Picking Up the Pieces


For as much as I love things with many pieces—systems, quilts, beadwork, my crazy patchwork life—you might find it odd that I really don’t like puzzles.

You know the kind: 10,000 pieces. Courier & Ives. The one Grandma buys every year when the family comes for the holidays, so all break long you, your aunts, uncles, and cousins three times removed can mindlessly stick pieces together hoping for a one-in-a-thousand match.

And then, there’s the one critical piece that invariably gets lost . . .

Are we talking about puzzles here, or about the writing process?

Maybe both.

Image courtesy of my writing partner T. Reed

Image courtesy of my writing partner T. Reed

If you’re a puzzle addict, I apologize for my lack of enthusiasm for your beloved past time. But it’s an apt metaphor for the process of putting a story together. For me, writing often feels like crawling around on hands and knees in Grandma’s antique shag, looking for that one darn puzzle piece that Cousin Mortimer’s pet gerbil carried off.

After all, stories come out of our heads as jumbled up as puzzle pieces dumped onto a tabletop. It’s up to us to fit them together in a way that makes sense for everyone else.

Usually this process takes several writers working together, or a group of smart critique partners and beta readers offering wise input to the primary writer. Often the process takes years, much of that spent crawling through the weeds of your imagination, searching for the holes that still mar your product.

Case in point: as many regular readers know, I’ve been working on a steampunk fantasy novel for six years. The project suffered the inevitable growing pains of a first novel. Version after version was rejected. The novel became multiple versions of a film script, which taught me a lot about story structure. In 2012 it became a fully illustrated online novel, which then spawned two seasons of a collaborative web show.

In April of this year, when the show’s second season ended, I was left with a wealth of new information (puzzle pieces?) about the world I’d created. Finally, I knew how to wrap up that original novel.

After six years of fitting pieces, I sat down this summer to assemble the final picture, in the form of (another) 300-some page draft.

Even before it was done, I knew there were still pieces missing.

Big ones.


The most recent (Summer 2014) draft of my novel

At first, I was discouraged. After all this time, effort, small milestones of success, and endless growing pains, how could I still be on my hands and knees searching for missing puzzle pieces?

But my writing partner Terry wisely reminded me that all great things—whether books or puzzles—take time. Most of the picture was now there; we could never really say that before. All we have to do now is search for what’s missing.

Which is what we’re doing now. And as it turns out . . . when you do go looking for the pieces, they do show up. Just in the last week we had a couple of seemingly-magical breakthroughs that solved some major pain points in the story.

But not without a lot of time spent on our hands and knees, searching diligently.

Which brings us back to patience: the quality I lack in abundance, and the reason I hate puzzles in the first place.

Writing takes lots of patience. And time. And love. And faith that, in the end, you’ll chase Cousin Mortimer’s gerbil down and retrieve that last precious piece from between its teeth.

I may not like doing puzzles, but I do love the satisfaction of snapping the last piece into place.

It’s that promise that brings me back to the puzzle over and over again.

The finished picture will be worth it all.

*  *  *

What about you? Do you have a project puzzle that’s full of missing pieces? Share your story below! 

3 thoughts on “Picking Up the Pieces

  1. I really enjoy that process of puzzling out the pieces and fitting them together. It’s the intellectual exercise that I enjoyed about academia but with the added creativity of fiction writing.

    One story I’ve been working on recently had to have a character removed from the picture to make things difficult for his daughter. But killing him seemed too easy an option. Puzzling around for something else led to a place that put an extra burden on her and was in some ways bleaker, drawing out both characters’ arcs in interesting ways. It’s those intersections that make puzzling a story so much fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew, I love your term “puzzling a story.” I think that’s a keeper! Sounds like you’re having a great time working on your story, too. It’s those “too easy” options that are often a red flag that we might still be missing a piece, right? 🙂


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