I learned a valuable lesson today when changing the fuel pump in one of our cars. I had help from an experienced car guy and even with an extra set of eyes, hands, and skills, we got stuck in the middle of the repair. We spent over an hour attempting to disconnect a part that would not cooperate. We even had the specialty tool required for the job. Alas, it wasn’t working. So, rather than breaking something, tool or part, or simply giving up and taking the kids to the pool, we took a break and ate some lunch.
I called someone with experience in this type of repair and got a tip on something we hadn’t been doing. I also did some research online to look for more info or diagrams to aid our next attempts. After letting the frustration dissipate, feeding my stomach, and enlightening my mind, I was ready to try again. I knew we had to do something different because after all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.
So, I worked smarter. By the time my 2nd joined me, I had discovered three things we hadn’t disconnected first, which allowed us to remove the whole fuel tank from the car. That done, the uncooperative fuel pump was removed and replaced in a matter of minutes. Smarter, not harder.
What does this have to do with writing?
I have found that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that time + energy = success. If some aspect of your story is frustrating you and you keep rewriting the same plot point or narrative or dialog to force it into cooperation, you may be disappointed. Often, all you’ve managed to do is dig yourself a rut that further confines your story thinking. Spending hours on one scene and agonized over every word is not always going to make the prose glisten like new fallen snow. Sometimes you need to work smarter.
Well, since I fall into this trap all the time I have worked out a few techniques that I use.
First, don’t panic. A bad word, sentence, paragraph, or chapter doesn’t make you a failed writer. Give yourself permission to write crap and remind yourself that even diamonds are ugly lumps of coal before they made to sparkle.
Second, don’t beat your head against the wall. If you get stuck, it is okay to save your file and do something else, or if you are still in the middle of a writing session, move on to the next part of your story. You are not obligated to write perfectly in sequence. Make a note to yourself in a different colored font (I use red because it means, “Stop, fix me”) about what you are stuck on and move on in the narrative.
Third, research. If you don’t like the way your magic system is working. Get online and research magic in different countries or eras of history. Enrich your mind with new ideas and you may find the jump start you need.
Fourth, brainstorm. I do this often when the plot or characters aren’t working for me. Instead of sitting and staring at my screen, I brainstorm at least five or six new ways to tell the scene, or handle a motivation, or what to name a character. Brainstorming frees your mind of barriers and allows new ideas to bubble to the surface of your thoughts.
Five, read. Read some of your favorites and see how other authors solved the same or similar story problems. Imitation can lead to inspiration.
Six, ask a writer friend. If you are fortunate enough to have a writers group or other friends in the fiction world, call them up. Tell them your problem and ask for advice. It is possible they’ve faced and solved this issue before. Their advice may give you only part of the answer you need, but that is always better than no answer.
Ultimately, we aspiring writers have limited time to write with families and day jobs. We can’t afford unproductive writing sessions. We don’t have the luxury of spending over an hour trying to force an uncooperative part (except maybe on Saturdays). It is far more productive to stop, take a breath, identify what you are doing wrong and gain some new insight into what you can do differently. When you do this, the solution will become evident and you’ll be grateful and slightly awed that it really wasn’t that hard.
It sometimes takes working smarter, not harder.