So at the end of the Sherlock Holmes short story, The Man With the Twisted Lip, we get Watson saying to Holmes, “I wish I knew how you reach your results.” Holmes’ response: “I reached this one by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag.” (Art by Sidney Paget, courtesy wikicommons).
Last week I said that I’d run into a problem on Southern Discomfort, so I’d decided to walk away and pick it up after the weekend. Monday morning, everything came easily. I went back and rewrote the problem chapters so that Maria is much more worried about the FBI arresting her. Not to mention weird supernatural events that seem to target her. So she realizes the only logical thing to do is leave Pharisee, Ga. Except people are getting hurt and she’s able to help. And Olwen McAlister needs her. No, no, she’s going to go, she’s going to look out for number one … right?
I think that conflict gives her actions enough emotional intensity to carry them (we’ll see when I finally take this to the writing group).
The point of the Holmes reference is that there are multiple different ways to solving a story problem, just like there are multiple ways for Holmes to crack a case. Normally he uses his deductive and observational skills, but in this case simply sitting and thinking did the trick.
With writing, I’ve tried several methods over the years. Depending on the story and my state of mind, all of them can work:
•Use an analytical tool. Take Lester Dent’s standard outline and use that to find the weak spots in my story structure. Or use Orson Scott Card’s breakdown of story types to get a sense of where my story should end.
•Write another draft. Usually that will help, though in some cases it’s a lot of work wasted.
•Just go over ideas, one after the other. What if she’s angry instead of flattered? What if it’s Declan who shows up instead of Miriam? Keep doing it until one of them breaks the block.
•Sit and think about the problem, just sort of rolling it around in my head as long as it takes to see how to crack it. This is the closest to Holmes’ solution above, though without the tobacco.
•Take a break as I did this time.
The trick, of course, is knowing which method to use when. Sometimes I try several until one of them works. Others times it’s more like gut instinct — last Friday I could just sense that taking a break was my best bet. It took me a while to learn to read my instincts, but I think they’ve become reliable.