Friday, September 30, 2011

Pitching Headlong Into Confrontation

This is my first post on YA Outside the Lines. So…hi! (Waves) I appreciate the invitation to be part of this site, and I hope we get to share a lot of ideas in the coming months.

My first post is inspired by the reader-generated question, “Do you find yourself trying to avoid confrontation in your novels?”

Short answer: No. But I doubt I’ll generate much discussion if I stick to short answers.

A personal theory of mine: As the author goes, so goes the work. There was a time in my life (before I was published, or even had the guts to open my work to feedback) when I’m sure I tried to avoid confrontation in my novels, because I avoided it at all costs in my life. I remember a time when my characters were shallow. Because I was shallow. They only cared about their relationships (“Capital R” relationships—the way we relate to others in our lives is perhaps the only thing we should care about, in my opinion) because I created them, and I could not yet see what else in life was important. In retrospect, I think it’s a good thing that I never finished those novels.

In other words—and I don’t want to make others uneasy with my theory, but neither do I want to avoid confrontation in this post—a novel is a clear reflection of its author. And when it finds its readership, it’s a clear reflection of its readers. This reminds me of the patient who goes in for therapy but doesn’t want the therapist to know anything about him. So he makes up a dream, not knowing that the dream he imagines says at least as much about him as the dream he dreams at night.

I no longer seek to avoid confrontation in my life. I don’t invite it, or force it, but when it’s called for, I hold my nose and march in. Because I’ve learned that I can’t build a better future while trying to hover safely within my comfort zone. And I feel strongly—very strongly—that my job as an author is not to help readers stay within their comfort zones. I feel my job is to ask them to try on something new. Fiction is a terrific proving ground for new ideas, because there are areas we’ll be willing to explore on a page that we might not be ready for in our lives.

My favorite application has always been asking the reader to know and understand a character they would likely avoid if he or she were flesh and blood. All characters are safe as words on a page. And if you can’t find some way to examine the inside of a new person’s being, how will you discover that magic connection of common humanity? And then how will you ever look at the people around you in a new way?

For example, in The Day I Killed James, I put you into the head of a girl who holds herself responsible for the suicide of a young man whose heart she carelessly broke. Not comfortable. But everybody’s had some kind of experience with guilt. Why not drag it out into the light, where it stands some chance of healing?

In Diary of a Witness I take things a step further and ask you to understand and empathize with a young man who’s so close to the breaking point that he’s pitching headlong into a school shooting of his own making. Sure, it’s easier to lock these people up, label them bad, and never think another thing about it. But I’d rather take a look at what went wrong. People are supposed to have outlets for their pain. Have we failed these kids in some way?

I want Jumpstart the World not to count. Because I don’t want the simple fact of a character happening to be transgender to be seen as a challenge. But I’m afraid to some readers it probably still is.

I realize not all readers care to be challenged, but I never kidded myself into thinking I was writing books for all readers.

I’m a fan of the André Gide quote, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” The length of time it takes to read a novel doesn’t seem like asking too much.

I consent. What about you? Your thoughts?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Battling Myself (Holly Schindler)

As it’s already been said in one way or another here at YAOTL this month, conflict—or confrontation—can often be the most fun part of writing a book. On the page, conflict is where the story really takes off.

But because I’ve been hard at work, all month, on the revisions for my forthcoming debut MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, I’m also reminded of another type of conflict that occurs in the process of getting a book on store shelves—between a writer and him or herself.

Every writer is protective of their book. In a lot of respects, you have to be. That need to protect is what gets you through multiple rounds of submission and rejection. It’s also, I’d argue, what gets a book written in the first place.

So many writers refer to or think of our books as babies. (Online, release dates are celebrated as “book birthdays.”) Often, I’ve heard writing a book likened to giving birth. Actually, I think it’s more like being home with a newborn. When a baby comes home, your world becomes about the baby—your entire life revolves around caring for and protecting that baby. When inspiration strikes, you have to treat your book the same way. You have to say, “I couldn’t possibly go to the movies (or out to dinner or away for the weekend, etc.), I’ve got a book to write!” The same way that you’d never leave a baby home alone, in order to get some guacamole. You’re responsible for getting those ideas on paper, every bit as much as you’re responsible for the well-being of a newborn.

That might sound like hyperbole, but really, I’m not exaggerating at all. Protecting your idea, your novel, really is that important—as important as caring for a newborn. If it’s not, believe me, the world encroaches, and the book never gets written.

The conflict that I’m referring to, though, actually happens after the book is written. After the book has been accepted. After you ink the deal, and all your hard work has paid off…

And you get your editorial letter. Asking you to make global changes.

At this point, that ultra-protective writer inside you—the same protective writer who cared for your concept like a newborn—butts heads with the ultra-critical editor inside you.

And that’s where the magic happens.

I love the global revisions that take place after a book’s acquisition, because inevitably, something really beautiful always comes from that internal conflict: my protective self wanting to stay true to the initial concept, and my critical self seeing my editor’s points and wanting to implement changes. Characters are reinvented, subplots revamped, events placed in a different order. The book becomes three dimensional at this point. It has skin.

So do I ever avoid this confrontation with myself? Never. Once I get that editorial letter, I jump straight into it, heart racing with excitement…

Below, I've included a "greatest hits" moment: the unveiling of the official title of my MG! (Like most writers, I wear so many different "hats." I'll always love and write YA, but I write other genres, too.) The book features a young artist, and nothing reminds me of the art projects of my youth quite like construction paper...all I was missing for this vid was a few pipe cleaners...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The quest for conflict

When I work out an initial idea for a novel (by far the hardest part for me), I’m looking for the conflict. For YA novels, I love to discover situations that a very young person can be placed in, with lots of responsibility that a teen might not be ready to handle. Nineteen-year-old cop, anyone?

The idea for my July 2012 novel, Such a Rush, took a long time to develop. I felt the first spark on January 15, 2009. I was working out in the YMCA when breaking news flashed across the TVs mounted on the ceiling. An airplane had crashed in the Hudson River: US Airways flight 1549. The reporters didn’t know yet whether there were any survivors.

That flight number sounded awfully familiar to me. My husband was in the Dallas airport waiting for a flight to Atlanta and then home to Birmingham, I thought, but maybe I was wrong. He’d taken strange connections before, to Detroit or Minneapolis, just to earn a free ticket or get home sooner. Was he in New York?

Correction: Was he in the Hudson?

There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick... on TwitpicA quick call to him reassured me he wasn’t. Soon the news reported that everyone on the plane was safe. But that flight number continued to bother me.

When I got home, an e-mail from US Airways waited for me. I had booked a round-trip flight to New York at the end of January for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. The e-mail informed me that the flight number of the first leg of my trip home, LaGuardia to Charlotte, had been changed to flight 1550. From flight 1549. Flight numbers go with designated airplanes. Translation: “We have changed your flight number because your original airplane is no longer available. We are very sorry but it is floating in the Hudson.”

This was in no way a near-death experience. Everyone survived, most importantly, and the crash took place two weeks before I would have set foot on the plane.

But it was my flight. It was the flight I had taken before from New York to Charlotte and eventually home to Birmingham. It was my gate in a musty, forgotten wing of LaGuardia with one bad restaurant, bad coffee, and plenty of laptop plug-ins. Captain Sullenberger was likely my pilot. I thought a lot about how well he did his job. There were countless ways things could have gone terribly, horribly more wrong, taking out half of Manhattan and reminding the city of the tragedy seven and a half years before. He avoided them all. I enjoyed the recent movie Friends with Benefits, but when Justin Timberlake made jokes about how Captain Sullenberger was not a hero because airplanes are automated, I did not laugh. And when New York decided to rid the airport of the flock of geese that had flown into flight 1549’s engines by catching them, cooking them, and feeding them to the homeless in Pennsylvania...I am a bird lover and a tree hugger, but I thought this was a pretty good idea.

Flash forward to summer 2010. My family, my brother's family, and my parents rented a house together for a week at the beach in South Carolina. My dad has been a private pilot for years--he took me up in his airplane for the first time when I was five. He's also a loner, and there's just so long he can stand a crowd, even a crowd of his own family. He always escapes by going to the airport, just to see what's going on. He always asks me to go with him so he can say he is having family time and he will not get in trouble with my mother. This is why I have been to every airport in every tiny town in the South where I have ever been to a family reunion.

On this day he was particularly interested in the tiny planes towing advertisement banners up and down the beach. He called both local airports and asked where the planes were based so we would visit the right one. For hours my dad, my son and I sat on rocking chairs on the porch of the airport office, looking out over the runway, and watched these planes. After they'd taken off, they circled back around and dove low over a grassy strip next to the runway. The pilots physically threw a hook out the window of the airplane while in flight. The rope tied to the hook unfurled, and if the pilots had threaded the needle just right, the hook caught the banner laid out on the grass. Then the pilots pitched the airplane up sharply, almost stalling, in order to pull the banner into the air instead of dragging it along the ground.

My dad had many, many colorful things to say about this, which I cannot repeat for you here. The gist was, "This job is very hard and dangerous, and these pilots have to be crazy to do it. Or just very young."

Now he had my attention, right? It turns out that pilots can fly for pay at age 18--if they have enough flight hours, which is a big if, because it's enormously expensive to rent a plane for flight time. Pilots can fly people--become airline pilots and that sort of thing--at age 23, but only with a huge number of flight hours. College-age pilots who need those hours are the daredevils who fly these banner-towing planes.

Being a pilot is a huge responsibility. If you're not super-cautious, the consequences can be deadly for you and everybody under you on the ground. It's also a huge rush, and an 18-year-old with a job as a banner-towing pilot will be surrounded by conflict. Add a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to be Captain Sullenberger someday, the twin brothers who own the business and hire her to fly, and a crazy crop duster pilot who doesn't understand the meaning of mortality (yet), and that's where Such a Rush came from.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ya Gotta Have Conflict or There's no Romance

Once my wise and brilliant agent told me that I needed to take one of my characters in the draft of a novel I had sent to her and “shake him until he fizzes over like a bottle of soda.” Or maybe she wanted to shake me that way… Either way, message taken. No conflict, no story. Quiet conflict… probably not good enough either. It’s a tough market out there, missy. Start shaking.

Truth is, the stories we like to read the best usually have the most conflict – layers of it. When I teach creative writing to high school students, we talk about this a lot because it’s something they intuitively understand but generally not something they’ve thought about analytically. So we talk about building those layers – how to intertwine internal and external conflict in a way that amps up the stakes for your characters and compels readers to turn those pages. Often it’s the first time students begin thinking about characters as ‘real’ people – when I ask them to ask themselves: What does my character want? Why? How am I going to keep it from him? Or when I say okay, you’ve set your character on a runaway train… but why? Why that train? Why that character? What are stakes? Why have you created this specific situation for this specific character?

For Anne in the Dreaming Anastasia series, conflict arrives in many forms. Anne begins the series dissatisfied with her life. This is not surfacely obvious to her, but nonetheless true. Her family – as continues to be the case throughout the series – is in disarray: They have not rebounded - nor will they - from the death of Anne’s brother of cancer two years earlier; they are quieter, disconnected, secretive. In some ways, I designed this as a contemporary mirror to the Romanovs, to Alexandra’s intense fears for her son’s Alexei’s health. Were it not for that, she might never have come under the thrall of evil Rasputin and history might have gone differently. I wanted the same for the Michaelson family – and also on a large scale. As they peel back the mystery and realize the consequences of choices and events, we begin to understand how various tragedies have impacted them.

Anne smacks into Ethan – both literally and metaphorically and emotionally. Her contemporary presence conflicts with his old-timey sensibilities. Anne’s newly developed powers require her to keep secrets from her family. More conflict. Anne realizes that her choices can save or destroy lives. Conflict. The bad guy – Viktor – has a familial connection. Conflict. Later: Which boy – safe Ben or not so safe Ethan? Conflict. Enter Baba Yaga’s forest with an unknown set of rules. Conflict. Best friends in peril. Conflict. Should I fall in love with someone who has such a mysterious, and lengthy, past? Conflict. What do I put first – myself or my obligations? Particularly when it comes to Anne loving Ethan, this is the case. She knows he is her one true love. But will she take the leap and risk all there is to risk? Conflict. Juicy, wonderful conflict. Editor Leah and I are very excited for readers to see how it all works out for Anne and Ethan in Again and Again when it releases from Sourcebooks in Fall 2012.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conflict--who me? (Tara Kelly)

Do I avoid conflict in my real life? Yes and no. I avoid what I like to call 'toxic' people. You know the kind that would say negative things about their best friend at their best friend's funeral? Whenever I'm around someone who says negative things about their friends (on a regular basis), alarm bells go off inside me. I immediately think...this is a person I can't trust. Usually I cut off the friendship before it starts. That might sound cold, but I haven't regretted a decision yet. And my life as an adult is much better for it.

You see, as a teen, I had a lot of 'bad' friends. Growing up with ADHD and having a hell of a time making friends as a kid, I was just excited to HAVE friends once I got to high school. So what if they talked behind my back or always went after guys I liked or stole my clothes and CDs or tried to push me in front of a moving train while they were tweaking (yes, true story) With the exception of the friend who tried to push me, I kept most of these people in my life at the time. I thought..well, people aren't perfect. I just need to let it go. Having something to do on the weekends is better than sitting home by myself. Most of the time I avoided conflict like the plague. I put up with just about anything not to have to end up in a fight with someone...because with the people I hung around that usually meant getting beat up or jumped.

I didn't start growing a real backbone until my 20s, after years of just 'taking it'. Now I pride myself on NOT taking crap. That being said, I still don't seek out confrontation (I don't like it, despite my mouth). But if someone treats me in a negative manner or someone I care about, I do say what's on my mind and I'm not afraid to defend myself or someone I care about. In short--if I think you're acting like a jerk, I tell you.

How does this translate into my stories? Well, believe it or not, years of hanging out with 'villain' types has made me develop an odd fascination with them. Even though some of my friends were real tools, they had some pretty messed up stuff going on in their lives. I'm not saying having a messed up life is an excuse to be a jerk. But as the years went by and I had time to think back on them, I realized they were more than just the one-dimensional baddie I had in my head. They were real people with real problems who dealt with those problems the only way they knew how. Some of these people were screaming for help at the time. But I was too mad at them to notice.

I love stories where the villains are just as real and developed as the protagonists. Maybe they even have a 'want' a lot of people can relate to. Really-I think this is the best kind of conflict...when you can see both sides of the story even if you don't agree with how the villain is choosing to handle it. Even if the villain is doing something HORRIBLE. I think sometimes our villains turn into one-dimensional baddies because that's how we see people who have hurt us in our lives. But even people who do horrible things have wants and in their own minds they probably feel vindicated. Sad, but true.

Thankfully the only place I 'choose' to deal with jerks is in my books. I cringe at having to understand them...but it's worth it. My stories become that much more vivid and colorful that way.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

feeling conflicted - Alisa M. Libby

As others have stated, I too avoid conflict at all costs. Much better to let things fester over time (sigh).

But seriously, I was noting how many authors started their post with tales of their own avoidance of conflict and I thought, "Is it us? Are we a fearful bunch?" Then I thought no, there are people out there who are not afraid of conflict - who seek it out, even. Those girls in high school who would gossip about whoever happened to not be present at a given moment, stirring up bitterness and anger in the group for no apparent reason.

In real life, I avoid these people like the plague.

But in a book, conflict is essential. The key is making it the right kind of conflict. Personally, I think a character who seeks out conflict and thrives on the adrenaline of fighting would likely get boring after a while - if there is no fear or discomfort, then what is at stake? But putting a character who is at least a bit conflict-averse in the midst of clashes she can't escape - that can make for good fiction.

There was a particular character from THE KING'S ROSE that I loved for this very reason: The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Whenever this woman walked into a room, I knew she would have something interesting, and likely uncomfortable, to say to Catherine Howard, bride to King Henry VIII. The Duchess did not mince words. Whether it be instructing Catherine on her role as queen, or advising her on how to seduce the king, or berating her for past dalliances with young men, the Duchess was sharp, unflinching, often cruel - but her intent wasn't vindictive. She was there to mold Catherine into what she needed to be: a submissive queen, the mother of an heir to the throne. If Catherine had done something wrong, she knew that it wouldn't get past the Duchess. For this reason, her presence added an extra crackle of tension.

I loved to write about the Duchess, and all of my other conflict-loving characters. But that doesn't mean I want to sit with them at lunch.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Queen of Conflict - CJ Omololu

I've never really thought about conflict in my books before, but when this topic came up, I realize I LOVE conflict and tend to toss a ton at my characters. Apparently, I'm the queen of more, bigger, faster when it comes to putting my characters in difficult situations.

When I wrote DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS, I didn't outline at all, I just had a vague idea of the story. I started off with a lot of conflict for my character Lucy in that she comes home to find her mother dead in the middle of their horribly hoarded home. Instead of dialing 911, Lucy decides to try to fix things before people find out how they've been living and instead of being the nice family on Collier Ave, her mother is remembered as the crazy hoarder lady. (None of that is a spoiler - it happens in Chapter 2.)

Back in 2008, there weren't all of the hoarding shows that are on TV today, so I got in touch with the people who ran the website Children of Hoarders for help. They told me stories and read bits and pieces (and in some cases whole drafts) of the book. One woman asked how the story was going to end. I brushed it off with a vague, "I'm not sure. I think Lucy will realize that none of this is her fault and she'll call 911." My reader nicely informed me that Lucy's story had to end with a bang not a whimper and gave me the idea for what ultimately became the actual ending (talking about it here would be a big spoiler, and I've been so proud of reviewers who don't reveal how she solves her problem).

At first, my reaction was NO WAY! I couldn't possibly end the book like that- the character wouldn't come off as sympathetic and no editor in her right mind would buy it. As I got closer to the end of Lucy's story, I realized that my reader was right - a huge amount of conflict was the only way this story could possibly end. I wrote the chapter, crossed my fingers and have been thrilled with how the book has been received. There have been a few mutterings about the ending (always from adults), but most people feel that this was the way it had to be.

So many times in the years since I wrote The End, I'll be watcing a TV show about hoarding and one of the participants will echo Lucy's feelings word for word, and that tells me that by not being afraid to up the conflict in my story, I found her absolute truth.

In my real life though, don't count on me in a fight. I can run really fast.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What my editor asked me to take out

I fit neatly into the vast Avoids Conflict In Real Life camp, so softhearted that I regularly export spiders from my kitchen sink to my garden. Yet I have no qualms about being mean to my protagonist. It’s my job as a writer to make her suffer.

One draft of MY INVENTED LIFE included a letter written by my protagonist’s best friend. The letter didn’t make it into the published book. My editor found it too disturbing for my otherwise light-hearted, funny, romp of a novel. Roz—the protagonist—didn’t need such a brutal wake up call, my editor argued.

It was a smallish plot-point, and I removed it out in respect for her years of experience and judgment.

Later, a friend read the same draft of MY INVENTED LIFE, and commented on the letter. It had been a highlight of the story for her—the best part even because it made her cry.

You can read the letter below and judge for yourself. In the original, it came near the end of the book, after the reader had gotten to know and love Roz, but had also witnessed her sometimes insensitive behavior. Sierra, a new-age type, wrote the letter to Roz’s sister.

MY INVENTED LIFE is first-person POV, so the bits in parenthesis are Roz’s thoughts as she reads the letter for the first time.

Dear Eva,

…(blah, blah, blah worthy of skimming)…Guatemala speaks my language, the energy of the earth here travels from my feet, up my legs, and into my heart…(Sierra is still Sierra)…you’re probably wondering why I’m writing you instead of Roz…(worthy of skimming because it hurts)…worried about Roz…(here comes the scary part. I squint so I can shut my eyes quickly)…it’s hard to put into words what Roz does…(increase squint)…she puts other’s down for saying “dumb” things, and three minutes later says something dumb herself…(I should stop reading)…and there’s the self-centered way she enters a group like no one else was having a conversation before she got there…(stop!)…people shake their head after she leaves, saying “what was that exactly”….(the words blur)…I love herand she’s so funnycaringwarm-hearteda loyal friend…(I cry harder)…I just worry about herI miss her so much.

Peace, Sierra

I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Caution: Conflict Zone

Do I avoid conflict in real life, just like everyone else has said here…you betcha! To be precise, I usually run the other way. However, over the years, I'm getting a little better at dealing with it. It probably stems from the fact that I was pretty shy growing up and did not like being in the spotlight when it came to dealing with difficult situations. I would not seek out people like the girl in second grade who threatened to hang me by my eyeballs if I went on the jungle gym. Instead, I avoided the jungle gym for a few days. And when another girl the next year stole my sticker collection, I had my mother intervene and call the teacher.

When I was a middle school language arts teacher one of the assistant principals in my school was one of the meanest people I have ever met. Every time I had to deal with her, I would shudder. Basically she was a bully and thrived off of treating her employees poorly and she got away with it for years. I was young when I started teaching and put up with way more than I would ever now, thirteen years later.
When I write I love conflict, the more, the better. I imagine a story without conflict would be very boring. Conflict definitely spices up things and adds intensity to a situation. Page turners are fueled by conflict. So I may avoid conflict in my personal life but I dive in nose first when it comes to my novels. It’s really an important element in fiction because it ultimately helps the characters grow.

Even though I have avoided conflict as much as I can in my personal life, I know I’ve learned a lot from having to deal with it. Going through tough situations has only made me stronger, helped me realize how lucky I am and now I have plenty of material to pull from when writing my novels.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Conflict versus Controversy by Wendy Delsol

This month’s theme is conflict; I’m tensing up already. My fellow YA-Outside-the-Liners have, so far, all professed an aversion to conflict in their personal lives. I’m no different and sensing a trend. Hmmm. As writers—a profession that preaches conflict, conflict, conflict—is our mayhem quota maxed out by our occupation? By dropping our protagonists into shark-filled waters or abandoning them in dark alleyways (whether literally or figuratively) are we on conflict overload? Or do we relish, thus perpetuate, this double life: mild-mannered homebody with a dark and twisted alter ego? Curious indeed.

Regardless of the psychology behind the writing process, story REQUIRES conflict. Without a problem as a plot catalyst, there is no journey, no triumph, nothing to overcome, and no necessity for growth and change. Simply put, for the writer there is no avoiding conflict.

I imagine what comes into question, then, is the kinds of obstacles we choose to impose upon our characters. Perhaps at the heart of this question is a nuance of conflict: the one of conflict versus controversy.

There is, of course, a difference between conflict and controversy. I suggest that one is internally generated while the other externally. The YA genre has recently come under scrutiny for edgy content deemed inappropriate for teens. Or, at least, content that should have parental consent.

My YA fiction is not edgy. But that’s not to say that I don’t recognize its place on the shelf and support its creators. People, teens included, read for all kinds of reasons: entertainment, thrills, knowledge, or solace and support.

I imagine one’s subset in the YA genre has a lot to do with the issues tackled. My YA projects have been classified as “light fantasy,” and “paranormal romance.” I’m throwing evil beings—not date rape, sexual abuse, or suicidal thoughts—in the way of my character. I suppose it comes down to the adage: write what you like to read. As an escapist reader, I became an escapist writer.

So is it fair for me to applaud edgier reads while writing lighter reads? I hope so. Banned book week is September 24 – October 1. It’s timely, therefore, to think about this aspect of conflict. I, for one, definitely support removing books from library shelves … for reading, naturally J.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Heart Conflict... in fiction at least (Stephanie Kuehnert

Though I can (and have!) break up a bar fight when necessary, I try to keep my real life as drama, conflict and confrontation free as I can. I'm so non-confrontational now that when I had to return a pair of jeans a few months ago, I truly agonized as to how I would explain to the clerk that they really hadn't fit like I thought they had in the store. Seriously, I was wigging out over it. Kind of funny considering that fifteen years ago, it seemed like every day I was in the middle of some sort of drama, arguing with someone or as a certain group of my teenage friends used to saying, "calling people on their shit." It seemed like I was constantly calling people out or getting my own shit called on. My life was pretty much nonstop conflict and drama from ages 15 to 22. There was quite a bit of it in junior high, too, actually. It was not pretty or fun, but it left me with a lot of stories, some that are heartbreaking, some that are funny (though mostly really dark funny), and some that are just good stories.

In my mid-twenties, I severed ties with the people causing the bulk of my drama, focused on finishing school and writing books. Occasionally drama pops up at work, but I try to steer clear of it and I haven't been at the center of any conflicts for years. It's definitely good for me, but dude, if my life were a book it would be boooooooring! Fortunately I have a whole sordid past to draw on and a very wide imagination, so I can live my boring happily ever after with my husband and three cats and still write books that are filled with conflict and drama.

I may avoid conflict in my real life to the best of my abilities, but I definitely don't in my fiction. My characters probably think I'm the devil. My favorite scenes to write are the ones where I am causing them agony. I really like killing characters off and writing funeral scenes. I know that sounds absolutely horrible. Part of it is catharsis (I've been to way too many funerals for people who are way too young), but another part is when I get my characters at their most raw and vulnerable, I learn the most about them and my writing breakthroughs happen. There are two death/funeral scenes in the bartender book and they might have been my favorites to write. Getting those conflicts down on the page really got me into my flow.

However some conflict is easier to write than others. The very last scene that I polished and fixed, like in the copyedits stage of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was when Louisa is remembering the terrible thing that happened to her when she was sixteen that haunted her so badly that she left her husband and baby years later (I don't to say exactly what it was since it is in the middle of the book and might kind of be a spoiler if you haven't read it.) I wrote that scene because something somewhat similar had happened to me. It was definitely catharsis, but it also really hurt to go back there. There were a lot of scenes in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA that were hard to write because of that as well. For those of you familiar with the book, Maya's ballad gave me the most trouble. You see as much as I like to torment my characters because it helps me get to know who they really are at the core AND it makes for an exciting and interesting story, I have to walk down those dark roads with them and sometimes reopen old battle scars of my own. So maybe my love of writing conflict makes me a little bit twisted, but it's also because I like survival stories, so I put my characters through the paces and see where we come out in the end.

I also would like to make a couple of announcements. I've been writing a lot about my own teenage conflict and drama lately and if you are interested in reading about it, there are a couple of places where you can. I have an essay in DEAR BULLY an anthology that just came out that has 70 authors talking about their experience with bullying. You can get the lowdown about it here. It's a really intense and beautiful book that I am proud to be a part of. I've also started writing for a super cool new website for teenage girls called ROOKIE. I'll be writing a lot of my own angst and conflicts here and my first piece is about ways cope with stress and bad days (perhaps after a nasty conflict with someone in your life). To celebrate the release of DEAR BULLY and the launch of ROOKIE, I'm running a contest on my blog. You can win DEAR BULLY, my books and more and it goes til the end of September, so please enter.

Okay now you can feel free to be honest if you think I'm a terrible person for enjoying throwing my characters in the midst of terrible conflict, or if you are a writer, are you like me in enjoying the torture?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stubborn Objects (by Emily Whitman)

Conflict. It makes great stories.
After all, what is conflict but two stubborn objects rasping against each other, refusing to give way? It's like firemaking with flint and steel. That energy has to go somewhere. It flies off as a spark. In our books, those sparks fall on the little nests of bone-dry twigs and grasses we've piled up--family conflicts, expectations, the need to belong--and, whoosh! Story!

Friction creates heat creates fire.

Those two stubborn objects can be characters with mutually exclusive needs. If one person gets their heart's desire, the other is screwed. In my book Radiant Darkness, Persephone's need for love sparks against Demeter's need to protect her daughter. Those conflicting needs almost destroy the world.

We love conflict in our books. But in our lives...

I'm struck, looking over the posts for this month, how many of us avoid personal conflict. We were raised to make nice. To get along. We were taught it's wrong to make people uncomfortable, let alone angry. When we write, we finally let that conflict out. Not conflict for its own sake, but conflict when it's necessary to stand up for ourselves and speak out about what we believe in. Daring to create sparks.

Speaking up can change the world. Take a look at Really. Look. I learned about this from the amazing Sara Ryan. Here's a little cut-and-paste from how they describe what they're about:

this project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” - “it” is a big deal. ”it” is in the everyday. ”it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”it” happens when you expect it the most. ”it” is a reminder of your difference. ”it” enforces difference. ”it” can be painful. ”it” can be laughed off. ”it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”it” can silence people. ”it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”

but “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

Take a look. Then speak up. The "other" isn't so other after all.

Making Nice ... or Not (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

Do I avoid conflict? Oh, hell yes! I was taught all my life to avoid it. Like Janet, I'm a people pleaser, the peace maker. I try to make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable at all times, try not to upset anyone ever. Does that work in fiction? Oh, hell no! Whether you're writing an action-packed swashbuckling adventure
or something more sedate like a literary, character-driven coming of age story
it won't work if everything looks like this all the time:
There's no story there. Story is all about resolving conflict, finding solutions to problems, working through relationships. We engage in story to live vicariously through characters who learn something along the way. 

So what do you do if you're an expert conflict-avoider like me? How do you write stories that work, stories with conflict? You check yourself, constantly.

I was writing a piece the other day and things were starting to look bleak for my main character. So what did I do? I took pity on her and wrote in something fun and exciting with no conflict. Seriously. And then I laughed at myself. I gave myself a little pep talk, "Hey, you're really sweet for wanting something good for her right now. And I hear you that she feels like she really needs something fun and easy. But this story will be a whole lot better if that part comes later." So I hacked off the fun and easy and sent the poor character back to the mines. It's okay. She'll thank me for it later.

Writing conflict can be hard and scary. And it can feel so mean and counter-intuitive. But it has to happen. So if you're at all like me, and you want everyone to feel good all the time, get in the habit of checking your writing, look for the places where you hand your character a crutch, where you try to sneak them a snack when they've been sent to bed without dinner (I used to do that for my brother, lol -- which is fine for brothers, but not for characters!) Your characters will grow and so will you as a writer. And in the end, everyone will be happier! Especially your readers.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Case for Confrontation--Jan Blazanin

In high school I'm certain most of my classmates labeled me a suck-up, teacher’s pet, brown-nose, and all those other unflattering terms good students were called. (Unfortunately, many kids still face that same kind of bullying.) Only my closest friends got a peek beneath the surface to the seething, sarcastic, smart mouth rebel lurking inside.

That may be a smidge of an exaggeration, but I was and still am more rebellious than my casual acquaintances realize. So it may seem counterintuitive that, like Janet and April, I avoid confrontation. Most of the time. If I believe something is unfair or needs to be changed, I’ll spray some “Bug Be Calm” on the butterflies in my stomach and take up the charge. I've stood up to city councils, bosses, and police officers, to name a few, and almost controlled the quaver in my voice.

But this post is about confrontation in story, not life. Without confrontation or conflict in a novel, there is no story. Characters need to struggle against something: enemies, forces of nature, or their personal demons. Otherwise, they’ll sit placidly on their little status quos munching popcorn and not grow or change in the slightest.

They’re like people that way.

If Ori in Fairest of Them All hadn't developed alopecia and lost her gorgeous blond hair, she wouldn't have learned how to make friends and work as part of a team. In A & L Do Summer, Aspen and Laurel would still be nobodies if Buttferk hadn't decided to make their lives miserable. Characters with nothing to overcome can't possibly succeed or fail. If characters don't face conflict, readers have no reason to laugh out loud, wipe away tears, or hold their breath as they turn the page. What’s the fun in that?

P.S. Mary at The Book Swarm has teamed up with my fabulous publisher EgmontUSA for an Outrageous Summer Story Writing Contest/Book Giveaway. Through September 19 post your most outrageous summer story at for a chance to win a pack of Egmont Original Paperbacks, including A & L Do Summer. Second and third prizes are signed copies of A & L Do Summer. If you have a fun, exciting, outrageous summer story to tell, go to the blog and get in the running!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Guest Blogger - Tara Altebrando!

What feels like many moons ago (but was really just a few years), Tara Altebrando and I published our first teen books for MTV Books at the same time. I was given a galley copy of Tara's book, The Pursuit of Happiness. I absolutely loved it. I have told so many people about The Pursuit of Happiness since then, hoping they'd read it and love it as much as I did. It's perfect. So when I had an opportunity to invite a guest blogger to join us, I knew I wanted Tara. It helps that she has a new book that just came out, Dreamland Social Club.

I've started reading Tara's new book and thought it fit, in a certain way, with this month's theme - confrontation/conflict. From the very first chapter the main character is confronted by unfamilliar situations, places and people - from a decrepit, deserted house on Coney Island to the odd people she sees lingering around the boardwalk. It's an example of confrontation and conflict 101 in many forms. And because Tara's book is about Coney Island, a storied place we've all heard about but few have been, I thought it might be fun to have Tara share what she learned while writing her latest book. Tara, take it away!

Hey there, and thanks for having me as a guest! I'm going to write today, at the suggestion of Jenny, about the five most interesting things I learned about Coney Island, Brooklyn's world-famous boardwalk amusement district, while writing Dreamland Social Club. So here goes...

1) There is never any shade on the beach at Coney Island. Ever. None! Unless you make it yourself. The original Native American inhabitants of the region, the Lenape, called the island Narrioch—meaning "land without shadows"—because the beach gets sun all day. So pack your sunscreen when you go! And if, like me, you ever try to do a photo shoot out there, be prepared to hide behind clam shacks and climb down behind the boardwalk if you want a shot of yourself not squinting. Squinting definitely on display in my author video here:

2) Donald Trump's father, Fred, bought Steeplechase Park—one of the three great amusement parks of Coney of old—after it closed. Because he wanted to build condos there and have the property rezoned accordingly, he hosted a sort of funeral/demolition party for Steeplechase and invited guests to throw rocks and bricks at the old rides. The point was to render Steeplechase beyond saving. Nice, Fred. Real nice.

3) Not long after that, an ambitious businessman who had made his fortune in fried chicken (for reals!), Horace Bullard, approached the city to allow him to rebuild Steeplechase Park almost exactly as it originally was. Now see, Fred could learn a thing or two from Horace, if you ask me. In fact, years and years before writing Dreamland Social Club, I had this idea for a movie called, well, "Dreamland," about a down-on-his-luck Brooklynite, maybe a ticket taker at one of the rides on the boardwalk (imagine Adam Sandler) who inherits a fortune from his grandfather and decides to use it to rebuild the Dreamland amusement park right down to the last light bulb. I still think it'd be awesome if someone could get it together to do that.

4) One boardwalk attraction at Dreamland that should not be re-created, however, would be the Premature Baby display. People had never really seen incubators before since they were just invented when Dreamland and Luna Park were in their heyday in the early 1900s, so the inventor charged people a few cents to peer at tiny babies in order to continue to fund his research. He was considered a quack at the time, though now we know better.

5) Dreamland amusement park, which to me was the most incredible of Coney's parks, with its minarets and towers and crazy rides simulating voyages to the moon and recreations of the Boer Wars and more, burned to the ground in 1911. But, incredibly, a bell that used to sit on the docks at Dreamland, weighing no less than 500 pounds, was found in the ocean in 2009. That's one hundred years under water, people! Incredible stuff. Or at least I think so! Which is why writing Dreamland Social Club was so much fun for me. I hope you'll check it out.

Thanks, Tara!! And don't forget to check out Tara's first book, The Pursuit of Happiness, it is sheer joy!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Confronting Fiction- Janet Gurtler

Conflict or confrontation in young adult fiction is an interesting topic for me, especially whether or not I try to avoid it. Instinctively I think I would like to. In my real life I admit I’m not a fan of confrontation. It’s hard for me. I’m kind of a people pleaser by nature and mostly I get a sore stomach when I have to deal with people who are angry or quarrelsome.  I’ve gotten better at it. It does get easier with practice and my years working as a sales rep certainly helped.  I got pretty good at dealing with conflict by mentally preparing myself but at the end of the day I needed to go home and have quiet time and alone space to recover.  Curl up in the fetal position until I chilled out.
So what about in my work as a writer? I certainly hope I stay true to my belief that in my fiction work, I don’t avoid conflict either. I want to. I want to be nice to my characters. I don’t want them to do some of the horrible yet human things they do or think. Part of me wants to please the moms and dads of my YA readers, the ones who don’t like swear words or sexual tension or ugly feelings or the brutal reality of life.  But if I’m being true to characters and true to stories that I’m writing I can’t avoid conflict.  I love to look at dark emotions. Dark moments that resonate in most people in touch with themselves.
When I’m writing I have to make a conscious effort to ignore critics who live in my head or stay perched on my shoulders. Critics who try to voice their opinions about what I’m writing. Like my husband and his religious family who would prefer I don’t swear or use the Lord’s name in vain. I have to ignore them. I love them, but I can’t listen when I’m writing. I often just pretend or hope that some people I know won’t read my books. I am compelled to write about dark issues.
I am pretty open about things like teenage drinking, drugs or sexuality. I strive to develop flawed characters who make mistakes, but whose mistakes don’t necessarily make them horrible people.  I believe that all of us are capable of some pretty dark moments.  Most of us have done things we’re deeply ashamed of and our hope is not to have those moments exposed.  Well, I try to expose them but also show that some mistakes don’t make people bad -the end.  There are limits of course, but I guess those limits are individual. When can we forgive? When is the line that is crossed one that can’t be returned from?  That is something I like to explore.
I think the other belief I have, and something I hope rings clear in my work is that I have faith in people.  Yes, I make my characters confront their darker moments but to me despite these moments, they still have value and in the end find opportunities to redeem themselves. Or forgive themselves. That doesn’t mean they can always be forgiven by others, but they have the potential to move forward. Live productive  lives.  And yes, I realize I am talking about pretend people and pretend lives. J
In IF I TELL, the main character Jaz, is dealing with a lot of flawed characters in her life. Her mom, her mom’s boyfriend and most of the kids she goes to school with. Herself. They’ve all done some pretty horrible things. There is definitely conflict in the story.  Some of it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like what some of the characters do or have done in their past, and I don’t like the way some of them behave.  But, I am also striving to illustrate that there is often a good person underneath repulsive or shocking things we’ve done.  That as human beings we are capable of redemption.  
Of course, there are other who are rotten and won't change. The true bad guys. One of the challenges in life is figuring out which people belong to which categories.  And where we fit in as well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fighting can be fun

by April Henry

One of our lovely readers asks: "Do you find yourself avoiding conflict in your books?" 
The answer is a big “Of course!”
First of all, I avoid conflict in real life. I don’t like to fight with my husband. I don’t want to ask my teenager a question if I know I’m not going to like the answer.  If I’m downtown and see some crazy guy walking my way, I’ll cross the street long before we cross paths.
Avoiding conflict is easy. But it doesn’t make for very good writing.
And when you write mysteries and thrillers like I do, you have to have conflict. At the end of the book, you have to have that moment when the good guy confronts the bad guy - and wins.  (But winning should not feel like a sure thing.)
Fighting is good - on paper
Recently, I was writing a scene where a cop asks someone to leave town for his own safety.  And, according to my outline, the character was going to agree.
But he didn’t. He simply refused to. He was insulted that the cop asked him to run and hide.  
The conflict that resulted not only made the story more believable, it also made it more interesting. Their argument let the reader think about both sides of the issue.  
Ways to add conflict
* No chit-chat. Dialog should never be ho-hum. Whenever possible, set two speakers against each other – clash of personalities, a struggle over status, competing egos, lies, etc.
* Write scenes that personally make your palms sweat. Don’t stack the odds in your character's favor. Multiply the bad things he faces - and see what he does in response. You’ll find that when his - and your - back is against the wall, he’s even more clever than you thought.
* Conflict doesn’t have to always be between two people.  It can also be between a character and his environment. So play on universal fears by adding one or more of the following to your scene: darkness, bad weather, something crawling on the skin, objects that cover other objects, being alone, being helpless or unable to act, something under the bed, closed or partially opened doors, hallways or tunnels that lead to the unknown, cramped spaces, basements, attics, heights, crowds, or disease.
* Give your characters phobias or fears - and then make them face those fears. Afraid of heights? The final confrontation should take place on a rooftop. Afraid of repeating the same mistake? Give your character the opportunity to get it right.
* Hurt a main character. Do it early so the reader knows no one is off limits. It also helps to make one character especially violent.  
* Even better, kill somebody off – preferably a likable character. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, knowing that anything at all - even something very bad - could happen.  (This works so well in Game of Thrones.You can never rest easy, thinking George RR Martin will never kill someone off, that he’s too central to the story - because next thing you know, the guy has his head on a pike.)
Fighting is fun - in real life 
Like I said, I’m afraid of any kind of confrontation.  I can’t even bear to listen to talk radio, because the people are always yelling.  
But like that metaphorical frog that doesn’t realize it’s slowly being boiled, I’ve somehow accidentally become involved in martial arts. I took a kickboxing class and along the way it somehow morphed into a kajukenbo class. Until the beginning of June, my sole purpose in that class was to make everyone else feel like they were better at sparring. I would get frightened and cower when people throw kicks and punches at me. (When we first started doing it, I had to resist the urge to run away, crying.) 
In other words, I totally avoided conflict.  
When they saw that I was getting freaked out, some of my classmates would back off and take it easy on me. But not this one 14 year old whom I call Devil Child. Devil Child will happily bruise me. His windmilling arms rain down blows, and he has a mean spinning kick and an even meaner chicken kick.
So this summer, I’ve learned to embrace conflict. Instead of stepping backward when Devil Child comes at me, more often than not I now move forward and keep throwing punches. 
And I’ve even seen him flinch.  
Which is sweet. 
And now I can do it with all our other classmates. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.  
But this class is teaching me that sometimes conflict is fun.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Guest Post: Vicky Alvear Shecter (Julie Chibbaro)

I have a guest today! Vicky's new novel is about Cleopatra's daughter - a fascinating topic. Learn more about Cleopatra's Moon here. Vicky talks about getting rid of those gorgeous but pesky facts that get in the way of story while writing historical fiction:

Thanks, Julie, for allowing me to guest post. In honor of this month’s theme of quirky questions, I decided to write about some of the fascinating facts I came across while writing my debut historical novel.

My editor (Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) was remorseless in cutting out facts that didn’t move the plot forward or deepen the characterization of my main character. Killing our darlings? She notched up to a whole ‘nother level.

But, of course, she was right—if kids wanted to read a compendium of interesting facts about the ancient world, they could easily get them off the web. I had to focus on the story—in this case, the story of what happened to Cleopatra’s daughter—Selene—the queen’s only child to survive into adulthood, after Egypt’s defeat by Rome. Cleopatra’s Moon is the story is of a young woman forced to come to terms with great loss and who must forge her own identity apart from the legacy of her famous mother.

As such, it wasn’t really the place to talk about kitten mummies or bedazzled pet crocodiles. But I can share some of the quirkiest facts here with you!

1. To fully defeat an enemy, you “peed” on ‘em (or, at least, a model of them). Ancient Egyptian magic “spells” for defeating enemies usually involved wax models of said enemy that you then stomped on, cursed, and finally, released your bladder on. Every morning the Priests of Ra did this on wax models of the forces of chaos that threatened the sun on its underworld journey to sunrise.

2. Egyptian physicians made you swallow their spells—literally. Often, they wrote a healing spell on a piece of papyrus and dunked the paper into a cup of beer. When the ink dissolved into the beer, they made you drink it, bringing the magic into yourself.

3. Eye-makeup (kohl) was toxic. The black kohl that made Egyptians so mysterious and gorgeous was actually made from neurotoxins. The Egyptians mixed lead compounds with duck or goose fat to make the eyeliner. The smell must have been…um, interesting.

4. If you killed a cat, you could be put to death. Seriously. If you killed a cat by accident (determined in court), then you simply paid a hefty fine. But if it wasn’t an accident, you were put to death. If you killed a Sacred Ibis, though, even by accident, there were no questions asked—you were immediately killed.

5. The fly was the symbol for a great warrior. That’s right, the fly. Why the fly? Because flies represented relentless, dogged pursuit of the enemy. The Order of the Fly was reserved for the greatest warriors. Fly amulets in either gold or ivory were highly prized and warriors were often buried wearing their golden fly charms.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other quirky facts that I got to keep in Cleopatra’s Moon, but for those, you may need to read the book. Thanks for having me here!