Jilly: Puzzling It Out

Puzzling It OutDo you have a favored technique for working out stubborn problems or kick-starting creativity?

I’ve read in the past that working on a familiar, routine task like cooking can work wonders – it gives the conscious mind a job to do that’s not taxing to the subconscious, so the Girls in the Basement can brainstorm the creative problem without being interrupted every few minutes.

Cooking works quite well for me, especially when I’m editing, but when I’m in the early discovery stage of a new story in a new world, when the possibilities are limitless and almost everything has to be invented, my favorite trick for getting myself unstuck is to do a jigsaw.

Jigsaws are often seen as a valuable educational aid in children’s development, and a way for oldies to keep dementia at bay, but I find they also get my fiction writing discovery wheels turning in just the right way.

I’ve never tried to analyze what it is that works so well for me, but having spent an afternoon pondering the question, here are a few possible reasons:

There’s a feeling of great satisfaction in bringing order to a puzzle. I usually start with a thousand pieces and it’s daunting to see them all spread out and jumbled up. Then I look harder, and patterns start to emerge. I pick on a place to start, whatever looks like the easiest place to get some momentum going. It’s often the outside frame, but not always. With a circular puzzle it’s easier to start in the middle and work outwards. And sometimes there’s one part of the picture that looks really clear and straightforward, so that’s the place to begin.

There are so many different ways to attack the problem; different techniques come in to play, depending on the puzzle manufacturer and on the picture. Perhaps colors are the distinctive feature, or patterns, or brushwork if it’s a reproduction of a painting, or the shapes of the pieces themselves. I tend to go by colors and patterns first, whereas my husband likes shapes and spatial recognition. Sometimes a puzzle manufacturer will use the same shapes more than once, so you can make the pieces fit together but you have to pay attention to the picture itself or when you stand back it doesn’t look right. Sometimes the pattern or color differences will be very subtle (like the dolphin in progress above) but the pieces are unique, so you have to pay careful attention to the slight differences in shape.

The great thing is that you’re constantly making choices. Repeatedly trying and testing, and most of the time getting it wrong, discarding and looking for a better choice until you find the one piece that’s exactly right. Focusing on one technique or one part of the puzzle, and if that doesn’t work, moving on to the next until you get some traction.

You also get rewarded for persistence. Sometimes you can stare at the pieces for ages and nothing seems to work. Other times you get into the flow and every piece you choose just slots in to place. No matter. You can spend five minutes or half an hour, but usually you’ll do something that brings the puzzle closer to being completed, and there’s visible evidence of your progress.

The other big takeaway for me has been to discover how much skill is involved in setting a really satisfying puzzle. The picture has to be something that appeals to me, of course, and the actual puzzle should be well-made – if the pieces are flimsy or don’t lock together cleanly or (it happens!) if I get to the end and discover a piece is missing, then I’m never going to buy another puzzle from that manufacturer, no matter how beautiful the picture. If the technical construction is good, then the puzzle should keep me engaged by providing challenges that call on my ingenuity and require me to use as many techniques as possible. If it’s too easy – all red in one corner, all blue in the other – then I’m not challenged and completing the puzzle is not satisfying. If it’s difficult but the challenge is simply a slog or process of elimination, then I’m not challenged plus it’s boring and I’m tempted to give up. If it’s just hard enough, it’s a collaboration between the puzzle setter and me, and it’s fun. I’ve figured out which manufacturers do this brilliantly, and I switch between them for maximum variety.

Lotta food for thought in one simple puzzle.

I bought a big batch of jigsaws online a couple of weeks ago and I’m hoping they’ll see me through the first draft of Alexis’s story.

Any one else find puzzles helpful, or is it just me?

What’s your top tip for problem solving or boosting creativity?

14 thoughts on “Jilly: Puzzling It Out

  1. I’m not much of a puzzle girl, but I’ve recently started playing the piano (taking lessons) and I’m really enjoying it. Not sure yet if it’s because it’s something new and different (“SQUIRREL!!”) or because it’s something that takes both my mind and body to master (kind of like tae kwon do did, but since I wrecked my shoulder, I haven’t been doing that). In any case, there’s definitely something going on in the ol’ noggin, because I’ve had some really great ideas for Three Proposals lately, and for other books in the series, which I’m nowhere near writing. And yes, I’m giving all the credit to the piano.

    Bonus: I can play something besides “Chopsticks.”

    • Yay! So glad you’re getting good ideas for Three Proposals and your new stories. I would totally believe that your piano lessons have helped. I think a healthy dose of Squirrel! is good for taking the imagination in a new direction, and if you’re having fun and being challenged, that’s a perfect combination. And *bonus* perfect know-how for a Regency-writing gal to add – can’t wait to read your descriptions of those obligatory after-dinner recitals and musicales 😀 .

  2. I do at least one puzzle for every story . I try to find one that relates to the story (not necessarily in an obvious way, just in a way that speaks to me). I think it’s the process of bringing order to chaos in a very real and tactile way that helps my bran do the same for the story. Over time, sitting down with the puzzle can work much like turning on the story playlist – it immediately throws me back into my story. Sometimes it even helps me hear conversations between my characters, although the ‘why’ of that one is a mystery to me.

    To me, the tie between our puzzling and Neen’s piano lessons is patterning. Your brain has to find the pattern of the picture or the music. But I’m a logic and order kind of girl, so I look for patterns in everything :-).

    • I don’t think I knew you were a puzzler, Nancy! I never thought about finding an image that relates to the story – I’m definitely going to try that. I wonder whether making a jigsaw from a story collage or a few key images would be even more effective, or whether it’s good to work on something slightly different? I’ve seen ads online for custom puzzles and they aren’t particularly expensive. Maybe a mocked-up book cover. Hmmm.

    • I’m right with you Nancy, I’m a logic and order girl who finds the patterns in everything too. It’s part of what I get paid to do in real-life. 🙂

      I haven’t tried puzzles as a way to free up the mind for some creative thinking / brainstorming, but I have used quilting. It fits the bill for patterns and ordering, but leaves my mind free enough to think of other things. I have a few finished quilts as a result of our time at McDaniel. Now that the weather is nicer, gardening is my current go-to-task. It seems to work just as well which is a plus, since there is only so much room in the house for quilts.

  3. A book cover jigsaw would also be fantastic marketing for a finished book! For some kind of giveaway or prize.

    I’ve never had the kind of space where I could keep unfinished puzzles out, but I used to do them when I was younger. I recently acquired an old-fashioned library table; I bet I could get back in the habit. You seem to have the science of puzzles all worked out, Jilly. I’ve never given much thought to puzzle manufacture. Good to know!

    • If you ever fancy giving puzzles a go, Kay, you can buy great puzzle holder boards (that’s probably not the right name). They fold up and shove underneath the bed or sofa (in my case) and keep the puzzle intact without taking up space.

      Sorry, that was quite a random comment! I also love doing puzzles, though rarely remember to get round to it. I also find just sitting with a pen and a blank page in my notebook and just writing down any old thing that comes to mind about the story is a great way to see where my mind wants to go. All sorts of problems get sorted out – mostly ones I didn’t know I had!

      • Good point, Rachel, I forgot about puzzle boards.

        The pen and blank page thing also works for me as well, especially if I just scribble anything and everything and see what appears. The puzzles seem to work best for figuring out specific plot problems and nitty gritty ‘how do I write this scene?’ challenges.

    • I never thought of a book cover jigsaw as swag. That’s a brilliant idea. Or maybe the artwork for the cover, if it’s pretty. The cover art for Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper books is beautiful (http://www.ilona-andrews.com) and they’ve made a selection of wallpaper available on the website. Something half as pretty as those illustrations would be my dream.

      If you now have a library table, it must be Meant for you to re-discover puzzles. I never thought about what makes a good one until I did half a dozen or so back-to-back. Then I started to understand there’s much more to it than finding a pretty picture and chopping it into bits. And that made me think about what it takes to makes a good book.

  4. I really like doing puzzles, too, but when I do them, they seem to take up 100 percent of my brain. I don’t know — never tried them with a story. I do remember once driving in the country, and seeing the EXACT COLOR OF GREEN I needed to complete a puzzle in the pinetrees on a distant hill. I wanted to reach out and grab it before I realized it was real life.

    I might try it. Today, I am unstuck and writing. How did I get unstuck? Random surfing led to a great idea, which led to an outline, which led to 4000 words so far today. Forgive the brag; I’ve had practically no words for weeks, so I’m very happy.

    It’s about half done, which means it’s another short story. But, hey, I’ll take it. If I get enough short stories, I could probably do a book in the SFF genre.

    Oh, but back to my point: random surfing led to a breakthrough this time, but generally, random surfing just leads to more random surfing. So what really leads to a breakthrough? Hell if I know. Maybe it just needs to be the right conjuction of time, place, idea and butt in the writing chair. I do know I’ve been applying story-thought almost every day, so it was bound to pay off sooner or later.

    • 4,000 words in a single day! Congratulations, Michaeline! That is truly fantastic. I took a day off and watched home decorating shows on TV. Did my Girls work on my story while I was glued to the drama of wallpaper? I think not. 🙂

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