In real life, conflict makes me anxious. It’s more than discomfort, a natural by-product of conflict, but a deep-down anxiety: a rat nibbling the insides of my gut.
I don’t run from conflict and I’m not a pushover. But when I know conflict cannot, should not, must not be avoided, the emotional cost is high. Sleepless nights, imaginary conversations and strategy planning sessions, rehearsals and overthinking … You name it, I’ve done it. Because by nature, I’m a peacemaker, a diplomat. I’m the kind of person who, when I have to write a rejection, review or appraisal, takes much longer than necessary to write it. My approach to conflict, where possible, is to smooth it out, like sheets on a bed. To restore harmony.
It’s not that I view conflict as bad, per se. Conflict can be a positive thing – it can strengthen relationships and bonds, offer new perspectives, open minds, facilitate moral growth, fuel change. As a reader and a writer, too, I understand that conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. Without conflict, a manuscript is a skeleton, bare bones without a heart that pulses with tension and drama. I don’t need the bang-bang-bang of constant action to reel me into a story, but some form of conflict – internal or external or both – must be there to keep me turning pages. So, it was somewhat discombobulating when it was pointed out to me that my conflict anxiety was evident in my writing.
My debut novel, Wherever You Go, is the story of a married couple trying to save their marriage after a tragic accident. The manuscript was rejected multiple times by agents and publishers, who all seemed to agree on two things: the writing was beautiful but the story was too quiet. One agent put it this way: ‘… not enough happens. All the drama has already taken place before the story begins, and what remains is a very quiet tale of grief and healing.’
At first, I was baffled by such feedback. The characters had experienced a great loss. As a result, their marriage disintegrated over the course of the story. Wasn’t that enough drama? What was I missing? But after each rejection, I pulled myself together and revised the manuscript again, adding what I thought of as more layers, more drama. Submitted it elsewhere.
The same kind of rejection came back: Love the writing, the premise, the characters, but … not enough happens.
Eventually, all I wanted was for someone to tell me what to do, how to fix the manuscript. I wanted someone to believe in my story enough to help me make it shine. To shine a light on what I could not see.
Which, in retrospect, was so obvious… I was conflicted about writing conflict. I was employing the same diplomacy I use in my everyday life in my writing, and it was working against me. In these early drafts, two secondary narrators – my protagonist Amy’s husband Matt and her next-door neighbour Irene – chose their words too carefully, so as not to upset Amy. They tiptoed around her refusal to deal with the past and focused on appeasing her, rather than calling her out when her behavior impacted their own needs (yes, this created internal conflict for them, but not narrative drama). They walked on eggshells too much. In fact, they didn’t seem to have any problems in their lives other than Amy.
When I joined the team of Pilyara Press, a group of professional writers who left behind the Goliath world of traditional publishing to form an independent small press, I finally got some guidance about what I needed to do with my book. Pilyara operates as a cooperative; team members exchange skills, such as proofreading, to help each other to get our books published under the Pilyara Press imprint. Each book goes through the same process as it would in a traditional publishing house – structural editing, copyediting and proofreading. Now I had an editor to work with to help me resolve my novel’s problems.
The structural editing process was deeply painful. My editor pointed out multiple conflict avoidant techniques I’d used to make it easy for the characters: ‘The characters must say stuff, not just think,’ she told me on one occasion. ‘That creates drama. Your characters hold back what they really want to say in order to be likeable.’ I laughed off comments like these at first, telling my editor, ‘Dammit, you’ve psychoanalysed me.’ She laughed too, but didn’t let up. ‘Stop keeping the readers at arm’s length,’ she said.
My editor’s advice was to put conflict at the forefront. To make Amy and Matt’s struggling marriage obvious from the first chapter. And then to ensure there was conflict – internal and external – in every subsequent chapter. She told me to be open and emphatic about the tension rather than just hinting at it (and expecting the reader to get it). And also to give each character in the story their own conflicts and desires, rather than have them simply react to the protagonist’s struggles. In short, I had to ‘break the box and rebuild it in a new way’. Writing like this meant working against my diplomatic nature. It nearly broke me.
No matter what I did, I kept smoothing the way for the characters. At night, I lay awake, wondering how to fix this problem. I made notes. Started spreadsheets. Outlined the manuscript once, twice. Read articles about plotting and narrative arcs. Overthought to agonising despair… I was sick with worry, prone to sudden tears. I lost all trust in my abilities, my voice, my story.
It was during that dark time that I turned to the American researcher Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and books, perhaps unconsciously intuiting that to get back to my story, I first had to claw back my Self. Brown explores such concepts as courage, vulnerability, shame, empathy and leadership, and her views resonate with me on many levels, especially where she argues in Rising Strong that ‘We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time’.
There was no lightbulb moment where I found a solution to the conflict avoidance in my writing. Rather, it was a matter of trial and error, of gradually choosing to be brave rather than comfortable – not just in my story but in my Self. On a practical level, I examined every scene and asked, ‘What is the conflict here?’ and also ‘What is this character’s conflict?’ I focused less on making my characters likeable and more on making them authentic. I allowed them to say what they thought even if it was snarky or unfair. I gave each character their own problem – because in real life, we all have them, and we don’t spend our entire day thinking about how to solve someone else’s problem like my characters did initially.
As time passed, I took more risks. I wrote in curveballs that I’d dismissed out of discomfort: a business decision, a trip overseas, a potential affair. Writing like this freed me and resulted in a much stronger book overall.
Recently, a reviewer wrote that Wherever You Go ‘accurately depicted conflict in a relationship and the process of resolving some of that conflict.’ She’ll never know how much those words made my heart swell…
Monique Mulligan is an author, interviewer and founder of the Stories on Stage program in Perth. A former journalist, news editor and publisher, she combines part-time work at an arts centre with freelance editing and novel writing. Monique’s debut contemporary fiction novel Wherever You Go was published by Pilyara Press in September 2020. Website: moniquemulligan.com Publisher: pilyarapress.com Facebook Instagram Twitter