Creating Conflict

In my book Perfecting Plot, I discussed the three levels of conflict you can use to enrich a story. They are:

External conflict: the protagonist in conflict with the world

Personal conflict: conflicts arising from relationships

Internal conflict: mental problems, personality faults, spiritual issues, phobias, etc.

Yesterday, I was reminded how popular–and how successful–this approach to story and character is as I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my kids (which includes my wife and myself, the oldest kid in the family). Despite being a sequel, I found it enormously entertaining and not just for five-year-olds. Part of the reason the story works is because, instead of relying on bodily function humor and silliness, the writers baked multi-layered conflict into the scenario.

It breaks down like this. To save the world as we know it, Po, the Dragon Warrior panda, must defeat:

External conflict: the malevolent bull who wants to take over the world

Personal conflict: an identity crisis arising when his biological father appears and wants to take him away from his adopted father

Internal conflict: to fulfill his destiny, Po must become a master of Chi (just go with it).

These layers of conflict may not speak to the children in the audience, but they speak volumes to the parents paying to take them there. I thought the personal conflict particularly astute because it metaphorically addresses the modern blending and redefining of the family unit. The two dads of course eventually work together, giving younger viewers a model for unconventional families, blended families, stepdads, adopted dads, gay dads. This is not only clever conflict but a good example of a well-developed and effective theme that doesn’t club you over the head with obviousness or forced morality.

Is Kindle Scout For You?

Kindle Scout is a “crowdsourcing” book selection program Amazon launched last year. Readers vote on unpublished titles based on excerpts, and in return receive free copies of the books they voted for—if those books are selected for publication. Amazon considers the number of “nominations” each book receives, but never reveals the basis for their final selections.

My novel The Game Master was one of the first Kindle Scout selections, January 2015. Writers continue to ask me if I think Kindle Scout would be a good idea for their book. That all depends on the book, your personality, and your overall career plan. Adult genre fiction works best on Kindle Scout. Some people like marketing better than others–but all writers must deal with it. And you should understand that Kindle Scout is a starting place, not a ending place. It should be part of a larger plan, not a replacement for having a plan.

To make Kindle Scout work, you should:

  1. Spend the month your book is up relentlessly working for nominations. You must get a dynamite cover. You must work social media. Tell everyone you know, everyone you see. Call in all markers.
  2. After your campaign ends, Amazon sends everyone who nominated your book a message telling them whether it was selected. The email includes a thank-you message written by you. Use that note to make a good impression, and in the event that your book isn’t selected, to tell people how they can obtain your book elsewhere.
  3. Amazon provides great feedback on the people who voted for your book.  You can see where page views come from, the number of page views, when your book was hot and trending. Use this! Knowledge is power. Even if your book is not selected, you just obtained great analytical information to guide the promotion of your book.

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.

Looking Back on 2015–and Ahead to 2016

Everyone is saying that the two biggest trends in publishing for 2015 were adult coloring books and the surge in audiobook sales. If you’ve been reading the Red Sneaker newsletter for long, though, you knew audiobooks were hot a long time ago–and since you write books with words, you may not care much about coloring books.

Here are some more useful predictions for 2016:

  1. Two Worlds, One Family. The articles declaring that “print is winning” or “ebooks have stalled” are based upon sales data from the big NYC publishers–excluding Amazon and independent publishing sales. If you look at the whole picture, ebooks are huge and getting huger. Penguin’s recent decision to fire dozens of employees is probably due to the failure of their ebook program. The Big Five fought for agency pricing, got it, and now that they’ve raised the prices on their ebooks, the books don’t sell as well. Is this a surprise? No. But bear this in mind: according to Author Earnings, 45% of all books sold by Amazon Kindle are independently published. In other words, there are now two parallel markets, both almost equal in size. One is traditional Big Pub, which dominates print. The other is nontraditional Indie Pub, which dominates ebooks, primarily with adult genre fiction.
  2. Children’s Publishing is Poised to Explode. Audiobooks will continue to grow, but what you may not know is that children’s publishing has provided the biggest growth sector for traditional publishers for the past 3-5 years. Last year, the US market children’s book market grew by 13%. The Big Five will expand on this, not only in book publishing, but also by seeking media and licensing deals based upon children’s books. If you’ve got an idea for a children’s book, this is the time to market it.
  3. Rights Management Becomes Critical. As the Big Five become more dependent upon big authors, licenses, and multimedia partnerships, they will attempt to retain every right possible. Too often, authors have been willing to sign away rights for the thrill of getting a book in print. This has always been a mistake and will become even more so in the future. Never sign away rights unless you’re getting something of value in return. Never sign away rights unless there’s a term limit clause or a fair provision for the eventual reversion of your rights.