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.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Oh no! My Conflict Is.....CONFLICT

by Cindy Rizzo, author of queer YA and Sapphic romance

It's not that I even like reading books that are all sweetness and light, where there's no conflict and no tension.  I once read a romance where there was no conflict at all under the 92% mark and I thought that was strange. I kept reading this love story waiting and waiting for a shoe to drop, and wondering if perhaps the author had the reader wait too long for something to happen.

In romance, the central tension is the how and when the two main characters will come together for their obligatory Happy Ever After (or Happy for Now, if you prefer). That tension is fueled by conflict, either the kind that is external, as in the enemies-to-lovers trope or the sudden appearance of an Ex who threatens the hoped-for coupling. Or the conflict is internal, such as getting past trauma or the death of a beloved spouse/partner.  

In queer Young Adult fiction, conflict can come from agonizing over the reactions of one's family or peers or even those of one's faith community.   Faith can also fuel internal conflict where the main character fears going against everything they've been taught to believe.  As society in the US and elsewhere becomes more accepting of same-sex relationships--to the extent that coming out to one's family and peers is less fraught--YA books often turn to faith as a source of tension.  We see this in books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Her Name in the Sky, Gravity and Tools of the Devil, to name a few.  I've written a bit more about faith in YA here.

For me as an author, the need to insert conflict in my books is itself a conflict.  I know conflict and tension are necessary to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. It's coming up with the actual plot that introduces and resolves the conflict that is hard for me.

Some of this is about not being great at plotting. I love writing characters and their settings, even developing their relationships with others, whether romantic, friendship or otherwise. But, in the words of an old TV ad, "What's the story, Jerry?"  Yeah, that's where I get stuck.  What's the story?

I'm midway through writing my fifth book and I'm still no better at it than I was with the first. Yes, in the end, the books do include a story with conflict and tension, but it's not until I'm sitting in the chair at the keyboard (or if I'm lucky, when I'm in the shower or lying in bed at night) that the events of the story come to me. I've tried to follow The Hero's Journey framework. I've tried real and virtual sticky notes. I've tried all the tools. But I just can't force the conflict or the story.  It comes when it comes.

In The Split trilogy that begins with my book The Papercutter, released in June, tension builds as the white supremist, Christian-dominated government of the God Fearing States begins to make life harder  for the Orthodox Jews who have settled in this conservative country after the US split in two. That's the main conflict of the series--how this community can resist and survive. As things get more dangerous, it's likely that people, even beloved characters, will die.  Writing about death and grief is new to me, but these are essential plot points in a trilogy about triumphing over evil.

So maybe it's good that I'm in the midst of writing a series that by it's actual definition demands conflict. It may be the best method for someone like me who's been conflict-shy in my other writing. Pushing myself to write this imagined "what would happen if the US split into two countries" alternative reality will hopefully help me overcome my main writing hurdle--in order to write a really good story, I must find peace with conflict. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

Conflicts Galore (Mary Strand)

This month at YA Outside the Lines we’re talking about conflict, whether it’s the sort of conflict that drives our stories or the conflicts we live with as writers.

Well. As I write this, I would rather be waterskiing. Or sitting in a theatre watching Black Widow. Or zipping around town on my scooter. Or playing guitar. Or listening to live music. Or hanging (and laughing hysterically) with friends. Or dancing. Or writing a song. Or revising a novel I love. Or walking around Paris. Or doing 10 million other things.

And that, my friends, is the sort of conflict I live with during every waking hour. And a fair number of sleeping hours.

I’ve said throughout the pandemic (not that anyone was listening) that I haven’t appreciated one single thing about the pandemic, the quarantine, etc. And it’s mostly true. An extrovert cut off from other people is not a happy person, and that’s not even taking into account the mullet I accidentally grew when I couldn’t see my hairdresser for a few months.

(NOTE: No pictures of that mullet are forthcoming.)


It occurred to me just today (in the shower, thanks for asking) that the quarantine actually did one thing for me: it took away most of my frenetic life of constant activities, which allowed me to focus much more than usual on guitar. And specifically on a blues book that I’ve never otherwise spent enough time on because I’m always doing 10 million things. And I absolutely LOVED it, but my intense focus ended when I was able to resume most of my “normal” life.

I live my life on the go ... and THAT is a massive understatement. My daily schedule would frighten you. (It kinda takes my breath away, too.) I do believe in the whole “I’ll die with my boots on” mantra, and I’m living it, but I admit that to do ALL the things I want to do, I’d need at least 50 hours in a day, not 24. And 10 days in a week would help, too.

So there’s the huge conflict in my life. I can feel it seemingly with every breath I take. Unfortunately, as the heroine of my own story, I don’t yet know how it ends. But then, in the books I write, I almost never know how they end until I write the last page.

(Chris Hemsworth has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post,
but he kinda soothes the stress of all this conflict, right? I thought so.)

So I guess I’d better keep writing. My own story, that is. And you know what? It might need more than a little revision.

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