NaNoReVisMo #1: the electric kool-aid conflict test

INTERN used to have a terrifying Cuban piano teacher who would stop her at random while she was playing a piece by memory, question her extensively about the reasoning behind the tonal, rhythmic, and expressive qualities of the notes she had just played and the notes she was about to play, then make her start playing again in the exact (usually awkward and off-beat) place she had stopped.

INTERN would complain that *of course* she didn't know exactly what was going in those spots—they were in the middle of difficult passages, there were too many notes for each one to have a purpose, and she relied on sheer momentum to get herself through to the sections where she *did* understand what she was doing with each note and why.

It was like trying to take a cake out of the oven, and someone really annoying comes up and stabs it with a toothpick: "But it's not cooked here!"

Lately, INTERN has been conducting a similar test on manuscripts and library books. Here's how it works:

-Open novel to a random page
-Read a couple paragraphs, or at most, a couple pages
-Can you tell what the conflict is, or what the character is yearning for? Can you explain, in just a few words, what these paragraphs are doing and why?

It can be as concrete as "she is trying to catch the rattlesnake" or as abstract as "he is struggling to understand his son's anger".

Some examples from INTERN's handy pile 'o' library books:

In a random paragraph from "Small Island" by Andrea Levy: "character is having moral qualms over what to do with an expensive brooch she finds on the ground."

In a random paragraph from "East of Eden" by Steinbeck: "character is deciding to punish two boys, even while having doubts about their guilt."

In a random paragraph from "Lullabies for Little Criminals" by Heather O'Neill: "character realizes that she's been so wrapped up in her own struggles that she hasn't noticed her father's life falling apart."

In a random paragraph from "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene: "character is frustrated at his own inability to confront a friend."

These are not carefully selected examples. These little conflict summaries are literally pulled from single paragraphs on randomly opened pages. Stab these books with a toothpick all you want—that sucker is gonna come out clean. At seemingly every moment in these books (except maybe in passages describing the scenery), there is some kind of tension or revelation going on.

If you stab your own manuscript with that toothpick and need to read an entire chapter before being able to identify some kind of internal or external conflict, you might have a problem. If you can't identify what's going in any particular spot in less than twenty words, chances are the conflict or tension is too vague (or there isn't any). [Note: obviously, all books are different, and a surrealistic alinear epic space opera needs a different barometer than a linear coming-of-age novel. But still.]

Lack 'o' identifiable conflict (especially in the first few chapters) is a major problem with first drafts. If you can't identify any conflict until Chapter 3, the book either needs to start at Chapter 3 or the first two chapters need to pony up.

Remember: Nobody taking a bite of your half-cooked cake is going to say, "That's OK, I love salmonella" and keep eating it.

That's all for today, revisioneers. Be bloody, bold and resolute!

Comments

  1. Holy crap, that's sheer genius.

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  2. This is insanely awesome advice. That's all I really have to say. >.>

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  3. Brilliant. Thank you. Gathering toothpicks now . . .

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  4. Ooooh boy. This is something ELSE! I needed this. Following you now (or will be within the next moment or two!).

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  5. I hate it when you're right.

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  6. And then there's the problem of "even if this is great conflict here, does it actually fit with the scope of the chapter and subsequently of the novel?" Whereupon you must kill a whole 'nuther row of babies.

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  7. *breathing huge sigh of relief* Toothpick's clean, thank heavens!

    INTERN, you are the cleverest of the clever.

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  8. Have to agree with CKHB, Damn I hate it when you're right.

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  9. When revising I always go with the The Default Answer to how much conflict I have in my story: Not enough.

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  10. Not only is this a great analogy, it makes me really want cake.

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  11. WIP stabbing commenced.

    I have to counter you on one point - have you ever eaten raw cookie dough or cake batter? Salmonella is DELISH.

    WIP salmonella, not so good.

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  12. This is almost exactly how I decide whether or not to buy a book and if I were an agent or an acquisitions editor I'd forgo the query and first 50, 100, etc. pages and just ask for pages 13, 37, 116, 173 and 247.

    It's relatively easy to write 50 or 100 brilliant pages, but what an author does in the middle tells you a lot about the overall quality of the book.

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  13. Perfect timing. I just started draft 2 today.

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  14. Very good analogy. Very painful advice. Thankfully I'm still in my first draft (Hah!) and will store this nugget away until revisions. But seriously, awesome advice.

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  15. Very clever, and helpful. Thanks!

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  16. Excellent advice. Thank you for the focus.

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  17. Donna: SO right about salmonella being delicious. INTERN puts salmonella on her toast instead of margarine, sometimes.

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  18. Wow, INTERN! Thanks! I truly appreciate this advice!

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go stab.

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  19. The Intern is extraordinarily wise. Perhaps she sees agency in her future?

    I use toothpicks all the time when considering books!

    That is all.

    Doctor Query

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  20. Random Paragraph from Janet Evanovich's FINGER LICKIN' FIFTEEN: character fears that Al Roker will film her flailing around on ground in giant hot dog costume.

    GOD I love how that woman writes!

    P.S. I've got a writing contest going on at my blog. Click on over and joint the contest, Intern and friends.

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  21. Sweet, literary advice with a metaphore I can actually relate to for once!

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  22. And I thought there was no fresh and extremely helpful writing advice out there!

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  23. PERFECT blog post.

    ... And you do this all the time. Thanks for staying aboard the ship o' blog.

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  24. Hmm. Got some thinking to do before my next draft now. I'm going to pick up some books this morning and see some examples for myself. This is an amazing observation and great advice. Keep up the posts.

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  25. I can see my first draft will need a lot of tightening up as it becomes a second draft...

    Just subscribed to your RSS - found you via @kaolinfire on Twitter, and i'm glad i did. :0)

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  26. I used to think this 'flip to a random spot and see if a book is still engaging' test was unfair...then I realized I do this to find a book to read, too.
    I just reread the last hundred pages of the second draft of my MS, and it doesn't pass the toothpick test. I knew it wouldn't since it's just a second draft and I overwrite, then trim, but somehow I hoped it would need only a few tweaks. Oh well. Writing is rewriting, right?

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  27. I listen to a lot of fiction while I work, drive, etc, and have noticed this effect when my wife or one of the kids comes in on the middle of Koontz or King or Kellerman doing their respective things. Without a vested interest in the characters or the plot, just a few phrases still manage to be enough to set a hook. This phenomenon haunts me when I write.

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  28. Oh, you made my day, INTERN. Again. That salmonella line had me laughing aloud...

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  29. Great advice! I will have to viciously poke my WIP with a toothpick and see if it comes away clean, gooey, or covered in blood.

    I'd say the first and third should be good (my MC does a fair amount of bleeding on a couple of occasions) but the second is bad. Very bad.

    Thanks for the tip!

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  30. That is awesome advice and I hope you don't mind but me and Shannon at Ramblings of a Wannabe Writer have kind of gone off the deep end with your concept...

    http://frankiediane.blogspot.com/2009/11/ninjadillo-is-here-adverbs-beware.html

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  31. Frankie: There's ninjadillos! There's Zoolander! Could the apocalypse get any better?

    celi.a: celi.a makes INTERN's day all the time, too!

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  32. Great analysis. Much can be learned from you, O Former Intern. My manuscript must be over done. Dang toothpick keeps busting in half every time I jab it into the MS.

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  33. This is SO true! ...Though scary cause it's a whole lot of work to make sure the toothpick comes out clean at every inch of that usually massive cake.

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  34. The INTERN is beginning to sound scarily like a grownup. That makes me feel OLD. Great post.

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  35. good advice.. I don't want to give anyone salmonella

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  36. Just so you know . . . if it's a cake, then you BAKE it, you don't COOK it.

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  37. Absolutely.

    I was waxing eloquent, really getting my prose on in the first chapter until a writer friend of mine said, "Cut all of that crap and start here" where the action began. It hurt, like physically, to let go, but she was right. Only my mother would have enjoyed the salmonella those first few pages were.

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  38. Okay, you're right again. I like this little acid test.

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  39. I love this test. I realized yesterday that I didn't have nearly enough conflict going on in my book, and I was already on Chapter 3. So I had a dad accidentally throw his seven-year-old son headfirst into a tree trunk. (The answer to your next question is, I have no idea where it came from, it just sort of happened that way. And it fit freakishly well.) Scared the shit out of myself for a second, and then I realized it's the first real moment in the book. Two and half chapters of throat clearing, and then a kid slams into a tree.

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  40. Interesting. Very interesting. Priceless advice. *runs off to pull all the classics from her bookcase to try this on*

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  41. I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.
    謝謝你的文章分享,請你有空到我

    參觀,Thanks

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  42. So, are you telling me that my WIP should be like a daytime soap? You can turn it on at any point and know exactly what's going on? ^_^

    Great ideas. I'll be trying this one.

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  43. Wow!! So many comments - I've forgotten what I wanted to say. I've just found your blog and love it - as if you care!! I wanted to say that even though you clearly have lots of admirers already.

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  44. Some seriously useful advice - off to stab my WIP.

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  45. "Stab these books with a toothpick all you want—that sucker is gonna come out clean."
    So... REALLY... it's a toothpick test.

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  46. I just found this, and it is every bit as genius as it was 2 years ago *saves to favorites in the 'amazing writing-related stuff folder'*

    I can't wait for your book :)

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