Five Ways Writing is like doing a Jigsaw Puzzle


Last Saturday night I had a phone call from my sister. “Hey Jo,” she said. “I just bought a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I don’t know why. I haven’t done one this big before. But I was thinking… We should have a competition. Do you have any 2000 piece puzzles you can do?”

Did I? No. Besides, it’s not much of a competition if we’re not doing the same puzzle, is it?

2000 Pieces of Healthy Competition

(As a note, it didn’t occur to me to say ‘No’ to the idea of a jigsaw competition. More about that another day.)

So I got all the details from her and planned to pick up the jigsaw from the local Toy & Game shop the following day. “Sure, have a head start,” I told my sister. “You’re going to need it!”

Over the last 11 days I’ve spent a goodly portion of time working on this puzzle and reflecting on the ways assembling a jigsaw is like writing. So, here goes:

1. It’s never as simple as just ‘sitting down to write’. There are always obstacles that need to be overcome.

Obstacle 1:

Sunday morning, off I went to the local Toy & Game shop (who will remain nameless) to buy a copy of the jigsaw. I was eager not to let Sister have too much of a head start. I browsed the jigsaw aisle. Slowly, my excitement began to fade. They didn’t have the one I wanted. Not to be defeated, I went over to the counter.

“Excuse me,” I said politely to the scruffy young man standing blank-faced behind the counter. “I was just looking for a particular Ravensburger jigsaw, but you don’t seem to have it. If you order it in, how long is it likely to take?”

The young man (teenager, really) turned to look at me blankly. His face remained expressionless for a moment, his jaw slack. Then he spoke. “We don’t order things people want anymore.”

I stared at him. Either he’d just said the most ridiculous thing a salesperson could ever say, or he’d uttered some kind of deep truth about the steady decline of bricks & mortar businesses in favour of the internet.

After a minute of silence, he added, “I suppose I could call some of our other stores. Maybe you could drive to one of them.” I thanked him, told him I’d order it online (he looked relieved), and went on my way. It took me until Tuesday to get a copy of the jigsaw. I did buy it online. On Ebay. And I got it $10 cheaper than if I’d purchased it in the store.

Obstacle 2:

The box said the completed jigsaw would be 98cm x 75cm. I measured my coffee table. Not big enough. I measured my dining table. Not big enough. Damn it. I didn’t have a flat surface big enough for the stupid puzzle. Except…

The only space big and flat enough was the floor. So into the spare room I went. I moved some furniture and lay a blanket on the floor. One work table coming up!

Obstacle 3:

Have you ever tried to do a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor while a rambunctious 4-year-old excitedly tries to help. It’s time for “I just wanted to look at the pieces,” and “I think that one goes over there,” and “Oops. I fell over in the middle of the jigsaw.”

There’s never a perfect time, place, or environment to write. (Unless you’ve got a special writing room with a lock. In which case you have my undying envy.) Find ways around your obstacles, learn to ignore or overcome distractions, and remember that small children can easily be bribed with chocolate.

2. When you sit down to write, it may seem overwhelming. That’s okay. Don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

Have you ever opened a box with 2000 jigsaw pieces in it? Until 8 days ago, I hadn’t. My first thought was “Holy bejoly, what have I gotten myself into?” I ran my fingers through the pieces, trying to figure out where to start. I randomly picked up two pieces to see if they would fit together. One was blue and one had squiggles all over it that was probably writing.

Then I sat back, picked up the lid, and looked at the image of the finished jigsaw. I decided to start with the edges, and then do all the squiggly writing. Time to start sorting.

Regardless of whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, have a plan. Maybe it’s a 100-page outline. Maybe it’s a “brief history of the world” in 50,000 words. Maybe it’s a series of index cards, or notes in Scrivener (or another writing program), something just a vague plotline in your head and an image of a character or scene. It doesn’t matter. Choose the plan that works for you, but make sure you have one. Otherwise you’ll either find yourself trying to mash together two random elements in the story or you’ll be so overwhelmed and confused you’ll give up.

3. Track how much you’ve done, not how much you’ve got to do.

It took me a few days to get the edges and the writing done. Then I decided to do the water, and started sorting through the pieces for blue bits. My husband happened past the room and commented, “Wow. You’ve done really well. But isn’t it funny how when you look at the pieces you’ve got left, there doesn’t seem to be any less?”

I hadn’t really noticed. But then I did. The box still seemed as full as it had been when I started. I had this sense that I’d never finish, that there were just too many pieces, too much to do. And so I stopped for the day.

Writing is a mental game. Don’t focus on the 95,000 words you’ve got left to write, or the months of revising ahead, or the difficulty in finding an agent, or the future of publishing. Congratulate yourself on having written the first 5,000 words. That’s more than you’d done last week.

4. Your peer network should help you feel good, not bad.

My sister and I talked on Saturday night, one week after the challenge began. (It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get the jigsaw until Tuesday. The challenge started on Saturday.) We were both a little reticent about sharing our progress initially.

 “What if she’s done more than me? What if I’m losing?”

So we didn’t talk about how much we’d done, we talked about the process we’d been following. We’d both started with the edges (obviously), but then we went in wildly different directions. I did the squiggly writing, then the water, then the white circles, and was working on the map. She’d started with the outside circles, then moved on to the white circles and the water, and was starting to work on the squiggly writing.

We didn’t talk at all about how much we had left to go. We talked about what we’d done, the challenges we’d faced, how we overcame them, the process we were following, and shared tips on the sections the other hadn’t done. We talked about the obstacles we’d needed to overcome. (She also didn’t have a table big enough so had built herself a coffee table to suit, she had commitments every evening after work, and she’d run out of beer.) Mostly, what we did was encourage each other.

When I hung up the phone, I still had no idea who was “winning”, but I went back to my puzzle with renewed vigour.

Your peer group (whether they’re a critique partner, writing group, online buddies, whatever) should give you encouragement and challenge you to improve. Having a peer group is an integral part of writing. Without one, it’s easy to feel like you’re all alone, slaving away over a hot keyboard. But if your peer group makes you feel bullied, useless, incompetent or stupid, ditch them. If your peer group tells you everything you do is wonderful (and you don’t believe them), ditch them. Find a new group of writers to hang with, either online or in person. It can make all the difference.

(Note: Don’t ditch them as friends, family, or colleagues. Just stop using them as your peer group/critique partner/beta reader.)

5. Set a deadline. Then share it with your peer group, friends, family, and random strangers on the street.

My brother called a few days ago to say that he would be passing through the area (none of my family lives within 600km (380 miles) of each other) on Saturday, and to check it would be alright for him and his girlfriend to crash the night.

“Of course!” I said. I was delighted to have heard from him. He’s great company, and his girlfriend is awesome.

Then I realised… I’ve got my puzzle set up on the floor of the spare room. I can’t move it without breaking it into itty bitty pieces. (2000 of them, to be exact.) And I don’t have anywhere else for Brother and Girlfriend to sleep. So that means…

That means I have to finish the jigsaw before this Saturday.

No pressure or anything. But let me tell you, every spare minute I have, I’m fitting pieces into the puzzle. Will I meet the deadline? Absolutely. Even if I’m up all night Friday.

If you don’t have a deadline, it’s easy to procrastinate. Or spend time designing new ways to outline, or new systems for recording information, or researching, or cleaning your desk, or whatever else you do when you know you’re supposed to be writing but instead find a productive way to avoid it. So set yourself a deadline and tell everyone about it. Give people permission to check up on you. And then work to achieve that deadline.

(Caveat: Make your deadline achievable based on your situation, and don’t be bullied into doing otherwise. Watching an unachievable deadline fly past is akin to motivation-suicide.)

So, how’s the jigsaw going? See for yourself: 

Look how much I've done! Three days to go.


Filed under Writing

15 responses to “Five Ways Writing is like doing a Jigsaw Puzzle

  1. Awesome post Jo. I LOOOVE jigsaw puzzles but they have been one of those hobbies that have fallen by the wayside since kids (now I only get to do 64 piece Dora puzzles). I think the biggest I have attempted is 1200 though, so I can only imagine how daunting a 2000 piece puzzle is. In addition to chocolate fo bribes I like the iPod (as i write this sick son is sitting next to me on the iTouch watching Toy Story – wouldn’t hold his attention for long on the TV but when it is on a device he holds in his hands he loves it – oh and Angry Birds is a best $1 I have ever spent :))

    • I love jigsaws too, but it’s AGES since I’ve done a “real” one. I’m lucky, Big Brother loves jigsaws too. He started doing 36 piece puzzles when he was 2, and can now do a 100 piece puzzle in about 40 minutes. Prior to this one, the biggest puzzle I’d done was only 1000 pieces, so this was a bit of a culture shock!

  2. I know this is a bit off the side, but when people want a specific puzzle at my store, I die a little, because I know they can’t know this, but there are a bezillion puzzles, and I can guarantee my little shop doesn’t have the one they want. And I always wonder WHY. Why do they have to have a very specific puzzle? But now I know why! They are doing puzzle contests with other people, like you did! Mystery solved. 🙂

    I love that you got all zen about writing while doing that puzzle.

    Shoot, now I want to do a puzzle. Due to some inventory wrangling, I actually have a stack of about 200 different puzzles, mostly 1000 pieces, sitting in my office with me right now.

    • I’d forgotten that you had a board game shop. Glad to have solved the mystery of the specific puzzle for you. 🙂 If it helps you not to want to die a little, I at least had the brand name, size, puzzle name, and puzzle number with me when I went to the store!

      (Shhh… don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been spending all my writing time doing the puzzle, so getting zen was the only way around the non-writing guilt!)

  3. What a flawless metaphor; I can’t remember the last time I tried a jigsaw…or the last time I really set myself down to my writing like I would approach a jigsaw, so perhaps the next time I’m flailing about why I can’t seem to get anything accomplished, I’ll keep this in mind.

    …Especially the deadline stuff, because I know when I set a deadline, I’ll meet it. But guess who never sets herself a deadline. Ahem.

    This is really a great post. Good luck on the rest of the puzzle! You can do it!

  4. Since I’ve done many jigsaw puzzles before, I could relate to this. Very clever! Hope you get it done before your company. I love your writing, by the way.

  5. This is smart and insightful. I really love it.

    More importantly though, did you win?

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  7. UPDATE:

    My brother called on Friday afternoon to say he wouldn’t be here until Sunday, and wouldn’t be staying the night. I promptly went from “I think I can, I think I can,” to “I’ll see what I can do.”

    (Note to self: DEADLINES! They really work.)

    So instead of focusing on the jigsaw on Friday night and Saturday morning, I spring-cleaned the house (yes, it’s spring here in Aussie-land), did some exercise, and played with the boys. And it took me until Sunday to finish the jigsaw.

    But the important thing is I won! I mean, the important thing is I finished.

    My sister has some kind of lame excuse about working 12 hour days without a day off for the last 10 days, being on call 24 hours a a day, overseeing the opening of her art exhibition on Thursday, and being interviewed for some TV show. But, you know, I still won.

    Bring on the wine!

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