Conflict Resolution 101: An Author’s Guide

No author is immune to conflict. Whether the disagreement is sourced in a contractual dispute, or concerns about edits, or in the misinterpretation of a social-media post, authors will inevitably have to engage in some classic dispute-resolution activities.

The Thomas-Kilmann instrument provides five different conflict modes for assessing conflict resolution:

  • Competing — win/lose
  • Collaborating — win/win
  • Compromising — minimally acceptable without damaging relationships
  • Avoiding — withdrawal and neutrality
  • Accommodating — conceding to the other to maintain harmony

In general, you’ll find that collaborating or compromising makes for the best strategy. Locking into a win/lose paradigm, or hiding from the conflict, will serve no one well; those strategies encourage escalation or bullying behaviors.

Authors experience conflict from one of two points of view — when the author is the victim of bad behavior by a publisher, editor or agent (author as hero); or when the author is the person who’s engaged in the bad behavior (author as villain). Let’s explore both scenarios.

Author as Hero

For whatever reason, you as an author occupy the moral high ground in a dispute. The problem could be anything — maybe a publisher missed a deadline. Maybe an agent lost your manuscript. Maybe an editor introduced errors into your story. Doesn’t matter what caused it, what matters is how you deal with it. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. Verify whether there are provisions that govern dispute resolution and, if there are, then follow them. Sometimes contracts extend a specific make-whole clause, or a notification-of-breach clause, that must be honored before the contract itself is in jeopardy.
  2. Reach out in good faith. It’s always better to bring something to the other party’s attention in a brief and polite way, by assuming error instead of malice. A friendly tone and a charitable approach helps set the framework for subsequent discussions about the problem. Most disputes go off the rails when one party accuses the other — implicity or explicitly — of acting in bad faith. In the publishing industry, bad-faith behavior is much less common than good-faith errors related to capacity.
  3. Don’t make it public. Never take a disagreement to social media, or a blog, or a writers’ forum. Not only are you backing the other side into a corner — opening the door to unhelpful tit-for-tat commentary — but you’re also leaving a public paper trail for subsequent partners (editors, agents, publishers) to find. No one wants to work with prima donnas. If a future partner is interested in you, but then they discover that you have no qualms airing grievances in public, your odds of receiving a contract may be substantially harmed. No publisher, agent or editor worth his salt will contract with an author who’s established his willingness to engage in public reputational assaults. In addition, “going public” exposes you to potential civil action for defamation, especially if your side of the argument isn’t proven to be as solid as you thought it was when you first typed your angry Facebook rant.
  4. Avoid going “pseudo-legal.” Terms like breach of contract and default are legal concepts that sometimes require a finding by a court of competent jurisdiction. Unless you’ve consulted with an attorney, it’s safest to avoid asserting that the other party is legally deficient in his obligations. Instead, simply point out the part of the contract you think the other party has missed and open a dialogue about how to rectify the problem. Starting your conversation with an indictment rarely promotes collaboration.
  5. Omit the 95 Theses. It’s never necessary for you to recite a litany of perceived abuses or your beliefs about the other party’s competence or integrity. Focus on one problem. Avoid blowing a molehill into a mountain by venting spleen about all the things that frustrate you. Avoid personalizing the situation or offering opinions about the other party that aren’t related to solving a specific problem.
  6. Watch the clock. With contracted authors, it’s usually safe to request a 30-day response window. Avoid putting unreasonable response deadlines in your correspondence, especially when you know that the recipient’s typical response time is much longer than what you demand.
  7. Consider whether you want to die on that hill. Not all problems necessarily require a solution. Even if you are technically in the right, think about whether the situation really needs a fix. Sometimes, just letting a process play through to its conclusion proves the wiser strategy.

Author as Villain

Maybe you screwed something up. Or writers’ block precludes timely manuscript delivery. Or you got caught introducing copyrighted material into your work. Or your just not happy about something that’s legit, but not to your preference. In any case, the publisher/agent/editor caught wind of it, and now you’re on the hot seat. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. If you’ve been accused of violating the terms of your contract, read the contract to identify the relevant provisions and whether the contract offers an adequate make-whole clause that you can take advantage of. Although it can be scary to hear that you might be in breach of contract, recognize that sometimes such notification is just a formality and can be easily fixed without undue drama. If you cannot understand parts of your contract, seek guidance from a licensed attorney in your community.
  2. Negotiate a good-faith fix. If you didn’t hold up your end of the deal, offer a solution that might be mutually acceptable to both parties. For example, if you were required to submit edits within 90 days, and you got a notice at day 100 that you’re late, commit to delivering by day 120 — and stick to it. You will usually have no difficulty in minor adjustments as long as you offer a reasonable alternative. You need not be apologetic or fall on your sword, either; admitting to a default isn’t usually a good idea should the matter later be subject to litigation. But politely offering a counter-offer, without belaboring the point, can often prove a useful solution.
  3. Take a deep breath before responding. Authors are creative people, and creative people can sometimes be quick to anger. Rule of thumb: Never answer when your blood pressure is elevated.
  4. Avoid social sandbagging. If you’ve had performance challenges under a contract, or even if you’re just in general not thrilled with progress even though the contract is still being met, it’s best to not get passive-aggressive with snarky social-media posts or emails, or bad reviews on Facebook or author sites. By engaging in this kind of behavior, you risk poisoning the well should there be a need for dispute resolution later in the process.
  5. Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes authors and editors disagree about something in a manuscript. Usually, such disagreements can be negotiated away. However, occasionally a point can’t be finessed into non-existence. If your editor, agent or publisher insists on a specific change and won’t take no for an answer, it’s best to take a step back and bring that disagreement to a circle of trusted peer writers. Solicit their honest feedback. Odds are good that the “other side” has seen several different skilled professionals arrive at the same conclusion, so you’ll do yourself a favor by having your own critique group help you to determine whether you really should buckle down for a fight, or concede that the scene you love so dearly isn’t as good as you thought it was.
  6. Don’t light a forest fire. If you’ve made a mistake, own it. Don’t make matters worse by trying to find some mistake — however obscure — by the other party and thereby turn it into a tit-for-tat situation. Your goal should be to stop the fire that’s consuming a single tree, instead of seeing the fire and then spreading gas on the surrounding forest.
  7. Respect the editorial division of labor. Some things important to authors — e.g., cover designs — may not be under the author’s control. The division of labor between authors and publishers follows from each partner’s role in getting a book to market. Even if you promised Aunt Sally that she could design the cover of your debut novel, the decision about that cover is rarely at the author’s pleasure. By getting hung up on the things that aren’t the author’s responsiblity, the author can inadvertently create tension that makes dispute resolution about other problems much more difficult. Focus on doing your part of the process well, and let your parners do their part of the process well.

Ultimately, your goal as an author should be to minimize or fix problems as they occur, in a way that does not alienate the other parties to an agreement. Publishers, editors and agents should do likewise. By focusing on collaboration and compromise instead of winner-takes-all ego battles or hide-in-the-sand avoidance behavior, you can build a robust partnership with your professional colleagues that can survive the occasional bump in the road.

Developing Ethically Coherent Characters

A good story usually demands a strong plot, and a strong plot is advanced through the skillful use of conflict.

Conflict, of course, starts with characters who think and act in specific ways; their patterns of behavior set the contours of how conflicts begin, progress and resolve over the narrative arc of the story.

Five introductory points about ethical consistency:

  1. At heart, ethics relates to the process by which people make value-laden choices. When there’s no choice, or no values at stake, then the question isn’t an ethical one. For example, personal preferences (e.g., “I like cashews more than brazil nuts”) aren’t a source of moral dispute.
  2. People aren’t always consistent, but they do tend to naturally fall into one of the broad ethical paradigms. No one does the right thing all the time, and always for the exact same reason; characters like Galadedrid Damodred in The Wheel of Time simply do not exist in the real world, so their presence in literary worlds proves especially jarring. Likewise, no one does the wrong thing all the time.
  3. When pressed, people can do the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason — with wrong merely suggesting a conformance to a different (i.e., non-dominant) moral paradigm.
  4. When pressed further, people can act against their moral principles. It doesn’t happen often, however. People who frequently make bad moral choices are inadvertently telegraphing that their ethical framework isn’t as straightforward as they claim.
  5. People rarely reset their default ethical worldview. Such a change can happen, but it’s not often enough in the real world to use it as a plot device. Usually these changes follow from significant trauma or long-running psychological stress.

The most common “broad moral paradigms” include:

  • Egoism. In a nutshell: Egoists do what redounds to the greatest good for the self.
  • Deontology. Duty-based ethics (i.e., Kantianism) suggests that the morally correct behavior is that which meets a generalizable duty or universal moral rule. For example, people can agree to the maxim that “It’s never okay to lie” and therefore we have a duty to avoid lying. We must do our duty, no matter the consequence.
  • Consequentialism. Consequentialism subdivides into many different groups. Utilitarians, for example, divide into “act utilitarians” (actions are judged) and “rule utilitarians” (the rules surrounding the actions are judged). Regardless of their tribe, however, consequentialists generally agree that the morally correct behavior is that which generates the greatest good or the least suffering, for the greatest number of people. Duty isn’t usually a major consideration.
  • Natural Law Theory. The natural law suggests that innate patterns in human nature — discoverable through study of universal human behavior — should govern. Popular in the Middle Ages, this approach isn’t as common anymore.
  • Divine Command Theory. The morally correct behavior is that which is willed by the supreme supernatural being(s). In other words: Do what God says.
  • Virtue Theory. The virtues rely on the development of character and follow from the ethical teachings of Aristotle. A virtue theorist balances various virtues (e.g., temperance, fortitude, bravery) to arrive at a recommended course of action. The vices (sloth, envy, etc.) should be eradicated to grow in character and thus in virtue. In a sense, the ethically correct behavior is that which the virtuous person undertakes.
  • Care Ethics. A modern innovation, care ethics seeks to preserve the relationships among those affected by an ethically difficult situation. The outcome is sometimes less relevant than maintaining amity. A special consideration is extended to people disadvantaged by the dispute.

Important non-theories include:

  • Contractarianism. The idea with contractarians is that our only moral duties are those we explicitly negotiate with others. However, this line of thinking is just a variant of selective deontology (as in, I only have a duty to those for whom I agree to incur a duty).
  • Rights Theory. Someone who emphasis rights above all other considerations is just aping a form of deontology (i.e., giving pride-of-place to the maxim that “people ought to respect the rights of others”). Depending on the justification, it’s also a variant of rule utilitarianism.
  • Honor Theory. Approaches that emphasize honor — you see it often in urban hip-hop culture that emphasizes respect — tend to loosely follow a care-ethics framework.
  • Ethical Nihilism. If you believe that there’s no such thing as morality, or that ethics can’t be universally applicable, then you’re a nihilist. But at heart, you’re really an egoist because you’re suggesting that whatever you do is, ipso facto, morally justified.
  • Hedonism. The whole “live and let live in peace and harmony, dude” mindset follows from a variant of consequentialism with a bit of egoist seasoning.
  • The Lex Talionis. The idea of “an eye for an eye” is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be a function of the natural law. In fact, natural law focuses on traits universal among humans; it’s not a surrogate for survival-of-the-fittest fetishism.

A few other points warrant mention.

First, ethical paradigms don’t relate well to the DSM-V. For example, an ethicist might classify as a “super-enlightened egoist” someone diagnosed by a psychologist as a sociopath. Many assertions of mental illness along the lines of sociopathic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder can distill into a form of ethical egoism that the psychologist simply refuses to accept as being a legitimate moral worldview. There’s long been a tension between the ethicist and the psychologist.

Second, many people mix their metaphors. They’ll follow the duty-bound approach of a Kantian for most things, but resort to consequentialist thinking when they want a free pass that Kant won’t offer. Or they’ll follow their scripture in their personal life but follow a care-ethic approach in their professional life. Again, consistency isn’t common, nor is it necessarily a desirable trait. But to the degree that people are inconsistent, they’re often consistently inconsistent.

In practice, adherents of each of these schools might come (correctly! and legitimately!) to different conclusions given the same case study. Consider the following hypothetical:

Bob arrives at work at 8 a.m. He sees his co-worker, Sally, arrive at 9 a.m. — but he discovers that she wrote 8 a.m. on her timesheet. After a bit of peeking, he concludes that she’s been faking her time card for several months, bilking her employer out of hundreds of hours of wages. Bob considers what he should do with his knowledge of Sally’s behavior.

In this situation, people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions.

Egoism What’s in it for me? Bob fundamentally doesn’t care about what Sally’s doing. He briefly considers whether to extort a payment to keep quiet or to fake his own timecards; either way, he’s not terribly invested in Sally’s theft as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Deontology What’s my duty? Bob has a duty of loyalty to his employer, so he doesn’t hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Consequentialism What’s the best outcome? Theft of wages from an employer increases the work for others and reduces the labor budget available to others. As such, Sally’s theft is (on balance) detrimental to the company and to other employees, so Bob reports her conduct to their boss.
Natural Law What would we expect a regular person to do? By reporting Sally, Bob will uphold a universal truth that crosses cultures, that people who have been injured by theft should be made whole, and that people who violate norms of conduct should not have their transgressions ignored.
Divine Command What does God will? As a devout Christian, Bob knows that stealing is wrong, so he encourages Sally to report herself and make restitution to their boss, and to repent to the Lord.
Virtue What would a good person do? Because stealing for any reason is the mark of a weak person, Bob does not hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Care What resolution preserves our relationships? Bob approaches Sally to ask why she’s been mismarking her timecards. He suspects that if she is struggling financially, he can help her out — but fundamentally he wants to help her stop her theft so he doesn’t have to report her to their boss.

Sometimes people get confused and think that because different people can make different ethical decisions for different reasons, that therefore morality as a concept is unworkable. Untrue. The complex moral reasoning of most ordinary people resembles the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: One or two paradigms are dominant, another one or two sometimes crop up, and others almost never make an appearance.

If your characters consistently behave as humans would behave in the real world, then not only are your characters more plausible, but the conflicts generated by their clashes are more powerful. Never underestimate the power of base moral conflict to drive tension and keep a plot advancing. When done well, these psychological studies drive powerful reader engagement and lead to more compelling stories.

The Mind Doth Not Triumph

Rational people take comfort in their rationality. They explore the world around them with intellectual curiosity; they pose unconventional questions about unquestioned convention; they seek the assurance of a rigid taxonomy assisted by predictable chains of causation.

Yet faith in rationality, in realism, in common sense — is profoundly misguided, methinks.  The last few weeks have made me witness to several highly rational people floundering in a sea of emotional distress. Yes, I have been able to offer comfort by appealing to alternative taxonomies or hidden premises or shifting paradigms. Yet it is curious, isn’t it?  That vaunted rationality should be left so utterly defenseless against the wild-eyed irrationality of passing emotion?

The ancients had their fun with this dilemma, of course; the entire modus vivendi of both the Stoics and the Epicureans was based on bringing an armistice to the head-heart conflict.

And today, the cool rationalism of the Obama administration yields to the irrational passions of the administration’s activist fringe to push policies whose priority makes precious little sense when considered under the cold, hard light of realpolitik.


Perhaps it’s a statistical blip. Perhaps I’m merely more attuned to it lately. But several close friends have confided in me of their emotional turmoil, and their struggle to find meaning in it and to find a “logical way out.”

And there’s the rub. There may not be a logical way out. Maybe, instead of thinking their way out of the box, they need to feel their way out. Maybe the rigid rationalism that facilitates over-thinking and self-doubt should be shelved in favor of a wild ride of the heart.

In conflicts between the heart and the mind, the heart’s inclinations usually push in favor of short-term gratification, sometimes at the expense of long-term prudence. This impluse can be resisted, but never suppressed. Resistance is futile; the heart’s yearings will be assimilated. So perhaps instead of using reason as a weapon to slay the heart’s longings, reason can instead be used as a tool to channel those longings into something more strategically sound.


All I know is that, as Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. The mind doth not triumph.