Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Novel Box: Keeping Your Eye On The Prize

My youngest grandson likes to work puzzles. And he’s good at it. Not those “baby” puzzles where a piece will only fit one way. He’s beyond those tray puzzles with ten pieces, too. Augie is into puzzles well beyond his five years. He likes jigsaw puzzles. Like any good puzzler, Augie has learned a few tricks. He uses the box as a guide and hunts for the straight edges first.

Have you ever picked up a jigsaw puzzle in a store, looked at the picture and thought, “That would be great for a winter day.” I have. Of course the puzzles I chose usually took longer than a day to complete. Our family would find ourselves eating off of TV trays.  The initial burst of puzzle energy would soon give way to some other distraction for our girls. Tom and I would not give up. We would work late into the night and stay with the project until it was finished. The girls typically jumped back in as they could see the end in sight and there was always competition for who got to put in the last piece.

The biggest difference in that experience and that of writing a novel is that typically the writer is in the fray alone from day one.

As an author I see similarities and many lessons for novelists to be learned from working puzzles. The next few weeks I want to explore these elements. By the way, this notion came to me as I started one of my characters to work on a 1000 piece puzzle.

The Box
Yep, I’m starting with the box. We’re drawn to it. The finished picture is intricate or beautiful. Maybe it mirrors our outside interests or hobbies. It may even be mysterious or haunting. We walk through the toy aisle or into a puzzle store and think, “I like that one,” or “I could do that. What an accomplishment!” “No more baby puzzles for me.”

We grab one, plunk down our money and take it home. Right? Well, not exactly. We may think the picture is great but notice it has a thousand pieces. The biggest puzzle we ever finished was only three hundred pieces. And it seemed to take forever.

I do the same in writing. I’m guessing you have, too. I have a “picture” in mind about a novel I will write.  I may question my ability to complete a bigger work. Maybe I’ve only written short stories before. Does that keep me from writing a short novel? Or if I wrote a short novel, does it mean I’ll never be ready to write 100,000 words? Of course not.

I’m ready. I want to stretch myself and I’m willing to give up my dining room table for an extended period of time to meet my goal. The trick is this: Keep your eye on the box. Keep the picture of your novel in mind. Don’t lose sight of the goal. Know that with each word you are one piece closer to completing the puzzle.

There is a famous story about Florence Chadwick. She was the first woman to swim from Catalina Island to the coast of California. Swimming the twenty-six miles is fanfare enough, but what is most remembered is her first attempt to swim it. She failed. She failed within a half mile of reaching her goal. Why? The fog was so thick, she lost sight of her destination. The year she completed the long swim was also plagued with fog. But this time, though she couldn’t physically see the California coast, she never lost sight of it in her mind.

Time, Patience, and Persistence
My husband held a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He achieved international recognition for his work in ergonomics. However, Tom never claimed to be a brilliant scholar. He attributed his accomplishments to being persistent. He kept his eye on the prize.

Like working a complicated jigsaw puzzle, writing takes time and patience. It takes persistence. I think there are a few other strategies we can learn from the jigsaw puzzle experience as well. Next week I’ll address those straight edges. Until then, answer this:

What strategies might work to help us “keep our eye on the box?” Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section. You don’t have to have used the idea, but please share. Remember, we’re all in this together.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Nancy. I have struggled with one aspect of my character in the book I'm working on. Specifically, I needed a way to have her engage in conversation and dispense unasked for advice. I finally found a way to let her have these random conversations with her daughter...over a jigsaw puzzle. What fun!

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