Brains Riding Shotgun: Problem Solving With Other Writers

Ride together, dress as gnomes together.

Sometimes, while motoring along the story highway in your mental equivalent of a post-apocalyptic pickup truck, you run up against roadblocks. Problems that seem to have no solution. They yawn in the road ahead, impossible to pass.

You can quit, of course. A lot of people do, forever consigning themselves to the role of ‘non-finisher’ in the great story marathon. But you don’t want to do that, do you? No, I didn’t think so.

So, instead of quitting, this is when you call in the cavalry.

If you have friends that are also writers, they might be able to help. Non-writers can help, too, if they’re willing. But you’ve got to be willing to let someone else see into the guts of your broken story. And then willing to listen to their advice.

Getting someone else in on your story problems* will make them easier to solve. Why? I’m glad you asked.

1. Eyes On The Road. You’ve probably run over the same ground a thousand times looking for a solution. You’ve left tire treads three inches deep all along that road, even though you know where it leads.

Get someone else riding shotgun, and they might just be able to point out that side lane you, focused on your destination, missed. And that might just be the route you need to take.

2. Twice The Horsepower. You know what makes you more creative? Hanging around with other creative people.

It’s true. If you buy into the theory that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then spending time with other people with universes in their heads will make you more creative. And nothing solves problems better than the rapid fire bounce of ideas back and forth. Krys C and I have come up with some serious bits of plot spackle that way, either in real life or via text message.

Just, for the love of god, save the text messages.

3. Dangerous Curves Ahead. Sometimes you’ve got to eliminate the impossible to find out what’s possible. If your buddy is suggesting solutions that just aren’t working, think about why. Is there an earlier flaw that needs to be addressed? An area of worldbuilding that could use more work? Or are you just being a contrary piece of shit and vetoing perfectly good ideas out of ego?

Sometimes you’ve just got to drive the wrong way for a while before you figure out where you want to go.

4. Crossing State Lines. That other person you just called in, they have something you don’t: distance. They don’t have the same overwrought emotional state over the whole thing that you do. So when they say that something doesn’t work or that a character is useless, it’s worth listening.

Sometimes we get so caught up in characters that we love or bits that are just so fucking clever that we can’t see how they’re damaging everything around them. You don’t always have to cut those things; sometimes you just need to shore up the other stuff so that the side character or the clever phrasing doesn’t knock over everything around it like a giant storming the citadel. But those weaknesses will be obvious to another person the way they will never be to you.

So find a partner and ride together. You might find that the journey goes just that little bit smoother.

*Actually, I’d argue that getting someone you trust in on things helps with the vast majority of problems, story or otherwise.


This Old Manuscript

This is a sinkhole in a parking lot at Georgia...

Well, there’s your problem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You’ve had these moments. You’re writing, cruising along toward the word limit, and then BAM, plot hole. It stops you dead. You might have seen it coming, or it might have crept up on you out of nowhere, but either way, there it is, gaping in the middle of your story like an abscessed tooth. And now you have to deal with it before you can move on.

Some people will try to make the original work, no matter how hard it is. Some will put the project aside, thinking it’s too broken to fix. But I reach for the Plot Spackle.

What is this fine product? Simple: it’s whatever works. Think of it like the mortar used by shifty backyard contractors everywhere: mixed together out of plaster dust and sand and rat droppings and maybe some cigarette butts because it was easier than finding a can to drop them in. Mix it up out of whatever you’ve got lying around, trowel it on, and see if it holds. It might be ugly, it might be strange, but all it has to do is get things moving again.

But here’s the funny thing about Plot Spackle: sometimes, the fixes it gives you are better than the original idea. The point that you Frankenstein into the story mid-way through can completely change the manuscript. Maybe for the better. Yeah, it might mean some retcon* work later, but that’s what first drafts are for. Who cares if it’s a hybrid monstrosity with the stitches showing? As long as it lurches in the right direction and squashes the right villagers, I’m okay with it. I’ll put a pretty dress on it later.

Example? Glad to. Recently, I had two characters who disliked each other trying to work together. It was important; someone they both cared about would die if they didn’t suck it up and get it done. But those scenes weren’t working. It was too much pushing those men to get them to stop arguing and work. God, they were being such princesses. So I took an afternoon and laid out the plot on my dissecting slab, looking for the problem. Eventually I realized that they were the problem. Those characters, as they were, would not get it done in time to save their friend. At least, not by themselves.

Time to get out the Plot Spackle. In this case, it took the form of another character who, until then, had been doing something off screen. I was planning on using him to address some minor plot points later. But no more. He got the big-league call, so it was time for him to suit up and get in the game. I patched a couple of scenes to give him an entrance, stitched him into the plot, and off they went. And it worked. It better than worked; it gave me some great plot points. Points that would never had arisen with the original two men. It made the story richer.

Now, I can’t imagine that story without the third man. He’s too important. But he only got in because of a problem.

Don’t knock Plot Spackle. Sometimes a creative solution to a problem is even better than never having a problem in the first place. So slap that shit on, fix the hole, and get back to work before it slows you down. Come back with the sand paper and paint later. Right now, it’s another Monday, and we’ve got writing to do.

*Retroactive continuity. My comic geek roots are showing.