What New Writers Don’t Understand About Writing…
Writing to solve the problem, not supply the answer
I’ve been thinking about the writing process a lot as I get back into writing. I went into writing sprints previously because that was what I was focused on then. Now I’m focused on developmental drafts, the place where questions are found and problem solving happens. There are multiple stories I’m dealing with that are just waiting for me to show up to this stage, and I’m going through the thought experiment of what that actually means.
The thing is, writing is problem solving. Creativity is the act of solving problems, and if you don’t have a problem to solve, you have nothing to do. It’s why I dislike writing systems so much — you know; pre made, packaged systems sold to writers to get them making a story. Writing systems provide an answer without understanding that the answer isn’t what creativity is about. It’s about the problem solving. The answer, alone, is nothing. It doesn’t reflect the journey, the stress factors, the issues that need resolving. It’s just an answer— literally, no one asked for that. Why are they going to read it?
Preplanned answers to questions not asked
Writing systems are about looking at a finished book and promising a writer that if they sit down and follow their steps, they will get their book written. But a book doesn’t exist before it’s written, and it is the process itself that creates that book. If that process is restricted to limits — limits designed with a very simplified mindset in regard to everything — the end result will be limited to the writing system.
A writing system doesn’t teach someone how to think like a creative; it teaches them how to follow a plan, one they’re taking on faith because they themselves did not have the experience to make a plan of their own. It’s training wheels to get a writer going, but you’re not learning how to craft a story, or even look for what you need to look for to make a story good. You’re just shown one limited path, a path designed to be as accessible as possible, without an understanding of the real problems a story holds. It doesn’t explain how the creative process is in solving those problems, or how important it is to create new problems to keep a story interesting.
So, let’s talk about what limits a new writer, or even a veteran who is stuck to the point they might think answers for questions not asked looks good. Let’s talk about the biggest problem of the would-be-writer.
Do you think you know the story you’re going to write? Your expectations are already unrealistic.
A concept is only ever that; a concept. You can’t know what doesn’t exist. If you sit down thinking you’re going to write the story you’ve been kicking around in your head for a week or for 10 years, you are never going to meet that story on the page. The “what it’s going to be” version of your story will never exist, and when people fail to realize this, they can get stuck and never write their story at all.
Do you think that the first draft of your story is your story? Again, your expectations are set to unrealistic. That’s still stuck in expectations, defined more by what the writer wants it to be and less by what it will actually become.
What about your characters? If you were to write a bio of your characters for the story when you first start it, will that bio change by the time you get to the end of your story? If it doesn’t, if nothing of importance has changed your characters by the end of your writing process, you haven’t written a dimensional character.
You can’t know a character you haven’t written. You can’t know a character you haven’t met, which means until your character has gone through enough experiences within your writing, you cannot predict their actions or know them as a fleshed out being. You can’t know the world you’re creating and settings these characters are in until you’ve written it and have them interact within it.
The process of writing should reveal the fullness of your characters in the same way it reveals the true form of your story. You can’t reverse engineer this like a writing system tries to do. You can’t start at the end. There is no shortcut. You have to go through the process.
There is a lot of putting the cart before the horse when it comes to expectations of writing, and it is all unrealistic. It asks for cookie-cutter, two-dimensional answers to complex questions because people are expecting to base their worlds and their characters on something they haven’t even explored yet.
This is why I subscribe to draft writing. And when I say draft writing, understand I’m not referring to any kind of writing system that might be called that. I’m referring to the act of writing multiple drafts of a story until, through the process of making these drafts, you have a finished piece.
You might not know your character until you’ve written a first draft and seen bits of them shining through. You might not know the world your characters are in until that first draft and you see nothing is there. And when you start writing your world into the second draft, you see everything must change because the world is an environment that has defined so many different actions, created so many problems that need solving that the first draft didn’t. You might not know your plot until you’ve written your first draft and you see that the characters aren’t growing, their talents and abilities are not being stretched to have them shine in any way.
What’s the point of having a character with *insert ideal magical power* if they’re not tested? Why have a highly empathetic character if there’s nothing for them to react to? Why have a shut-in character who isn’t being forced out into the real world? Why define a character with traits if those traits aren’t going to come into play?
If you write character centric stories, your plot needs to be about growing that character. Otherwise, it’s not character centric. Then it’s just plot centric with a character jumping through hoops that an author has set up, completely disconnected as to why any of the elements of the story are there.
Exploration without expectation
Draft writing allows for exploration without expectation. It allows you to find the problems in your story and start problem-solving. It’s where you get to develop something off of the foundation of your initial draft without demanding you use that original writing.
But the thing is, without going through that first draft, you can never get to this point. You can’t develop something that doesn’t exist. You need a jumble that creates a form — even if it’s not the final form — so that you can start sculpting from there.
Questions, problems, and crossroads
Every time you have a question in your story, you are developing it. Every time you identify a problem that needs solving, it’s developing. Every time you end up at a crossroads with a path to choose, you are developing the story. This is everything in the creative writing process.
I was talking to my partner about Star Trek because he’s been rewatching Voyager lately, and their closets came up, and we just started hypothesizing what would the living space of a futuristic society on a spaceship really look like? The ship would set huge limits because of a lack of space, and there being limits on weight. Most of the space on that ship would be for functionality to allow it to move, store fuel and water, and to have life support. What energy/fuel could really be put into the luxury of people not working, and how would the replicators play a function in it all? Would people be less materialistic when they realize they don’t have to hold onto anything; it can be replicated as needed? Or would that drive them to want more and more and more, because there are no limits; you can have anything? What does a hoarder look like with a replicator? This is a culture that has technology to make people look like entirely different species, sometimes changing them completely genetically. Would that mean body modifications would be far more normalized because replicating the latest clothing trend would be so easy that it wouldn’t feel unique? Would it be an educational thing to be genetically modified for a certain amount of time to understand other alien cultures before going out into space? How would humanity direct their current innate drives when put in a future that allows for so much with so few consequences?
All of the above questions come from interacting with a preexisting source. Star Trek has been out there for decades. We’ve seen some of their tech enough to have questions about it, but we haven’t really seen the answers to these particular questions (at least, I haven’t. It may be out there.) If the writers of Star Trek asked these questions, we might actually see entire episodes focused on the answers, because in each question could be an entire world to explore, a path to take, a problem to solve as we ask how it could work, and how to make it interesting AF.
When you see the generic spy gadgets being brought up in a spy thriller, if there isn’t a situation where they’re used, has a problem been solved? If the watch with a sleeping dart never trips a sensor, do we believe the threat the hero is walking into is really that high tech, advanced, and cunning? How do you solve the problem of having one organization developing amazing tech to surveillance another organization that does the very same thing without under powering and making one side look far weaker and not an actual threat?
Or, how can you have a David and Goliath situation when the physics of a slingshot could never bring down a giant? How would you do it better, make it believable, and make it in a way where the character grows? Could the slingshot represent getting into someone’s heads with words until the bully self destructs and gives up? How would you portray that? What sort of world would that happen in, and would you need a media presence to be involved to really spread that rumor/gossip? Maybe we take a path where it’s the court of a dictator, and your main character is low in a system trying to take out an enemy that has been keeping them stuck in the worst situation, and the entire book is about using psychological warfare to take down the greatest of foes. Or maybe the path to take is about kids at recess, where one puts a pebble in the bully’s shoe after the bully made fun of them. But the pebble has a rare bacteria on it, and the bully dies.
If you don’t ask the questions — if you don’t identify the problems and choose a path — you can’t create something new. And if you don’t know that writing is problem solving, you can’t understand what you’re doing in the first place.
There is no magic to creativity
Too many talk about creativity like it’s something only certain people have. Or worse, like it’s something the fickle muses gift, something that must be waited on to strike, and can’t be honed or grown. But it’s just problem solving. Most people go to work or school every week and solve problems in their day to day life, not realizing that they’re being creative.
Writing a book is the same thing. You’re showing up to learn a craft and then do it. But while school and work will tell you the problems that need solving, and limit how you can solve them, creative work is different. You aren’t handed the answers; you have to solve it yourself. You have to find the problems, figure out why they’re problems, and then generate solutions that will bring you to your most ideal goal.
It requires experiencing the problems first hand, not through someone else’s structure. A writing system can’t teach someone how to think creatively — aka, how to think in a way to problem solve (unless that is literally the system). It hands an answer while not teaching the would-be-writer how to look for the problems they supplied those answers for.
To problem solve, you need to actually solve problems. You learn through doing — you learn best through failing, experimenting, and eventually solving. If your problem is you’re afraid to start, you can solve that problem by starting right now. If your problem is you don’t feel like you have any opportunity to problem solve in your life to get better at it for writing, that is a problem you can work on solving too — by writing a book.
You can try writing a book and see what it’s like to solve a whole bunch of problems. And then you can choose to create more problems in that story, because those problems — the limits found in a story — are needed to decide its form. When a book can be anything at all, limits decide what it will be. It’s the paths taken instead of the ones closed off. It’s the problems solved instead of the ones ignored. It’s the questions answered while others have no importance. Answering no to a question as simple as “does the world have gravity?” can decide so much to the shape of a story, and it’s up to you as a writer to see which questions are worth asking.
Curiosity before certainty
All those questions are idea generation. Not even the answers; the questions are the source of where those ideas are coming from. First drafts to stories are about laying a foundation to ask questions about. Developing a story is about taking a jumble of interesting ideas and taking paths to explore those ideas, and then, eventually, pinning them each down to form the final shape of the story. And that pathing and pinning down process can take multiple drafts as you decide what works and what doesn’t. What works will depend on the problems you have in the moment and the questions you ask to solve it.
If you can allow it all to be malleable, all to adapt to a better change, a better path, a better question, you’re giving your story the best opportunity to be its best version. But that’s on you and how comfortable you are with writing something and then cutting it up, moving the pieces around, deleting pieces, and building something completely new. How you feel about fucking up something that could be super important to you, that you might have spent years on, on the off-chance that this version might actually be the one people want to read. How you feel about letting go of expectations to instead experiment and explore.
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
You don’t know the story you’re writing. Even as a plotter. I am lying to myself every time I make an outline and sit down to flesh it out. You don’t know what’s going to end up on the page because it hasn’t happened yet, and you don’t know how it’s going to change, just that it will. You need to get comfortable here not knowing what you’re writing, and still writing anyways.
If you can embrace that and become the daredevil who rushes to the cliff to see the spikes they’re going to be leaping over next, this can be a lot of fun. But if you’re someone who needs to read the finished book before you start writing it, it won’t be fun. It can leave people lost and angry and hating themselves because they think they’re failing at manifesting a book into existence. But it’s not manifesting; it’s a process that creates the end result. There is no joy being on a journey of discovery when you expect the answer to be handed to you. You have to stop expecting the wrong things.
Fostering a creative mindset
I’m not here to tell people how to do this; I’m just here to say you need to. You need to be creative with how you deal with the things you’re doing that hold you back. This can’t just start and end in a book. Your attitude and how you see the world is reflected in everything you do, and if you’re wasting your energy creating problems that keep you from creating solutions, that’s on you.
If you find a writing system helps you, you need to understand that the limits placed don’t have to be there if they’re holding you back — and they will hold you back. Training wheels only help to a certain point, and then they slow you down and prevent tight turns. Being comfortable can only get you so far. Whatever your frustrations on the first, third — fiftieth — draft as you fail to get closer to where you want to be, is more likely about how you think about writing and your level of comfort, than the piece you’re working on.
Because you could solve your book if you were willing to slice it into a brand new form that doesn’t have the problems you’re stuck on. You could solve it if you’re willing to let go of what you’re clinging to, throw away the safety net, and see what you pull out of the dark woods of creativity. Experimentation is how we solve problems. You have to allow yourself to fuck up or you’re not going to gain experience solving anything.
You need to go down the wrong path to see that a problem is there. You need to write the wrong book first to see that it’s not the book you want to write. And then you solve that book as many times as it takes to get to the results you want — while understanding that what you want is absolutely part of the problem, part of the limits that form the final shape of the book.
Every time you write and don’t write a book, you haven’t failed. You have experimented, practiced problem solving, and gotten comfortable not know what you’re doing. You’re solving problems, and hopefully finding new ones, bigger ones, as your mind expands to the possibilities.
There is a mountain to climb, and it shouldn’t feel daunting when you get to the top and see another one to reach. It should be exciting. Every challenge is another high to reach, something to learn, something to understand about the world, humanity, and yourself. All things you can put into your writing, taking on a fresh challenge of how to do it.
The creative mind creates problems, useful and not
If you’re drawn to creative work, a part of you is a problem solver forever asking “how can I do that?” You have to remember you’re participating in the creative process, not being led by it. You’re accountable for showing up, for if you’re discouraged by a setback or see it as your guide to what to try next. You have to be creative for your mindset just as much as for your craft, otherwise the problem solving mind can start making problems for itself just to keep shit interesting.
There is no inspiration to wait for; that’s a lie people tell themselves. There is no system that will shortcut through this. It’s work. It’s practice and experience. It’s showing up and leaning in to being bored until you create something to make it interesting. It’s accepting that you’re going to work on something and be BAD at it, for ages, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. You are going to write a collection of terrible books until you’re good at this — and people might still say your books are shit when they can’t even write a paragraph for a negative review — but none of that can happen if you don’t do the work to write anything at all.
You have to see failure as your guide to the next problem to solve, and the emotions you feel when you want to give up as a warning that you have a problem that’s not solved when it comes to why you’re writing, what you want out of all this.
Being creative is a way of life, but for some minds it forms our very reality. You’re allowed to acknowledge how much something sucks, but if all you’re doing is wasting time bitching instead of running toward that next challenge, you’re harming yourself, refusing to solve the problem of why you don’t want to show up and love what you do. If you’re stuck creating a concrete concept of the problem holding you back, you’re not putting that energy into finding the solution — a solution which can be as simple as realizing it’s not actually a problem in the first place. It just looked like one because you wanted an excuse to not go forward.
At the end of the day, everything in the story you’ve written — everything you’re battling with — is you. Your limits will decide the final shape of your story, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. If your expectations are limiting you, they’re limiting your story. If your fears and self doubts — or self hate — is limiting you, the same is limiting your story.
Give yourself permission to get out of your own way when it comes to writing, and if you can’t, you’re going to have to problem solve that shit. No one else can, the same way no one else can go through the writing process and hand you a cheat sheet that you’ll have the experience to utilize. You need to become comfortable with being a work in progress. If you can, you can become comfortable solving the story you’re working on and reveal the final version waiting.