Solving for X

A while back I took a class on the algebra of symmetries and it turned out to be taught by a philosopher masquerading as a mathematics professor. Algebra, he told us, comes from the word al-jabr, which means restoration by balancing. “Restoring the unknown,” the teacher said. That is what algebra is. I like to think of it as making the unknown known, which is not unlike editing.

He went on to talk about how having a zero around is very helpful when you’re solving for X. “Doing nothing is an important skill,” he said.

Who knew there was a Tao of mathematics? Doing nothing is an important part of the process of making the unknown known. True of mathematics and true of story development.

  1. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what is going wrong with the ms you’re working on, a good solution is to not do anything right now. Come back to the project tomorrow with fresh eyes.
  2. We don’t need to remark on every possible problem that we see in a ms. If we are already advising the author to create a stronger central conflict, develop clearer character arcs, and attend to the setting, we risk confusing and overwhelming them if we also talk about their overuse of adverbs and the number of unnecessary dialogue tags they’re using. Sometimes the best thing to do about a story problem is nothing.
  3. Often we try to be too accommodating to clients. They don’t have a big enough budget, so we cut our fees; they have a looming deadline so we rush to complete the project. But sometimes the best thing to do is just let the client make their objections and then . . . do nothing. I don’t mean, “Don’t bother answering them back.” I do mean, “Don’t do anything to solve their problems for them.” For a client with a tight budget, a sympathetic, “I understand, this is a big investment” shows you hear them without making you responsible for their problem. Don’t be in a rush to give away your work.

 

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