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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.


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Wish You Were Here – On Writing with Style

Last Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of my writing group, and I was fortunate enough to be the person chairing the meeting. I put together a workshop titled ‘Wish You Were Here’ and thought I’d share it on The Happy Logophile.

When people read my writing, the number one piece of positive feedback I get is that they felt like they were “really there”. I often have people say that they could picture everything that happened perfectly. Since I have a tendency to err on the side of “too little” when it comes to description (I skip over almost all description when I read), I take this as a real compliment. There are three stylistic methods that I use to achieve this.

Note: These are elements of style. There is nothing grammatically wrong with any of the “problems” that I’m going to present.

Passive Voice

Good writing should be immediate. You know you’re doing it right when the reader feels like they’re in the middle of the action.

Writing in passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is the recipient, rather than the source, of the action. When you write in passive voice, there’s no immediacy to the action. Instead of being scared, or excited, or involved, the reader feels like they’re reading a report about events that happened somewhere else, to someone else. That isn’t to say you can never have a passive-voice sentence in your work, but (like adverbs) they should be rare.

By removing Passive Voice, you change a paragraph like this:

The village was razed by the dragon’s fiery breath. It wasn’t expected to happen so early in the season. There was no choice. A warning had to be issued by the King, and sent across the mountains with a messenger. If they were lucky, it would be read before the boy was eaten.

Into this:

The dragon razed the village with its fiery breath. No one expected it to happen so early in the season. The King had no choice. He had to issue a warning and send a messenger across the mountains. If they were lucky, the dragon would read it before eating the boy.

Effect before Cause

Good writing should be easy. You know you’re doing it right when the reader doesn’t have to stop and think about what’s happening.

Every time you put effect before cause in your writing, the reader has to stop and rethink the sentence. This slows down the action, and can feel quite disjointed. Again, there are times when you may decide to put the effect before the cause, but do so with caution.

Bu putting cause before effect, you turn this:

He jumped back when the snake hissed. He fell over when he hit the railing behind him. Pain blossomed through his body when his ankle twisted. He knew he’d need to get to a hospital when the pain hadn’t subsided after a few minutes. He called an ambulance after taking his phone from his pocket. The snake slithered back behind a rock after watching his antics through the front of its glass cage.

Into this:

The snake hissed and he jumped back. He hit the railing behind him and fell over, twisting his ankle. Pain blossomed through his body. The pain hadn’t subsided after a few minutes, so he knew he’d need to get to a hospital. He took his phone from his pocket and called an ambulance. The snake watched his antics through the front of its glass cage and then slithered back behind a rock.

Filter Words

Good writing should be invisible. You know you’re doing it right when the reader doesn’t remember the words you used, they just remember what happened.

 Filter words are words such as realised, thought, saw, looked, heard, smelled, wondered, hoped, and felt. They are words that distance the reader from the story. (They’re often referred to as Distancing Words for that reason.) When you include a lot of filter words in your writing, the reader will be constantly reminded that they’re only reading/hearing about what happened, rather than experiencing it.

By removing filter words, you turn this:

Megan looked down and wondered what would happen if she jumped. The river looked dark and uninviting below her. She saw a car coming across the bridge and quickly decided to press herself against the nearby pylon. She hoped they hadn’t seen her. She figured her life was complicated enough without a stranger interfering. Then she heard the car slow and stop. Damn, she thought. She felt more trapped than ever.

Into this:

Megan looked down. What would happen if she jumped? The river was dark and uninviting below her. She looked up. There was  car coming across the bridge. Quickly, she pressed herself against the nearby pylon. Maybe they hadn’t seen her. Her life was complicated enough without a stranger interfering. The sound of the car slowed and stopped. Damn. She was more trapped than ever.

Look over your own writing, and see how often you use passive voice, filter words, or put effect before cause. Let me know what you find.


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Weekly Wednesday Writing Wrap-Up 10

Oh what a wonderful morning, oh what a wonderful week!

I had a really positive and productive week in writing this week. I’m on day 8 in my ‘100 Words for 100 Days’ challenge, and that’s going really well. Some days I’ve written over 1000 words, and others it’s only been about 150, but I have written every day, and that’s exciting. I’ve also had to make my own rule that editing (and getting more words through the process) doesn’t count. They have to be 100 new words, continuing on from the last part of the story. So, the end result of this week is that I’ve now finished the first chapter of Curiosity.

I went to my writing group last night, and had a really great time. We had a really interesting guest speaker named Dawn Alice, who’s recently self-published a fascinating book titled Life Love Tarot. I’m hoping to feature more about her and her book over the coming days.

We also did a great session on characters and characterisation, with tips on how to create realistic, 3-dimensional characters. I’ll be writing more about that later in the week as well. The homework for the month is to write a 1-page story or description, exploring a character’s background and personality. I’m going to write about one of the secondary characters from my WIP, and am planning it out in my head already.

Well, would love to write more, but need to get back to writing my novel. I’m so loving this 100 word challenge — it’s so very motivating!

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Weekly Wednesday Writing Wrap-Up

I’m not going to lie. Today is Friday.

There’s a very good reason why this week, my wrap-up is 2 days late. You see… Okay, there’s no good reason at all. There’s not even a bad reason. So, I will simply apologise for my tardiness, and move on.

This Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of the Strathpine Library Writer’s Group. Again, this was quite an enjoyable experience – if not necessarily particularly helpful for me. The topic of the night was ‘illustrating’, which is not something that I’m good at, nor even interested in. Nonetheless, I did have the opportunity to listen to some other pieces of writing, share some of mine, and catch up with the group.

If you recall, the “assignment” for this month was to write a story based on a song lyric. I spent almost the entire month trying to work out how to write a story about a teenage girl whose mother write a Position Vacant ad for her replacement, because the girl is so busy trying to be like everyone else that she has no time left to be herself. In my head, it was an interesting flash-fiction idea. But on paper…. Well, let’s just say that I spent hours staring at a blank screen, alternately changing the background of MS Word from blue to white and then back again. (That is the only reason why I will miss older versions of Word when I finally upgrade to a modern edition.)

Eventually, the day before I was due to present the story at the Writer’s Group, I decided to completely change my direction and write in my preferred genre. Urban Fantasy, here we come! So I picked the song ‘Close I’ve Come’ by Ben Lee. The first two lines of the song are:

I slipped into a house to escape my enemies, And opened the door to another world

 With that in mind, I wrote a story that I’m rather happy with. In fact, it conveniently fits into the guidelines of the next Stringybark Fiction Competition – a 2000 word speculative fiction short story – that closes on 30 May. Convenient, no? I named my story ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’, and am happy to share the first paragraph of it with you.

Later, I would learn that magical portals manifest themselves randomly. And that they prefer windows to doorways. But on that Saturday morning, I had no idea that magic even existed. All I knew was that there were three men following me, and letting them catch me would be a bad thing. With a capital B, and a capital T.

Claire suggested that I read Artemis Fowl, as my writing style reminds her somewhat of Eoin Colfer’s. So I’ve added that book & possibly series to my reading list. I’ll let you know what I think.

That was my main writing experience during the week. However, I also had the opportunity to have my sister, Jak Henson, critique a short story that I wrote. She writes, edits and publishes an Arts magazine, and was awarded a Writing Award from the Townsville City Council in 2010 for her work on Artgaze Magazine. She described my writing style as ‘quirky’, which I kind of liked. Also, she’s not a big fiction reader, preferring art texts and biographies, so I was pleased that my urban fantasy was able to hold her attention throughout.

And then she educated me on the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. How did I not know about this before??

I’ve also found myself reading a lot of different websites and blogs about publishing (ooooh, the print vs ebook publishing debate rages on!), finding an agent, writing query letters, etc. I’m particularly enamoured by the Bookends, LLC Blog – a literary agency that provides a lot of interesting information on the above topics. I’ve found myself immersed in their posts about things not to put in a query letter, how to not get published, and other interesting topics. Since I’ve not actually finished my novel yet (nor, really, am I even close), I’ve found myself wondering whether this is really research, or just procrastination. I’m going to go with a bit of both. Plus, when you’ve got a colicky 3-month-old baby who cries for 8 hours some days, creativity kind of flies out the window. So at least I’m reading about the right topics!

And, finally, a friend posted this week that she’s had a submission to A cappella Zoo accepted for submission. That’s great news for her, and it certainly kicked me into thinking about writing short stories for submission to magazines (although I’d kind of rather be working on my novel…). It also made me secretly, deep down, hate her just a little bit. You know, in the jealousy muscle.

Seriously though, congratulations to Merrilee, and keep up the good work.

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Weekly Wednesday Writing Wrap-up

The title of this entry is possibly a little confusing, considering that this is the first Writing Wrap-Up that I’ve written. But habits have to start somewhere, and this is the beginning of one.

Last night I went to a meeting of the Strathpine LIbrary Writer’s Group. It’s several years since I was last involved with a writing group, and I really enjoyed the experience. It’s nice to spend some time in a room talking abotu writing with other writers. It’s a quite small group, but full of interesting people with years of experience in writing, and at least one person who has finished a novel & is looking for an agent and publication. The group meets once a month, and I’m looking forward to being able to share my work with other writers for feedback & critiquing.

At the meeting, one of the ladies shared one of her favourite inspriational books with us – How I Got Published, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay. (Thanks to Sue!) The book is a compilation of over 80 authors sharing their publication stories. Sue shared the story of Marion Keyes, which I found fascinating as an example of how luck and timing play such a big part in being published. One thing that stood out to me in this story was Marion’s statement (and this is from memory, so the quote may not be completely accurate) that she’s the only author she knows who doesn’t have an underwear drawer full of half-finished novels.

This statement got me thinking about my own novel-writing “career”. Really, I don’t have a lot of unfinished novels to speak of. I’ve got 3 that are still going around in my head:

  1. On Raven’s Wing – A sword & sorcery style fantasy novel based around Raven, a mercenary/tinker who is prophecied to be the greatest mage in the land, and his friendship with the mysterious Marcus, a naive nobleman’s son. I wrote 60,000 words of a first draft before realising that there was some serious plotting issues and restarting the story using the same characters and meta-plot. I’m about 10,000 words into a second draft that makes more sense.
  2. Darkest Winter, Brightest Light – A vaguely historically-based novel about a widowed woman on the edge of the expanding Roman empire being captured by a group of Vikings, and the changing world around them as Christianity sweeps through the land. I haven’t written much more than an outline for this novel, and I need to do a lot more research if it’s going to work.
  3. Tempest in the Night – A vampire novel set in Brisbane, about a centuries-old vampire named Gabriel and his young protege Tempest as they deal with a threat from a competing vampiric threat. I’ve written 2 chapters and have a full outline, and plenty of background material. I was really excited about this idea… and then Twilight hit epic proportions a few years ago, and the thought of being comparied to ridiculous sparkling vampires killed any desire that I had to finish my story.

Really, I do still like all three ideas, and they’re all things that I may come back to “one day”. But what I really want to do at the moment is focus on something completely different. And I finally have something in mind. Urban fantasy is where my interest lies at the moment, so that’s where I’m going to focus my attention. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

At the moment, my focus is on short story writing, however. I’m just finishing a piece entitled Storm Warning, which I’m writing for a writing competition that closes on Friday. (I know – nothing like leaving it until the last minute.) The competition is the Common Thread Short Story Competition. The story is an urban fantasy with the opening:

I should have left town the day the goblins stole my keys. That would have been the smart thing to do.

Once that’s finished, I’m going to begin work on a story for the Lorian Hemmingway Short Story Competition, which closes on the 1st of May. I will also need to consider a piece to write for the writing group, which needs to be inspired by the lyrics of a song. If at all possible, I will try to write the one story that will serve both of these purposes.

Wish me luck!

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