Why writing a book is like making a jigsaw puzzle

A friend of mine told me recently, “Writing a book is like making a jigsaw puzzle. It’s hard to get started, and it comes together slowly at first, but it gets faster toward the end.” He had it somewhat right, but not exactly. As a writer who also enjoys jigsaw puzzles, I had to take it further. The analogy works in a much deeper way than my friend had considered.

My husband and I made this puzzle in a weekend. It's only 500 pieces.

My husband and I made this puzzle in a weekend. It's only 500 pieces.

Especially for nonfiction, you need to start with a thesis and an outline. The outline is like the border of a puzzle. It defines the boundaries. The size of the puzzle defines the size table you need. The scope of the outline defines, though not in as definite a way, how long the book needs to be. In both cases, if it is too large, you are going to have problems.

Finding the edge pieces in a puzzle is usually straightforward, except for those puzzles with irregular pieces where a short flat section does not necessarily mean the piece belongs to the border. Writing a book is more like working with that type of puzzle. It’s not obvious what should be in the outline. Like the puzzle, though, if you think it might belong, put it in. You can always take it out later if it doesn’t fit. But if you mix it in with the rest of the pieces it will be infuriating to find.

The piece on the left is obviously an edge piece. The one on the right? Hard to tell.

The piece on the left is obviously an edge piece. The one on the right? Hard to tell.

Once you have the outline/border, it is time to fill in the pieces. For a book, you need to do research, and sort through it to see where each nugget of information fits into the outline. For a puzzle, it is a matter of spreading out all the pieces and grouping like with like.

Many people do puzzles with the box out on the table, so they can see what the finished puzzle will look like. It’s easier to see how the pieces fit into the whole. My husband does not believe in that approach. He thinks it is akin to cheating. The box goes away, not to be brought out until the puzzle is completed. That makes the task more challenging, but perhaps more enjoyable, too, to gradually figure out how everything fits together. And it makes it more like writing a book, where you don’t know how the final product will turn out.

Some parts of the outline are easier to fill in than others, perhaps because of prior knowledge or a source that provides a great wealth of information. Starting on those easier sections can give a false sense of accomplishment, followed by disillusion when you realize how much there still is to finish. The same thing can happen in a jigsaw puzzle, where you have put together all the houses and are now faced with a vast array of sky pieces.

Organization is another issue. On a large puzzle, you may have set aside a bunch of green pieces, but then find that they don’t all fit together. What is the problem? Perhaps there are five different green sections scattered throughout the puzzle.

While researching a topic, you may get to a point where you suddenly know what you don’t know. It may seem overwhelming, but it is not necessary to understand everything about a topic, just the right amount of detail to write the book. And, unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the outline is not fixed. You can always add or delete sections as the work progresses.

Also unlike a puzzle, it is not obvious when a book is done. The editing can go on endlessly.

I will admit that I have not yet written a book. I have, however, written book-length reports for clients. These are 30,000 to 40,000 words long and well over 100 pages with tables and graphs. I start by creating an outline and then embark on research. I may start out knowing a lot or very little about my subject, but by the end I know enough to write intelligently and provide useful information to the reader.

I have more experience writing shorter pieces. My sweet spot is word length of 500 to 2000, where the writing comes easily once I have gathered the information. For me, writing an article or blog post is like doing a 100-piece puzzle. Once I’ve laid out the pieces, it is usually easy. I may place an occasional wrong piece, but I am quick to find the error and finish the puzzle.

Writing a book-length work feels more like making a 1000-piece puzzle, or perhaps one even larger. It is a more daunting task, but is so much more satisfying to accomplish. But just as completing a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle is not the same as completing twenty 100-piece puzzles (unless those puzzles are all jumbled together), writing a book is not like putting a few dozen articles into one volume. The book needs to make sense as a whole. Every piece needs to support the thesis in some way.

Now is the point where I must admit publicly that I am writing a book, which I intend to publish. I’ve written an outline and filled in some content. All I will say now is the book is about materials and why what stuff is made of matters, for the health of people and the planet. Right now, the border feels a bit unstable – perhaps some of the pieces don’t quite fit – but I will persevere and put the entire puzzle together.

Whether it is a jigsaw puzzle or a book, any big project is easier with help. When the time comes, I will engage an editor. For now, I am co-organizer of a new Meetup group. Eastside Nonfiction Book Writers meets weekly to provide a community for writers and encourage us all to get our books written and published. If you are in the Seattle area and interested, come join us!