Writing a Novel: It’s Basically Crosswords, All the Way Down

Now that I’m deeper into the second revision of Tarnhelm (46 pages done, 100 to go–but the second half of the book needs quite a bit more work than the first, which had already been revised once), I’ve just been surprised how each book seems to have a life of its own.

You would think writing one novel would be much like writing any other, but so far I’ve found that not to be the case. Oh, you still string words together and figure out plots and characterizations–that’s not what I mean. What I’m getting at is more a focus on the process itself. Sitting down and solving the problems that come up during the creative process.

In some ways, it’s a lot like a crossword. Maybe you’re a crossword expert. You’ve been doing them for years, and you can blaze through easier ones with very little struggle. But those Sunday New York Times crosswords still stump you. You know all sorts of tricks, the method to solving each one is the same, but the actual process varies depending on the crossword. With one, maybe you start in the upper left corner. But then on another, that one’s a complete mystery, so you end up focusing on the middle. Or the lower right, or some of the long answers that’ll crack the code all at once.

There are revelations as you go. Small clues of no consequence end up being vital, since once they’re in place, bigger puzzle-focusing clues come into place, and the picture gets that clearer. In the end, the result is the same: a completed crossword. And when someone asks you after the fact, you can tell them–but the steps seem awfully similar in each case. It’s only by actually solving the crossword that it all makes sense.

And now, maybe I’ve used that analogy too much.

This is all just to say that I tend to have to overcome a good dose of inertia each time I start a new project–whether it’s the first draft of a book, or a major revision of a book I’ve already done. In the case of the first draft, it’s that blasted empty page that can scare the socks off me. For a major revision, it’s knowing how much work is there and wondering “Where do I begin? How will I keep it all straight?”

But the thing is, there’s always a way. You start where you can–where it makes sense–and those empty boxes start getting filled in. It’s like magic. I always got a kick out of talking to some of the creative writing majors in college. There were so few of them who actually ever wrote anything (other than when an assignment was due). They’d say, “I have to wait for my muse.” And to me, that’s sort of like saying, “I can only do that crossword puzzle when the fancy takes me.”

I write for the same reason I do crosswords: I enjoy the process. It’s not something I just feel like doing now and then. I mean, I like it so much, I write a daily blog. I’m a sick, sick man. What can I say?

(And bonus points to whomever can get the connection between the movie listed and the subject matter. No, it’s not that Billy Crystal is a writer in the movie.)

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