Jilly: Tips for Creative Problem Solving

What do you do when you’re chewing on a problem, any problem, and you can’t seem to find your way to an answer?

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.

Relax!
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.

Exercise
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.

Puzzles
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?

7 thoughts on “Jilly: Tips for Creative Problem Solving

  1. Love the puzzle idea. When my daughter was young, we used to spend days putting together puzzles. We only had one table and the rule was, the puzzle couldn’t be removed until all pieces were in place. Sometimes, when we had an especially difficult puzzle or crowded schedule, it would stay there for days. Sometimes we’d wind up eating on top of it, as though it were a particularly dense table cloth.

    Walking and brainstorming are my preferred methods these days, but I think I’ll buy a few puzzles before I start my next book.

    • Mine can take anything between a day and a couple of weeks. Sometimes I’ll blitz it, other times I’ll just add a piece or two and that does the trick, so I go back to the WIP. Fortunately we have a dining table that we only use when we have visitors; the rest of the time it’s a repository for paperwork and dust, so I can spread out puzzle pieces to my heart’s content.

      I love walking and brainstorming too, but puzzles seem to be particularly useful when I’m in the early, plot-wrestling stages of a new story.

      • The other day I was at the library, where they have a big jigsaw puzzle set up at the community table, where anybody can come in and sit down and work on it. And as I was sitting there, first a young blonde woman, maybe 25, with two little pigtails sticking out at the top of her head, came in and sat down and started to work on it. Her concentration was total; it was fascinating to see. And then about an hour later, a young guy came in, sat down across from her and started working. And they nodded at each other and kept going. I want to put that in a book.

        • I love that! How fabulous to have a community jigsaw puzzle, and what a great cute meet. I want to know more about them. You should definitely put that in a book.

    • I borrowed that from Emma Coats’ Pixar Writing Rules. The first time I tried it I wrote down everything that crossed my mind, no matter how crazy. Exactly as you say, I was amazed and delighted at the possibilities it opened up.

  2. I find that I can’t hurry the process along very much. I can apply pressure, but only when it’s the right time to apply pressure — and I still haven’t learned exactly when that is! So frustrating!

    In general, though, it’s a matter of keeping my front brain busy but not too busy so that my backbrain can work through the problems it thinks are important. If I fight it and try to bump my writing problem above the stupid worksheet for work problem, I find myself blocked on both fronts. I’ve just had a long weekend where I had two lovely naps and decent bedtimes. I probably could have applied a little pressure this weekend, but real-life stuff that was important to other people popped up, and I couldn’t say no.

    (-: Four more days of regular classes until Summer Schedule arrives. We have some summer classes that need a lot of prep work (or worrying work — can’t really prep until we know how many students are coming, but we can sure worry and imagine all the possible scenarios from a nightmare 2 students showing up, to a nightmare 50 students showing up). But our afternoons will be free for meditation and that mindless kind of tidy-work that’s pretty good for writing.

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