I am delighted to host Joanne O’Sullivan today, whom I recently met at the South Carolina Association of School Librarians conference, and then got to share lunch with in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an incredibly generous person and a delightful conversationalist. And I am so eager for you to read her debut novel, Between Two Skies (Candlewick), which officially pubs on April 25, 2017.

But wait — there’s more! Tweet about this post and you will be entered in a drawing for an autographed ARC!

Joanne O’Sullivan

Should Conflict Avoiders Write Novels?

I was sitting on the couch of a Very Famous Novelist, interviewing her about her upcoming book for our local newspaper. “I love coming up with new ways to torment my characters,” she said, with unfettered delight in her eyes. She spoke with relish about dreaming up fresh perils and pitfalls for her heroines to face. “I never want my readers to be bored,” she added.

Her words were a revelation to me. Torment! Peril! These were levels of drama I never rose to in my writing. No wonder I’ll never be a Very Famous Novelist, I thought to myself. Writing: I’m doing it wrong.

“You have to really make your main character suffer,” came back the beta reader notes on one of my first drafts of what would become Between Two Skies. “Throw every obstacle you can in her way.” I imagined calamities: car crashes? Fist fights? That didn’t feel true to my story or to my character. “More tension!” another reader demanded.

According to every personality test I’ve ever taken, I’m the peacemaker, the mediator, the one who values harmony. Let’s work it out is my default over let’s duke it out. When I heard the words conflict, tension and suffering, all I could think of were big, dramatic elements: painful deaths and villainous plots. But I write stories that are a bit more down to earth. Let’s face it, I thought, novels are about conflict. Without a sustained series of setbacks, a novel isn’t a novel. Given who I am, should I even be trying to write a novel?, I wondered.

Then I had the opportunity to interview another Famous Novelist. A generous soul, she took time out of talking about her new release to ask me about my project. I told her I was having problems with revisions; that, as a mother of a teenage girl, maybe I was being too protective of my main character (also a teenager) not wanting too much harm to come to her. She had done that, too, she said, until, she said, she realized she had to let her character make mistakes.

Mistakes. That one word changed everything. My characters didn’t need to jump from the path of a giant rolling boulder or hold up a convenience store. They just needed to make mistakes. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations: these were interesting conflicts to me, much more ripe with possibility than a loaded gun. By re-framing how I understood conflict (not as a big external force, but as something a character felt internally and reacted to), I was able to go forward, letting my characters learn and grow: exactly what they need to do over the course of a novel. They might come down with a case of bad judgment instead of a case of yellow fever or suffer a broken heart rather than cracked ribs. But their struggles are real.

There are so many different ways to tell a story. As writers, we each have to find a way that feels true to ourselves and makes sense for our characters, through our own literary devices, whatever they may be.

Joanne O’Sullivan introduces fascinating people and places to readers through books, articles and blog posts. Her award-winning science, sustainabilty and travel books for kids include “Migration Nation” (Charlesbridge, 2015). She lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her family.