I’m just back from a routine trip to visit my mum in Derbyshire. The return journey involves a minimum of six hours driving, closer to eight hours this weekend. It almost always results in some brainwave, useful insight about my WIP, or some other problem if Real Life is getting in the way of my writing.
I don’t consciously use my driving time to problem solve—I try to keep my eyes on the road and my wits about me—but somehow when my surface concentration is fully occupied watching the traffic, the deeper levels of my mind feel free to work on knottier problems.
I write sequentially, which means that I use each scene I write to provide the impetus for the next one. The good thing about my process is that the story grows organically. The downside is that when I hit a problem, I grind to a halt and spin my wheels. I can’t move forward until I resolve it.
Over the last few years I’ve tried various tactics to rescue myself when I get stuck. Here are a selection of the ones which work best for me, though your mileage may vary.
Sleep on it
This doesn’t work for everyone, but when I am really deeply immersed in a story, my subconscious seems to work on the biggest problem overnight. Many/most mornings I’ll get the answer I need during that lovely, dozy half-hour between being fully asleep and properly awake. I love that feeling, because then I know I’m going to start the day well.
Carry out routine tasks
Driving seems to work best for me. I’ve heard other people say that cooking, gardening, ironing 😦 , or crafts like knitting or quilting work for them. Things that are familiar enough occupy one’s hands, eyes and top-level concentration while not requiring the attention of the deep subconscious. I’m not crafty, I hate housework and loathe gardening, so those aren’t for me—I think cranky, negative thoughts and never sink into that settled mental state.
Justine recently sent the rest of the 8 Ladies a link to this Big Think article: Being Busy is Killing Our Ability to Think Creatively. My favorite quote: The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. I love that! My preferred way to spend an hour of creative idleness is in a hot bubble bath. I’ll often indulge in one last thing before I go to bed. Maybe that contributes to my overnight inspiration.
In the past, my husband and I took trekking holidays in places like the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush. Walking through magnificent scenery for hour after hour, day after day, was gloriously hypnotic. It hatched out long forgotten memories and some crazy off the wall ideas from deep, dusty corners of my mind. These days I try to walk for half an hour to an hour on weekdays, usually with my ipod loaded with my story playlist. It’s not enough to spark the kind of epic revelations I enjoyed in Nepal and Bhutan and Pakistan, but it’s great for run-of-the-mill plot holes.
I explained in this post that jigsaw puzzles seem to be good for stimulating my creativity. I think it’s something to do with brain/eye co-ordination and the need to choose differing strategies depending on the puzzle—it could require color recognition, or pattern, or images, or shapes. I haven’t tried a puzzle recently, but I binged on one after another last year while I was trying to work out the essentials of my current WIP. I have a box full of new ones ready for the autumn, when I hope to be wrestling with the prequel novella.
Try something completely different
A change of tack can be a good way to get out of a rut, or avoid getting into one. I let my husband choose our annual vacation this year, so I’ll be going on a city break to Kuala Lumpur, a choice that would not have occurred to me but which I hope will be a lot of fun. And as a side trip from the RWA Orlando conference, I’m planning to join some of the other Ladies on a trip to the Morse Museum in Winter Park to immerse myself in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s works. If the exhibits are as beautiful as they look on the website, I’m expecting to come away inspired.
Attack the problem from different angles
Sometimes chillin’ doesn’t produce a magic bullet, and then I just have to sit down and wrestle the problem until I figure it out. I like option #9 from the Pixar writing rules: make a list of things that wouldn’t happen. Or I might try sketching out the scene from the other character’s point of view. Or think about what more dramatic action the POV character could take to win the scene. Or think about what other tack they could pursue, or whether the action could be set somewhere else. Sometimes I can find the answer through sheer persistence, and if not, then at least I’m set up for a good night’s dreaming.
Brainstorm with friends
No matter how many different stratagems I employ, ultimately my brain has its own way of looking at things while a fellow writer, or a friend, or a family member might suggest a completely different approach to solving the same problem. In the past I’ve quizzed my husband over dinner, my in-laws at a family party and even the nurses at my mum’s care home. Even if the person I ask doesn’t give me the answer, they often fire my synapses, set me on the right path or open up a whole new world of possibilities. As I explained in this post, I expect brainstorming with some of the other Ladies will be one of the most important and productive parts of my trip to RWA National.
Ask for suggestions
I’m always on the lookout for new ways to trick myself into fresh thinking and I’d love to add a new technique or two to my problem solving toolbox.
What works for you?