Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Problem Solving

Today I solved a problem that's been nagging me a while. It's a plot point in Mystery Project X--the story I haven't blogged about much lately but am still resolutely chipping away at and hope will someday be my next book or maybe webcomic if no one wants to publish it (that's its official subtitle, by the way).

Briefly and cryptically, I need a character to do X in location Y, then make his way to location Z. Everything hinges on this. But I could not for the life of me figure out how he could get him from Y to Z; if he's at Y when X happens, showing up later at Z should be impossible, or at least ridiculously complicated. Last night, lying in bed, I cracked it. All I have to do is move location Y 50 yards--do the same thing in a slightly different locale--and everything falls elegantly into place. It even makes the story better. It sounds silly, but I've been wrestling with this for weeks.

If you want to start an argument among writers, bring up writer's block. Charles Schulz famously said, "Writer's block is for amateurs." While I think that's a little uncharitable, I lean that way myself. Being a professional anything, including writer, means being able to buckle down and do the job well even when you don't feel like it. On the other hand, writers far better than I (and Schulz) have suffered from writer's block, sometimes so crippling they never wrote again.

I don't know. I'm not qualified to judge. Writing is supposed to be hard; if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.* However, I'm pretty sure a lot of things are mistaken for writer's block: laziness, distraction, bad work habits, lack of confidence in yourself or your story. Even realizing you just don't enjoy writing as much as you used to and would rather do something else. Some might've labeled my little plot paralysis "writer's block," whereas I always thought of it as a puzzle I was pretty sure I could eventually solve. It's a subtle distinction--if I'd never solved the puzzle, then would it be writer's block? I think the difference is that solving tough puzzles seems like part of the writing process, while yielding to writer's block seems like foresaking it.




Mike Peterson said...

Hilary Price's interview at Comics Coast-to-Coast is instructive, because she says to just stop trying to be perfect and get it done, then try for perfection the next time. I think for a syndicated cartoonist, publishing those 365 cartoons each year, that's the only way to survive.

For those who don't face the beast of daily posting, the answer is still there -- except that you get to go back and fix it later. Don't get hung up on "writer's block." Put something on the paper and keep moving.

Yes, "writer's block" is for amateurs. And now I'm going to take the dog for a walk because I've got 12 hours to come up with a title for a story I'm going to be publishing a year from now, and I can't afford the luxury of sitting here agonizing over it.

Jim said...

Banging away at all these silly 20-page graduate papers during the past two years has finally taught me survival strategies for cranking out the bare bones to flesh out and overcome writer's block.

The ichiban of converting thoughts to completed work is OUTLINING. List the steps in the story, even if you've only got three steps. From there, all creative juices flow. It's easier to place the endpoints of the structure and draw the connections than it is to draw lines to nowhere.

I'm using this method to churn out my epic 118-page thesis and so help me, the ridiculous method actually works!

Brian Fies said...

Mike: Yeah, I've given that advice to other people before: the perfect is the enemy of the good. I think a lot of creative paralysis comes from fear of not being perfect, so you never start at all. You've got to give yourself permission to be bad, knowing that it's just a step to something better and no one will ever see it but you. "Just start" is really good advice.

Jim: Not every creative person I know can work in such a structured way, but I agree in principle. The idea of breaking an overwhelmingly large job into achievable bits is particularly important. You may think you can't write 400 pages, but you can write 10; so write 10, then do that 40 times. Bird by bird . . .