Writing and Jigsaw Puzzles

jigsawLast week I finished editing my new book and emailed it to my editor, who like so many others is working from home.

For years, finishing a book meant buying paper, ink cartridges and giant padded envelopes, then spending several hours printing the complete manuscript. Finally I stood in line at the post office to say goodbye and safe journey. If a book was going to Canada, as they sometimes did, I had to fill out custom forms and plan for the extra weeks the manuscript might take to get there and still meet my deadline.

On Tuesday I simply pressed a key and off it went, although to be honest, it wasn’t as simple as all that. I decided to add a title page and to paginate it, and  my Wordperfect and Word programs, ornery to begin with, began an old-fashioned duel. Emily (yes Emilie is edited by Emily) tells me she opened the manuscript to check, and it looks fine after my hours of tweaks. My fingers are still crossed.

Some books are more difficult than others.

From the beginning, this book wasn’t at all sure what it wanted to be. It finally took shape and I finished it well into quarantine. Of course, the silver lining was that by then, I had nothing else to distract me, although I still needed the occasional diversion for the occasional day off. So in addition to cooking interesting new dishes, feeding sourdough culture, ordering groceries from Instacart, reading twice as much as usual and sewing masks, I bought a jigsaw puzzle. Since no one was coming through our front door, Proman and I could assemble it at our leisure on our dining room table.

Have you tried to buy jigsaw puzzles since everyone dove into their burrows?

For a while, jigsaw puzzles were on a par with toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and yeast. Many that looked promising were out of stock. I finally settled on  A is for Arson by TDC games, available from Amazon.  A is for Arson is a mystery puzzle with a thousand pieces jumbled together in one box, for two separate puzzles with no photo of either. The puzzle also comes with a little story, and it’s the puzzler’s job to figure out what pieces belong to which puzzle, then assemble them separately and use the clues to solve the mystery.

Isn’t that clever?  There are more puzzles in the series, although Proman says he will divorce me if I buy the next one. (It’s a good day in our house if even one piece snaps into place.)

I haven’t done many jigsaw puzzles as an adult, but putting this one together seems all too familiar. Writing is exactly like assembling a puzzle.

Every novel has a framework. We begin writing with strong ideas where a story is going. In a puzzle, the easiest pieces to find are the borders, and once assembled they provide the framework for the rest of the picture. In an interesting twist yesterday I realized that my puzzle framework had been wrong for weeks, and that I had to add pieces to accommodate the rest of the puzzle. That’s like writing, too. Sometimes we find that in order to make a story work, we have to add to and expand that framework. This was an analogy I could have done without, but so it goes.

(Yes, we’re still working on the same puzzle!)

Assembling similar puzzle pieces is the next step. Novelists do this, too. How do the ideas we began with mesh with the rest of our story? Whose problem is this and how does it connect to its neighbor? We manage to put five or six similar pieces together, but we still have to decide where they belong. Again, that’s exactly like a novel. This scene and that one go together, but will they be better here, at the beginning of the story, or further along? In both a book and a puzzle we can move them around until we hear that satisfying click.

At the end of  a puzzle and a book, everything happens faster. We have fewer pieces and fewer places to put them. Of course if puzzle pieces aren’t where they should be, there’s no place to put remaining pieces. For the novelist the same thing happens. Just as we’re nearing the ending we realize that some of what’s come before–often something we’ve slaved over–just won’t work. In the editing phase of a novel, we delete and rearrange until we have the “picture” we wanted to create.

I found one notable difference between jigsaw puzzles and novels.

When I finished my latest, the book was much too long. I spent the last two weeks of my deadline cutting thousands of words, over 20,000 in fact. The book is tighter and better. Not a word will be missed. Hopefully A is for Arson won’t have any leftover pieces.

More about puzzles.

I’ve linked to A is for Arson above, just in case I’ve piqued your interest. Remember I’m an Amazon Associate and as such get a teensy kickback when you buy from my Amazon links. But the puzzle is probably available in other places, too. Right now I have two different puzzles sailing toward the U.S. shore on a slow boat from China.

I’m not worried about when they’ll arrive. Finishing Arson will take at least that long.

More about books.

As for another book? My next project is to issue a trilogy I wrote years ago both digitally and in print again. And hopefully after that an original anthology featuring beloved characters from my Shenandoah Album series. So stay tuned.

How about you? Are you a puzzler? Tell us some of your favorites.






  1. Terry Guerrs on June 10, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Hi Emilie,

    I’ve never been one for puzzles but you sure have me thinking about one! Sounds so interesting!
    Also enjoy hearing about your writing technique; looking forward to your new book.
    Yesterday I delivered library books curbside, including one of yours! The patron mentioned she loved your books! Of course, I did, too.

    • Emilie Richards on June 10, 2020 at 2:28 pm

      That’s so nice to hear. Let us know if you take up jigsaw puzzles. I would never in a million years have expected to enjoy it so much.

  2. Nancy Lepri on June 10, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    In addition to reading, I love doing jigsaw puzzles too! I got one for Christmas from my daughter that depicts my town, and it took me a couple of months to finish. But, what I like about the puzzles is that I don’t feel rushed to complete them, and it gives me something to look forward to!

  3. Dorothy Schreyer on June 10, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    I love to do puzzles, even got a couple new ones, from the friends donations to our library. But, as much as I wanted to get started on them, between jobs, sewing masks, a baby quilt and cleaning. (yuk) I keep putting them off! Can’t wait for a visit to the Shenandoah Valley again!!

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