Thursday, September 16, 2021

Problem Novels - How to Reclaim the Joy of Writing

It doesn't take long for most writers searching for community and advice online to bump into Nathan Bransford's site. If you're not subscribing to his newsletter, you absolutely should. 

Recently, Bransford posted an article on knowing when to stop writing (when it's time to stop revising and let a book a go). The section on recognizing problem novels is especially helpful. It all comes down to finding joy in your work. Easier said than done, sometimes. 

A few ideas for reclaiming joy in your writing: 

Holly Schindler - Recently, I've been gravitating toward humor in my work. It's become one of my favorite ways to explore who a character is. What a person finds funny says so much about who they are. Even the most serious of stories have room for humor--banter in dialogue, for example. If I find that a WIP is becoming something of a slog to write, it helps to insert some humor. Just the insertion of some banter can lift my spirits, put a smile on my face. If I'm smiling, the tone of the work changes completely. It becomes fun again. It's play. I want to roll up my sleeves and slide the pieces of a manuscript around. 

John Clark - I have a trail of unedited and incomplete novels haunting me. 9/11 killed my writing ability for a couple of years, then back issues made sitting for any length of time agony. I'd get part way through a book and the dreaded slog descended, filling my brain with discomfort. Eventually, it became easier to quit than persevere. I was also seduced by my sister introducing me to short story competitions. Let's be honest, knocking off a piece of writing in a couple days and getting it published a month later beats the heck out of spending months creating a 90,000 word monster. What happened to change this? Mortality is one factor. I don't have thirty years left to dawdle and expect magic to do the grunt work. Another, oddly enough, is a magic candle I bought at one of my favorite stores, Enchantments, in Boothbay Harbor. Perhaps the most important is a fresh sense of confidence in my ability. In the past seven months I've written a new book, added two more stories to a YA anthology that's close to prime time, and am now editing the second book in a five book series about a teen with an extra finger and two girlfriends half a universe apart. For once, editing, and the thought of finishing those books that remain incomplete are things I'm anticipating and the dread is in my rear view mirror.

Mary Strand - Ironic timing, since recent events have crushed my joy in writing! But I tend to equate joy with action in novels, so when all else fails, I blow something up or at least cause a major accident to a character. And you think I'm kidding!

Sydney Salter - Sometimes to capture the joy of writing you need to write something just for yourself. Not for that often elusive market. I once wrote a series of short stories for no reason than to find joy in the process. I didn't share them with anyone, I simply enjoyed making up a bunch of stories about a bunch of wacky people. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Genre Hopping by Sydney Salter

I love being a genre hopper!

* I like moving between different emotional tones -- I can set aside my serious adult fiction to work on a fun middle grade or YA--varying the psychological weight of my writing life. 

* I participate in many different writing communities -- and that helps all of my writing. Something I hear about middle grade writing can help me with an issue in that big old troublesome adult novel. 

* I don't worry about hitting trends. I write the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. I have no regrets about finishing any of the manuscripts I've written. All of them have helped me grow.

* Genre hopping satisfies my curiosity. Most things I want to know fit into some sort of genre. 

Writing should be fun--and trying out new genres has helped me maintain the joy in this often frustrating writing business. I'm published in YA and Middle Grade, but my current WIPs are a pair of resting adult novels, a messy young middle grade, and a rather polished YA. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Out of My Comfort Zone and Into Spec Fic

In 2012, I stumbled on a renaissance in queer fiction, a new wave of books called "lesfic." This was a revelation to me since I thought most of these types of books had disappeared some time in the 1980s, with an occasional release coming to my attention every now and then.  My bookshelves are filled with lesbian fiction from the 1970s and 1980s, published by pioneers like Naiad Press, Persephone Press, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and Firebrand Books. I spent the 1990s and the 2000s reading literary fiction, which was great and all, except that I rarely saw myself in it.

It turns out with the advent of the internet people started to write and post fan fiction, much of it focused on the Xena Princess Warrior universe (a show I never watched).  These "uber" stories usually had a dark-haired woman and a blonde in some sort of romantic situation. Once books could be sold online, some of those fan fiction authors became novelists and even publishers, leading to the birth of lesfic.

Once I discovered these books, I gravitated toward romance, the most popular of the lesfic genres. I read one after another until I realized that the incomplete manuscript I had scribbled into a notebook years ago about three young women in college could become a romance novel.  Fast forward and the next year I self-published my debut, "Exception to the Rule," which ended up being awarded a Goldie for Debut Author by the Golden Crown Literary Society, which had been created to lift up lesfic books, readers and writers.

I followed up with two more romances, one also self-published and the other released by a small, lesbian press. Then I turned to writing Young Adult, but still sticking with the romance genre. I published two stories in anthologies and turned to reading queer women's YA.

Then Trump was elected, Charlottesville happened, and incidents of hate crimes soared. I started reading more and more about polarization and the growing divide between Blue America and Red America. Would the country have to split in two? Could it? What would lead to such a drastic event and which populations would go where?

I'd long loved reading alternative histories like The Plot Against America, The Man in the High Castle, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, all of which asked that same question: WHAT IF?

So now I was making a genre change, from the comfortable and familiar tropes of romance with their happily ever after endings to the unknown of speculative fiction with its detailed world building and action-filled plotting. 

As I mentioned here recently, I'm not great at plotting conflict, so moving from romance to spec fic really tested my author muscles. Writing YA spec fic gave me a bit of a break since the inner conflicts of teens are just, if not more, important to them as the external worlds in which they live. So I didn't feel like I had to work out every detail of the structures of governments, militaries and international relations like I might have had to do with a spy novel or something more adult-focused. But some of those things did have to be worked out, enough to make each new country believable. I have to admit I was helped by the fact that the US right wing was becoming more and more radicalized so there wasn't much I could invent about the God Fearing States that would have seemed too fantastical.

The other shift I made from standalone romance books with some interconnected characters was to decide that my spec fic story had to be a trilogy that unfolded slowly between my main characters' junior and senior years of high school. This was a total leap of faith for someone who isn't capable of plotting out one book in advance let alone three.

Now that I'm about the write the last third of the second book in the trilogy, I feel that I'm able to pass on a tiny bit of wisdom about switching things up.

Read your new genre. Since I'm not big on sci fi, my love of alternative history gave me some grounding in writing spec fic.

Come to terms with the marketing challenges. You have readers and fans in your original genre who might not transfer over to your new one. So it's important to seek out new avenues for promotion and new reader communities.

Follow your muse.  If the next book inside you means a genre switch is in your future, write that book. Don't force yourself to go with what you know. Switching things up might just help you grow as a writer, even if you end up going back to the tried and true.

On Review Bombing

Time recently ran a piece on review bombing on Goodreads: writers being extorted and bullied, told they will need to pay for good reviews or deal with a barrage of 1-star ratings. 

Regular bloggers at YA Outside the Lines weigh in--on review bombing, bullying, and the culture of Goodreads:

Sydney: I've used Goodreads for more than a decade, following the mom-advice policy: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. I rarely use the star ratings because it feels odd to reduce a complicated book--and my subjective feelings--to a few stars. Instead I write a couple of sentences about the book. What might someone else find helpful? 

Obviously, the idea of review bombing horrifies me. I wish the online world demanded more accountability from all of us. We should all have to stand by the words we share in public spaces. I'm also growing increasingly skeptical about group sourcing so-called expertise. We are growing too dependent upon emotional reactions rather than fact-based decision-making. If Goodreads got rid of the simplistic star-ratings and relied upon written reviews, review bombing would be obvious and easily ignored, and we could make decisions based upon the facts of the review. I AM in the mood for a predictable YA romcom! 

Cindy: Many authors I know refer to Goodreads as "Mean-reads" because the reviews tend to skew negative and you can one-star a book without needing to write anything (I've noticed recently Amazon is doing this too which is a shame).  There are negative reviews on Goodreads that basically say "I don't like YA and this is a YA book." Why yes it is, so why did you read it in the first place? Or "there were scenes of bullying in this book." YES, because it's a book about overcoming bullying.  

One reviewer that many authors who write women-loving-women books, particularly romance, are upset about is the person simply named "Charles." He one-stars every queer book even before it's released.  All pleas to Goodreads to get rid of him have gone nowhere because apparently he's not violating the Terms of Service (which then obviously need to be changed).  So someone brilliantly created "The Anti-Charles" who automatically gives 5-stars to every book that the evil Charles has rated.  Of course, that only rounds out to a 3 but it helps in the overall rating.

If Amazon sends me an item and it arrives broken or the order is incorrect, I can contact Amazon and, no questions asked, they replace it free of charge. Yet, Amazon-owned Goodreads is unable to stop the Charles' of the world? I guess the detergent I ordered is a higher priority than the books I read and write.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Renaissance Girl (Mary Strand)

This month at YA Outside the Lines we’re talking about branching into other genres and/or arts. Good idea? Bad idea? Possible? How? And would it mean taking a leap or merely another step on my path?

I come from a somewhat artsy-fartsy family. My mom, who was in college at the same time that I was (long story), minored in art history and LOVED art, although she didn’t put pen or brush to paper. One of my brothers is a painter and dabbles in music; another designs the most amazing Christmas ornaments.


I spent years practicing law. Although I would personally describe my merger agreements as artistic, not everyone appreciates the beauty of a tightly crafted indemnification clause. (Heathens.) But at one point, years ago, while pondering second careers, I thought about writing novels some day.

An eight-week maternity leave turned into “some day,” and I started writing a light, sweet, adult romantic comedy. (It eventually became my first published novel, Cooper’s Folly.) Then I wrote a murder-mystery romance, then three and a half women’s fiction novels, the “half” due to getting seriously stuck on a book, and to this day I’ve never been able to finish it. Very weird for me!


My switch to YA novels came from a writers’ “voice” workshop, when the entire group agreed emphatically that I talked and acted like a teenager (as if!) and couldn’t believe I wasn’t writing YA novels. I’m not entirely sure they were complimenting me, but here we are. It was AMAZINGLY easy for me to write YA novels, in large part because I actually DO think (and often talk) like a teenager. I merely hid that from the world when I was writing scintillating, edge-of-the-seat, wildly sexy merger agreements.

Books don't get any cooler than this. No, really.

When it comes to YA novels, though, I can’t call it “taking a leap.” It was like coming home.

The genre I now read most often (as opposed to write) is historical romance set in the Regency period. I love it to death. I’ll admit that I’ve flirted several times with the thought of writing them, but the learning curve would be steep (I think), so I doubt I ever will ... BUT I will note that it remains a flirtation, and I would not bet against the possibility that I’ll try writing a Regency romance some day. Utterly on a whim.

Other arts? I started playing guitar and playing in bands somewhat seriously five years ago, after dabbling briefly in guitar for a couple of years before that and going nowhere. (The initial dabble was triggered by writing a YA novel, Livin’ La Vida Bennet, in which the lead character, Lydia, was learning to play guitar.)  A friend pestered me TO DEATH before I agreed to join a band she was in, and I loved it, but at that point it was mostly about doing something fun with friends.


Then, three years ago, I started writing songs. Again, not really a leap. I’d suffered a couple of severe knee injuries and unsuccessful surgeries and suddenly couldn’t play sports, which I love more than any other endeavor (including writing or music). I was going crazy, and writing songs gave me something to do. Then, during the pandemic, I joined a Facebook songwriting group and started REALLY writing songs, because I simply couldn’t write funny YA novels while quarantined. I’m now in the process of recording my first album. (Okay, THAT is a major leap for me!)

Now, I’m back writing YA novels, revising my earlier women’s fiction novels and planning to publish them as a trilogy, still writing songs, still unable to play sports (and still going crazy), and still flirting with the idea of writing a Regency romance.

If I ever do write a Regency romance, THAT will be the definition of taking a leap. Hmm. You never know!

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Downeast: Five Maine girls and the unseen story of rural America


Downeast: Five Maine girls and the unseen story of rural America by Gigi Georges. Harper Collins, 2021

I’ve lived in Maine since 1949, growing up in Union, a small town in the midcoast area. My parents moved from New Jersey to Maine where my dad grew up in another, smaller town, West New Portland off Rt. 27 on the way to Canada. My sisters and I enjoyed the freedom of roaming the woods and fields that comprised the 187 acres of Sennebec Hill Farm. For years, we made do with the income from raising laying hens and shipping endless crates of eggs off to the Boston and New York markets. In the early 1960s, the bottom fell out of the poultry business and most in the business, including my parents, went into some serious debt (think half a million dollars in today’s economy.)

That heritage helped me connect both intellectually and emotionally with Gigi’s book. It further helped that Downeast Maine is my favorite part of the state. When I helped manage software for the majority of Maine’s public libraries, I always looked forward to heading out Route nine, AKA the Airline, to visit those in Calais, Lubec, Pembroke and Prospect Harbor.

In Downeast, the author condenses four years of observation, interaction, research, and emotion into 241 pages that read like great fiction. Inside are the stories of that portion of Downeast Maine surrounding Narraguagus High School as experienced by five girls who went to the high school. It is the intertwined story of Willow, Vivian, McKenna, Audrey, and Josie, but as you read, it becomes so much more. It’s a journey through their lives that expands to encompass their families, some close and loving, others fractured and cruel. It gives you a look at how the sea, and isolation from things we tend to take for granted are both frightening and reassuring.

The girls are amazing in their candor: Willow when she talks about her father’s addiction and violent behavior, her mother’s journey theough the abuse, and what she does afterward to reclaim her life, McKenna, whose athletic prowess might have translated into scholarship, but who felt the pull of her family’s lobstering heritage more strongly, Vivian, conflicted about her family’s religious beliefs, using them, along with what she observes around her to become an amazing writer. Audrey, a member of a state championship basketball team who must wrestle with her ambivalence over where to complete her education, and Josie who goes to Yale where the death of an uncle forces her to examine her beliefs as well as her family dynamics.

Layered along with their individual experiences are well documented statistics regarding the economic, social and demographic realities affecting Washington County. Teachers, religious leaders, and people who migrated to the area are all parts of this story. Their struggles with racism, bullying, homophobia, poverty, mental health issues, and the lack of available vocational training are aspects these dedicated souls work on in an attempt to make staying close to home a realistic option for these girls and their peers.

I was greatly impressed with the insight and honesty voiced by all five girls when it came to discussing political beliefs, religion, peers and relationships. If you care about Maine, about young people, about our future, or simply like reading an excellent and thoughtful book about gutsy females, this is for you.

John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Conflict is King…but how much is too much? (PJ Sharon)

One of the things I learned in the earliest days of my writer’s journey was that CONFLICT IS KING. Without conflict, there is no story. My fellow Outside-the-liners have outdone themselves this month with helpful posts on the topic. Be sure to make the rounds and check them out! I learn something new every time I read anything from these entertaining, brilliant, and informative authors.

Patty Blount did an especially good job outlining the types of conflict that make for a compelling story, and Dean Gloster wrote an amazing post on Scene Goals and Disasters, Scene and Sequel, and Conflict/Character-driven stories, to name just two! I'm in awe of the talented folks here who make writing conflict look easy.

But as a writer myself, and someone who naturally shies away from conflict, I’m often challenged to make life hard for my characters. How much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?

I have no problem starting with a defined goal, motivation, and conflict—the meat and potatoes of every good story—but to keep moving the plot forward, there need to be escalations…an upping of the stakes, so to speak. Which usually means we need to put roadblocks and catastrophes in the way of our fictional “children”.

This is where it gets complicated for me. How do I up the stakes, create new conflicts, and keep my character growing without jumping the shark and heaping too much onto them? Conversely, how do I stay focused on the main conflict without beating it to death by story’s end and have the plot ultimately be boring, predictable, and anti-climactic?

Those of you who know me know I’m a huge Outlander fan. Diana Gabaldon is a master of creating conflict and torturing her poor characters. In chapter after chapter, she manages to find a new way to expose the strengths and weaknesses of poor Jamie and Claire and thrust them into chaos at every turn. I often think, “What else could possible befall these people?” And then I turn the page and keep reading, lol. Partly because the writing is so good! But it’s also because I want to see what happens next and what the characters will do. How will they escape this disaster? Will they survive? Will they find their way back to each other? Will Claire open her big mouth and get herself in trouble again? Will Jamie let his temper get the better of him and do something he'll regret? The unanswered questions are the ones that keep me reading breathlessly to find the answers.

I don’t know how Ms. Gabaldon does it, but my answer to how much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?

As much as is needed to create characters worth rooting for and who become worthy of their hopefully ever after. Their trials and tribulations need to make sense for the story, but from beginning to end, characters must prove themselves again and again. They need to face challenges and fail. When they are beaten down to that point of “all is lost”, they must pick themselves up one more time. It sounds harsh and I don’t enjoy dragging my “babies” through the mud, but I consider it tough love and necessary for their personal growth.

The protagonist’s reactions to the roadblocks placed in their way will ultimately show you who they are and what they are made of. Their actions must be authentic, true to their nature, and in step with their underlying goal and motivation (what do they want and why do they want it above all else), and in service to overcoming the main conflict (what’s standing in their way). The choices they make in reaction to whatever obstacle is before them will dictate where the story goes next as they deal with the fallout of those actions, good or bad. That’s a lot of moving parts to keep track of but trusting the characters to lead me on their journey has worked for me so far.

And whenever I’m tempted to let my characters off easy, I remember the lessons of Outlander…no amount of conflict is too much conflict if it’s necessary for character growth, is well-written, and it keeps readers asking, “what happens next” as they turn the pages. That means, as writers, we need to be willing to torture and challenge our characters right up until that moment when they face their nemesis and win the day. The more they have endured to achieve victory, the bigger the pay-off and sense of satisfaction readers will enjoy.

In real life, I like to keep conflict on the page. I'm at the point where drama-free doesn't have to mean boring, and adventures don't have to lead to catastrophe to make for a great story. I've already earned my HEA...

Peace and blessings,



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Just a Bunch of Stuff that Happened (Brian Katcher)

 I'll never forget my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. X. In one year, she absolutely crushed any desire I might have had to write creatively, through extremely boring lessons, hellish group projects, and forcing an awkward twelve year old to recite in from on the class. 

However, she did teach me one important lesson, one that simply had never occurred to me before: Every story needs a conflict.

Now conventional wisdom tells us that there are four basic types of conflict:



The most classic of conflicts. The conflict could be physical or psychological. They could be fighting over food, a job, a lover, or just plain survival. A wonderful opportunity to create horrible supervillains and antagonists. 

Examples: Nearly every Sherlock Holmes adventure; 1980s WWF plotlines, nearly every James Bond novel


My personal favorite type of conflict. It's time we brought dancing back to this small town! A great chance to air your personal grievances in the guise of a book.

Examples: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Catch-22, Revenge of the Nerds, nearly every episode of the Dukes of Hazzard


This allows you to avoid creating a believable bad guy. Because the bad guy is a bear. Or a volcano. Or an asteroid.

Examples: Alive, Anaconda, Armageddon, Aliens, Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, that movie where the guy saws his own arm off


This is the hardest one to pull off because you have to really do a lot of that brooding monologue thing. 

Examples: Hamlet, Fight Club, that movie where the guy cuts his own arm off

Now some people would also include character vs. technology and character vs. god/the supernatural

But I find those to just be variations on the above themes.

In conclusion, no one wants to read your travel memiors. 

Brian Katcher is the author of several books. A goodreads reviewer recently describe him as 'not entirely without talent.' His book, ALMOST PERFECT, ranked 81 on the ALA's most banned and challenged books of the past decade.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Scene Goals: Conflict-Driven Storytelling, by Dean Gloster

            For two million years of human pre-history we roamed in small bands, and conflict could be deadly. A chance meeting with another group might be a first contact with armed strangers that could result in the grisly deaths of everyone we knew. And conflict within our little group could also be deadly: A falling out could mean the band expelled us, in an environment where that meant loneliness and death. 

        We’re hard-wired to understand conflict and stakes and to pay attention when they’re present.

Scene Goals and Disaster

            Scene Goal Stated. One kind of conflict that really makes our scenes pop is to have our point of view characters come into a scene with a clear scene goal, chosen for good reason, and made clear to the reader. (Scene goal stated: This is often by an internal thought or in dialogue.) This gives us readers something to root for in the scene and sharpens the conflict over it. Have that conflict escalate until there’s some kind of turning point in the scene.


            Disaster. Then have the scene usually (but not always) end in one of three kinds of disaster (from the standpoint of the goal): No (goal not achieved) Yes, But… (goal achieved, but new complication introduced in the process) No, And Furthermore… (goal not achieved, and a new complication has also been introduced.)


Sequel and Causation

            Sequel. Usually, the point of view character then must decide what to do, as a result of this new development. That is called a “sequel” which follows the scene. It can be a sentence, an internal thought, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. (In more modern fiction, with faster pacing, sequels have gotten shorter.) That decision will reveal character and generate new goals for future scenes. And it will then lead to those future scenes and chapters through a clear causal relationship to what went on before.


            Causation. In a short lecture on storytelling advice, Matt Parker and Trey Stone (South Park, Book of Mormon) explained to a freshman class at NYU that between the things that happen in the plot (storytelling beats, in their parlance) there should almost always be a “therefore” or a “but” before the next development, and almost never an “and then.” “And then” means there’s no strong causal relationship between the two developments—it’s just one thing after another, which isn’t as compelling and doesn’t drive the story forward. A “therefore” by contrast shows the tight sinew of causation—the decision leads to the next development—and a “but” shows a new complication interfering with the new decision. It’s a fun video, and barely over two minutes long, here:


When Character-Driven, It’s Not a Rigid Formula

            Like anything in writing, scene goals and scene-and-sequel format shouldn’t be followed with a rigidity that gets in the way of your character-driven story. They are tools, though, that supply a handy framework for letting your character’s desires and choices drive that story.


            If you, as the writer, understand why your character is choosing this goal, then it comes from character, making it a character-driven novel. Even then, if the adversaries in various scenes come across as unrealistic, unbelievable, or tropes, then the scene won’t work well: If the adversaries are just being dragged around by the author’s puppet strings to oppose the character’s goal, rather than pursuing their own agendas (or personality traits) that creates the conflict, they won’t seem realistic. One way to fix a scene that feels stuck that way is to—as a side-writing exercise—rewrite the scene from the point of view of the adversary, understanding their goals and why. Their actions in scene become more believable and the conflict will be more interesting. Then go back and rewrite your original scene with the benefit of this new learning.


            If this approach is interesting to you, here are a few of the many resources out there with further details:

            Goals, Scenes, and Sequels: Jack Bickham, Elements of Fiction: Scene and Structure, chapters 4-7.

            Sequels: Jim Butcher, author of (among other things) the Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, has a livejournal entry on sequels, here:


Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel—full of, well, scenes and some sequels--is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 54 percent of his soul.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Interview with Cindy Rizzo, author of The Papercutter

Today, we're chatting with Cindy Rizzo, author of The Papercutter. Regular readers will know Cindy's a new regular blogger here at YAOTL. Her new novel is so fascinating and timely, I (Holly Schindler, blog administrator) wanted to talk to Cindy about it at greater depth:

HS: First thing’s first—I always start by asking for an elevator pitch. Tell us about The Papercutter.

CR: The Papercutter is the first book in The Split trilogy.  Its three teenage narrators are members of the first generation to come of age after the United States has split into two countries: the United Progressive Regions and the God Fearing States.  All three teens are Jewish, two are Orthodox Jews living in the GFS where violent antisemitism is on the rise.  One of them, Jeffrey, is paired with an openly queer girl, Dani, in the UPR, through a pen pal program sponsored by the Jewish community. The third teen is Judith Braverman, the paper cutter, who has the gift of seeing the souls of people, knowing instantly if they are good or evil.

HS: I’m not sure I’ve read such an overtly political book in YA; frequently, it seems political issues are addressed through fantasy. How did you come to write The Papercutter?

CR: I read a lot about politics and the increasing polarization of the US, which seems to be getting worse and worse.  The Papercutter is in some ways a thought experiment--what would happen if the US actually split into two countries? How would it happen? What would it look like? Some people have told me they want that to happen.  I'm not so sure.

HS: Why YA?

CR: I read a lot of YA and I've written two YA stories published in anthologies.  I wanted The Papercutter to reflect the views of a generation that never lived in a united USA.  Young people have always been the vanguard of social justice and resistance movements, as the teens in The Papercutter come to be. They are responding to these external threats at the same time that they are growing into their authentic selves, finding love, experiencing sex, and taking the kinds of creazy risks that teens are known for taking.  I really wanted to write about the intersection of those two challenges and character arcs.

HS: I was fascinated by the description of papercutting. I love that you link art and resistance movements. Can you tell us a bit about the artform, and why you felt it was important to include the art-resistance connection?

CR: Papercutting is an old Jewish art form that usually depicts Jewish symbols or scenes from the Bible. Judith learns early on that centuries ago, a rabbi cut letters into paper after his inkwell froze and he could not longer write with a pen.  Some examples of Jewish papercuts can be found here.

I wanted Judith, as a character, to be set apart from others in her community. Her art is at the center of her life, much more than school or romantic interests. Yet, she's also very committed to her faith but is confused about why she's been given this gift of seeing souls. Initially, the papercuts provided a great way for the teens in the GFS to hide messages, using the very complicated code that Judith and her friend Hannah invent.  Later on, Judith learns about the power of art in resistance movements, which gives her a unique role in the struggle against the GFS government. 

HS: I also loved the depiction of the pen pals across the divide. It seemed a metaphor for how hard it is to reach out to someone of a different political affiliation. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. Can you talk a bit about how it became part of the story?

CR: The pairing of Dani and Jeffrey as pen pals was a way to connect two of my three main characters, and eventually the third.  Jeffrey had a reason to be part of the program--he wanted to move to the UPR.  Dani was persuaded to sign up by her brother who lives in the GFS and is related through marriage to the woman who heads up the program.  The two countries have negotiated a detente in an effort to avoid a war.  The Jewish Federation in the GFS creates the pen pal program in the spirit of detente to enable Jewish teens in the two countries to learn about one another.

HS: You’ve written at YAOTL about how plotting is harder for you than characterization. Plot is especially complicated when you’re working with a series. I’m such a junkie for plot strategies, I have to ask: How did you structure the plot of The Papercutter?

CR: The word "structure" as a verb is quite a kind description of what I did in writing The Papercutter.  Plot points come to me piecemeal and I then have to figure out how to connect them.  Then I have to make sure there's enough action and conflict so the book isn't just a character study.  The world I've created in the GFS is violent, so I knew some of that violence had to impact my characters, and of course it does.  The formation of the resistance happened somewhat organically as the personalities and qualities of the characters took shape.  Unlike Judith and Jeffrey, Hannah is brave and fearless.  Dvorah Kuriel becomes the mystical guide for the group, which made sense to me since she began in that role in her interactions with Judith.  And the metaphorical noose around the Jewish community in GFS tightens throughout the book, climaxing toward the end with the announcement that Judith and her family watch on television.

HS: You deal with so many additional issues, along with political polarization: issues of faith, issues related to the LGBTQ community, etc. Do you feel increased polarization heightens social issues?

CR: It can go either way.  If you are part of the oppressed group, you can either embrace your identity, perhaps in a way you hadn't before or you could run from it.  No matter what the external context, issues of sexuality and faith are very commonly confronted by teenagers as they work to figure out who they are as individuals.  I just read some excerpts from the diaries of Jewish teens living in Poland in the years leading up to the Holocaust when antisemitism was rampant, and it was surprising how much of what was in these diaries was about romantic longing, friendships and personal aspirations.  So teens tend to focus inward, no matter what is going on. 

HS: What’s your own favorite part of The Papercutter?

CR: There are so many.  I guess it would be the pivotal scene in the church parking lot where two characters meet and the unexpected happens (trying not to spoil anything here).  I was relieved when my editor said that I made that scene believable.  But also, so many funny Jeffrey scenes about his love of food and how he and Hannah interact.  I could go on. 

HS: What would you most like young readers to take from this series?

CR: That young people have a critical role to play in making the world a better place and that this has been true for generations.  Dvorah shares so many examples of this with  Judith and Jeffrey so that they understand that they can be part of something bigger.

HS: Can you give us a preview or a hint where book #2 will take us?

CR: Sure.  Book two opens when Judith attends the wedding of two hated characters and witnesses a heartwrenching confrontation between Isaac and his parents. This book tries to introduce some nuance into the polarized world with the introduction of the ARNE, the Automous Region of New England in the UPR, the home of principled conservatives who refused to settle in the GFS. There are some new characters I've included in the UPR as well.  But the book is very focused on Dani and her ongoing development.  There's more tragedy and more acts of courage and more art.  The tentiave title is The Border Crosser.


 Keep up with Cindy at Facebook, Twitter (@cindyrizzo), or here at YA Outside the Lines. Be sure to snag a copy of The Papercutter.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Conflict (or why I eat ice cream)


This month our topic is conflict. In the practical sense, conflict is something I think about a lot in my work – how the character’s inner demons set them up for conflict on all levels. Take a character with a fear of abandonment, for example… My job, as the writer, is to figure out why that person has that fear. What, in their past, helped nurture and feed it?


Next, I figure out how that fear can play out in other aspects of that person’s life. Maybe, for example, he pushes people away so that no one can ever leave him. Or, perhaps he chooses the wrong partners so he doesn’t ever risk getting too attached. 


I take lots and lots – and lots - of notes on how that fear can play out in the character’s actions, friendships, relationships, career development… How can it spill out into their living situation? Or their habits and insecurities…? One with a fear of abandonment, for example, might also fear showing vulnerability, revealing too much of themselves...  They might have shallow relationships, and their conversations might stay at the surface level. This character might also have developed habits to help compensate for a lack of closeness. What are those habits? How can I show them, organically, in my work? 

I ask myself what this character’s average day looks like, as well as when things might get really dark and scary for him. 


Conflict = the character against their inner demons but also against the exterior world.


But, as writers, in our stories is not the only place we find conflict. Being a creative person is hard work, and I’m always grateful when other authors/writers/musicians/artists share some of their own inner conflicts; it’s nice to know I’m not (we’re not) alone.  

Here is partial list of some of the artistic conflicts I’ve seen, read about, heard about, or experienced over the last year:


1.     Conflict with the self: Feeling as though one will never be as good as “x,” or that their “career” has tanked, or that they are (or will be) a complete and utter failure in this business.


2.     Conflict with the self: Feeling confident one’s publisher is probably disappointed or going to be disappointed with sales/reviews/ratings/edits/rewrites/subsequent books or book ideas/sales (intentionally mentioned twice).


3.     Conflict with the self: Feeling sure that no one will buy one’s book ever/again – not an editor nor a reader.


4.     Conflict with the self: Feeling as though one has wasted their time trying to write/publish/produce/sell “x” when they could’ve been doing “y.”


5.     Conflict with the self: Feeling as though one has sacrificed the time they could’ve spent with family, or on relationships, or climbing a corporate ladder somewhere, for their art or their writing. 


6.     Conflict with the self: Feeling as though the art one is producing is lackluster/unoriginal/uninspired/worthless.


7.     Conflict with motivation: “Why can’t I write when I have so much to do, so many expectations for myself, so much pressure? Plus, “Author X” is doing well. Why can’t I?”


8.     Conflict with TV: “There’s so much eye candy on Netflix, but I should really work, but I don’t feel like it.”


9.     Conflict with food: “If I just have a small snack, maybe I can get through that next big scene (or maybe not).”


10.  Conflict with house chores: “What is seriously wrong with me? Why does the laundry take up half of the basement?" 



But, as a writer, there’s something I never have conflict with: Do I really want that hot fudge sundae? 

Yes, always, I do. Every time.


And, do I still want to keep writing, despite all of the above? 

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I could ever stop.  

Feel free to add your inner conflict below. In the meantime, happy creating (and don't forget to indulge in a little - or a lot of - ice cream too). 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Keeping the Conflict on the Page (Brenda Hiatt)

I’ve always felt, as both reader and writer, that good, strong conflicts are a necessary ingredient for good, strong stories. In fact, the bigger the conflict, the more satisfying the resolution tends to be. For that reason, I do my best to throw all kinds of obstacles at my poor characters that they’ll have to overcome to achieve their happy ending. Notice I said, “I do my best to,” not, “I like to.” That’s because in real life, I’ve always been very conflict-averse, and that aversion has a tendency to spill over into my writing when I’m not looking. This means my first drafts often don’t have enough conflict, so I have to go back during revisions to beef it up. Which I do, and the book is always better for it. 

When it comes to life, though, I think conflict avoidance is usually a pretty good strategy, unless it’s a matter of standing up to a bully or righting a wrong. Since I don’t have many opportunities to do either on a day to day basis, especially as an introverted writer who doesn’t get out much, that makes steering clear of conflict relatively easy. Or at least it should. I realize this isn’t true for everyone, and it hasn’t always been true for me, either. There are people out there who absolutely thrive on conflict, to the point that if none is around for them to amplify, they’ll go out of their way to create some from scratch. We’ve all known at least a few of these “crazymakers” (as Julia Cameron calls them in The Artist’s Way), and if one happens to live in your house or next door, or is a close relative, conflict can become a regular part of your life whether you want it to or not.

Friends are a little trickier. Sometimes it can be necessary to cut a certain crazymaker out of your life, or at least minimize your contact with them, for your own sanity. If your main contact is via social media—for example, that one Facebook “friend” who regularly posts stuff intended to stir up conflict—you can hide their posts, or at least “snooze” them for a while. They’ll never even know.

And then there are the crazymakers that way too many of us allow into our lives by choice. And yes, I’ve been guilty of this one myself: TV/cable “news” personalities. Over the past two or three years, I’ve come to realize that paying too much attention to the news cycle, particularly via media where a healthy dose of spin is often included, can be toxic. Crazymaker relatives may be hard to avoid, but we definitely have a choice when it comes to the ones in the media—or, as I’ve begun calling it, The Outrage Machine. Once I really thought about it, I realized that most media outlets, regardless of which way they “lean,” have a stake in keeping viewers (or readers) outraged. Outraged people keep watching and clicking, boosting ratings and driving up ad revenues. Worse, outrage is addictive, so we keep coming back for more. And the more we watch or read, the deeper the divisions in our country become. It’s an incredibly vicious cycle. My advice? Step away from The Outrage Machine. 

Now that I’ve shifted to getting most of my news from carefully curated, text-based sources that report facts with an absolute minimum of spin, I’m a happier person. I also have a whole lot more time for the things that matter…like writing! These days I try very hard to only seek out conflict in fiction (especially my own), but not in real life. It’s a course I highly recommend.

Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the award-winning Starstruck series. She’s currently finishing up the first draft of the next book in that series, Unraveling the Stars, which should release in late 2021 or early 2022.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Book Without Conflict is Boring by Patty Blount

When I was a baby writer, I used to read quite a bit of fan fiction -- X Files, Outlander, Supernatural. One of the most frequent mistakes new writers make is no conflict between their primary characters, which makes a boring experience for readers.

Conflict drives plot. It also reveals character. 

Experts will tell you that conflict fits one of these types: 

  • Character vs. Self, where a character battles an inner demon such as guilt or grief, etc. 
  • Character vs. Character, when characters battle each other like Holmes and Moriarty or Superman and Lex Luthor
  • Character vs. Society, when characters battle what's generally accepted. Think Starr in The Hate U Give going up against systemic racism, or a duke unable to marry the love of his life because she's a commoner, or Katniss in the Hunger Games. 
  • Character vs. Technology, when characters battle a computer, the internet, a medical breakthrough, etc. Think Sarah Connor vs. Terminator. 
  • Character vs. Nature, when characters fight against rising tides or forest fires or extreme cold. Think Jack London's To Build a Fire. 
  • Character vs. Supernatural, when characters fight for the right to exist against an unknown force. It could be good vs. evil, it could be aliens, it could be ghosts. 

I used the SELF conflict in Send, my debut novel. Hero Dan Ellison battles monstrous guilt after a classmate commits suicide because of a picture Dan posted online. I used the Character vs. Character conflict in Someone I Used To Know. Siblings Derek and Ashley struggle to find a way to forgive each other for the events leading up to Ashley's rape by one of Derek's friends. There is also Character vs. Society in that story. The 'generally accepted' battle is rape culture and toxic masculinity in which Derek not only participates, he continues to defend and excuse. I used Character vs. Technology in my second novel, TMI. 

I'm currently writing a Character vs. Supernatural conflict, in which my teen hero is haunted by the ghost of his father. 

Conflicts like these move your story forward. But to reveal character, you need to give some thought to your characters' personal histories. Why do they want what they want? Why can't they have it? How does the OTHER CHARACTER stand in their way of success ?

This is particularly important for those writing romance because you don't want characters to fall instantly in love. Remember, conflict is what makes a story interesting. It's also what makes the happy ending feel like a well-earned reward. If it happens too easily, we're not invested in the outcome. So for romance, your characters ideally should have complementary conflicts. 

What does this mean? 

By 'complementary,' I mean the conflict is either shared by both characters or is inverted. A shared conflict is when both characters are in direct competition for the same thing -- a coveted promotion at work, for example. An inverted conflict is two sides to the same coin, for example -- a woman investigating a theft falls for the primary suspect in that crime. Sometimes, the conflicts are mirrored rather than inverted, meaning both characters share variations on the same conflict. A great example of this is Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits. Teens Noah and Echo both have family trauma involving tragedies and both go to extreme lengths to 'fix' their situations. 

This sort of mirrored conflict is one reason why I love to write dual POVs in my novels. 

Give me an example of your favorite fictional conflict in the comments! I am always looking for a compelling story. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Back to the Beginning (Holly Schindler)

I published my first book in 2010. A Blue So Dark--a story of the intersection of art and mental illness, told by a young girl caring for a schizophrenic mother. 

The rights reverted, and I'm now in the midst of a re-release.Which also means a potential rewrite. 

Really, it's my own biggest internal conflict, as a writer: when to let go of a project, when to tinker some more. It's really hard to figure out, sometimes, when a project is done. 

Now, here I am, with a book I wrote more than a decade ago. I've changed, as a writer. So how far down do I pierce into the work? And, no, it really doesn't help that the book got some good reviews and won a few awards. In fact, it only complicates matters. 

So: what's the strategy? What do I most wish I could re-do here? Is it simply a matter of bringing the book forward a decade? 

After a few brainstorming sessions (read: a few months of about a jillion different brainstorming sessions, and tons of conflicted feelings about the whole thing), I came up with this. The one thing I'd like to tackle in this book. The one thing I think would make a difference, without destroying the core of the book--the parts that are responsible for the starred review and the IPPY gold medal:

Take out the cussing.

That probably sounds silly. Empty.  And there's a definite case for the occasional, well-placed swear. During moments of intense fear or pain or anger, people aren't going to not swear. 


It's everywhere in Blue. I mean everywhere. Beyond being a reflection of how realistic teens talk. It's...

Well. In short, in Blue, I think it's lazy writing. 

I'm only about seventy pages in, and I've already found that having to remove the swear words is bringing characters and feelings and--yes, even conflict--further to the front. 

It's fascinating how one seemingly unimportant aspect can (when used extensively) have a pretty profound impact on a book. 


Holly Schindler is the critically acclaimed author of books for readers of all ages. She is currently preparing for a re-release of her first YA, A Blue So Dark.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Like Bellybuttons


John Clark with his take on conflict from a writer’s point of view. While thinking about what to say, I remembered the first time I saw someone with an outie bellybutton. It was just enough out of the ordinary for a four or five year old kid. Conflict in fiction, especially young adult fiction comes in both internal and external varieties. I grew up on an 187 acre farm in rural Maine, blissfully unaware of how I didn’t fit in until I started first grade. The moment I looked around, I knew something was off, but couldn’t identify what it was. That was my introduction to inner conflict. If you reflect on your growing up years, I bet you’ll come up with plenty of internal conflict moments...stay in a relationship or break up, go to that party you know your parents will disapprove of, change what you say, or dress because you want to fit in. While many later become externalized conflicts, most start as a dialogue in your head.

I agree with one of Mary Strand’s recent observations, but in reverse. I’ve thrived during the pandemic, realizing that I’m far more introverted than I thought. Of course, I started that way (see the comment about first grade above), and it took years to get comfortable around other humans in quantity. COVID gave me license to stay home and enjoy my own company. In the process, I was able to shed plenty of conflict-ripe situations.

I’m in the process of doing a hopefully final edit on an anthology of short stories about Maine kids that I’m calling Hardscrabble Kids. Each one is about one, or more kids, mostly teens, growing up in poverty and family dysfunction. While most have a magical realism feeling, the plot elements for almost all of them could be found in more than one place in rural Maine.

While my conflicts these days are pretty insignificant (do I get up in time to go swimming today, go to the post office in the morning or in the afternoon), I skirted some of those represented in the anthology when I was that age, or knew kids dealing with them. Here are some of the conflicts kids in the anthology face.

Marna Loy Archambault has to decide whether to trust the large gray spider she meets in the family outhouse who says she can help her get scholarship money

A nameless boy living in a donation box at the Bangor Mall and has difficulty differentiating between auditory hallucinations and real voices, must decide if the talking dime he found in a parking lot really can help him.

Jenni and Amy have to come up with a way to permanently deter the school bully from terrorizing them. The solution involves a trick football play and a truck driver.

Inky Johannsen, unable to communicate clearly, must figure out how to defeat the scary entity kidnapping teen boys riding on a remote ATV trail.

Two young siblings must choose between loving adults on another world, or returning to sleep in an abandoned car on their front lawnmowers.

Mara has to decide whether she can trust a Jewish genie she frees from a bottle at the redemption center when he offers her those three wishes.

Sara has to decide how much she wants to pursue the summer romance she swore would never happen.

Subah escaped a horrible family situation, only to have the safe situation she created suddenly be destroyed. Can she trust a guard dog and an old man running an auto salvage yard?

When Peter’s long held dream of a family trip to Alaska ends because of a serious chainsaw accident, can a girl who experienced her own traumatic injury and a revolutionary war ghost offer him something equally exciting?

When Greg Faircloth, the only out gay teen at a high school discovers he can morph into inanimate objects, does he use the gift to protect himself, or exact revenge on the high school football players who delight in tormenting him?

If you’re up for it, I challenge you to keep track of every conflict you encounter tomorrow. I bet you’ll be surprised at the number and variety of them. Thanks for reading this.


John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.