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!