Writing Lessons Learned from Jigsaw Puzzles

jigsaw puzzles

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on the benefits of jigsaw puzzles and why you should add them to your entertainment repertoire. Now I realize that over the years puzzles have taught me a number of life lessons, as well. The funny thing is, when I look at some (most) of these life lessons, I realize that they are also writing lessons. With my annual summer puzzle binge in full force (it’s a fabulous indoor activity with no heat, bugs, or sunburn), I thought I’d share exactly what jigsaw puzzles have taught me about writing.

Starting is the biggest obstacle. Starting a new puzzle is the biggest hurdle to puzzling. First, because I don’t have a dedicated puzzle table, I have to get out and set up the table. This means moving a couple of other things around to make space. Then I have to sort out the pieces, culling the edges from the center pieces and flipping them all face up. Only then can the fun begin. Up until it’s all sorted, it’s tempting to say, “This is too much trouble,” and just read a book.

Writing’s no different. Starting a new project is the biggest hurdle. Which project in my idea file do I even choose? Then I have to decide what research needs to be done in advance, and what can be done on the fly. Finally, there’s the decision of where to start. Do I know how the piece begins? Ends? Or do I only have the inkling of what happens in the middle? It’s only once I’m involved in the piece that things really get fun and I want to work on it. Up until then, I’m tempted to just go fold some laundry.

You don’t have to do it all in one sitting. (And you probably can’t.) I’m the sort of person who wants to finish something as quickly as possible. Once I start a project, I want to get to the end. I’m not much for savoring the journey. But puzzles, particularly big ones, can’t be finished in one day. Neither can books or short stories. Puzzles have taught me to respect the fact that some things take longer than others and that it’s okay to break things up into chunks. The thing will take as long as it takes and I need to chill out and deal with that.

It’s okay to give up. Very rarely I’ll come across a puzzle that I just don’t want to finish. Maybe it’s too frustrating, or the quality is poor enough to make the experience a misery. Once upon a time I refused to quit any puzzle, though. I figured I’d paid the money, I had to finish. But a few miserable experiences taught me that sometimes it’s better to quit than to have a particular puzzle ruin my love for the hobby.

So it goes with writing. Sometimes it’s okay to quit on a project that’s not working. There are projects that are just doomed no matter how many times you step away and come back to them, or how many different approaches you try. That’s okay. It’s better to walk away than to let this one project ruin your love of writing altogether.

Try different things. Puzzles are funny. Sometimes the pieces go together in ways you don’t expect. You swear that you need a blue piece, only to discover that the puzzle is cut in such a way that only a red piece will work. Often, the only way to find out is to try some unexpected combinations. That’s true for writing, as well. You may be certain the book is heading in one direction, but you can’t make it work. It’s only through trial and error that you realize it doesn’t go that way, it goes this way. Puzzles have taught me the value of trying the unexpected path in my work to see if it makes it better.

Perseverance and patience pay off. Puzzles can be difficult. They take perseverance and patience to finish, two things that I’m typically low on. Particularly patience. I am not, in any way, a patient person. But puzzles make me more patient. (Sort of. There’s only so far you can drag me.) I’ve learned that if you work at things and dig at them until you have it right, you get rewarded in the end. And that’s been a boon to my writing career, as well, given that I’m usually tempted to just rush through things like a bull in a china shop. The work benefits if I slow down, apply some patience, and stick with it.

It’s okay to be sad that it’s over, but look to future opportunities. I feel sad when I finish a puzzle. I’m also happy, of course, as I enjoy looking at the completed thing. The thought of putting it away and starting anew is kind of depressing. But then I go to my puzzle closet and see the amazing things waiting to be done and I get excited. (Yes, I keep a puzzle closet. I ask for them for gifts and buy them when I see really awesome ones so I’m never without a good puzzle to do.) Writing is the same way. I’m often sad to finish a project, and I have to remind myself that there are other great projects yet to be started. I visit my idea file and get excited about what’s next.

Enjoy the little successes along the way. Puzzles are full of little successes. You complete that one tricky corner or find that piece that’s been bugging you for days. Woohoo! Sure, it’s a while before you can celebrate the completion of the whole, but you do get to enjoy the little wins along the way. I often forget that when writing. I get so focused on finishing the whole project that I forget to celebrate the completion of a chapter, or finding the solution to a tricky plot point. It’s important to enjoy the little wins, though, because those can keep you going.

Slow progress is still progress. Some puzzles go together slowly. They’re complicated and difficult and you’re lucky to fit ten pieces a day. Or you set it up only to discover that life gets in the way and you don’t have time to do more than fit in three pieces a day. That’s fine. Progress is progress, even if it’s slow. It’s the same for writing. So you only got a paragraph done today. That’s more than you had yesterday.

If it’s not going well, walk away and come back later. You can only stare a a puzzle for so long before you stop seeing it well. That’s when you have to walk away and come back later. When you do, you’ll see it with refreshed eyes and make connections you couldn’t see before. Writers have to do the same thing. At some point, you’re no longer seeing the piece you’re working on in its entirety. You’re too stuck on the problematic parts. That’s when you have to walk away for a while. Work on something else, or just go do something else and come back later. Then you’ll be able to see the larger picture and fix what you couldn’t fix before.

A little preparation/planning makes the process easier. I don’t dump the puzzle on the table and start working. Taking time to sort the pieces first makes the whole thing easier. Pull out the edge pieces and complete the edge. Flip all the pieces face up and maybe group some likely candidates together. That preparatory work gives me a framework to work with. In writing, this is where things like outlining, advance research, and storyboarding are helpful. Even if you’re a diehard pantser when it comes to plotting, give yourself at least a small frame to work within. Putting in a little effort up front can make the whole thing easier.

If one part isn’t going together, move on to another. When puzzling, I often fixate on a certain part. I will complete those trees if it kills me! But sometimes they just won’t go together, no matter how hard I try. Fine. Then it’s time to fixate somewhere else, like on the lake. Writing a book is no different. I may dearly want to complete a certain chapter, but yet it’s not coming together. That’s when it’s time to skip ahead (or back) and work on another piece. The point is to stop wasting time bashing your head on the unsolvable problem and find one that you can solve. Then come back to the problem area later.

You can’t force it to fit together. As tempting as it is to get the hammer and make that puzzle piece fit, it doesn’t help anything. It only lengthens the process and damages your puzzle. You have to resist that temptation in writing, too. You can’t make something fit that doesn’t. No matter how much you love a scene or piece of dialogue, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. Forcing it only makes things worse. Sometimes you have to just pull it out and create something that does fit. (Or move the offending thing to a better place where it does fit.)

Get help when you need it. I know some puzzlers who refuse to look at the box picture once they start. It’s a matter of pride for them. Me? I take help anywhere I can get it. I look at the box, and I’ll enlist friends and family if I need them. The whole thing is easier and more fun if you get help when you need it. Similarly, I know writers who refuse to ask for help when they need it. They won’t hire an editor, or ask for beta readers. But the process is more fun, easier, and results in better work when you take the help you need. Use your writer’s group. Ask for beta readers. Pay for an editor. Heck, post your requests on Twitter and get help from strangers. You don’t have to suffer alone. People can and will help you if you just ask.

Have fun! This is the most important. I do puzzles for fun. If it stops being fun, then what’s the point? When it starts to feel like work, I step away from the table because I don’t want to ruin what is a fun hobby. Now, as a working writer, I don’t get to have fun all the time. No job ever is 100% fun. But I got into writing because it was fun. I love telling stories and making something out of nothing. If it ever gets to the point where I cannot find the fun, it’s time to step away. I can be miserable in a thousand jobs. I don’t want to ruin this one, so I remind myself daily to have some fun and remember why I wanted to do this in the first place.

(Image by MeHe)

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