Conflict in Novels

Every good novel needs conflict, something that prevents its hero from achieving his or her aim.


Superman wants a safe world, Lex Luthor wants to take it over and doesn’t care who he kills to do it. Girl wants boy, but they are prevented by their fathers’ ongoing feud.


The hero must have a goal. It’s not necessary for the plot to slavishly follow the hero’s journey as laid out in Christopher Vogler’s book on writing, entitled The Writer’s Journey (though, by golly, this works), but the hero must want something — even if what s/he wants is for something not to happen, e.g. the comet hitting the planet and ending the world as we know it.

By the way, what the hero wants usually defines the genre. For example, boy wants a particular girl (Romance). Sherlock Homes wants to find out who dunnit. (Crime/Mystery). sherlock-holmes

Real conflict is where the hero encounters circumstances — or people — who prevent him from saving the world, solving the crime, getting the girl. It is NOT the hero having an ongoing personality conflict with another character so that the novel is filled with lots of petty arguments between these two.

two-people-arguingThis is not what the mavens mean when they talk about conflict. It does not advance the plot, and becomes mighty irritating after a while.

Beware also of writing scenes that deliver information, rather than containing conflict and moving the plot along. I see this one a lot: two people sit down at a table, and over cups of tea talk about something the writer wants us to know. Maybe it’s the hero’s childhood, why he is like he is today. If all your scene does is convey information, watch out. Every time you do this, the momentum of your plot slows to a crawl.

There are usually better ways to convey information rather than through dialogue. While I’m not a big fan of flashbacks because they interrupt the forward motion of a story, a well written flashback is a more interesting way to present back story information than via dialogue. But of course, anyone who’s good with dialogue finds it much easier to write a conversation with that information in it, rather than actually writing the scene these people in the kitchen are talking about— which could’ve been a real scene with real conflict.

Think about it.

“Oh dear, Mavis, he must’ve been soo scared, him being only five an’ all at the time” is not nearly as exciting as showing us the scene in which our five-year-old hero is scared.

There’s an even better way to tell the reader something and that’s to tell it. Yes, I know: tell has become a dirty word these days. But if you do it succinctly, in one or two sentences, you’ll get away with it: Jimmy was traumatised at the age of five by his mother’s lingering illness and death. There, it’s done. Without interrupting the forward flow of the novel and taking an entire scene to convey.

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Free editing ‘til 2017!


Comma, happyFor one week only. First three writers to apply.

I’m offering free editing to the first three writers who apply to have a 5,000 word sample of their work-in-progress edited.

What’s the catch?

Only this: I edit on paper, so you will need to pay me for printing out your 5,000 words (20c/page), plus the postage to return it to you.

Why am I offering this?

  1. Hey, it’s Christmas!
  2. In twenty-five years of working as a manuscript evaluator and editor, I’ve found there is never any work in the last weeks of December; people have too much else on their minds. But I don’t like to be idle, so I thought I’d offer this as a little present to struggling writers. The cost of printing out the sample, plus the return postage, is the only cost you’ll have.




NB I WILL ACCEPT EXTRACTS only FROM THE FIRST THREE WRITERS WHO APPLY. Do NOT send your extract with your query email.

Wishing you the very best of the Season! Hope 2017 is good for you and your writing.

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Finding an expert you can trust

If you’re an indie writer, these days you’re often dealing with people you’ve never met and probably never will – cover designers, interior designers, manuscript assessors, editors. I have never met the woman did the cover and the interior for my escapist novel, MagnifiCat; she lives in the US. I have never met Marty Norman, the US artist who did the wonderful drawing the cover uses.


I have never met Paul Salvette, the kindly e book designer of B B Books, who lives in Thailand. And so it goes on. These days we choose off the web, and hope our choice will turn out to be a good one. What can we do to make this process a little less of a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey affair?

Well, word of mouth is still the best way of choosing an expert for your book. If you know someone who used so-and-so and thought so-and-so was great, then you’ve gone a long way towards finding someone who’ll do a good job for you.

The next thing to do, if it’s an editor you’re looking for, is to look at this person’s website. If there are testimonials, read them carefully — very carefully. If the person happens to have another website, even if it doesn’t seem relevant to your search, read that, too. If they’ve written any books, have a look at them. At least read the back covers and avail yourself of the free Look Inside extract that Amazon provides. What kind of themes does this specialist you’re considering espouse? What kind of world view has s/he? Many people, in spite of their technical expertise, in spite of your friend’s good experience with them, will not be the right fit for your manuscript.


In my opinion, this is particularly important in the case of novelists starting out. They tend to have a less secure grip on the structure of their work and are more likely to need assistance in the early drafts. But the right assistance in these cases is assistance that bears in mind what the writer, not the editor, would like to convey. So read up on everything you can about an expert before committing yourself. That way, you’ll both be in tandem when you’re working on your book.

To sum up: when looking for an expert in one of the many fields of book pre-production, after the usual areas of competence have been investigated, make sure you choose someone simpatico, with a compatible take on the world. Bear it in mind as you’re searching, particularly if it’s an editor you’re after. Even if they have wonderful skills in their particular field, it can be more important than you think, especially when you’re starting out.

Posted in advice about writing, advice for indie publishers, advice for writers, Australian manuscript appraisers, Danielle De Valera, editors, fiction editing, good editors, how to find a good editor, manuscript assessments, manuscript assessors, Patrick de Valera, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collateral Damage as Amazon Applies the Thumbscrews to Reviews

Have you spent more than $50 on Amazon in your lifetime? (I think it’s in your lifetime.) They’re now instigating this rule where they won’t let you post a review, even though you’ve bought the book, unless you have spent that amount.

Guess which dog has not spent $50.

Guess which dog has not spent $50.

 The $50 rule

I was recently emailed by someone who’d bought my collection of short stories Dropping Out at and went to post a review, only to discover they were not allowed to do so because of Amazon’s new $50.00 rule. This rule is as follows:

“To post a review, customers must spend [must have spent] at least $50.00 [with Amazon] using a valid credit or debit card. Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the $50.00 minimum. Customers in the same household cannot submit a review for the same product.”

I had heard of this rule, but hadn’t known any instances in which it had been applied. Until now. It’s an interesting rule, and one that is well intentioned. There are paid review mills out there who, using one or two credit/debit cards, can post hundreds of reviews under different names, thus pushing up an author’s chances of having his or her book bought.

OK, I see that. But I wonder about all the new people coming along, who are only just finding their way on the web and only just beginning to buy online. These people will be excluded. For the moment, at any rate. And when they’ve chalked up $50 (Will they be counting?), will they remember to go back and post a review for you? Don’t think so.

Collateral damage.

Review swapping

Another little rule, especially designed to catch out writer friends, is the long established habit of review swapping.


people-exchanging-gifts Amazon has always frowned on this but made few active attempts to police it. No more. Be aware, oh indie writers out there, that this has now changed. And even if you’re not a bestseller, you’re still not safe. I know of instances where Amazon has actively pursued small-time writers who swapped reviews (and some who hadn’t), removing favourable reviews —and in the process sometimes mistakenly removing reviews by people the poor writer had never even heard of.

More collateral damage, pay no attention.

The online world is a hard world, especially where money is concerned. If you’re an indie writer, watch out for these two things. The first is obvious. The second might just catch you unawares.

If you would like to read more about the new Amazon rules, Anne Allen has a very readable post on this subject at:


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Those pesky possessive Ss

Apostrophewith possessive Ss

I think we all know that an apostrophe is used before the possessive of singular common nouns, e.g.

the boy’s bike.

So far, so good. But what if the noun being possessed (as it were) isn’t singular, but plural, and ends in S?

Plural nouns ending in S take the apostrophe after the S, e.g.

two boys’ bikes.

However, just to complicate matters, some plural nouns don’t end in S; children is one of them. In that case, they are made possessive by adding apostrophe S, e.g.

the children’s games.

OK. But …

When it comes to the possessive of names, the current ruling is that all names take an apostrophe S, e.g.

Carolyn’s books

Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poetry.

Personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before the possessive of all names ending in S will take the apostrophe only, e.g.

Hopkins’ poetry

Already, names derived from bible sources, for example, only take the apostrophe, e.g.

Jesus’ preaching.

At present, though, the situation is fraught, with many different usages for the apostrophe where the personal noun ends in S. One school of thought recommends you use apostrophe S when the personal name is of one syllable, e.g.

Keats’s poetry

And that you use the apostrophe only, if the personal name is of more than one syllable. Thus:

Hopkins’ poetry.

What to do?

If you’re really keen to be on the safe side when submitting to a publisher, enquire about their usage. If not, consistency is the thing. Don’t say Hopkins’ poetry in one place in the manuscript and Hopkins’s poetry in another. As in most things, consistency will get you a long way.

Whatever you do, don’t do this:

Sign's jpg

But that’s another story.

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Foreword v. Preface v. Introduction

Last month, a client of mine asked me to edit his non-fiction book, a series of vignettes about his time in rural Australia in the 1950s and Papua New Guinea in the ‘70s. One of the first things I noticed was that he had written a preface to his book, but he’d called it a foreword. This got me to wondering how many other self-publishers out there are a bit woozy about the meanings of these two sections. Then, serendipitously, I came across a neat post by Joseph Kunz that answers these questions and also discusses the role of an introduction.

While the three sections Kunz talks about in his post are especially suitable for use by non-fiction writers, certain types of fiction writers — those who use history or a sense of place, for example — can at times make good use of the first two sections.

Here is the post below, reprinted (without illustrations) with Joseph’s kind permission. Anyone wanting to see the original can view it at:

Thank you, Joseph.

Foreword Vs. Preface Vs. Introduction: A Guide For Self-Publishers


It is essential for a self-publisher to understand the differences between the foreword, preface, and introduction of a book. Each section plays a vital role in the critical and financial success of the book. Without these three sections, a non-fiction book is incomplete, and not giving the readers their money’s worth. Therefore, I have laid out some basic definitions of each section to help give new self-publishers a starting point before beginning their first book.


  1. The Foreword

(Why the reader should read the book.)

The foreword is the place for a guest author to show the reader why they should read this book. The foreword of the book is a major selling tool for the book. If it is written properly and by the appropriate person for the job, the book’s author will gain a lot of credibility in the reader’s eyes. It is important to remember that the author of the book should not write the foreword. Instead, the author of the book can use the preface as well as the introduction to say what needs to be said about the book. Forewords introduce the reader to the author, as well as the book itself, and attempt to establish credibility for both. A foreword does not generally provide the reader with any extra specific information about the book’s subject. Instead, it serves as a reminder of why the reader should read the book. The foreword must make an emotional connection with the reader.

  1. The Preface

(How the book came about.)

The preface is a place for the book’s author to tell the reader how this book came into being, and why. It should build credibility for the author and the book. The preface is very similar to the foreword, except that the preface is written by the book’s author. The preface is also an important selling tool for the book. Here, authors should explain why they wrote the book, and how they came to write it. The author should show the reader why the book is worth reading.

  1. The Introduction

(About the content of the book.)

The introduction introduces the material that is covered in the book. Here, the author can set the stage for readers and prepare them for what can be expected from the book. The introduction is a way for the author to grab the reader and intensify the reader’s desire to find out more and hopefully devour the entire book. In the introduction, the author can quickly and simply tell the reader what is to be revealed in much greater detail, if they continue reading.


As you can see, it is imperative to understand the basic differences between these three sections in order to produce a professional looking and complete self-published book. Each section is clearly different, and each performs a specific function in the book. Therefore, a self-publisher needs to put a lot of thought and effort into producing these vital three sections.


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Commas – inside or outside quotes?

Comma, happy

In my work as a manuscript evaluator and developmental editor, it’s clear to me that writers are still having a lot of trouble with commas. One of the instances that always seems to cause confusion is the one where sometimes, the full stop or comma appears outside the phrase being quoted, for example:

Harry called it “a dreadful experience”.

Compare this with:

As Harry said, “a dreadful experience.”

Why is this happening? Why is the full stop outside one phrase and not the other?

Well, it all depends on whether or not a comma precedes the phrase.

If a comma precedes the phrase, as in the second example, the full stop is inside the last quotation mark. If there is no comma preceding the phrase, the comma should be placed outside the quotation mark.

This rule is going to change with time, as more and more publishers opt to use the comma inside the quote, no matter what. If you check out some books, particularly US ones, you will see that some publishers are already doing this. It saves time when editing, not to have to pause and think. And time means money.

But, at the moment, it’s a nice touch to use this rule correctly, especially if you’re in the UK or its dominions, and particularly if you intend to submit your work to a magazine or publisher. Taking the trouble to get it right will make you look professional. And that never goes astray.

Next week: the correct use of commas with and, where and joins two distinct sentences.

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