Why Conflict Between Characters Is an Essential Part of Storytelling

So… there was this one time, when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I killed this monster that loot-dropped a basket.

“The basket contains infinite food,” the DM told me.

“I use it to destroy the global economy,” I replied.

The DM immediately clarified that the basket only provided enough food for one person, for one day. After I started trying to use the food supply as weapons, he told me that the only food in the basket was muffins, which I thought was a little unfair.

But I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to take magical objects to their logical extreme—and part of the fun of writing NEXT BOOK has been creating a character who shares that perspective.

This character is unlike me in a number of ways; she’s a cynic, for starters. She does not approach the possibilities of other worlds with anything like joy and wonder; she understands that once the general population gets wind of a portal to a magical kingdom, for example, it’ll just lead to more wars and resource battles.

There is another character, of course, who provides the opposite perspective. Who believes that a doorway to a new world could lead to something wonderful, instead of something terrible.

Then I introduced a planned obstacle—like, one that had been in the plot from the very beginning—and had these two characters react to it in the exact same way.

Because that’s the only way people could react to this particular plot development, right? No option for optimism here, not as we head into the third act!

And then my draft died.

I’d open it up, write a couple hundred words, erase them, rewrite them, and then close the laptop and tell myself I’d try again tomorrow.

Then I had a shower thought.

What if I had my positive thinker continue to think positively, even in this particular situation? What if this character saw the problem as an opportunity for growth and connection, rather than the destructive force my more cynical protagonist (and myself, as the author) initially assumed it was?

This not only made my narrative immediately more interesting, it also brought conflict back into the story. I mean, obviously the main conflict is characters vs. obstacle, but you know that these characters are going to overcome the obstacle eventually because that’s how stories work.

Which means the conflict that really matters is the conflict between the characters. That’s the part of the story that helps us understand how to be human, after all.

It was a good lesson to learn, even if it took me nearly a week of junky writing to figure it out. ❤️

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A Very Very Brief Excerpt of NEXT BOOK

310 of the current 13,093 words. ALL OF THESE WORDS ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

I haven’t named Ellen’s Slack friends yet. But I have begun to suss out their personalities.

ellen.everton: so hypothetically

ellen.everton: if you had the chance to go to Narnia or fairyland or whatever

ellen.everton: would you?

NAME NAME 1: HUNDO PEE

NAME NAME 1: BRING ON THE QUEST

NAME NAME 1: I WILL DRAW MY SWORD AND FIGHT

ellen.everton: what if you don’t know how to do a sword

NAME NAME 1: there’ll be a training montage

NAME NAME 2: idk do you really want to be Frodo though, or Bilbo

NAME NAME 2: it wasn’t all second breakfasts

NAME NAME 3: more like second breakfasts and PTSD

NAME NAME 3: if you examine the literature, you’ve got, like, “everyone dies and they dance around in Aslan heaven” (Narnia) “everyone learns that fantasy kingdoms are a lot harder to govern than they thought” (The Magicians, also a lot of people die) “everyone gets kicked back into their own worlds and they spend their lives struggling to adjust” (6/7 of Narnia, Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children, potentially stuff like Neverwhere and LOTR)

NAME NAME 3: (if you count the Shire as a separate world)

NAME NAME 2: but that’s how the hero’s journey goes according to Joey C: you always end up home again

NAME NAME 2: what’s that TS Eliot quote about returning and seeing the place you once knew as if for the first time

ellen.everton: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” thanks Google

NAME NAME 2: there you go

ellen.everton: so the question then becomes: is it worth it to do the exploring

NAME NAME 1: did you not read the quote you just copy-pasted

NAME NAME 1: WE SHALL NOT CEASE

NAME NAME 1: it can’t be not worth it because you can’t not do it

Also, for those of you following me on Twitter and wondering how this book can have both a mysterious old house with a bunch of secret doors and, like, Slack, let me remind you that this is 2019, we can have all of this AND MORE. ❤️

On Writing for the Reader, Not (Just) for Yourself

My NEXT BOOK draft is currently at 8,916 words, and I’m hoping to break 10,000 by this weekend.

(Remember, I started drafting on February 21, so… two weeks ago.)

This draft is delightfully messy and somewhat ridiculous, in the “I don’t know which vivid description is the vividest so I’m just going to write three different options in a row and pick one later” sense. It’s a very different process from The Biographies of Ordinary People, in part because it’s a very different book — this story is about mysterious strangers and hidden doors and unexpected worlds, and since I’m not doing the whole “let’s just describe the library in my hometown but make it a little different” thing, there’s a lot more “is it this? is it that? let’s get something on the page now and we can make it more specific later.”

There is one area in which I am trying to stretch myself, and it has to do with something I learned at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar: whenever possible, make the most exciting choice.

This has made this draft… a lot more fun. 😉

The trouble is that I’m second-guessing myself, a bit, on what I might find exciting compared to what a reader might find exciting. For example: at one point in the story our heroine sees the Mysterious Stranger, for whom she’s actively been looking after committing the grievous error of refusing his initial call to adventure. (Because that’s how heroes journey, y’all.)

So.

Option one: she goes to Mystery House and there he is, just hanging out in the lobby. Meh.

Option two: she goes to Mystery House, thinks he isn’t there, and then when she turns around to leave THERE HE IS. Slightly more exciting. Also kind of cinematic, but in a cliched way. What you’d expect, really.

The option that’s currently in the draft: she goes to Mystery House, does not find him, gets frustrated with this whole biz, pushes her way through a group of people who are getting ready to tour the Historical Landmark House That Is Definitely Not Full Of Hidden Doorways, opens the coat closet, and MYSTERIOUS STRANGER IS THERE AND HE PULLS HER INSIDE.

Now, I’m already seeing as I write this blog post that the way to fix this scene is to change the PULLING ASPECT, which is EXCITING TO ME (because I have had the specific experience of being pulled into a secret makeout nook by this person I had a crush on, and even though I had not verbally consented I had already consented multiple times in my imagination, so I was all, like, finally*) but PROBABLY NOT EXCITING TO EVERYONE FOR REASONS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, to a BECKONING ASPECT.

I can probably keep the part where he takes her hand. That’s exciting! His mysterious touch is mysteriously electric! I can definitely keep the part where they hang out in the closet until the tour group goes by and then sneak out so they can go into one of the Hidden Doorways, because that’s also exciting IF WE KNOW AS A READER THAT OUR HEROINE WANTS TO BE THERE.

Which I’ve totally established with the whole “she goes back to Mystery House looking for adventure” thing, but could make a little clearer by having him take her hand — or even just hold it out, Aladdin-style — and say something like “Come in,” or “you can hide in here,” or whatever, you get the idea. An exciting version of that.

I mean, there’s got to be some balance at this point in the story, because our heroine isn’t full-on ADVENTURE LET’S DO THIS yet. She’s more like “I can’t stop thinking about that mysterious guy and his stinkin’ mystery doors, so I’d better go back to the mystery house so I can just stop asking myself whether I should go back to the mystery house.” This part of the story shouldn’t be THIS IS EXCITING, it should be more like IS THIS EXCITING? YES IT IS! BUT ALSO A LITTLE SCARY.

But the scary part shouldn’t be WORRYING THAT THIS GUY JUST PULLED HER INTO A COAT CLOSET WITHOUT ASKING.

Okay, so I think I just solved this problem.

Anyway, MAKE EXCITING CHOICES! And then figure out if they’re equally exciting to the reader, for the right reasons.

Also, feel free to take bets on whether any part of the “getting all flirty in a coat closet” thing will make it into the final draft. It’s a little Chronicles of Narnia-esque, plus there are connotations associated with the words “hiding in the closet” that I may want to avoid. So maybe he invites her to hide in the pantry, instead. Or something else. I’ll figure it out. ❤️

*I should note that, although being pulled into Secret Makeout Nook by Secret Crush ranks as one of the best makeouts I’ve ever had, it was also a good prognosticator of the way that very brief non-relationship was going to go (he got to decide when and where and how we interacted, I got the anxiety of sitting around waiting for him to decide to spend time with me). INTERESTING.

On Drafting and Clearing the Path

The NEXT BOOK draft is currently 2,648 words long, which — since I’ve had three scheduled work sessions so far — is coming out to roughly 883 words an hour.

Since this type of book tends to be around 80,000–90,000 words long, I could be finished with the draft in as soon as 90 hour-long work sessions, or 17 weeks from now.

Late June.

Part of me wants to turn this into a goal, and it may end up being something I achieve simply by virtue of consistent output, but the other part of me is all just find your way through this draft. Don’t force it.

Because I know, three sessions in, that the process of drafting NEXT BOOK will be very different from the process of drafting The Biographies of Ordinary People.

For whatever reason — and I think part of it was because I tried to write Biographies five different times before I actually wrote it — the Biographies draft came out fully-formed. It needed a little revision, of course, but no major restructuring. The writing process felt like walking down a path that I had already cleared for myself.

My current writing process feels like clearing the path.

In both cases I went in with an outline and a bunch of character work, so it’s not like I don’t know where the path leads, or who’s on the path.

It’s more like I’m discovering what the path looks like as I find it, one step at a time.

Which means that the 811 words I wrote this morning gave me new clarity that I need to go apply to the previous 1,837 words, although I don’t want to do too much revising yet because I bet that the next 800 words will also clarify details that should be included in the preceding 2,648 words.

For lack of a better metaphor, it’s kind of like me saying “the path is covered by leaves,” and then 800 words in it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves,” and then it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves that have turned brown and started to decay at the edges,” and then “the path is covered by decaying red oak leaves and patches of new grass,” and so on. Add in what it smells like and whether there are any birds and what the sunlight is doing and… you get the idea.

The more time I spend on the path, the more I understand what it’s made of.

So that’s where I am, three writing sessions into NEXT BOOK. I already feel like writing this story is like slipping into another world, which is the best part of writing for me. (I felt that way about Biographies, too.) At this stage, it is play; exploring, creating, describing, experiencing, feeling, seeing. The same immersive experience I used to have with my Barbies and paper dolls, making up stories with my sister and my friends.

But NEXT BOOK isn’t just about me getting to play my way through it. It’s also something I am creating for you, which means I need to go back and add in all the detail I discover as I’m working on it, so you’ll get a similar immersive experience when you read it.

That’s what I’m thinking about, this morning. ❤️

The Morning After

I started writing NEXT BOOK this morning.

I know I’d been hinting that I was going to start writing, and that I was ready to start writing, but once I knew what was going to happen with The Billfold I realized that the best way to transition from “my life as it has been for the past five years” and “everything that might come next” would be to finish up my work with The Billfold and start my novel the following morning.

(Not that The Billfold’s work is finished, precisely. I still have to close out The Billfold LLC, but that’s just shutting down a handful of accounts and filing some paperwork with the state of Iowa. And paying for it, because you can’t open or close a business without paying a bunch of people.)

My most recent tarot reading — which was finally not about death — suggested that I pull back on the WORKING SO HARD ALL THE TIMES and, for the next lunar cycle, focus on my dreams and creating new things and being emotionally open with people.

The reading also suggested that I finish up all of this outstanding business-and-tax stuff and stash any money left over in my SEP IRA, which I was already planning to do.

So, in the name of being emotionally open with people, I’ll share the two pieces of music I had on constant repeat during this whole Billfold shutdown process.

Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense

It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then

This one is pretty obvious. I put it in my earbuds and played it on my piano over and over. There’s a back then that will always exist, first as a memory of a place we wish we could return to, then as a memory of something fun we used to do together, and then just a memory.

Here’s the other one.

Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it
And let’s get this over with

After all the spelling mistakes
After all the groping in the dark
Can this page of strange gibberish
Get a final punctuation mark?

It shouldn’t be news, per se, that my experience of shutting down The Billfold has been a little different than the Billfolder experience. (And it’s not even completely over yet.) I went through the stages of grief about a month earlier than everyone else — and yes, you can go back through my emails and Slack chats and tick off every individual stage — but what isn’t popularly advertised is that there’s a seventh stage that comes after “acceptance,” and that stage is called “a bunch of administrative work.”

So yeah, I listened to “Let’s Get This Over With” a lot. Even though the thing I was trying to hasten to its end was something I loved.

But the other stage that comes after “acceptance” is “a wide open space that can be filled with dreams,” whether that’s an emotional space or, in my case, a literal space as well.

So I started writing my next book this morning. ❤️

Using Comp Covers to Clarify What Readers Need to Know About NEXT BOOK

I already had a mood board for NEXT BOOK (by which I mean I had a Google Doc with a bunch of internet images pasted into it), but at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams workshop last Saturday we discussed getting really specific about both mood and what types of emotions a reader can expect to have while reading the book.

One way to clarify this is to find other book covers that communicate the mood/emotion “if you pick up this book, you will get this kind of story” thing to the reader.

So… here we go.

Covers that suggest portal fantasies centered around a female character

Fun fact: neither of these books are actually portal fantasies! But they both feature a woman standing in front of SOMETHING NEW without fully stepping into it, which is the emotional conflict that drives Act 1 of NEXT BOOK.

Both books also suggest the SOMETHING NEW is SOMETHING OLD — an old clock, an old castle, etc. This is also an important component of NEXT BOOK, and something I’d like to flag for potential readers.

The colors on The Lost Girls of Paris are also kinda right for the mood I’m going for: this story includes both a portal and a mystery.

Yes, these books are both women’s fiction titles, which means they’ve got the perhaps-overdone FACELESS LADY on the cover, but FACELESS LADY works for a reason. (The reason is we imagine our own face on her face.)

Covers that suggest the primary conflict takes place inside a female character’s head

A Kingdom of Exiles, by S.B. Nova.
More Than Words, by Jill Santopolo

This set includes one fantasy title and one women’s fiction title, and of these two the fantasy book feels more like the overall mood I’m going for, but what I like about both of these books is that they suggest the story is about A WOMAN WHO MAKES A CHOICE. Does she choose the dream inside her head, or the expectations outside of it?

I also like these books because both of these women have their hair pulled up, and when I was doing image research for my main character I found this exactly-what-I-was-looking-for Instagram photo:

View this post on Instagram

“There are a lot of things about getting old that are far worse than the gray hair. I almost caved and dyed it the other day when some 11 year-olds figured out my age and said they were confused because their moms are at least a decade older but don’t have any gray hair. I didn’t cave, though. I’m going to teach loving oneself by example. 👵🏻” thanks for the inspiration! -Jen, 34, gray since my early twenties thanks @jdowt for sharing a courageous story with us. #grombre #gogrombre ▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️#goinggrey #greyhair #greyhairdontcare #greyhairs #grayhairdontcare #grayhair #grayhairs #silverfox #goinggray #goinggreygracefully #greyingout #naturalisbeautiful #confidence #naturalgrey #naturalgreyhair #naturalgray #naturalgrayhair #saltandpepperhair #saltandpepperhairdontcare #silversisters #silversister #naturalgreyhair #naturalbeauty #naturallygrey

A post shared by Going grey with (grohm)(bray) (@grombre) on

So that’s another reason why these covers feel right to me, although I’d also like to tip the reader off to the fact that this character is a woman in her 30s with graying hair. (BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN IT STARTS, Y’ALL.) We are often attracted to books that feature people similar to us, and I want to make sure that similarity is visible on the cover.

Covers that imply the universe and/or light science will be involved

I don’t think either of these covers contain enough information about the themes present in NEXT BOOK to be particularly useful, but I like the idea of cuing the reader in to the fact that THERE WILL BE A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION FOR THE PORTAL. Is that the most important thing the reader needs to know before deciding to read the book? Not really. (I could probably communicate it just as easily over flap/back cover copy, too.)

But as a reader myself, I tend to avoid the types of fantasies that aren’t rooted in reality (or at least a plausible reality). Suddenly finding yourself in the Magical Kingdom of Whatever isn’t good enough. I want to know why you, and why is this place a monarchy, and how does this fit in with the available parallel universe theories that are legitimized by math.*

So that’s where I am, in terms of figuring out what I want this book to communicate to its reader. Because that’s what this exercise is really about, since book cover trends change so quickly that you can’t set your heart on one type of cover before you’ve even written the first page.

*No, seriously. It is extremely mathematically likely that there are parallel universes, if the universe operates according to the rules of mathematics. Go read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.