My mother has been working on a puzzle in her office upstairs. It is based on van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, which has to be one of my favorite paintings of all time. I love the colors, the swirls of light and dark, the textured blobs of paint that together form something wonderful. All of the things that make Starry Night an enchanting work of art also make it a maddeningly difficult puzzle.
After spending fifteen minutes trying to find the right piece to fill the spot I was working on, I realized that making a puzzle was like writing. Yes, I see writing metaphors everywhere, but bear with me.
Writing is like making a puzzle because you have a general idea of what you want it to look like in the end, maybe you have an outline, or a plot chart or a pile of notes, or a box with a picture on it.
Fitting the outside of the puzzle together is fairly easy, you just find all the flat pieces and set them side by side. That part is like sketching out the main points of the story.
Maybe you clearly see how a particular conversation goes or you recognize a certain situation your character has to get into or out of. That’s like piecing together the swirling yellow stars or the black tree-spike in the foreground of the painting. It’s challenging, but you can manage it because you have a clear picture of what you’re putting together.
Then comes the hard part. You need to connect those clear points using all the little swirly bits in between. Your character has to move and develop, creating a continuous path from the stirring beginning to the epic conclusion. You have all of these pieces and they all look more or less the same except that this one has two prongs instead of three and that one has more green while this other one has a bit more yellow. Sometimes you have to try a lot of pieces before you find the one that fits.
It takes a lot of work but when you’re done you have a beautiful 2000 piece replica of a famous post-impressionist painting or a 50,000 word original masterpiece.
About now, you’re thinking, yes, yes, that’s a very nice extended metaphor, but what exactly is your point? My point is this. Making something beautiful takes hours and hours of hard work. It is challenging and rewarding and sometimes downright maddening. If you’re going to take on a project like that, shouldn’t it be something original?
You only have so much time and energy, don’t waste it working on someone else’s masterpiece. Sit down, shut up, and write your own.