Sunday, March 29, 2009

What is conflict, anyway?

Yeah, what is it, really? Is it this?
Or rather something like this?

Perhaps this is more like it...

It seems simple. Lots of things do, when they're done well.

Good writers do it all the time, putting their characters at odds to create an inescapable conflict of motivation. The characters' goals may be the same or different, but in pursuing those goals, each will negate the other's chances of succeeding.

A few nights ago, I watched the old classic, 'Irma La Douce', with my family. What a great partnering of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. We thoroughly enjoyed it. As we watched, I was explaining to my husband how inescapable the conflict was.

Irma, a prostitute, falls in love with Nestor, an ex-policeman. Nestor replaces Irma's abusive pimp, and to show her gratitude, she sets about earning as much money as she can to dress him in the finest clothes and look after him in a way that will make her proud among the other prostitutes in the district.

Nestor is flattered, but his love for Irma makes him insanely jealous of her clients. He can't stand the thought of her with other men, so he invents an alter-ego, Lord X, who will engage Irma's services twice a week to do nothing more than play double-handed solitaire, paying her so much money she doesn't need to see other customers.

Problem is, to make a thousand Francs a week, Nestor works himself to the bone at the local produce markets and arrives home early each morning to fall into bed exhausted. Irma thinks he's losing interest in her. One day, after a quick change from Lord X to his real-life self, Nestor meets Irma in the local bar for a drink. She sees a lipstick mark on his cheek - the one she had placed on the Lord only a few minutes earlier - and accuses him of having another girl. She then announces that she has fallen in love with Lord X and plans to elope with him.

There seems nothing left for Nestor to do than to dispose of Lord X. But when Nestor throws Lord X's clothes and belongings in the Seine, noisily proclaiming his joy at being finally rid of the Lord, he is spotted by Irma's old pimp. The police are called and Nestor is arrested and subsequently convicted for the murder of Lord X.

I won't spoil the ending, as there are a few more complications before Irma and Nestor are happily reunited, but I thought this was a splendid example of inescapable emotional conflict. Irma's and Nestor's motivations for getting what they wanted were diametrically opposed. In the status quo, no resolution was possible. Thankfully, unfolding events provided the stimulus for character change, and that in turn enabled the protagonists to change events so that they could be - happily - together at the end.

There. Now wasn't that confusing?

Last night I drew Jennifer Crusie's conflict grid on a page and tried to nut out the conflict of my current characters. I haven't yet given up on them, as I think they've got potential. It was harder than I thought to get the conflict grid working so that each of their motivations prevented the other's goal from succeeding. I must have drawn that grid at least fifteen times before I hit on a workable conflict. But for this to happen, I had to change the story I'd originally planned to write. It was a difficult process that kept me up past midnight. It was worth it, however, as I feel more satisfied with the new plot than I have for a long time. What this means, though, is that I have to wipe everything I've written so far and start again. And I thought this writing caper was going to be easy...!!!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

State of flux

My current novel has ground to a halt.

Several weeks ago, I received yet another rejection from Harlequin for the manuscript I'd sent them most recently. Now I have no irons in the fire, and since the rejection letter was identical to the last, I think it's time to stop and take stock.

All sorts of questions are running through my head. Am I writing for the right publisher? Is my work more suited to a different line, or to another genre of writing altogether? Clearly, there is something about my writing that isn't working, so now is a good time to stop and consider what I'm doing.

Over the last few years, I've built up a bit of knowledge about how to structure a novel. My writing - hopefully - has improved. So what is it about it that's going to take it to the next level? I think this is a crucial consideration at this point, and the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced I need to be more strategic about what I write, how I write it, and to whom I pitch it.

When I think about my current novel, there are several elements that don't sit quite right with me. I have the emotional conflict worked out... I think. But is it as clear in my mind as it should be? Perhaps not enough to provide that clarity for the reader in a way that's going to make them want to turn the page.

Part of the problem could be that in trying to 'fit' into a certain genre - and Romance has been the genre of choice thus far - I am perhaps not able to express myself in the voice that comes most naturally to me. If this is in fact the case, then I might be sabotaging myself in a way that will always prevent an editor from seeing who I really am.

So I'm going to take some time to mull all these issues over and come up with a plan. I feel a great sense of affinity for romance, for the breadth of storylines available, which provide endless opportunities to explore character and emotion. If I'm totally honest, what attracts me the most to romance is being able to explore women's issues in great depth.

With this in mind, I'm going to analyse what I've done so far, see what possibilities lay ahead, and make a plan of attack. There will be setbacks along the journey, but I'm more than willing to persevere, since there's something inside me that urges me on. I don't know if Harlequin is the right fit for me, but I know there's something out there that is. It's my passionate and resolute aim to find it.

The Slap

Apologies for the long posting absence. And after such a valiant start, too! I knew this would happen as soon as work got going again.

I finished reading Christos Tsiolkas' 'The Slap' quite a while ago, and have been in a quandary about what to write. This is, after all, not a critic's blog, and I - as an aspiring writer - feel I don't have the credentials to give it a hiding. In particular, I don't want to be the kind of aspiring writer who likes to tear other writers' work to shreds. Everyone has their own individual voice, and their own message to convey, and thank God for that. Wouldn't it be boring otherwise? Still, I guess that as a reader - and a discerning one at that - I do have the right to voice an opinion.

First, I would like to commend Christos Tsiolkas on his strong and convincing voice. The novel reads easily, and is very graphic in its attempt at realism. A few of my friends have read it and we discussed it while it was still fresh in our minds. These friends are intelligent, well-read, professional women, and though each of us had a slightly different take on where the novel took us, we pretty much all agreed on one thing: how the book made us feel.

Tsiolkas' realism was a tad too brutal and ugly for me. Though I'd felt sympathy for almost all the characters in the beginning of the novel, as the story unfolded and each character was placed under the microscope, fatal character flaws were exposed, which made it difficult to find any redeeming qualities. Above all, I felt sort of dirty after reading this book. The language was unnecessarily foul. This observation isn't made because I'm a prude who's averse to swearing - quite the contrary. I think the odd, well-placed swear word can express emotions with great economy. I just don't think people generally swear as much as the characters in 'The Slap'. Bad language was used so often that it became redundant. Consequently, the impact was lost, and all that remained was a general feeling that the novel was coarse.

The sex scenes were mostly unpleasant too. Well-written and spare, but again, the sex was ugly except for one scene where one of the characters is being unfaithful to her husband. I couldn't help wishing she'd take off with him, seeing as her husband's regard for women seemed to border on misogyny.

Drug use among young people was another facet to this novel that I found disturbing. Again, I'm not naive on the subject. I know young - and old - people - do drugs. There's no shock factor there. However, I found the portrayal of young people just out of VCE, languishing in an empty, directionless world to be quite depressing.

For these reasons, I found it difficult to suspend disbelief while reading. The obnoxiousness of the characters and the grim situations in which they found themselves, continually pulled me out of the story. As such, 'The Slap' was hard to reconcile as a true depiction of contemporary suburban life in Melbourne. Though Tsiolkas' cast of characters spanned a wide range of cultural and socio-economic groups, they were all alike in one sense. The glaring disparity of their lives was bridged by a common sense of pessimism and wariness that drove each character to commit acts of destructive recklessness.

Tsiolkas has been commended for this work, and I agree it was a mildly compelling read. For me, what kept me going was more the level of my investment in the novel than pure joy of reading it. Like one of those slightly weird SBS movies that come on late at night and keep me glued to the screen because I'm too tired to get off the couch, turning the pages of 'The Slap' was a case of hanging on until the end in the hope of some kind of redemption. Sadly, that was not to be.