Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Art of Problem Solving

There are a lot of important elements to writing: Plot, style, voice, characters. However one that isn’t talked about often, one that is very important to the process, is problem solving.

There are many problems you will come up against in writing a novel and there are many different solutions to those problems. I’ve already talked about some in past blog posts. Whenever I ask anyone what their biggest problem with writing is, they always say time, so I wrote a book on problem solving your time issues.

However, problem solving as a skill isn’t talked about enough. Rather we address individual problems and their solutions (Time, plot holes, etc).

It is a good idea to think of problem solving as one of the biggest, most important tools in your writer’s toolbox, one that will have a lot of different applications for different jobs, but one that you need to be aware of, so you aren’t using less practical tools. It’s also a tool that needs to be of a good quality, one that you need to take care of. If you neglect it, other aspects of your writing are going to suffer.

Let’s talk about some of the different areas you might need problem solving in writing a novel:

1. You and your environment.

These issues might include things like time, self motivation, interruptions, distractions, health issues, your writing space, getting and receiving feedback, negative thoughts and feelings about writing, balancing commitments, learning and staying up to date with publishing news.

2. Problems within the book itself.

These might include plot holes, issues with your writing style, issues with characterisation, not being able to make the reader feel what you want, not having the technical skill to do what you want with the story, being able to identify problems, but not knowing how to fix them, not being able to identify problems at all, not knowing how to edit, not knowing how to write a synopsis or plot your book effectively before you begin, not doing enough world building, inconsistencies in your characters, writing or setting.

3. Problems the characters are facing.

This might include things like, putting your characters in difficult situations, then not being about to find a realistic or satisfying solution, characters who just won’t do what the plot says they are supposed to, not knowing enough about the things you are writing about (EG: horses, space travel, china) to write the scenes or know how things work in your setting.

As you can see, there are lot of possible areas that strong problem-solving skills are going to come in handy in writing. Maybe you have some of these problems already and you have been tackling them one at a time as individual things, rather than as a single skill (problem solving) that needs to be strengthened. Or maybe you have been avoiding them entirely.

In most cases, the best methods for solving problems apply to lots of different situations, regardless of what the problem is. So, if you have a few good problem solving techniques, you can apply them to a range of different complications, anywhere in your writing or life.

Let’s looks at some techniques that work well for a range of different scenarios:

The first step is always identifying the problem.

Depending on what sort of problem it is, you might try the following. These are designed to be used on their own, or in conjunction, depending on the nature of the problem:

1. Write down the problem. (EG: I have no time to write. OR The character is trapped at the bottom of a well and I don’t know how to get him out.)

2. Write down your honest feelings. Write down as many reasons as you can for why you feel this way. (EG: I feel anxious and like a failure when I think about my novel. OR I feel restless and stupid when I think about this scene, I hate not knowing what to do.)

3. Ask someone else who you trust, who is very familiar with the situation and you what they think the problem is. (EG: Why do you think I don’t get any writing done? OR I’m stuck on this scene, can you read it and give me some idea why I am stuck?)

Once you have identified the problem, look for causes:

Causes are likely to be external (people, commitments, localised fire, ill health), internal (doubt, fear, apathy) or knowledge based (you simply don’t have the skills/information you need to solve them).

Please note, I have listed ill health, mental and physical, as an external problem. It’s not your fault you have a cold and you need to treat ill health with external things like sleep, medication, soup, visiting the doctor, etc. It’s not something you should ‘work through’ yourself by writing a list.

Identifying causes is another area you can apply steps 2 and 3 of identifying a problem too, by writing down your feelings and asking someone else for their thoughts.

Be honest about the causes too. If you’re bored to death of your novel, don’t blame your kids for being noisy, just admit your novel is boring you.

Once you have identified the causes of the problem, write a list of solutions:

It’s a good idea to write as many solutions as possible. Particularly if the problem is big or it’s a plot type problem. The reason is, the first ten or so that you write will be the obvious ones. If you force yourself to write twenty or thirty possible solutions, you have to actually get creative and really think. That’s when your good, out-of-the-box solutions are going to happen.

Sometimes your solutions will have a sub-list of solutions and problems. EG:
- Problem: Need new computer.
            - Solution: Buy new computer
            - Problem: Need money for new computer
            - Solution: Take two extra shifts and buy a second-hand computer instead.

            - Problem: Don’t know how to resolve scene 3.
            - Solution: Brainstorm ideas.
            - Problem: Best idea involves a sailboat and I’ve never sailed before.
            - Solution: Research sailing, watch youtube videos, read books, go sailing this weekend.

Your solutions may also include googling for other people who have the same problem and looking what they have done, doing more research and learning on your own, seeking mentorship and asking others for help. These may be solutions to the problem itself, or methods for finding the solutions you need to make the list in the first place.

The final step is writing and action plan with defined steps and a quantifiable outcome.

In most cases, you are better off writing the steps of the solution as the goals, rather than what you want to achieve. EG: ‘Lose 0.5kg a week’ is a poor goal. You are better off to make your goal an action step: ‘Run 10km every week for a month’.

Instead of making your goal ‘Finish my novel by Christmas’, make your goal ‘Write 500 words every day before watching any TV or going online, for a week’. Once you have achieved that, step it up to ‘Write 600 words a day before watching TV or going online for two weeks’ and so on.

These are for goals that require a long term focus. Short term, or one-off goals, are usually a lot easier to quantify.EG: ‘Buy standing desk’ or ‘Write chapter 4 with new sailboat solution’. Regardless of the nature of the problem, it’s a good idea to quantify and record the solution and the outcome. This is to help you refine your own problem solving skills and keep track of how you are developing your skills.

It may also help you in the future when you come across another problem that you feel like you can’t deal with or solve. If you have a list of other problems you have solved in the past it can act as a gentle reminder you have a workable problem solving system in place already.

I hope this has given you new insight and ideas into the problems you are facing with your writing. If you have any topics you would like to write about, hit me up on twitter at @Talitha_Kalago.

And if you enjoyed my book on time management, I will be doing a time management seminar in Brisbane at Genrecon on the 10th of November.


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