Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to solve a writing problem

Earlier this year, I had one of those serendipitous experiences which seem to solve problems in some mystical way. Don’t worry, there’s nothing mystical about what follows; I just wanted to pass on a wee lesson which I learned and it’s this: the way to solve writing problems is to write.

See? Easy. In fact, it’s a little pearl of wisdom that came out of a displacement activity and it actually produced a book. It’s called  Alternative Dimension and this is how it was born.

I’d just finished writing two non-fiction books to meet deadlines and was looking for a way to get into my next novel. But I’d been writing solidly for days and wanted to indulge my habitual laziness for a while so, as a sort of stopgap, I thought of publishing a collection of short stories. It gave me a good excuse to put the novel on the back burner but, as I was looking though the stories to choose which ones to include, I saw that there were about twenty featuring online role-playing games. Each was a separate, self-contained item with its own characters but they shared similar themes, such as fantasy, the tension between virtual and real worlds, the dangers of assuming anonymity when online. The combined word count was around 30,000, enough for a collection, but the fact that there was a sort of coherence about the themes made me wonder if I could do more with them. So I tried to think of what that could be and how I could do it. Result? Nothing – no muse, no flashes of inspiration, nothing – but I knew I could link them somehow. So in the end I just forced myself to start writing. I knew one of the characters pretty well so I just started writing some dialogue between him and his friend.

It was OK, but only OK. Their conversation was natural enough, their characters distinct, there were a couple of gags that worked, but I still didn’t know where it was going. Then, suddenly, I had to look something up, just to get some statistics to back up a comment made by my main man. I did that and there, all of a sudden, was the solution. The character had taken me in the right direction and I could see exactly how the stories not only fitted together but actually offered a clear progression. He was no longer just a character in one of the stories, he was the clue to how they could all be absorbed into a single structure with one clear central narrative. I used some software called StoryLines to group them into categories and put a generalising label on each group. I then shuffled them around into a logical sequence that made narrative sense and, at 44,000 words, constituted a novella.

All but two of them had been written to make readers laugh but, while that’s still the overall intention of the book, early reviewers have spoken of the mixture of laughter and darkness. If I’d published them as a collection, I don’t think that darkness would have been as evident but linking them this way has worked a sort of alchemy that has changed their overall nature.

See what I mean about it being somehow mystical? Just by starting to write, without any notion of what the content would be or what my purpose was, I’d given the character the opportunity to teach me which way I should be going. As a result, instead of sitting contemplating the awe-inspiring notion that I had to ‘start another novel’, I had some specific, identifiable and eminently reachable goals. I knew there were gaps between the stories which had to be filled, passages in them that needed rewriting to bring them into a unified structure. So my character had changed the nature of the problem: instead of having the monumental task of writing a whole book, I had a series of much smaller exercises to complete. Once I was started, I couldn’t wait to get back to it every day and, very quickly, the book was finished.

So, if you’re stuck or have some writing problem to solve, just write.


Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks for this, Bill. When I'm stuck, I always want to stop and work it out in my head, but that hardly ever works. It's when I start putting down words that the solutions come. This came at a time when I needed that reminder.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Beth. It seems such a strange suggestion and yet it does seem to work. All part of the weird world we inhabit.