What’s Your Problem?

My problems are (very First World-y – ie: not problems at all):

1. I have failed at NaNoWriMo, due to TMGO (too much going on, including a laptop breakdown!) and I’m thinking that perhaps I will try again in January, when things might have calmed down. If you’re still battling away at it, good luck – and I take my hat off to you!

2. While my mum was staying here last week, we started a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. This was a very bad idea. It’s a long time since I’ve done a jigsaw. Who knew they were so hard? (and time-consuming and addictive?). It’s about two-thirds done and is covering the kitchen table. We are having to eat standing up.

3. I am listening to the audiobook of Sarah Water’s The Night Watch in my car.
It’s unabridged and very good but there are 17 CDs! And I’m only on 11 and I’ve been listening to it for at least two weeks already. I seem to have got embroiled in Things That Are Taking Ages.

But, on a more positive note, since my last post I have had a story accepted by The Weekly News and 3 article ideas accepted by Writing magazine (just got to write them now) and, despite friends (you know who you are!) saying I could ‘never do it’, I have resisted watching I’m a Celebrity which I have, in the past, described as ‘one of my favourite TV programmes’. So that’s self-discipline for you!

And all this leads me nicely onto today’s offering which, because my brain is still not in writing mode, is something I wrote for Writing magazine a few years ago, about using problem pages to get plot ideas:

What’s Your Problem?*

Most good short stories contain some kind of ‘conflict’ (see my last post!). If everything’s hunky-dory, your story’s going to make very dull reading. And the problem pages of magazines, newspapers and websites are a good place to look for ideas for drama and conflict.

Sainsbury’s supermarket used to print a problem in its in-store magazine each month (not sure if they still do! Anyone know?) and offered advice from a psychotherapist as well as members of a readers’ panel.

One issue featured a letter from a reader who’d taken a newly-divorced friend under her wing, only for the friend to start flirting outrageously with her husband (cheek!). She didn’t know whether she should tackle the issue (for fear of losing the friendship) but was seriously concerned that her marriage was under threat.

Another reader had introduced two of her friends to each other and they hit it off so well that they’d started spending time together as a twosome and often didn’t invite her along. She felt jealous and left out and was asking for advice on what she should do.

Either of these issues could form the core of an interesting short story. You just have to work out the ending. Although, of course, if you take the trouble to read the advice given, you may just be provided with a possible ending for your story too.

And it’s not only women who seek help from ‘agony aunts’. Questions to the Guardian’s ‘Private Lives’ problem page (which invites replies from readers of the newspaper), included a plea from a male reader, ‘My wife and I often sulk. How can we avoid becoming ‘grumpy old people?’ (which just goes to show that not all problems are deadly serious) and to Bel Mooney, the advice columnist in The Mail, ‘My mother-in-law thinks I’m not good enough for her daughter.’ There’s plenty of room for drama and conflict in that one!

It’s worth bearing in mind that the writer of any problem page dilemma may well be exaggerating, or deceiving him or herself. There is something of the unreliable narrator in most problem page letters, as there’s always another side to the story, of course, which you, as the writer, are free to imagine.

Aside from their value as potential plot generators, problem pages can also provide some useful writing practice. As an exercise in my classes, I sometimes hand out a real-life published ‘problem’ to my students, for study and discussion in small groups. I ask them to give names to the people involved and to imagine some more background to the issue and then, taking a character each, they write a monologue from that person’s point of view. This is great practice for getting into the head of someone very different from yourself (and possibly, someone not very likeable) and really trying to understand their feelings and motivation.

An alternative exercise is to write one of the pivotal scenes that the problem has suggested (for example, the scene in which the woman finally confronts her friend over her inappropriate flirting).

As writers, it’s important that we don’t shy away from writing dramatic scenes. They can be difficult but beware of having your pivotal scenes taking place ‘out of sight’: your reader will feel cheated.

And a final note of warning: reading the on-line forums, in particular, can be very addictive and time-consuming (rather like doing a jigsaw, in fact). Please don’t write to me if this becomes a problem!

* A longer version of this article appeared in Writing magazine in 2012

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12 Responses to What’s Your Problem?

  1. If your mum was visiting, it’d be REALLY difficult to finish NaNoWriMo! I’m almost at the NaNo finish line, but I’ve had to purposely keep my November low-key so can have time to write.

    That’s so funny about the jigsaw puzzle. They have taken over our dining table at times, too. And then we got a cat. No more puzzles, sigh.

    Congrats on getting a story and three ideas accepted!

    • Thanks Priscilla. Yes, November turned into a busier month than I had expected! Must remember that next year and choose a month (maybe not November!) when it’s not so hectic! Well done you on nearly completing NaNo – I’m impressed!

  2. I got part way through Nano when life got in the way, too. I, too, have found problem pages a great source for ideas. So, too, is the magazine Psychologies.
    Thank you for an interesting post. You’ve got me thinking!

    • Thanks Paula, you’ve made me feel much better about NaNo… I was feeling a bit of a ..well, I won’t use the word failure but you know what I mean! Yes, Psychologies is good and there’s plenty on their website, if you don’t want to splash out on the magazine.

  3. Linda Tyler says:

    Congrats on the publication and acceptances. And thanks for the story prompts – will get on to them when I’ve finished Nano (just over 7000 words to go … and feeling like the most difficult 7000).

  4. MARGARET GARROD says:

    I can’t see a problem page in Sainsbury’s magazine but Take a Break have a weekly one with advice provided by Katie and ‘her army of Take a Breakers’. Well done on getting ideas accepted for Writing magazine. I subscribe to it but don’t find time to read it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Margaret and yes, of course, Take a Break has a problem page – I forgot about that one! I know what you mean about Writing magazine! There is so much in it, I often don’t get to read it all before the next issue pops through the letter box!

  5. Ninette90 says:

    I have completely failed NaNo (grandchildren and colds got in the way) but, having said that, I did write about 4000 words for my WIP now only about 15,000 to go to hit the target before Christmas. You are always so full of good ideas. I’m definitely going to take a look at the problem page. Congrats on the writing successes! You are an inspiration. Thanks.

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Aw, Ninette, thank you that’s so kind. I really don’t feel like much of an inspiration but there you go – we are always hard on ourselves, aren’t we? I have managed some ‘wordage’ for Nano and made a start on a novel, so it’s not all bad! Good luck with your pre-Christmas target!

  6. juliathorley says:

    Accentuate the positive, as the song goes. Well done for what you’ve achieved and if you’ve let some things go, well, so what? I shall be looking at the problem pages with a keener eye from now on. It’s a bit like eavesdropping, isn’t it?

  7. pennywrite says:

    NaNo was great fun, although I haven’t done it for a while. Ideas seem to surface more easily when writing at speed – although the only way I could hope for a time slot long enough to get anything done was to get up around 5am. Couldn’t keep that up for long! Never mind. Next time you will surely ‘fail better’ as the saying goes!

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