Problem Solving Strategies for Writers

Problem Solving for Writers

The most fun part of writing is problem solving.

Every day I receive emails from writers bemoaning the fact that they’re stuck, they have “writer’s block“, they’ve lost interest in their current work in progress and have started a new project – on which, if they only knew it, they are about to get just as stuck…

Sometimes they give me all of the details of their story world or their “real” world (or both) and expect me to solve the problem for them!

Are you writing a story where a character realises that the power was inside them all along? Why are you looking for answers elsewhere?

If you’re looking for other writers to solve your problems (especially an amateur like myself), you’re missing out on so much fun. How many shifts in perspective, how many wild epiphanies, how many life-changing lessons are passing you by as you try to rid yourself of a problem that is your greatest gift…

Writing is a process of gaining clarity.

As you write, you are putting your thoughts in order, sifting, weighing, choosing, rearranging… From the level of the meta-story down to the use of a single letter, you’re working to refine and clarify your message. Often you realise that what was clear and simple in your mind becomes a mess when you try to put it down on paper to share it with others (or with your future self). This might be because…

  1. Your thoughts weren’t as well-defined as you thought they were, especially as you descend into deeper detail.
  2. You have difficulty translating the boundless pre-verbal, often strongly visual goings-on of your mind into the limited vocabulary and syntax of a natural language.

These are beautiful problems to have. They’re the problems that have fuelled writing and storytelling for millennia. They’re the stuff of art.

Do you truly believe that a writer’s work is only the putting down of words?

Of course not. No writer has completed a work without finding problems, creating problems, and solving problems. And the bigger the problems they attempt (and perhaps succeed) in tackling, the more we tend to admire them.

To try to devolve your writing problems onto another is to deny yourself the most essential part of your craft.

To try to avoid solving problems instead of grappling with them eagerly is to deny yourself the insights that will not only make you a better writer, but that will make you a better person.

To shun problem solving is to reject the gifts of your unconscious, to turn a cold shoulder to your muse, and to stifle your creative instincts.

Let’s say your pencil is a magic wand.

You wave it and say the magic word and voilà, there is your novel, written, proofed, printed and bound.

You wave it again and there is the second novel in the series.

And the third.

And the fourth.

Is that really what you want? Because if it is, then all you need do is hire a ghostwriter!

I’m not suggesting that you don’t have the power to create novels out of thin air – of course you do! But perhaps you don’t want to miss out on the fun of creating them…

Remember that you created your problem.

In your “real” world life, it can be difficult to accept responsibility for having created a problem, but when you’re dealing with a problem in your story, it’s fairly easy to agree to the fact that the problem is of your own making – after all, you  set the parameters of the story world; the problems simply weren’t there before you arrived.

Perhaps that’s why we enjoy stories in the first place – they allow us a virtual space, safe from the vicissitudes of reality, where we can have fun creating and solving problems. But it’s important to remember that we do create our problems, and that we create them in order to further a story.

Remember why you created your problem.

It’s possible to get so engrossed in solving a problem that we forget why we were trying to solve it in the first place. Before you try any of the strategies that follow, be sure that you’ve chosen a problem that will actually benefit you by its solution.

EXERCISE

Write down…

1. The problem you’re facing.
2. How this problem emerged.
3. What the solution will allow you to do.

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of your particular problem, and you are excited to tackle it. Here are a few strategies I recommend…

1. Build Trust

It all begins with trust.

Trust that you are capable of solving the problems you take on.

Trust that the problems themselves are capable of being solved.

Trust that the solution will present itself to you.

Trust that the solution has always been there.

Trust that you have always known the solution.

Trust that the solution is what you want it to be.

Trust that you are going after the right solution for you.

EXERCISE

A journalling prompt: “I am capable of solving this problem because…”

2. Ask Better Questions

If you ask better questions, you get better answers!

Often simply changing “why?” to “how?” will help you get out of a rut, but there are many ways of improving your questions:

  1. Switch the subject, object or verb. For example, instead of asking, “how does Theseus defeat the evil overlord?” try, “how does a bull defeat the evil overlord?” or “how does Theseus defeat Theseus?” or “how does Theseus cook for the evil overlord?” Ridiculous, but with the potential to produce results!
  2. Add in extra clauses. e.g. “how does Theseus defeat the evil overlord with only a ball of string, while reading a cookery book, in a small mountain village, with a storm approaching?”
  3. Choose better or more descriptive words. e.g. “how does Theseus negate the power of the person who is trying to build his personal empire?”
  4. Specify a time-frame. e.g. “what can Theseus do to defeat the evil overlord in the next two days?”

And then there’s always, “what next?

EXERCISE

Write your current problem-question at the top of the page and invent at least 25 permutations of it.

3. Make the problem harder

Not all problems are worthy of your attention. Many of them are too simple or boring for your conscious mind to focus on, or for your unconscious mind to get a purchase on. Sometimes what really stimulates you to come up with an answer is to challenge yourself to a harder problem. Take the problem of Theseus above… How does he defeat the evil overlord with only a ball of string, while reading a cookery book, in a small mountain village, with a storm approaching?

EXERCISE

Pick the hardest question from the previous exercise and make it (quantifiably) five times harder.

4. Use your writing to problem-solve

I can’t tell you how many times writers have written to me about their problems, and I’ve written detailed responses back, only to be told in the next missive, “never mind, I figured it out.”

The simple act of writing about your problem helps you gain greater clarity and you often realise that the problem contained the solution all along. But you don’t have to press “send” to reach your epiphany. You can…

  1. Write a letter to yourself, your muse, your character, or your reader.
  2. Journal about your problem.
  3. Freewrite.
  4. Have your characters hash it out by making a decision, talking about it, or escaping.

EXERCISE

Write a “throw-away” scene in which your characters go to work on the problem you’ve been grappling with.

5. The problem is the solution

The trouble with having a problem is that you don’t know the solution when you see it. If you did, you wouldn’t have the problem any more! You need to be able to look at the solution and recognise that it’s the solution, and the best place to look is in the problem itself.

If the problem is a knot, then it already contains all of the threads of the solution. All you need to do is to pick them apart. In doing so you destroy the knot. The problem and the solution can’t exist at once because they’re the same thing.

Just something to think about.

EXERCISE

What are the separate strands of your problem-knot?

6. Loosen Up

Not all problems require your conscious attention. Perhaps if you let them be, they would just solve themselves? Or maybe they would disappear entirely.   .        .

EXERCISE

Leave the problem unsolved.

7. Seek Structure

Most so-called “problems” that stymy writers are those that involve plot and character. For me, studying plot formulas and creating my own methods for The One Page Novel, How to Be the Heroine of Your Own Story, and How to Lose Yourself in a World of Your Own Invention was a turning point. Structure helped me see the bigger story picture and to solve problems quicker by using a framework.

If you’re worried that structure will take away the joy of making stuff up and discovering the story as you go, please take my word for it… it won’t! Storytelling structures are simply tools like any other, and you can use them in any way they benefit you, even in ways they weren’t originally intended. If anyone says otherwise, please refer back to #1.

EXERCISE

Study your favourite novel using a plot structure.

8. Remove Conditions

Problems are defined by their boundaries, but sometimes the edges are invisible or unclear. What are the conditions or assumptions that underlie your problem? How are they contributing to defining the problem?

  1. Try something outside of your comfort zone.
  2. Uncover hidden assumptions.
  3. Change your point of view.

EXERCISE

Deconstruct your problem by…

1. Exploring the binaries it contains.
2. Bringing marginal elements to the centre.
3. Following the chain of signification.

9. Add in Randomness

Aleatory writing exercises are some of my favourites for brainstorming, warming up, and getting out of my own way. Here are a few for you to enjoy:

  1. Bibliomancy – use your favourite book to find answers.
  2. Cut Up – the classic beat exercise for random combinations.
  3. Idea Engine – combine and synthesise to create something new.
  4. Writer’s Block – a bored board game for a mythical writer’s ailment.
  5. Pick a muse card – she’ll know what to do.
  6. Story Building – try a tarot spread for some meaningful randomness.

EXERCISE

1. Write down your problem.
2. Below it, write down at least three answers generated at random.
3. Use a random method to pick one of your answers.
4. Freewrite about how this answer can solve your problem.

10. Procrastinate

I love using procrastination so much that I wrote a mini-course on it for the Lady Writers League called, The Procrastination Prioritiser.

If you’ve been banging your head against a problem for what feels like forever, just let it go for a while and work on something else. Most of the time the answer will magically find you where and when you least expected it.

You can download this plot outline for an 80,000-word novel!