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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Think About Issues Like You Think About Your Writing

My experiences with novel writing have helped me in more than just writing but with how I examine real-life issues. In fact, I've seen similarities between what writing a novel is all about and what most real-life issues are really like.

The politicians, pundits and meme creators want most issues to be boiled down to as if it were "us vs. them." That sounds like the basic plot for every novel that's out there, doesn't it? But when one falls into the trap of "us vs. them" when it comes to a major issue, one starts thinking about the issue as if it were like flipping a coin and whether or not they believe in the saying "tails never fails."

Imagine if we writers started thinking of every novel we wrote in those terms. It's true the plot is part of every novel, but the advice many writers share is not to focus too much on the plot because then you lose sight of everything else. It's the same way with facing any major issue in life: Focus too much on the opposing sides and you're losing sight on many other elements that matter.

Instead of thinking about an issue like the decision on a coin toss, thinking about an issue like a jigsaw puzzle is a better approach. A typical jigsaw puzzle is rectangular, meaning it has four corners. Such a puzzle has four corner pieces and no more than that. These are the pieces that are the easiest to determine where they belong. Those pieces are closer to the "opposing sides" on an issue and the plot in any novel.

Then you have a number of pieces that belong on the edges, but it may take some time to figure out where they go. When it comes to an issue, the equivalent of the edge pieces are factors that can be observed pretty easily, although it may take time to figure out what effect they have. When it comes to novel writing, those elements would be the characters, the setting, the conflict and any other element that helps drive the plot and helps the reader understand the plot.

And then comes the remaining pieces, which all go somewhere in the middle. These are the pieces that take the longest time to sort out and determine where they go. When it comes to an issue, these are the factors that aren't apparent at first and require digging deeper, sometimes where you have to question whether what you believe to be true or the best method turns out otherwise. It's not an easy task, no matter how much we wish it were, but we must do this if we are going to complete the picture.

How does this apply to a novel? It's how we find out what our characters are really like, how do they react to situations, and what we find out makes sense from their perspective. Sometimes when we write, we think a character will go one direction, but we find out that what we wrote doesn't make sense for that character. We review what we write and believe that it's better if the character went this direction or reacted differently. We question whether the situation makes sense and how it can be adjusted if it doesn't.

That's the difficult part of writing a novel. Sometimes we may find the characters don't react the way we think they should, but we better be prepared to adjust our thinking if we want the novel to work. Otherwise, we won't have a completed work.

The more pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, the longer it can take to put it together. That is true with the more complex issues we struggle with. Regarding novels, it's not just the length that comes into play, but the complexity of our characters and situations.

It's easy to fall into the trap of "us vs. them," because that's how writers will often start their ideas. But once they start writing and thinking more about what they have in mind, they find that it's more than just "us vs. them." So I would hope writers would think the same way about real life.

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