Problem solving for writers

Every so often I come across a problem I just can’t get my head around. My brain goes blank, takes a break and I’m left wondering how on earth do I solve this issue? It’s not uncommon, we’ve all been there – as authors and as regular, plain old human beings with real-world problems. Sometimes you just get stuck and you can’t get unstuck. So, what helps? How do authors solve writing-related problems? What tricks can we use?

First off, let me just say – I am not an expert! I don’t claim to have all the answers! But I do know what works for me and these are strategies I’m currently teaching my children so they can use them for both school-related problems and in life in general. I also love that they form a handy acronym: S-O-L-V-E!

  1. Step back. Sometimes we can’t see the problem clearly because it’s just too big, too consuming and too overwhelming. Step back and allow yourself a little breathing space. Sometimes a little distance and a break will allow a solution to present itself. And lets face it – a cup of tea and some fresh air never hurt anyone!
  2. Organise your thoughts. This tip is my holy grail of problem solving strategies! I often find that problems, especially those mammoth disaster-in-the-making ones, have a way of growing and growing until I can’t even fully grasp the extent of the problem anymore. That’s when I find a piece of paper and a pencil and start organising my thoughts. Sometimes I will free-write and get it all out. Other times I will make a flow chart and grab my colouring pencils to highlight connections I haven’t seen. Usually, just the act of writing it down and reading through it will allow me to make sense of the chaos and find a solution I couldn’t see before.
  3. Look at it from a different angle. A little like stepping back, this strategy allows you to see your problem perhaps from a different perspective. Sometimes I will try and look at a problem from another character’s point of view. How would they solve it? Other times I might backtrack a little and take the time to write down some “If-Then” solutions, to see if I could take my story down a different path and avoid the problem entirely.
  4. Verbalise it. Writing can be a pretty lonely and solitary experience. As an introvert, this doesn’t always bother me, but I do sometimes miss having someone to bounce ideas off of and, especially when I’m stuck on something big I can’t figure out, someone to ask for help. When that happens, I turn to my husband or a writer friend and try to explain my problem and see if they have any brilliant solutions. Often, just the act of explaining it clearly so someone else can understand what I’m on about, will clarify the problem for me and a solution will present itself. And if it doesn’t, I know they’ll have a whole bunch of suggestions that probably won’t be exactly what I’m after, but at least they might kickstart my imagination a little!
  5. Explore possible solutions. Occasionally, I will come to a point in the story where I could go in several directions and my biggest problem is deciding which way to go. Even with the best, most detailed plotting in the world behind me, I still come across plot issues I haven’t considered, or ones I, in hindsight, wish to change. Each possible option may have both benefits and pitfalls and change the entire story further down the road. Again, I tend to grab a piece of paper and a pencil and start brainstorming and structuring ways in which each potential solution might work. Eventually, one of the options will stand out as the best possible choice and the work I have done in plotting and outlining the benefits and pitfalls will absolutely help later on!

So, there you have it – my problem solving strategies! They are by no means fool proof and sometimes they can be quite time consuming to perform, but when the alternative is standing still and going nowhere, one or more of these strategies will help me solve an issue I can’t see my way through and then I can keep on working! Feel free to try them out if ever you get stuck!

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