5 Surprising Lessons from a Puzzle: Write Right-er

A thousand pieces lie scattered across the table.

Don’t worry, nothing’s broken.

I thought I’d enjoy a no-tech afternoon working on a puzzle. 

Some circle of Hell Dante missed mentioning is where those who were too self-absorbed in life are strapped into chairs around tables and forced to bloody their fingertips until the puzzles are complete, only there are always pieces missing. Mwoo-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. -Carl Jung

via Brainyquote

This thousand-piece instrument of purgation I recently completed was such a challenge. The bugger had No. Straight. Edges.(click here to see the retail image.)

The longer I struggled to complete the project, the more the parallels with the writing process rose in my mind.

(Full Disclosure: I did enjoy it. Something about seeing the final picture emerge made me flail about in geekish glee. No, I did not take video.)

So, without further ado, here are five lessons from a Jigsaw Puzzle

1. Keep Going

The more complicated the puzzle, the more time it takes to complete.

A puzzle I completed in college (for “recreation”, my mother said. “You’ll have fun,” she said. Ha! The title of the thing was “Hay in a Needlestack.” (click here to see this nightmare)

It took me all semester to complete. Eventually I finally figured out it was easier to turn the pieces design-down, because staring at needles was driving me more insane-er. 

  • When it feels like nothing’s coming together, keep going.
  • When the weather’s too cold or too hot, keep going.
  • When you get discouraged, keep going.

By all means take a different approach, change the section you’re working on, but in writing and puzzling...if you want to finish, you have to keep going.

2. Take Time Out

You can’t puzzle faster by sheer force of will.

You’ll get better at recognizing patterns, sure. If you’ve done that same puzzle before, you can avoid some pitfalls.

HOWEVER, when the eyes blur and nothing is working, it’s time to take a break and walk away. When you return, you’ll find so much more falls into place than if you exhaust yourself.

Writers call this “letting the manuscript rest.”

The manuscript calls this “letting the @#&*$*&$ writer rest.” 



You’ve got to want to take on a job to really get all of the pieces to come together.

Photo Credit: Alfonsina Blyde » via Compfight cc


3. Organize and Conquer

Separate piles of edge pieces. Sort by color. Identify the type of piece using tabs, slots, two-bobs, two “innies”…etc.

Everyone has a strategy to  pull together the whole picture. Find your style and work it.

aside: [Click here for some puzzle piece terms. It appears there are no universals for these, so make up your own if you like.]

Don’t have a writing strategy? Don’t panic. I’m working on mine, too. A lot of writers are, it’s perfectly normal.

At the very least, try grouping ideas around the major plot points you already sense might happen. You might not keep them all in the same place when you’re done. It’s a strategy, not a straight-jacket.

When it stops working for you, let it go.

4. What Fits, Keep

People who are either geniuses or psychotic MIX UP more than one puzzle in a box ON PURPOSE. Part of their kind of fun (and challenge) is figuring out which pieces go to which puzzle.

When I’m writing, this goes on constantly inside my brain. That clean-looking outline that was going to bring my work to a tidy close gets more and more embellished as my Muse starts throwing in his two cents.

To add or not to add to the WIP (Work In Progress); that is the question.

Sometimes “side” ideas become terrific additions. New characters, splashes of research, a fascinating tertiary plot-line unfolds like magic, and BAM, the story has gone from rough-draft Good to final-draft Great.

Other ideas drag the story down… a blind alley where they beat up the plot-line, out-shout the main characters, and leave you all for dead.  Sure, they fit; just not the project you’re working at the moment.

SORT ideas, SIFT ideas.  Some really neat stuff needs to be set ASIDE FOR ANOTHER PROJECT.

(Yes, I’m capscreaming, mostly at myself. “Hey what a cool idea” Syndrome sabotages my work all the time)

5. Many Hands Should Help

Even if you say you puzzle, or write, entirely “alone”, get real. Someone made the paper, the computer, the inks. You didn’t.

If you’re planning to publish, you’ll involve any number of Others. Beta readers, editors, agents, proofreaders publishers, your Aunt Sally, reader-readers, critics…they’re all part of the process of completing “your” book.

Slap away insidious so-called “helpers” who steal a piece from your proverbial puzzle so they can be the one to lay the last one down. If someone (read: some critic who isn’t helpful, someone with an ax to grind, or just a pain-in-the-ass) is chewing on the pieces and mauling them, they’re not good “helping hands.”

The great helpers interact with you and challenge you to do better work. They ask helpful questions designed to make things better.

Hey, and just because someone qualified has a different approach to the work doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Give their ideas a chance, and see what works.

Bonus Lesson:

What you decide is Your Reward is your Reward.

Maybe someone else will get a sense of delight from what you’ve done, and that’s The Reward.

Maybe you query and traditionally publish, or you self-publish, and that’s the “good stuff.”

Maybe earning money’s what keeps you motivated.

Maybe you love earning the family title  ”puzzle master.”

You have to please yourself. For some folks, no matter what you do, you’ll never reach high enough for their (usually ridiculously out-of-touch) standards.

 No one can tell you what YOU find most satisfying about your work. Know that you love your work for the reasons you love it, and keep going.

Okay, back to puzzlin’ what my next move is in the seemingly never-ending task of writing better-er-ish.


Elizabeth Ellen Everson

Write Right-er: the best temperature for creative work?


I can’t function when the house is 80 degrees (f) or hotter, or when the mercury dips below 66.

Citing either too much sweat or frozen fingers, I’ll manipulate my work area to get it to a level where I can think. Sometimes I’m sure this is why my body likes to wake me up at 3 a.m. in the summer.

One friend of mine swears she can’t get started on a project unless everything’s at a solid 70, winter or summer. Another friend cranks the warmth to somewhere between 75 and 80.

How does one get published? 
How do you do it? You do it. 
You write. 
You finish what you write.”

-Neil Gaiman


Curious to know what the latest, greatest research shows, of course I looked it up. (That’s who I am and what I do.)

So…studies show productivity is greatest when the ambient temperature is between 70-75 degrees fahrenheit. 

Click Here for the rest of the article from Deseret News including the following information:

If you live in the UK, your workplace is allowed to be far colder (56 degrees minimum, 86 Maximum ) in the workplace than what’s recommended in the U.S (OSHA: 68-76 degrees, 20-60% humidity.)

Humidity’s always a factor, too. I’ve never felt colder in my life than the Christmas I spent in Southern California when the thermometer was at 50. The humidity was around 70%, making for  bone-chilling cold. (50 in Colorado, with our low humidity, is very warm in the winter months.)


When it’s this hot outside, none of my buttons work. I mean NONE OF THEM. 

Photo Credit: ISphoto via Compfight cc


Work Anyway

Reality Check: Optimal conditions for creativity are impossible to maintain.

Sure, check your ergonomic ratios.

Paint walls the right color, adopt aromatherapy, proper light conditions, and warm (or cool) the space, and it’s still hard to get rolling.

Construction noises, telephone calls, power outages and so forth are always going to happen.

But Art happens…anyway.

“The Actor” was painted when Picasso was only 23. “He was very poor, and these canvases were expensive,” said John Richardson, the Picasso biographer. He explained that if Picasso made a mistake, he couldn’t afford to throw out the canvas, but rather painted over it. “Nearly all these early canvases have something painted underneath,” Mr. Richardson said.

Vogel, Carol (2010, January 25). Questions Over Fixing Torn Picasso. The New York Times

Picasso is said to have explained the shift between his “red” and “blue” series because he ran out of one color and didn’t have money to buy more paint.

Check this out:

"Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him."

Plimpton, George (1958, Spring). Interviews: Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21. The Paris Review Spring 1958 No. 18 

So maybe setting up all the best working conditions isn’t that important… 

Still, in the dog days of summer, a little nudge on the thermostat can’t hurt.

-Elizabeth Ellen Everson

(Who prefers her world at a steady 72 degrees, and 60% or less humidity)