Monday Motivation: Problem solved

 In Monday Motivation

George Saunders is an acclaimed American writer of short stories. His most recent volume – The 10th of December – was crammed with the sort of sometimes odd, always disconcerting, tales for which he has become famous.

Now he has published a novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which I’ve not read yet, but which promises the same mix of oddness and insight. To publicise the release of the book, Saunders wrote a long article for The Guardian, about writing. It’s called, What writers really do when they write. I’ve given the link at the foot of this piece, and if you prefer you could go straight to it, and read the undiluted Saunders, and ignore what I’ve written here. I wouldn’t be insulted or upset because Saunders is really very, very good, and his ideas on the writing process are not just accurate, but inspiring.

However, if you do choose to read me first, then let me pick up on something that Saunders says in his article. It is this:

“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems. A book has personality, and personality, as anyone burdened with one will attest, is a mixed blessing. This guy has great energy – but never sits still. This girl is sensitive – maybe too much; she weeps when the wrong type of pasta is served….

“… (A)s new age gurus are always assuring us, a ‘problem’ is actually an ‘opportunity’. In art, this is true. The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment. Another wave of artistic satisfaction occurs if she feels that the cavalry is not only arriving efficiently, but is a cool, interesting cavalry, ie, is an opportunity for added fun/beauty – a broadening-out of the aesthetic terms.’

There you have as neat an explanation of the logic of fiction as any you’re likely to stumble across: the task of the writer of fiction is to present his protagonist with a series of problems that need to be solved.

The mother of a large brood of virgin daughters learns that a man of considerable fortune is settling in the neighbourhood… A former professional assassin has his house invaded, and his puppy, bought to console him after the untimely death of his wife, is callously shot… A young girl falls down an extremely deep hole and finds herself in a world in which everyday logic does not seem to operate.

Each of these circumstances presents the protagonists involved with one overwhelming problem. In seeking to solve these problems, the characters find themselves obliged to solve a series of smaller, interlinked problems. The elegance and appropriateness of the solutions they devise provide us with both entertainment and food for thought.

No sooner is one problem solved than another rises to take its place. And each is, as Saunders says, an opportunity to provide your reader with… an unexpected, a clever, a sophisticated, a surprisingly brutal, an ever-so urbane… solution. It’s entirely up to you.

Problem solved.

Happy writing,


P.S. Here’s the link:


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