When Mary assigned this topic for the QueryTracker June Blog, I asked myself the single biggest difference between my current work in progress and my first (long buried, never queried, and (to be completely honest) unbelievably crappy first attempt at a novel. The differences are many and massive -- from tone to genre to depth and beyond. You wouldn’t even find them in the same half of a bookstore if they were ever to occupy one. Of the innumerable “learning moments” (i.e., mistakes, errors, screwups) treated myself to, one sticks out sharply in my mind. It has little to do with craft, even if it’s what craft is entirely about. It can exist in almost any form, but its existence is critical. The more I read and the more I write, the more I realize the entire activity boils down to one thing. All we ever do is describe conflict.
Any book or story with an arc will contain conflict. Without it, there’s no arc. What I found revising my second manuscript, though, was that one central conflict -- or even a few interlocking conflicts -- was not enough. I received a lot of different advice from my critique partners, agents with “revise and resubmit” directives, and even my writing partner, all pointing at specific issues -- all but one of them stopping short of saying (but still effectively saying) the main flaw in my manuscript was a lack of conflict.
Ultimately, though, every comment really said what my writing partner was saying directly. Even with a solid conflict on the macro level -- adequate stakes for all involved -- I needed more on the immediate level. That advice in hand, I looked at other comments from CPs and agents and realized they were all describing the same problem in more specific terms, but the problem was the same.
The result was an epiphany of sorts. I started thinking of conflict on three levels, conveniently organized the way we organize books.
- The one I was handling just fine was the Novel-Level conflict. Within the arc of the story itself, I had plenty of conflict on several different levels. This is conflict at the STORY level, beyond even PLOT level -- the conflict that would show up in a one-page outline.
- Chapter-Level conflict is when the STORY is broken down to PLOT, the actual occurrences that drive the bus, and problems that occur in the course of getting there that inflame Nove- Level problems. I am beginning to think of each chapter in terms of defining a new conflict more than anything else.
- Finally, Page-Level conflict, which is the only one I don’t mean literally (but it’s pretty close, and catchy, so what the hell). This is challenging as hell, but is also what I increasingly realize separates successful authors from the rest of the pack.
The importance of Page-Level conflict is something I’ve learned more about reading other writers from a writing perspective than anywhere else. It’s the common thread that unites Dan Brown’s wild success (despite his sometimes atrocious writing) with Dona Tartt’s cult like following (despite her sometimes challengingly good writing).
It can go by different names -- disciplined writing, tight writing, fast-paced writing, dense writing -- but ultimately the thing I’ve learned as a reader and writer that trumps them all is that Page-Level Conflict (and the skill required to execute on it) is key.