Probing the Problem: Notion Potion #8 by Jordan Castillo Price

Welcome back to Notion Potion, your monthly shot of inspiration! Last month we looked at ways over, around and through the creative wall. This month, let’s look at ways your projects can actually turn out better, or at least more interesting, because of their snags.

Have you ever been in the middle of a recipe, and then realized you were out of a crucial ingredient? Yes, you could go out in the raging blizzard and drive to the store and get that one darn thing you’re missing…or maybe, just maybe, you can improvise. This happened to me recently when I needed to substitute coriander for cardamom (or was it the other way around) in a squash soup, and I was pretty happy with the result.

It reminded me of the time some friends were going on a two-week trip, and they decided to use up as much food from their refrigerator and freezer as they could, and purchase as little as possible from the store during the month before they left. They ended up eating some strange meals, but they did indeed end up using most of their stored food, and they got plenty of creative self-satisfaction from sticking to their goal.

Another example: my mother is an accomplished seamstress. Once she was cutting out a blouse, and after several pattern pieces were cut, she realized she’d laid them out wrong and didn’t have enough fabric for the sleeves. After she was through venting, we looked at the fabric she had left, and realized that if she seamed two chunks together, she’d then have big enough pieces to use for the sleeves. And so the sleeves of the white cotton blouse ended up with additional vertical seams along the outer length of the sleeve—and she topstitched them so they appeared to be intentional design elements. In the end, it made for a more interesting blouse.

The common element here? At the root of the creative solution lies a problem, a limitation. No cardamom. Can only use the ingredients in the freezer. Run out of fabric. The necessity of solving a problem caused us to think and reach, stretching to find a solution, rather than just following a tried and true proven formula. The results aren’t always successful, but often they are. At the very least, they do tend to be interesting.

What’s it Called?
I’ve read about the phenomenon in the past, but I racked my brain with my reader and writer friends trying to figure out what the phenomenon was called. I received a lot of interesting suggestions, from “serendipity” to “un-f*cking” a problem. But then I realized, the specific mention of the phenomenon I half-remembered was not from the writing community, but rather the design community.

Software designer Matt Webb says, “Constraint is really important and breeds great creativity. Think about Twitter and the 140 character limit. Designing within constraints generates really interesting results.” A typical design constraint is in the number of colors a print job might use. It’s a pretty old-school constraint, since more and more presses are full-color digital these days, but back when plates needed to be created for each color in a job, designs on a budget would often use black ink and one other color. Designers needed to step up their creativity to try to get the best mileage they could out of those two inks and their paper.

I think constraints inspire creativity for a couple of reasons. One, they give you a starting point. If you’re looking at a blank page where anything could happen, it’s easy for your mind to shoot off in dozens of different directions without any of them being fruitful. But introduce a specific problem (run out of fabric) that might have many solutions (alter the pattern, or use a contrasting fabric). The problem or constraint anchors your thought somewhere in the project and gives you a direction to approach it from.

Second, constraints encourage you to reach for your solutions, often farther than you’d need to if there were no snags to overcome. Compare “What do you want to eat? I dunno,” to, “We’re eating this frozen chicken, how do you want it?” By imposing a constraint on one aspect of the meal, it’s easier to begin thinking, “Well, does it go with pasta? Maybe something curried? Are there any veggies we need to use too? How about soup?”

Constraints in Writing
In writing, we’re apt to encounter many types of constraints.

Word Count – There is much more flexibility with word count for e-books than there was when novels could only be a certain length and short stories could only be found in magazines, but story length is still a consideration in e-publishing. Most publishers’ calls for entry specify a word count, and that constraint might force an author to either expand a story or add a subplot if more words are needed, or hone the story down in edits if it’s too long.

Genre Expectations – In m/m in particular, I think authors tend to challenge the expectations of the romance genre. Still, it can be a constraint. Yes, you’re free to write a story in which your protagonist is a jerk and everyone dies horribly and needlessly at the end…but due to genre expectations it will be a lot harder to publish than a story with a HEA, and it could very well build you a reputation as a writer no one wants to read.

Themes – Many publishers’ calls for entry feature themes like college boys or shifters or cowboys or threesomes. If an author wants to write for a certain publisher, simply seeing a call for entry with a specific theme might be enough to spark an idea, either for a totally new work or as a way to tweak an existing work-in-progress.

Writing Serially
The biggest constraint that I encounter comes from working serially. A few years ago I began publishing Zero Hour a chapter a month in my newsletter. I then moved on to multi-chapter installments with The Starving Years, and also added an interactive element where readers could vote on the direction the plot would take, which eliminated the possibility of not only writing ahead, but even planning ahead. I carried on the method with my next novel, Magic Mansion, with a reality show format that allowed characters to get voted out of the book by the readers.

You’d think my biggest concern would be not being able to plan ahead. But I found my most challenging constraint to be the fact that I was totally unable to go back to the start of the book and add foreshadowing where I might like to do it. Is it maddening? Absolutely. But pondering the problem, I discovered that the way to get around the inability to go back and allude to future events is to find throwaway lines and nuggets early on in the story, things that are already there, walk-on characters, and figure out a way to make them look like my foreshadowing.

Manufacturing Constraints
When you’re feeling “blah” in your project, and you have that nebulous everywhere-mind going on, it may be helpful to manufacture a few constraints for yourself.
-What if I limited my (characters, colors, ingredients)?
-What if I included a (character, color, ingredient) I hadn’t intended to use?
-What if I worked at a breakneck pace for the next 15 minutes without censoring or correcting myself?
-What if I turned the canvas upside down or rearranged my paragraphs?

Have you ever taken a creative constraint and ended up using it to your advantage? I’d love to hear about it.

Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books and the author of many award-winning gay paranormal thrillers, including PsyCop and Magic Mansion. Her latest serially-written series, Turbulence, is a twisted foray into the Bermuda Triangle. Check it out at


  • The idea of creating constraints when you’re stuck is a great one because it makes you reach for a non-obvious solution, which can make for a much more interesting piece.

    On the other hand – limits don’t always produce great results. The 140 character limit on twitter or the word structure of a haiku doesn’t always make for great literature. And the last time I made dinner from random canned goods we ended up ordering pizza.

  • In 1854, Louis Pasteur said (one translation), “Chance favors the prepared mind.” As a science student this is a huge concept. You’re taught to seek the possibility of learning something important all the time, even when your experiments are FUBARed.

    I love how optimistic this concept is! 😎


Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.


Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books LLC. She writes paranormal, horror and thriller novels from her isolated and occasionally creepy home in rural Wisconsin.
%d bloggers like this: