:14 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Good morning, and I'm so glad you are here, Jo! Congratulations on A Lady's Secret.

I thought To Rescue A Rogue was full of delicious conflict as well, and I was so impressed by the fact that, despite the seriousness of the topic, the sense of hope and desire in the story kept it from being too sad. I loved it!

I think human nature conflict is a big reason I enjoy comedies, as well. Done well, it always rings true.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post! :)

At 9:00 AM, Blogger doglady said...

Squeeee! Jo Beverly is here! LOVE your books! Been reading them since (well a while. Ladies don't do well discussing years passing, now do we?)

I heartily agree with my buddy Gillian that To Rescue a Rogue had conflict to the max.

In my current just finished book, the tone is comedic to an extent. The conflict is more that of human nature. A very stubborn man who has suffered some losses for which he blames himself. He stubbornly holds to what he must do to "atone" and it is making him miserable. His new wife is perfectly happy in her own skin, out to prove herself and save the world but doesn't realize that when you join your life to someone else's what you do reflects on them. She just assumes he won't like who she truly is as nobody ever has.

Now my second novel, a WIP, starts with a crazy woman threatening to kill her own child and goes downhill from there. There is a murder, everyone is a suspect, the hero has had one wife go crazy and now his daughter's governess, to whom he is very attracted, says she has the ability to see animal's memories. He already had one crazy woman in his life, why would he want another? Oh and did I mention his daughter has no spoken in four years, since the night her mother died?

Am I close or is this just too much conflict in the second story and not enough in the first?

I can't believe I am asking Jo Beverly about my little books!!

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Welcome to the Wet Noodle Posse, Jo! And congratulations on the NYT list!

What you said really resonated with me, about putting in a dislocating twist. I have a ms that needs one of those. I'm curious if it still kills you to cut 20,000 words, or are you used to it, now?

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Manda said...

Yay! Congratulations, Jo! You totally deserve that NYT slot! (I love it when the books on the bestseller list are actually GOOD books!) I loved A Lady's Secret so much and have been reading you for about as long as Doglady has, I think;)

You are so right about conflict and it's something I have a hard time with. I am not ruthless enough with my characters sometimes I think. But I'm working on it.

And the hero of my just finished book is a Beta--I attriobute my love of Betas to you and your books. Though you've done some great Alphas, you write some of the best Betas around. (My favorite is Francis from Forbidden.)

Congrats again on the #10 slot!

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Jo, Doglady did not mention that she is a GH finalist with that first book she mentioned!

And, O Doggie One, the second sounds delicious! Sort of a reverse gothic.

Jo, your concept of "barrier" is helpful. It is easier to think of barriers than of conflict.

Thank you so much for sharing with us.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Hello Jo. One of the best talks on writing I've heard was your presentation at National in 2003 when you discussed Pride and Prejudice and defined the characters as conflicted. Even if they have no viable choices and therefore no action to take at the beginning of the book, that internal struggle must be there.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Jo B said...

Hi, everyone.

Thanks, Gillian. TRAR did have serious issues at its heart -- mainly opium addiction, but others snuck in -- so for me it was important to have counterbalance. This is personal taste. As a reader I don't like unrelenting darkness in a book. I also like people who can see the ridiculous side of human affairs, even serious ones, and especially are able to see the ridiculous in themselves.

Doglady, in a way that answers your question. :) Your second book does sound very weighed down, but that can work. It's always in how we do it.

But the other side of conflict is, how is this all going to work out wonderfully? I'm a huge believer in the triumphant ending where the couple truly do have a great chance of a wonderful future.

For me, this can't come about through a turnaround at the end. This is what the couple are working toward throughout the book. It is also what they are _proving_ through their actions in the book, so the happy ending is believable.

They're showing that when things challenge them they can rise to it, but also that they can begin to compromise, communicate, and work together, even if their relationship still faces many challenges.

Does that make sense? In a way, it's a whole other talk, but in a book, everything goes together. Nothing can be treated separately.


At 12:22 PM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Hi Jo! Welcome to the Wet Noodle Posse, and congrats on the NYT for A Lady's Secret! That has to be one of the few books you've written I haven't read but I plan to fix that very soon. And as a long-time bread maker, I know just what you mean- you just know- your hands tell you- when the dough's dead.

I'm intrigued by your comment that the conflict isn't the plot, but the spark that fires the engine of the plot. The more I think of it, the more I realize that's true, especially of internal conflict. I think that's going to help me with a book I'm plotting now because- I think- the hero is driven by grief from recent losses which he's doing his best to deny. But it's powerful enough that it he's just not ready for a potentially emotionally dangerous relationship, despite the romantic pull. That can be awfully tricky in a romance.

So I think keeping in mind that his conflict isn't the plot but what sparks his actions will help a great deal. I think maybe he's going to learn how to share grief instead of denying it, and the sharing, when the heroine also is grieving about a completely different loss, becomes glue to the bond developing between them.

So thanks for that hint. I shall carry on.


At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A series of sexual scenes is not conflict; it's just semi-pornography. I have been reading several historical romances which have very little conflict other than the hero( male or female) questioning himself or herself about whether marriage benefits them in any way. Jo Beverly never forgets what a historical novel should do. It should take place in a specific era with characters who are alive and have real conflicts. I am thrilled that her book has reached number 10 on the NYT Best Sellers list.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Jo Beverly, you are a GODDESS. I love your books. Also, I sat rapt during your RWA keynote speech (don't remember what year it was).

I do think true conflict is hard to grasp and harder to execute. You seem like a whiz to me, and I think that's because your characters are so real, and they get across that they feel strongly about things. We can tell it's a conflict, even if it doesn't involve asteroids. That said, the opium addiction was pretty durn riveting. Well done.

20,000 words in the virtual round file, huh? Well, that's inspiring in a sort of cringey way.

So happy to have you on the site today!

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Jo B said...

Moh said "I'm curious if it still kills you to cut 20,000 words, or are you used to it, now?"

I've become used to it. I don't think we can fight our creative process, only learn what it is. Mine is messy, an ongoing sort of molding putty thing, and I probably write 300,000 words for every 100,000 word book.

That's why writing so many words a day etc doesn't work for me (though it works brilliantly for others.) Writing words is easy. Writing the right words in the right place is the trick.*G*

Manda, yes, we do have to be ruthless. We have to push the characters up against things that are painful to them -- which as I said, isn't always the same thing.

I learn about my characters as I write a book, so often their deepest issues don't reveal themselves until later in the book. This is a good way to avoid the saggy middle.

For example -- and I don't think this is much of a spoiler -- Robin's problems with his inheritance, his mother, and his senior staff didn't come to me until late. I knew, of course, that he'd inherited fairly recently after his father's sudden death, and that he wasn't exactly an epitome of a responsible earl, but the rest came later.

Not knowing early on is a great way to avoid early book information dumps.

Congratulations, Doglady, on the GH!

Yes, Janet, conflicted as opposed to fighting or squabbling.


At 2:03 PM, Blogger PJ said...

Hi Jo!

I got your email and hustled right over to see what you had to say today. I've been a fan of your books for years and the conflict of which you speak is one of the primary reasons your books always hold my interest so well. TO RESCUE A ROGUE is an excellent example of that conflict and so exquisitely written. It's one of my all-time favorites.

The tension and conflict in A LADY'S SECRET was delightful and kept me turning the pages into the wee hours. As you know, I absolutely adored it and am thrilled for you that it's doing so well on the Times list.

I never thought of comparing bread dough to writing but it makes sense. I'm a longtime breadmaker and my hands always know when the dough gives up. I guess we just need to learn to listen and the words will tell us what we need to know.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Renee said...

How exciting! Hi Jo, love your books. A Lady's Secret is currently on my bedside table and next in the TBR pile.

I love putting my h and h into conflict, sometimes too much. :)

Thanks for the advice.

At 6:29 PM, Blogger janegeorge said...

#10 on NYT! Wheeee!

I bought ALS but haven't cracked it yet because I know that when I do I can kiss off progress on my WIP until I'm done reading. And I'm under a self-imposed deadline!

My son and I were discussing conflict on the ride home from high school. Yes, teenagers are challenging, but we were talking about my YA WIP. He's one of my test readers.

He said that he liked how I layered the conflict(s) and gave the main character a couple issues she could solve while the overall situation appears bleak. He said that when books pile too much awfulness on all at once it becomes too hard to keep reading. When my handful of readers speak, I listen!

This is something I'm learning and find challenging, how to keep the tension humming throughout while varying the pace of the novel.

It's helping me to think of the main conflicts as being either a guitar line (forefront) or a bass line (bottom) of a scene. This way I can still develop character arcs, give mini-breathers, and keep the juggling balls of tension airborne.

Jo, as far as I'm concerned, you're a master. You are the writer who made me a romance reader, and your books are the standards by which I judge others.

Thanks for being a Noodler!

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Jo, I'm a little late getting to the blog today (approaching deadline in four days), but I wanted to welcome you to our little corner of the Internet and say huge congrats on your NYT placement! I've enjoyed reading your post and all the comments.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Jo B said...

Blogger ate a long post of mine, so apologies if I miss someone here.

Jane, your son is smart. Layering and weaving is very effective. We don't want to dump all the problems from the beginning, because that can be overwhelming, but also they tend to resolve together and the story flops.

Ideally, as the first layers of challenge and barriers are dealt with, new ones develop or are revealed AS A CONSEQUENCE of the earlier moves.

With my style of writing -- flying into the mist -- I don't know the later conflicting elements when I start. I learn about them as I go.

Marianne, I have some questions about your conflicting elements, but I'm just tossing them out. Don't let me mess with your head!

You describe your heroine as fearless but naive and I'm wondering if it wouldn't be more interesting if she was fearful. It sound as if she's led a quiet life before the pirates grab her father, so wouldn't it be a huge challenge for her to go after them?

Challenge is key, and fearless seems to dilute that. Also, when we're afraid we tend to overreact, which could be how she comes to hurt the hero, see? Not klutziness, but a natural consequence of fear and trying too hard?

Having her constasntly fighting her fear but going on anyway just sounds so much more interesting, and wouldn't it give the hero something to admire, despite all the rest?

We have to think of the end. What makes each of these people a gift to the other, that's going to make their lives so much richer?

As I said, just thoughts. Feel completely free to ignore.


At 9:38 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Making copious notes here. Dislocated twist, work on unraveling the conflict as you go don't leave it to the end. What makes each person a gift to the other. What great food for thought!

Huge congrats on the NYT ranking. I have to agree. I LOVE it when the books on the list are truly GOOD ones!

Thanks for all of this invaluable information!

At 10:31 PM, Blogger janegeorge said...

**Ideally, as the first layers of challenge and barriers are dealt with, new ones develop or are revealed AS A CONSEQUENCE of the earlier moves.**

Taped it to the monitor... :-)

At 9:23 AM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger Donna Hatch said...

they say you should put your heroine up in a tree and then throw rocks at her, but it sounds like you should probably also have a wind blowing her skirts up over her head, a crowd below with her exboyfriend in it, and then set the tree on fire!
But isn't it great wathtching them overcome all that?

At 1:38 AM, Blogger Ranurgis said...

Congratulations, Jo, on the growing success of "A Lady's Secret." I'm glad to be able to say that I did my part for it.

Since I've just finished reading "My Lady Notorious," I can testify that this book at least is filled with conflicts of all the kinds you mentioned. And it's certainly true that each person has different kinds of conflicts. Some of us think twice before speaking a word, others tend to think aloud. Some will go to the top of a set of stairs and stride boldly down even at age two, but then be afraid of a kid-sized roller-coaster. Others wiil be timid about everything but the roller-coaster.

In a book I don't constantly look for conflict. Sometimes it's very nice just to get to know the characters without a lot of conflicts. However, you're right. There has to be conflict as well just as we experience it in real life. We don't always experience it to the same fight-or-die extent as characters in a book do, but it certainly can feel that way to us.

I thought I had kept up on the Malloren books. My mistake: it was the Mallory books by J.L. That's why I'm starting the series now. The biggest problem is that I can't find my copies of the books and the city library system doesn't have the next one, "Tempting Fortune." I'll have to see if I can get it in from another county library or just skip that one for now.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

I just love Ho Beverley books. A Lady's Secret will a fantastic read I am sure. I plan on buying this book when I run across it. We don't have the best books stores in my area.


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