Is your story a puzzle or an explosion?
The thrill of finding the right place for each piece, a weekend retreat by the lake, and the undeniable link between movement and creativity.
When I was an MFA student, I took a year-long novel writing workshop. One day, the professor shared a theory about structure. (I don’t know if this was his personal theory, but I can’t find it anywhere else, so let’s assume it’s an original.)
“Some stories,” he said, “are an explosion. Others are a puzzle.”
Newer writers, undergrad students, me during a first draft—these situations are ripe for explosions. An idea takes hold, usually sparked by a catastrophe, and the story unfolds from there. Catastrophes can be a fine place to start. My own novel-in-progress begins in the midst of a hurricane, with a tree crashing through the main character’s roof. But the thing that makes a story great, that transforms a plot into art, is the moment after the explosion, when the dust has settled and the characters emerge from the rubble, ready to pick up the pieces.
When you start a new puzzle, you know what the end result is supposed to look like. But how do you get there? Do you start with the border, searching for those flat-edged pieces? Does a certain color jump out at you—black and white polka dots, maybe a bold red? Or do you look at the shape of each piece, hunting for pairs and finding soulmates? No matter your strategy, patterns and pieces start to emerge. The final image begins to make sense.
When I was writing the first few drafts of my book, I wasn’t entirely sure how or if the story would come together. Now, multiple revisions in, I know the characters, the twists and turns, how things will end. I have all the pieces, but to create suspense and momentum and intrigue, to make the story great, I need to figure out where each piece belongs.
I mean this literally. Last month, I started working on my draft again, armed with the advice to lean more toward literary thriller. I started by deleting all the chapter headings, leaving one giant, 280-page document. Then, I named each scene, treating it as a piece of the puzzle rather than a moment set in stone. I combined scenes that were doing the same work, and moved others from the middle of the book to the beginning.
Because I already know the big picture, it’s easier to see how each scene moves the story forward, to know when to reveal information and where to leave clues. The process has been fun to move through—frustrating when I get stuck, gratifying when things fall into place. The puzzle isn’t finished, but the pieces are coming together. It’s a thrilling reveal.
This weekend, some of my friends and I rented a huge house about an hour from Wilmington, right on Lake Waccamaw, for a craft/creative retreat. We’ve spent the whole weekend sharing meals, working on a jigsaw puzzle, writing our newsletters (maybe that was just me), reading books, hiking around the lake, practicing yoga, and working on various crafts, including embroidery, collage, knitting, and watercolors. It’s been a peaceful and restorative little getaway with some of my favorite people, and I hope it becomes an annual tradition!
My internet friend Allyson recently interviewed me about fitness, creativity, and movement for her Pilates blog. If you want to read all the reasons I love the YMCA, how I once ended in remedial gym, and why regular exercise makes me a better writer, head over to Allyson’s blog to check it out.
One of my themes for 2023—in addition to “Ritual”—is to have more fun. Apparently I’m not the only one. I enjoyed this NPR article about that precise topic. I’m also reading The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again (dramatic title, I know) and really love the author’s definition of True Fun: the quintessential experience of pure joy that combined optimally the three experiences of playfulness, connection, and flow. More of this, please!
In Kara’s Friday newsletter, she mentioned trying to chill on “inputs” while working on some “outputs” and thus didn’t have as many links to share. Rather than search for a third recommendation, I’m going to focus on my outputs instead. Thanks, Kara!
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Yayyy to freeing yourself from hunting down an inspiring link just to have one to include!
I love the puzzle metaphor! But also...remedial gym. I was also in it, but not because of laziness, but because I HAD to be there. It was so much more fun than regular PE, which I HATED (for obvious reasons). It's so rare that I hear it talked about--the only other person I know who had to do it was my ex-husband! So funny.