Write Like You Sudoku!

Welcome to Author Next Door!

I love Sudoku! I have the app on my phone, and my sister-in-law keeps me supplied with pocket Sudoku books for plane trips or sitting on the couch to wind down at night. My method of play is very methodical, although sometimes when I exercise my logic to eliminate numbers, I out-think myself or just plain write the number in the wrong box, usually in the box next to the one where it was supposed to be. That means eventually I end up with two of the same numbers on the same line. So I erase and start over. And over.

Sudoku challenges me because I’m so not a math person. Combined with the quirk that I don’t like looking at the answer key and I write in pen—hey, pencil is messy when it smears—I tend to go through a lot of tape erase. Working my way through easy and medium level puzzles to get to the hard ones, I leave behind completed pages sporting white measle-like patches over-written with pen, some often several layers-of-tape deep if they were challenging puzzles. When I finally solve an especially difficult one, I feel victorious!

As I finished one the other night, it hit me that writing utilizes many of the same skills it takes to solve Sudoku puzzles. Here’s the way I see it:

  1. Start easy, work toward hard. Having problems beginning that major fight scene? Don’t attempt it first thing when you sit down. First try describing weapons kept in the arsenal, or gear/clothing characters will wear and how that reflects inner emotions or connects as a symbol to their character arc or main story theme. Make a list of snappy phrases or come-backs for characters to utter as they do battle. Jot down what your major characters’ five (or six) senses register at the scene of the altercation. As you tackle easier tasks you’ll find yourself segue into the harder scene sooner than you think.
  1. Fill in what you know before tackling the gaps which are left. Write obligatory scenes necessary to span the conflict or character arc, even if you don’t know how you will get from one to the next. Plotters with story boards still run up against times when the next “door” won’t open because it’s locked shut for some reason. Give yourself permission to write out of linear chapter progression, knowing you’ll come back to add details for foreshadowing or complexity. Trust your subconscious to help you later with logic to make connections.
  1. You can begin a puzzle without knowing the answer. Honest writers often create a conflict without knowing exactly how it will be resolved. They only know it’s what they need to write. Trust yourself to write in whatever direction your story takes you. Writing is organic; tales change as they are spun—usually for the better. Some solutions materialize only after you’ve solved a previous one, since each solution creates new and different parameters. Your subconscious will help you figure out the answer to the puzzle, although just like Sudoku, that might make you crazy for a while.
  1. If trying one path leads to a dead end, start over coming from a different direction. Don’t be afraid to start over or to try out a different way of approaching an issue. Write a scene from another POV, start at a different point on the timeline. You’ll eventually figure it out as long as you keep putting yourself in the chair with the puzzle time and time and time and time again. Have patience and keep the faith.
  1. You don’t have to finish one difficult puzzle before starting another. Stuck? Write a few paragraphs for the synopsis. Draft a query letter. Write the back blurb. Take a break. Write a scene before or after the one you’re trying to figure out. Allow yourself to start another story without guilt. Bake cookies. Again, your subconscious eventually will clue you in and everything will fall into place. Important: don’t give up entirely—commit to going back at some point!
  1. Buy more tape erase if you need it. There’s no shame in trying something that doesn’t work out. Who hasn’t written three chapters only to find the third chapter is where the story should begin? Those other two weren’t wasted: they got you to chapter three. Allow yourself to write whatever appears on the computer screen as you type. You can erase/save/edit another time, but the important idea is to try, to give yourself that opportunity for magic to happen! As long as you’re in the chair writing, starting over isn’t failure. Failure would be not writing.
  1. Share good news when you complete a hard task. That’s what family, friends, critique partners, and writing group buddies are for. They appreciate your accomplishments, and they’re usually willing to help you celebrate over chocolate or wine. Be ready to encourage them, too, when their time comes.

Start with a plan, dare to start over or venture a wild guess, have patience to stick with it even when you can’t see a way to finish, and then celebrate your success when you do.

In other words, write like you Sudoku!

Until next time,

Karen Taylor Saunders