Six impossible things

Refusing Problems

“You can’t solve a problem you’re not willing to have.” – Dave Evans

A problem you’re not willing to have is one of those where you’re complaining about the wrong thing, usually something you can’t fix, and absolutely refusing to admit that the problem is really something else, usually something that has a fairly obvious fix that you don’t want to do.

You can usually tell when you hit one because it’s something you complain about for weeks or months or years, without every doing (or being able to do) anything to solve it (because what you’re complaining about is not solvable and is not the actual problem).

What sprang instantly to my mind were the times when I “was stuck” or “had writer’s block,” when I knew perfectly well that the real problem was that a) things had gone wrong and I was going to have to drop back seven to ten chapters and rewrite from scratch; b) a brilliant plot twist had occurred to me that was now cemented in my brain as What Is Going To Happen, but to make it work I was going to have to go through the previous twelve chapters and work in the setup…and I was positive that I was going to end up with a major rewrite of the whole book, rather than a few tweaks; c) I knew exactly what came next, but what came next was another $#*@! council scene or killing off a character I liked or writing some other unpleasantness that I didn’t want to write; or d) I knew exactly what came next, and it was going to be something stretchy or something I don’t think I’m good at and as long as I stayed “stuck”, I didn’t have to do it and get it wrong.

In all of the above cases, the writer (me) was unwilling to admit that things had gone wrong, needed setup work, or were going to be unpleasant or difficult to write next. “I have writer’s block” is a mysterious thing that happens to writers for obscure reasons that they can’t control and can’t do anything about, so it’s almost as guilt-free as complaining about the weather. I’m not responsible for the weather and everyone knows that; I’m not responsible for “getting stuck” and everyone knows that, too.

True writer’s block does happen, but 95% of what people call “writer’s block” is really this kind of misdiagnosis or refusal to admit what the real problem is. Because looking at the real problem means more work, unpleasant work, taking responsibility, admitting I’ve made a wrong turn. And I don’t wanna.

You also see this sort of thing happen a lot with the “I don’t have time to write” argument. Time is fixed: 24 hours per day, no more, no less; if all of it is used up and there is “no time to write,” well, it’s not like anyone has a machine that can crank out an extra hour whenever you need it. (If I’m wrong and someone does have such a machine, please contact me immediately.)

The real problem is not the amount of time there is; it’s the choices each person makes about using it. As time-management guru David Allen puts it, “You can do anything…but you can’t do everything.” But as long as one focuses on one’s inability to manufacture more time, which can’t be changed, one hasn’t a hope of making conscious decisions regarding one’s choices about how to use those 24 hours that everyone gets.

I see the same problem in the writers who say “The market demands that I put more sex/violence in my book and I just can’t do that.” They regard “the market” as an immovable monolith that they can’t change, when the real problem is usually that they don’t want to do the work of either changing their perception or figuring out how to get around it (there are plenty of editors who don’t demand changes like that; there are whole genres that don’t like explicit sex or violence, like children’s books and YA; small presses and self-publishing are a far more viable alternative than it ever used to be; etc.)

In all cases, the real question is not “How do I change XYZ unchangeable circumstance?” – the amount of time in a day, the perceived demands of an editor, the writer’s mysterious inability to write, the story’s equally mysterious refusal to move forward. The real questions are things like “How do I make the next bit fun to write instead of scary?” or “What do I have to do less of in order to use the time I’m spending on it for writing?” or “What can I do to get my book into the hands of readers?” or “Who are the right readers for this book and which editor(s) are publishing books for them?”

The fundamental problem is that once you look at the right question, the answer is almost always obvious…but something you don’t want to do. Blaming time or the weather or the market is a stalling tactic, one that never works. Time will not expand to 27 hours-per-day, the changes in the market will never be the ones you hope for, the Plot Fairy will never show up and mysteriously fix the problem that threw the whole story off twelve chapters ago, the #$@!%& council scene will never get any easier to write, the scary stretchy bit will never get any less scary or less stretchy. The only possibilities are that eventually you will give up and move on, that eventually you will get sick of stalling and buckle down and do the obvious thing you have been avoiding, or that you will continue stalling to the day you die.

Even when the answer to the real problem isn’t quite so obvious, you still can’t get to anything workable until you are actually looking at it. Solving the wrong problem is never any help.

12 Comments
  1. I love this! Thank you. 🙂 A question I ask myself when I’m “stuck” is “how does this stuckness serve me?” The answer is usually the antithesis of the solution.

    I really liked your suggestion, “how do I make this next scary part more fun?” Yes! Curiosity and playfulness ftw. Thanks again, keep it up!

  2. “As long as I stayed ‘stuck’, I didn’t have to do it and get it wrong.” That phrase tack-hammers the genesis of avoidance strategies in many areas of life, not just writing.

    On a side note, you are one of the very few writers I know who acknowledge that genuine writer’s block exists. Most pass it off as mere procrastination (which admittedly a lot of it is); others point out various causes, as you’ve done here. Curing genuine writer’s block may well require therapy, or at least delving deep into oneself to find and understand the root cause–pretending it’s trivial is ignorant and insulting.

  3. No Plot Fairy? Oh no! I suppose there isn’t a Question Fairy, either, and I’m going to have to figure out what the right question is all by myself. (I don’t have anything sufficiently coherent to take it to my crit group.) I keep stumbling over the same question: should this thing be real historical fiction,or an invented world that’s inspired by early Versailles? One means junking the hiding of the corpse scene that got me going on the project; the other means changing a lot of names and coming up with some real differences so that it isn’t just Versailles under a different name. I don’t think it’s just work avoidance; both look like a whole lotta work.

    • Er… why CAN’T it just be Versailles under a different name? Fun “mirror cities” like that are like cool little Easter Eggs for the reader. And unless you actually live in Versailles and/or are a giant history nerd… you’ll probably get tons of stuff wrong or slightly misplaced. That should be more then enough in itself to change everything up.

      Not to mention that basing everything on a real city gives you a layer of realism that is hard to put in artificially. And anytime reality is inconvenient or ugly for your story. (Like a warehouse in the wrong spot) You can just change it because its not ‘really’ historical fiction.

      • Even in alternate history you can tweak things. In one of her Glamorist History books (can’t remember which one), Mary Robinette Kowal needed a hotel that a Famous Person had visited to have wooden walls in the dressing rooms. In real life, it had curtains in the dressing rooms. So she burned the hotel down in her book so the Famous Person had to visit somewhere else.

        (It might have been a theater instead of a hotel, but you get the picture.)

        • Thanks. Everyone has been so helpful and encouraging, that I think I may be unstuck. Plus I have more things to read.

      • Yes, that’s about the conclusion I’ve reached. It feels like wimping out, though–“nasty ol’ facts got in my way so I’ll just pretend it’s a different place.” Except, isn’t all fiction pretending?

        • This was supposed to be a reply to Kin. Sorry it got out of order.

  4. “Mirror cities” — Poul Anderson did a story (whose title is escaping me) in which he mirrored all of Northern California, taking over its geography holus-bolus and translating all the names into (archaic, if necessary) English. E.g., a walk-on character was named Rich-in-Peace, or Frederica, the proprietor of Fritzie’s Café. and northeast of the main action lay the mysterious city on the River Benison, where arcane rites were performed that no Earthman could understand. (Benison, or “blessing,” translates Sacramento, the State capital of Caifornia.)

    • Oh, I like that! Somehow I’ve missed reading that one. Maybe I can find it in a collection.

      • Still blanking on the title, but I bet I have it in my bookshelves. I’ll see if I can find it and let you know what/where.

  5. Despite all my troubles with plots, it’s not the Plot Fairy I waste the most time waiting for, but the Wanna Fairy, who I wait for to take away all my Don’t Wannas.

    That, and dealing with the intense urgent need to get the cat vacuumed.

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