Kay: New Year, New Writer — But Still Lousy at Conflict

YoungWomanWritingAtDeskThe eight ladies have been writing to a theme this week, and the theme topic is “New Year, New Writer.” I panicked,  because, hey—nothing like a little pressure to be a new writer in the new year. When I stopped hyperventilating, I decided there’s no rule that says I have to be new. So here’s my theme within a theme:

New Year, Same Old Writer.

To my classmates who have had transformative experiences with their writing in the McDaniel program, I salute you. I wish that I, too, could say my writing has been transformed. But it hasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I signed up for the MFA certificate program because I thought I’d learn new writing techniques. I thought I’d learn to analyze texts better, to see more clearly what’s on the page so I could fix it. I thought I’d learn how to structure a manuscript from the beginning. I pretty much got all that.

In addition, I  had a lot of fun. Until you do it, you can’t imagine what a blast it is to hang out for 20 or 30 hours a week reading novels, talking about novels, and analyzing novels. I also made a ton of new friends, and here we are, writing this blog. So all good there.

But as for writing transformation—not so much. I expected to learn the most—and sweat the most—in the conflict module. Because, let me tell you, I sucked at writing conflict.

Guess what? One year later, I still suck at it.

Am I better than I was a year ago? Maybe. I sure hope so. I learned one good, simple test for conflict, besides the conflict box that Jenny talks about on her web site. My test is a hypothetical situation: did the heroine’s laptop get stolen, or did the antagonist take it? If it “got stolen”—that is, by anyone, a stranger, a random burglar—that’s trouble. If the antagonist took it, it’s conflict. Now every scene I write, I think, did the antagonist take the laptop? Because if not, it’s back to the drawing board.

So where am I now, one year later? I seem to struggle as much as ever to keep the antagonist on the page, to keep him engaged with my heroine, to keep them in conflict. If my heroine can escape her troubles by hiring a virtual assistant, she has nothing to overcome. Conflict is key.

I want to think that I’ve elevated all my writing, including my grasp of conflict—a “rising tide lifts all  boats” sort of thing. The proof will be in the final manuscript, still some time away. Do I feel like a New Writer? No. Do I feel the New Year beckoning? Yes. And with it, I hope, a new sense—a new understanding, if not of mastery—of what conflict can do for my story.

So, my friends, best wishes to all for the new year! And my hope to everyone that your writing, as well as your year, will be new.

22 thoughts on “Kay: New Year, New Writer — But Still Lousy at Conflict

  1. it’s nice to hear someone else sucks at something. Sorry, don’t mean that the way it sounds, lol. My issue seems to lie mostly with grammar. Apparently I’m not the smart kid I always thought I was, who knew? So my plan for 2014 is to beat the “ing” and “ly” wars and bring my MS to the attention of a big publisher. I’m allowed to dream big right? 🙂

  2. I tend to write where Things Happen. Mostly troubles. I review, revise and retrofit to make the story better. And then my Muse throws up an idea that ties it all together and it becomes conflict. Most recently, an idea to fix a flat antag in book one came 40 something thousand words into the 2nd book in the series… a year after I set book 1 aside because I couldn’t figure out how to make it better.

    I hope knowing that conflict needs extra attention gets the Girls working on it. Hopefully faster than my Muse.

    • Sometimes I swear those Girls pack their bags and go on vacation just to taunt me. It sounds like you get conflict at a deep level, though, even if your Muse lets you struggle with it. For 2014, I’m hoping both you and I figure out what those girls like for snacks, so they stick around when we need them!

  3. This raises a great point: should auld acquaintance be forgot, just because it’s a new year and a fresh start? We do have to keep the good stuff . . . and there is good stuff, I think, because I think every one of our classmates is still working on what she was doing in 2013. Am I the only one in class who has started something completely new? It’s really tangential, because I’m back to working on The Djini and Ms. Jones.

    I do have to say that my new stuff is really new for me, and it’s a direct result of the things that were asked of me in class. Directly linked to the class, it is 1) less complicated, especially in terms of the number of characters, 2) the conflict is more subtle than it is KA=POWIE!! GIANT MAGIC WEAPONS!, and 3) it is set in Japan. Not directly related, I’ve stripped out all forms of magic, and it is set in the present.

    My muses were definitely paying attention in class, but for whatever reasons, they are constrained a lot by the parameters of the old story. It’s only when I allowed myself a clean state that I really began to realize how much the class was an influence.

    Conflict is still not falling into proper “one protagonist being shaped by one antagonist” catergories (-:. I’d like my New Writer in 2015 to be able to see through the conflict more clearly.

    But . . . it’s a process.

    • Let me just say that I see nothing wrong with KA=POWIE!! GIANT MAGIC WEAPONS!! 🙂 And if my book needed a KA=POWIE GIANT MAGIC WEAPON, I’d write one in there. A friend of mine is encouraging me to set aside the book I was working on in class and start another story for which I have a full plot in outline—so maybe that’s like your experience, where you’re finding your new story less complicated and the conflict more subtle. I just hate to be bested by an *idea.* I should be master of my fate! Or my pen, as it were. I should control it, not it control me! Congratulations on starting something new and running with it. You have so many great ideas—I say, let the ka=powie happen.

      • (-: I’m very partial to HIGH POWERED WEAPONS THAT GO BOOOOOMMMMM! Preferably powered by magic stuff. Oh, I love a good magical system. And actually, I think that part I’m pretty good at. But a story can’t rest on technical details alone (-:. And I need a lot more work with the basic story-telling part. So, I got some practice in during November. Now, I’m back to my magical warfare, and seeing what I can do with the underlying people-aspect of the story . . . .

        I do feel guilty about “quitting” the story, even for a month. But, sometimes it’s good to take a break. I do want to finish something to the point of publication in 2014, though. I have to work myself up enough that I’d stick a fork in someone just to be able to get it (-:. (BTW, blog-readers, that’s a reference to a conflict worksheet that Jenny gave us. What I really mean is some socially acceptable, equally strong alternative to sticking a fork into my antagonist.)

  4. I can’t believe I’m still working on the same story I was working on in 2012 … and 2013 …. but I’m changing so much that it feels like a fresh start, using everything we learned in class (this one has conflict, yay!). I think this version is way better, but I have a lot still to figure out and as Kay says, the proof will be in the quality of the final manuscript.

    A few of us are hoping to finish by this summer and it’s going to be so exciting seeing how our stories turn out and how much they’ve changed since we first started talking about them.

    I flirted with a new story a few months ago, Michaeline, before I truly understood how much work I had left to do on this one. I’d love to get back to it and I sincerely hope I ‘ll be quicker second time around!

  5. I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade but just sayin’: a few years ago I was at an RWA conference and I got up early to hear Jenny Crusie and Patricia Gaffney do one of those unrecorded Q&As. Somebody asked them if writing got easier the more books they wrote, and Jenny just banged her forehead on the table. I took that as a “no.” So I think it’s always going to be a situation of you have to sit at the computer until you bleed. However, I have a plan for that: I’m stocking up on band-aids. Conflict, you belong to me.

    • I hear ya, Kay. I was thinking of all that stuff I learned and hoping for a Chuck Wendig-style improvement – from memory, he said on his blog that his first book took him five years to write (please, no) and the second three or six months, I forget which, I’d take either 🙂

      I suspect you’re right, though. I’m not writing any faster than I was before McD, just hoping that what I come up with now might not need so much fixing. If I finish the second book in three months, or six, be sure I won’t be keeping that nugget to myself.

    • “However, I have a plan for that: I’m stocking up on band-aids.”

      You might also stock up on padded wrist rests (like for a keyboard), just in case your head comes in contact with your desk (I know mine has several times).

  6. Here’s something that will cheer you all up – in a thank god it didn’t happen to me, kind of way – I just left The Notebook with every single note I have ever made about my story, including all my character notes, on the train from London to Brighton (UK, in case your wondering which London/Brighton). That was Bad. I ran back onto the train (Brighton is the end of the line), but, panicking, couldn’t remember which platform I’d come from and asked a station official which train just came in from London – help me! – and he, as it later turned out, directed me to the wrong train (the platforms are right next to each other, this isn’t as stupid as it sounds) – so I ran up and down an empty train like a headless chicken, while my notebook was on a train heading back out of the station and up to London. Oh dear.

    • Oh, no, no, no! What horrible luck. I hope you get that notebook back. Then you’ll have won twice—you’ll have the notebook, and you’ll have great material for when you write a scene in which the heroine loses a notebook and runs up and down the empty train like a headless chicken. Hope some kind people return it to you!

      • That’s funny because, of course, at the back of my mind all the time I was speaking to the train people trying to get notebook back, I was thinking – I can use these emotions in a scene! (In case anybody else wants them, physical symptoms: inability to breathe, sort of like minor asthma (and not just due to running around like aforementioned headless chicken) and shaky legs.

  7. Cliff-hanger! Did you get the book back, Rachel?

    I once left a notebook full of business notes (including some very interesting information) on the counter at a ridiculously busy Pret a Manger in London’s West End. I nearly threw up when I realised what I’d done, and I almost felt worse when they told me they still had it and gave it back. Makes me feel queasy now just thinking about it 🙂

  8. Haven’t got the notebook back yet …. I resolutely got out a new notebook this morning and tried to feel cheerful. A new notebook is normally a time of great excitement for me, so trying to generate that feeling this morning. Loved the Hemingway story, although can’t help but remember it all ended badly for him!

    I once did something similar to you Jilly – my day job is in compensation/reward and I left a folder full of client salaries on a train. A helpful train person found it and realised it must be important, so phoned up the client to tell them they’d found the folder they’d lost …. whoops! (That was about 10 years ago, I don’t go around leaving things on trains everyday, in case you’re starting to get that impression!).

    All of your comments have cheered me up though – thanks!

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