Sudoku for Writers

I have a new obsession: Sudoku.  Anyone who has known me for more than three seconds will raise their eyebrows and say “Um, Merry, doesn’t Sudoku involve numbers?  You know, those things you hate?”  But it’s true.  I’m hooked on number puzzles.

This new fascination has been in the works for a while.  One of my coworkers brings in puzzles from the Philadelphia Inquirer every day and at lunch we work the puzzles.  I’ve been doing the Wonderword for years and love it.  I started doing the Jumble several years back and think that’s fun – although usually groan-worthy – for a couple of years.  And I’ve done the Cryptoquote off and on depending on whether it’s on the page that gets photocopied or not.  (The Philadelphia Inquirer has changed the page layout for their puzzle section a few times in the last year or so)  But recently it’s been all about Sudoku.

Okay, let’s put this into context.  Numbers and I don’t get along very well.  We never have.  It’s not the math aspect of the whole thing, it’s just that I think about numbers from the point of view of a writer.  What exactly does that mean?  Behold, my math gymnastics from last week….

I signed up for a Flex Spending Account at work last week.  One of the items on the form was to figure out the amount that would need to be taken out of each paycheck.  So I “did the math”.  There are 52 weeks in a year, right?  And as I quickly figured out, half of 52 is … 31.  …  ???  Yeah, 31.  Because half of 2 is 1, right?  And that leaves the 5 part of 52.  And when you look at 5 and 1 together it makes 15.  And I’m working with halves, right?  So 15 is half of 30.  31.

I’m a writer.

But I think the fact that I’m a writer is why I’ve taken such a shine to Sudoku.  Because really, at the end of the day, Sudoku isn’t math, it’s logic.  And logic … well, that’s something that we writers need to learn to manipulate on a daily basis.

sudokuPlotting a novel is like working a giant Sudoku puzzle.  In Sudoku you are given just a few numbers to start with and from that you have to figure out how to fill every square and every line with the numbers 1-9.  Everything has a place, it’s up to you to figure it out.  The same thing is true of novels.

First you start with an idea.  You have a broad picture of the whole.  Usually you can summarize your idea in one big, broad concept that may or may not be able to be encapsulated in one sentence.  For Fool for Love my big, broad concept was “A pregnant heroine who has been jilted by her former betrothed.  A hero who thinks he’s stupid and is about to lose his ranch.  He rescues her from her ruined life and she teaches him that he is actually a smart man (with learning disabilities) and helps him save the ranch.”  And that is the Sudoku grid of this novel, complete with just a few numbers and a lot of blanks.

Now, I’m still a beginner when it comes to Sudoku.  I can usually work the one and two star puzzles on Monday and Tuesday, but by the time the paper gets to the three star puzzles on Wednesday and Thursday I have to put on my thinking cap.  It takes me a long time to do these puzzles.  There is a method to doing them though.  For me it takes a lot of figuring.  I use a pencil and write all the numbers that could be the answer to any given square in each blank square.  As each number falls into place I erase the numbers that are no longer possibilities.

Some of my copious story notes

Some of my copious story notes

I plot stories the same way.  Instead of sketching possibilities in pencil in each square, I whip out a pad of paper and let my stream of consciousness spill across the page in the form of story notes.  I write all about the characters, what their backgrounds are, what they feel about the situations they find themselves in, what they want and where they’re going with it.  I write down a recap of what I’ve already written and speculation of where I’m going next with it.  Basically I write down anything and everything that might be relevant to the eventual novel … or not.  Piece by piece, chapter by chapter, things begin to fall into place.

Sometimes I “explode” my Sudoku puzzles.  And yes, I usually do growl aloud in frustration when I reach that moment where there are way too many 4s.  Once I explode a Sudoku, I’m done.  I don’t have the skill yet to go back and fix it.

Fortunately, I do have the skills to go back and fix a novel.  And yes, I’ve exploded novels before.  They’re called “first drafts”.  First drafts are always terrible.  Mine are fraught with continuity errors, places where I’ve changed my mind, and long sections that either drag or no longer fit with the change in focus that I usually have.  But that’s what subsequent drafts are for.  Just like those tiny penciled-in numbers in a Sudoku, in subsequent drafts I can go back and erase what doesn’t work in favor of ideas that do work.  Sometimes I go through several ideas and twists before I find the right one.

The key to learning how to solve Sudoku puzzles and how to write novels for me has been the same thing:  Never give up.  Keep doing it.  Feel proud of yourself for learning to solve those one star puzzles, then move on to the two star and the three star ones.  Celebrate when you accomplish something you didn’t think you’d be able to.  I intend to throw a small party on the day when I first solve a four star Sudoku.  Just like I plan to throw a party the day I sign a contract with a Big Six publisher or am nominated for a RITA award.  And let me tell you, someday I will do both!

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7 thoughts on “Sudoku for Writers

  1. That’s actually a pretty good comparison. I’m a fan of Sudoku myself. It’s not so much about the numbers as the puzzle. You have to figure out where all the pieces go, just like in a novel. Only Sudoku is a bit easier, because you know what the pieces are. In a novel, sometimes you have no clue what the piece looks like until you find its spot.

    Your math is superb, by the way. I wonder how many people will read this and think “Huh, what a neat trick to find half of 52.” 🙂

  2. This is a great post! I’m a Sudoku addict, but never thought of it in this manner. I compare my passion for jigsaw puzzles and quilting to writing, but never Sudoku. Thanks for pointing out the similarities there, too.

    • I can definitely see how quilting is like constructing a novel. My mom was a quilter so I got to watch the whole process from picking patterns and fabric to binding. It’s a great analogy for writing!

  3. Interesting post, Merry. I’m terrible at math, and admit I’ve never tried very hard with Sudoku, but I do agree that writing a book is like solving a puzzle (another skill I’m not very good at!). Guess I better start practicing.

    • I only started doing Sudoku at work because I eat lunch with a small group of coworkers who does all of the puzzles in the paper every day. Just like so many things, I got hooked because I was trying to fit in. 😛

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