Why Doing a Jigsaw Is Like Writing a Book

Greetings! I had many questions about the jigsaw that I pictured last week. I do a lot of them, often giving myself 10 minutes with one as a reward for meeting a writing goal.

In my office, I have a special jigsaw table that can be folded up and moved around. This means my work on the puzzle can be protected from Star, our cat. I had to wait six months to get the table shipped, but it was worth it. Losing countless hours thanks to a leaping cat skidding across my jigsaw to protect her humans from murderous marauding raccoon predators was demoralizing.

What I do

I always work on one puzzle at a time, no exceptions. I do have the box containing my next puzzle on the table with me, though. And I have a loose strategy that I work with in order to get the puzzle done. I’ll have the picture of the puzzle to hand, but don’t look at it unless I get really stuck.

I dump all the pieces out and sort for straight edges. I do the outside of the puzzle first. Then I’ll look for some low-lying fruit, like pieces with red in them or some other color that stands out. With the London puzzle that I showed you last week, I focused on sights, like London Eye, Big Ben.

For each section, I’ll pick out the pieces and sort them again by type of piece – innies, outies, or strange, for example, and I’m constantly sorting, reviewing, experimenting. I nearly always end with the hardest section, the sky, or a section where there is nothing to distinguish one piece from another.

I’m currently working on a cube puzzle that has a picture on each side. It is small and not too many pieces but it is a beast because there is very little to go on.

A large part of doing a puzzle is getting to know it. I find that once I’ve sorted the pieces several times, and worked on it for a few hours, I can intuitively reach for the right piece at the right time. This is part of the process and a very important one.

When I finish any puzzle, I run my hands across it, checking for holes, and awkward edges. I leave it intact for at least a week before breaking it up and passing it on. (I have a friend with whom I trade jigsaw puzzles.)

Why it is like writing a book

All the strategies I use for completing a puzzle, I use in my writing. I work intensely on one book at a time, although I always know which one I’ll be working on next. Like with my jigsaw table, I have the right tools – a sit/stand desk, various chairs, a big screen, Word, thesaurus, and a good mind that I keep clear and energized. When I’m writing a story, I have the picture on the box (the outline) that I refer to occasionally, but not often. I start with the straight edge pieces (the beginning and end.) I work on specific sections (scenes, set pieces, character themes.) I do the hardest parts last. I go over and over my stories, sorting and sifting, looking for places that need work, coming up with ideas to develop them, and writing them out.

The emotional and effortless parts

A key step in completing a jigsaw that also occurs when writing a book, indeed mastering anything, is the part when you think you’ll never manage it. Everything seems overwhelming, self-doubt ensues, and the temptation to give up looms ever larger. Many authors feel this way with every book. I’ve heard big-name authors admit it. And yet if one keeps going, step by step, piece by piece, and word by word, eventually we turn a corner and often sprint the last yards.

Getting to know my story is also super important – how all the scenes fit together, in what order, my objective, and endpoint. Once I get to that stage, any overwhelm disappears. I know intuitively what is needed to fill in the gaps. This is my favorite part of the process. The heavy lifting has been done, everything becomes effortless, and progress speeds up.

When I’m done with my book, of course, I read it once more, checking for holes and awkward parts. Then it gets traded (published) with others who might like to read it. I give myself a glass of champagne, a couple of weeks off, then move on to the next project.

I’m currently on my fifth revision of the new Inspector Graham, and I’ve got to know it. I’m slotting in the final pieces and the hard part will be done soon. I can’t wait to show it to you.

In response to those who asked, you can get the London puzzle here. It had 1,000 pieces. Took me and my son about a week on and off (7 hours?) It wasn’t frustrating because there were a lot of “plot points” and we moved along at a good clip.

Happy reading (and puzzling!)


Chaos in Cambridge by Alison Golden
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