Why Writing Is Like Doing a Puzzle

Thursday, January 05, 2023

I love doing jigsaw puzzles. And I don’t mean 300 pieces or 500 pieces. I gravitate toward 1000-piece monstrosities. When I’m not working on my puzzle, I just put the dining room table pad over it. That keeps it safe from the cat and we still have some place to eat. 

I started this beauty while the boys were at the lake. As I stirred the pieces around in the box looking for red that could be either the cardinal, the house finch, or berries, I mused that working a puzzle is a lot like writing. 

Plotters take their time and sort out the edge pieces. They put each corner in place and then build the frame before turning to the interior. That feels a lot like starting with the key moments in a story, then listing scenes before you start writing. 

This time around, I decided to be a pantser. That’s why I was stirring the pieces looking for red without first assembling the edges. 

If you write fiction, you create characters and plot. You piece together the setting. You raise the stakes. 

If you write nonfiction, you may start with an idea. Then you do research and pull together facts. Then you start to sort until a picture becomes clear. 

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction or working on a puzzle, you work for a while. Then you get up and move around. You come back to it and add a few more pieces. Slowly the picture becomes clear. 

I had about 20 percent of my current puzzle assembled when disaster struck. Our new cat, Newton, is a 15-pound beast that loves to thunder through the house. He launched himself off the dining room table, taking off the mat, and sending the vast majority of assembled pieces to the floor. 

Well, poop. 

It felt a lot like when I get a massive rewrite letter from my editor. “Really, we like everything you’ve got. We just don’t like how it has come together.” 

I write primarily nonfiction, so when this happens, I’ve done the research. This means that I’ve got the pieces. I just need to knock them apart, with no help from Newton, and put them back together. 

Perhaps your editor has suggested a nonlinear timeline for your story. You've got the majority of your scenes but you need to split them apart and find a new narrative structure.  Or the suggestion might have been to use multiple points of view. Or introduce your characters in a different order. You’ve got everything you need. All you have to do is put things back together. 

Writing, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, requires patience. Sometimes you find yourself reassembling a your work be it fiction, nonfiction, or a jigsaw. In spite of the slow progress there is nothing else that you’d rather be doing. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 35 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on February 6, 2023).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2023) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2023). 


Angela Mackintosh said...

I love this comparison! Writing is a puzzle, indeed. That's how I approach it. Write pieces and assemble them together, find connections, and add on. I just pulled up two NaNo freewrites and they're not so bad. I'm excited to add sections on to them and revise. I also just finished an essay revision suggested by editors for possible inclusion in their journal, and I'm not sure if I nailed it. They wanted to know more about my motivations behind an event that happened over twenty years ago, so it took a lot of self analyzing. I'm not opinionated person in real life,, but that doesn't play well on the page. It feels weird, but it may be the missing piece.

No wonder your cat attacked the puzzle--it's full of birds! :)

Marcia Peterson said...

What a fun analogy. I usually work on the puzzle edges first, but I also sometimes do the color grouping or some of each method as I start. The way you compare this to different ways of writing is great. I relate to your nonfiction process.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I'm not much of a puzzle person--I apparently don't have a lot of patience!--but it's an excellent analogy. Even, now that I think about it, right down to my frustration when the pieces don't fit and I have to do a major rewrite. I don't have a lot of patience for that, either! :-)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

My mom and I always joked that you have to enjoy something to have any patience with it. And we almost never had patience with the same things! For rewrites, I need to have a vision for the piece. Without that, it's like a puzzle with no picture and I'm shuffling things about with no end in sight.

I think this is the first time that I haven't done the edge first! Do you think most nonfiction writers work the same way?

I just worked through a rewrite of a first chapter on a nonfiction piece. It seemed like 90% of my editor's questions involved motivation. Good luck with all those rewrites! Newton was totally twitchy after the puzzle disaster. I now have two woodworking clamps holding the mat in place!

Nicole Pyles said...

Great imagery! I love puzzles too and I think correlating it to writing is perfect. There's a short story of mine that's long been in the submission process and it's set in the workplace. So far, I haven't received any hint of it being accepted yet, not even a positive rejection. I'm beginning to think it needs to go back to the drawing board. And so, while a metaphorical cat hasn't launched itself into the story, it's definitely needing some work!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I wonder how you could piece your story together in a different way to make a more engaging image?

Marilyn BG said...

This really resonates with me, Sue. I also noticed for myself with puzzles that I could be searching and searching for the place where a certain piece goes, or for the piece for an empty space, until I need to take a break. Then when I get back to the puzzle with fresh perspective, I find the one that fits.
Also, my cat Carlos ruined the latest puzzle overnight and I had to start over--rascal! And Ang, it was a puzzle with chickadees, so there you go LoL.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

How interesting that you've noticed how much taking a break helps both in putting together puzzles and in writing. Good luck in your writing pursuits as well as putting your puzzle back together!

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