Monday, March 27, 2017

The Jigsaw Process

A few months ago, in the closing weeks of December, I was questioning whether or not I had it in me to ever finish another manuscript. Most writers have to confront their self-doubt at some point; I’m pretty sure if the insecure writers of the world formed a club based around that particular quality and started electing officers, I’d at least make it as high as treasurer.

My issue back then had to do with external factors becoming internal: A longtime friend of mine had passed away, and the dark manuscript idea I had been developing and outlining and was just beginning to work on in earnest suddenly held absolutely no appeal for me. I figured if wasn’t enjoying writing it, why would anyone want to read it? So, for the first time in a long time, I decided to stop writing.

I had no intention of stopping permanently, but even pausing the work and depriving myself of a creative outlet was uncomfortable. I hoped divergent thoughts would continue to work in the background and eventually resolve themselves, but I needed something else to keep my mind busy in the meantime. 

One day while doing some holiday shopping, I wandered into a game store and decided to buy a jigsaw puzzle. It was a panorama shot of London at night. I just finished it this past week.

I unboxed it as soon as I got home. It had been a good decade or two since I’d last tried to assemble a serious jigsaw puzzle, so the sight of all 1,500 of those tiny cardboard pieces spread out on my kitchen table was a little daunting. I began sorting by color and pattern (orange lighting; distant buildings on the skyline; the pink streak of the remaining sunset; street lamps reflecting on the river) and worked it in sections. I knew all the blue pieces made up the sky, so I focused on getting just that part done and not thinking of the puzzle as one whole project. When that was finished, I switched to the bridge with all the bright streaks of light from passing traffic. Then I searched for pieces that made up the London Eye, as well as the colorfully lit buildings surrounding it. 

I was anything but obsessive about working on it and only made progress in spurts. Several weeks later, so many sections had been completed that, without even realizing it, I was nearly halfway done. That’s when the writer brain switched back on. I saw that one of the biggest reasons I had actually put aside my manuscript idea was because I had planned it into a corner. I knew all the characters, their motivations, the settings, the chapter titles — nothing had been left to chance. I realized I had prepped this way because it was the first new material I had started, for real, in a long time. It wasn’t just “Hey, I have a cool idea for a story! This would be fun!” and then sitting down to play with it, but more like “Okay, Mr. Serious Writer: You’re going to start with this, then go to this part, then this, and then maybe, if you're lucky, you will have earned the right to begin a first draft.”

I have never in my life written that way. My manuscripts have always come together outside the chronological order, with different sections finding ways to connect, like assembling jigsaw puzzles.

The basic idea arrives, and the earliest parameters of what the story should do are set, just like putting together the puzzle frame. There are always ideas or scenes that stand out as the strongest beats in the story, and those are the first to be drafted and explored and developed — just like sorting the puzzle pieces by color or pattern can suggest the easiest places to start. Once the most obvious parts of the story are done, I understand the rest of it well enough to know how to bring those big sections together. Before long, there are only a few holes remaining. And yeah, finding the right piece to put in those empty spaces can sometimes be a living nightmare, but eventually everything ends up where it needs to be.

I went looking for an alternative creative outlet, and was lucky enough to accidentally find one that reminded me what I needed to do to write again. When I started the puzzle, I had one manuscript idea that I had no interest in tackling. By the time my London panorama was complete, I had four solid ideas competing to be the next major work in progress, including the one I put on hold in December that had found some new life.

I’m having a lot of fun exploring each of these ideas now, and I’m excited to discover which will get the nod as the next project. When it happens this time though, I know enough to start with the big parts, and let the gaps fill themselves in along the way.


Shari Green said...

Love this! When left to my own devices, I very much prefer writing out of order, focusing on the strong, stand-out bits and then searching for the perfect pieces to fill in the holes. Thanks for the great analogy!

cleemckenzie said...

Sometimes it's in those down times that we find the rejuvenation and inspiration we need. Losing a friend takes some time to assimilate and adjust to. Sorry for your loss, but glad you found your way through to being creative again.

Tom Mulroy said...

Another favorite way of describing the process has always been to think of a lake freezing over at the beginning of winter, with big chunks of ice floating on the surface and eventually growing together to form one solid sheet.

Tom Mulroy said...

Thanks for your words. Adjusting certainly doesn't happen overnight, but at least I've reached a point where maybe I can use that emotion instead of box it up.

WendyMcLeodMacKnight said...

What a wonderful post! And such a good reminder that there are times we need a break to recharge and also that there is no one right way to write a novel. So glad you are writing again!

Jamie Krakover said...

Great Post... you really got me thinking... I tend to tackle jigsaw puzzles a little differently. I do the border first then look for chunks around or near the border to fill in and rarely have large chunks of puzzle that are unattached.

And I write the same way... I start with an outline/framework but it's loose enough to move around in then I define some scenes a few small snippets inside but generally write the thing in order from start to finish.

I wonder if other people have a similar correlation.

Shari Green said...

Ooh, that's good too!

Tom Mulroy said...

Thanks, Wendy. It's very true that we all have our own ways of getting to that finish line.

Tom Mulroy said...

I have the general idea in mind from start to finish, but sometimes I just have a better mental picture of different sections than what would come next in the story. I figure if I've got more to saw at that other place, that's the best part of the story for me to invest my energy.