Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Problem solving

It's unclear* whether "problem solving" requires a hyphen. If it does I am far too busy and important to type it, so I'll provide them here, and you can insert them as you see fit:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. There. That should do for the rest of this entry.

Part of learning how to build a boat really means learning how to solve wood problems. For example, if I cut a notch with the intention of fitting a smaller piece of wood into it, and the notch is slightly too small, what then? Do I cut it out again? What if the saw slips?

Do I use a jigsaw, a hand scraper, a knife blade, a manual plane, a power plane, an axe? Or what if the notch is too big, or angled wrong? At what point do I throw it out and start over?

What I've found is that this great and frustrating exercise in self-education I call boatbuilding is teaching me the best ways to fix problems like that. Sure, experts make fewer mistakes than amateurs, but they still make them. The difference is that one of the things that makes them experts is their knowledge of how to fix those mistakes, and the judgement of when it's better to start over.

Writing is the same way. If I'm not feeling close enough to a character, if as a reader I'm just not inhabiting her resentment, or secret fears, or in-the-moment frustration, how do I get closer?

Do I explain more? Explain less? Explain differently? Maybe I need a new scene showing her interacting with her father. Or maybe I need to rewrite an existing scene from her point of view. Maybe I can go into another character's thoughts about her, and instead write a scene from this second character's POV.

The point is, there are always going to be problems. And while in the beginning I had thought that problems were nothing more than symptoms of poor craftsmanship, I am realizing that craftsmanship really means knowing how to address those problems, from a variety of tools and methods.

"How did you know to do that?" asks one of my characters.
"By doing everything wrong first," the other replies.

There is no shortcut to this. Humbleness, it would seem, is unavoidable.

*To me


Peter S said...

I was really, really hoping you were going to write, "The point is, there is always going to be problems." That would've been awesome.

Also, the more I think about it, the more I realize a true craftsman doesn't panic or get frustrated when there's a problem, they turn it into an opportunity. What do those cheesy inspirational posters say, "A kite rises against the wind"? Well, lightning strikes kite. Zap!

S R Wood said...

It is never to late for mistakes.

Also, here's a handy metaphor: the fastest point of sail is not into the wind, nor directly before it (downwind) but with the wind skewing in from the side.

Peter S said...

Me no understand that metaphor. Me suggest new one: fastest way out of tree is falling, not climbing down. Me no say it's good, but is metaphor.