My husband and I enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles. We’ve worked hundreds of them, usually 1,000 piece puzzles. A couple years ago we bought a brand new puzzle with a scenic lake setting as the picture.

We slit open the box, dumped out the pieces on our dining table, and put together the border. Now we were ready to work on the picture. After an hour or so, we both kept looking at the sections we’d put together and at the picture on the box. One of us (I don’t remember which one) said, “Something doesn’t look right.” The other agreed. We kept going and a while later we both decided that the puzzle must have been put into the wrong box at the manufacturing plant. The picture we were seeing on our table was of mountains and rocks.

We debated whether to put the pieces back in the box and return it to the store or keep working on the puzzle. It didn’t take long to decide. We had a unique opportunity to put together a surprise picture, one that didn’t have a road map and that would be slowly revealed to us.

When we finally finished the puzzle we smiled at our accomplishment–we had done it and we had more fun than we usually did in the process because we were constantly wondering what it would turn out to be. Do you want to know what the picture was?

We were looking at the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru.

Looking back, it reminds me of writing novels. I used to start out with a fairly detailed outline of the whole story–like the picture on a puzzle box. Now I tend to start out with a written a sketch of what I want to create, with lots of ideas and lots of questions and a vague ending–I guess that’s kind of my puzzle border.

As I start writing the story, I go back to my ‘sketch’ and fill in more information about the story. Some scenes I will plan out, but others not. Often, I will start writing a new scene and have no idea where it’s going. And sometimes when doing that I will surprise myself and write/type something that is a game-changer–a huge surprise, something I didn’t plan or even think about. It’s like my fingers had a mind of their own.

I will have to stop for a few minutes, asking myself ‘where did that come from and does it belong in the story?’ I look back on what came before and where I want the story to go and I always find that the surprise fits perfectly. How is that possible?

I can only surmise that my subconscious has picked up on something and by me not over-thinking the plot, I have allowed the idea out and added something organic to the story. This happens a lot in my recent novels.

Many writers choose to outline every book they write, but many others prefer winging it. There’s a debate among writers: is it better to be an outliner or a pantser? A pantser is someone who writes by ‘the seat-of their-pants’.  I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one method is better than the other. If I had to answer the question, I would say that it’s up to the writer to find a method that works for them–and it’s okay to experiment and create a hybrid method. I think that’s what I’ve done.