Is writing fiction like solving a crossword puzzle?

That’s the thesis of this New York Times op-ed — the last, we are told, in its “Drafts” series about the craft of writing.  Not a great ending for the series. It’s not that there aren’t parallels between the two activities.  It’s that the parallels are trivial.  Sometimes it’s hard to get started solving a crossword puzzle.  Hey, same for novels!

The equivalent blank period in novel writing can, unfortunately, last months or even years, but the principles at work are just the same. There will be stretches in which the only characters you’re able to summon arrive faceless or, worse, voiceless. There will be whole seasons in which every plot idea you come up with collapses the moment it appears on your screen. These are the times when you’d start Googling law school application deadlines if it weren’t for the memory of that Saturday puzzle: Even a granite wall, studied with sufficient patience, reveals its cracks.

Well, okay.  The principle at work is: both activities can be hard, especially when you’re getting started.  This is news?  What the author doesn’t discuss is the crucial difference between puzzles and novels: puzzles, by definition, have a single correct solution.  Novels?  Not so much.  And that’s why novels are a bit harder than the Saturday Times puzzle.

Fairly deep into the second draft of my novel, I have decided to make a fundamental change in a major character’s back story. Was this the correct solution to my narrative problem?  Has the novel gained more than it’s lost?  I have no idea.  And I can’t look in tomorrow’s Times to find out.  Because I’m the only one who can say whether the solution is correct.  And I may never be totally sure.

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