Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 2: "I Can't Identify My Problem"


Last week, we looked at all the different ways a writer could get stuck and how brainstorming might work as a solution.  We examined three core problems: being unable to identify the precise issue holding back your writing, identifying the problem but being unable to think of a solution, and just not having enough material to work with.  This week, we tackle the first troubled area.

The Problem 

At this point, you don't even want to look at your writing.  You're frustrated, you're suffering from soul-tearing angst, you have a bad case of writer's block.  You'll happily brainstorm if it means not having to actually write (or look at) your manuscript.  In short, you can't actually identify what's wrong with your writing, but you know you're stuck and would like to get out of the bog as soon as possible.


Take a deep breath.  Put on calming music.  Have a snack.  Get yourself into a relaxed state of mind and then get ready to confront the problem head-on.  These are some strategies for brainstorming your way back into that old excitement--or at the very least, a tolerable level of writer's angst.

Strategy #1: Rant

Get out a notebook and a freshly sharpened pencil or pen.  Now write down everything you absolutely hate about your manuscript.  Rip it apart like a film critic slashing away at a B movie.  Don't stop writing if you start losing steam.  Be thorough.  If you can't fill a minimum of three pages, you aren't really trying.

All done?

Good.  Now, hopefully, in the process you should have either:

a. started to identify the underlying problems of your manuscript
b. discovered the story isn't half as bad as you thought
c. realized some of the psychological issues holding you back
d. burned off negative emotion and come to a calmer state

If none of the above has happened, keep on ranting until it does.

Strategy #2: Play the "Why?" Game

The "Why?" Game is what children play to drive their parents crazy.  But did you know the opposite is true?  You can talk yourself back into sanity by constantly asking questions.  Hey, it worked for Socrates.  It can work for you.  So try it out.  Let the crazy, frustrated part of your psyche hold a dialogue with the calm, rational, question-asking fragment of your brain.

Here's how such a conversation might look.

Crazy Writer: (gnashing teeth and pulling hair)  "I hate myself!  I'm a horrible, horrible writer!"
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: "Because my story sucks."
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: "Well, for starters, my main character is boring and stupid and I hate her."
Sane Writer: "Why?"
Crazy Writer: (Slowly starting to regain sanity) "Because she's become very one-dimensional.  She started off as very active, but now it seems like she's just letting everything happen to her.  And when she does make decisions they're stupid."
Sane Writer: (Nodding wisely)  "So if you know these decisions are stupid why do you let her make them?"
Not-so-Crazy Writer: "Well, I feel like the plot has to go in a certain direction.  If she doesn't make these decisions, the plot won't work."
Wise Writer: "Then what can we do to either justify her decision or otherwise slightly alter the situations without changing the whole plot?"

And suddenly we're getting somewhere.

Strategy #3: Read Your Writing 

It sounds obvious, I know, but if you are in the throes of frustration, this may be the last thing you want to do.  You avoid looking at your previous work, because you can't bear its awfulness.  The thing is, half the time the so-called "awfulness" is hype and pre-mature judgement.  So face your fears.  Print out a copy of a chapter (so you aren't tempted to change it).  Choose a time and space where you feel relaxed.  And get to reading.

I tend to read each of my chapters twice.  The first time, I just do a quick skim, just to remind myself wat's happening and see what I can and cannot understand.  The second time I go through, page by page, and write down all the things I like and all the things I dislike.  I try to do this as objectively as possible, like a reader in a critique group.  This means, and I cannot emphasize this enough, WRITE DOWN THE GOOD STUFF!

While it's nice to know what you need to improve upon, it's also important to identify the strongest points of your writing, the cornerstones upon which can erect new structures.  As a bonus, this will help to salvage some of your self-esteem and save your passion for writing.

Strategy #4: Seek Advice

If ever you get to the point where you can no longer see the good in your work or critique your writing in a (mostly) objective way, your best bet may be to get someone else to give you their honest opinion.  Seek an editor, a mentor, a critique group, or maybe even a #1 fan who'll throw their love at your story unconditionally.

Information is also key, when the problem is building up a particular skill.  For example, in high school, I knew that my prose work and description were not up to par, but I had no idea how to bring my writing up another level.  Taking classes and reading books helped me develop these skills.  Knowledge in general can give you confidence to trust your insticts.  Eventually, you'll be able to figure out what works for you and what doesn't.

* * *

That's all for Part 2.  Next time: Now that you know exactly what the problem is, how do you find a solution?  Read Part 3 to find out.

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