What Spelling Bee Taught Me About Writing

“Handle a book as a bee does a flower, extract its sweetness but do not damage it.” –John Muir

* * *

If you haven’t played the NY Times Spelling Bee game, here’s a brief intro:

The game involves making words out of seven letters. I suppose one reason I’m attracted to it is how the game is presented: Each of the seven letters is inside a hexagon-shaped cell. Six of the cells surround a central one, and it all looks like a honeycomb. Clever, eh?

The idea is to make words (at least four letters in length) using the letters. You can use a letter more than once, but you must use the center letter in every word you make. For example, the word “TAUNT” wouldn’t work in the example above because it doesn’t contain the letter G. “GAUNT” would be a good word.

You get one point for a four-letter word. If the word is longer than four letters, you get a point for each letter in the word. If you use all seven letters in a word, you get the number of points for the word plus another seven. It’s called a pangram. In the example above “UNTAGGED” would be a pangram.

As you rack up points, you move up a scale from Beginner to Genius. If you get to the Genius stage, a screen pops up telling you how wonderful you are. If you continue and get every possible word, you achieve Queen Bee status. (Very hard to do without using hints.)

* * *

My husband and I play this game almost every day while we eat lunch. We figure it takes both our brains to get to Genius. In our experience, we usually move up the scale and get one step short of Genius, but getting that last step is hard. Sometimes we make it and other times we don’t. So why am I telling you all this? What does it have to do with writing?

It’s because of a “boys in the basement” pattern that’s developed.

* * *

If we haven’t reached Genius by the time I finish lunch, I’m ready to move on. I may stay around for a few minutes, but I have other things to do. (My husband, on the other hand, will diligently stare at the letters for much longer, and he sometimes gets us to that last step by himself.)

I leave the table and either clean up a little in the kitchen or retire to my office to invent some new disaster to throw at the characters in my WIP. However, in either case, I’ve put the word game out of my mind, and I’m thinking of the next thing on the schedule.

Lately, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that occurs frequently during these “moving on” sessions: As I’m dealing with another item on my to-do list, a word will pop into my mind. It’s not something I was thinking about or trying to come up with. It just appears.

For example, a while back I had stopped working on the puzzle and was putting dishes in the dishwasher when the word “EJECTABLE” popped into my mind. Now that’s not a word I think of very often. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember ever having heard of it before. I wasn’t even sure it was an actual word. I turned to my husband. “Does ‘ejectable’ work in the puzzle?”

Yep. And it was a pangram.

* * *

The process seems to be that I stare at the letters, make words, and keep trying until I’m convinced I’ve made all the words I can possibly make. I walk away, my brain relaxes, and those little neuron pathways that were blocked by my mental overexertion clear up. Then a word slips through and presents itself in tiny little neon letters.

I’ve noticed the same thing happens when I work on a tough crossword puzzle. I’ll get stuck on a clue and can’t find a solution, so I put the puzzle aside. When I return to it the next day, I immediately think of the word I was looking for. If that had happened once or twice, I wouldn’t be mentioning it now. But it happens often enough that I’m wondering how to consistently apply this to writing.

* * *

Is the same process possible as we pound away at developing our stories? Like so many cells in a honeycomb, the answer we’re looking for may be there, but we can’t seem to dig it out. We have to let it come to us.

So TKZers: Do you play word games? What are your favorites? Have you had a similar experience of ideas popping up only after you start another project? Do you deliberately try to use a shift in focus to get those boys in the basement into the game?


42 thoughts on “What Spelling Bee Taught Me About Writing

  1. 🅠Do you play word games?
    🅠What are your favorites?
    🅐Wordle. So far I’ve had 12 Twoples. Got a Threeple today.
    🅠Have you had ideas pop up after you start another project?
    🅐It’s not the starting of a new project that kicks things loose, it’s the passage of time. As Jung said, ‘The question arises, “Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own?”‘ The work of Hans Stuyck et al, [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356844000_Aha_under_pressure_The_Aha_experience_is_not_constrained_by_cognitive_load] seems to indicate that the intuitive mind is independent of the rational mind. The former continues to work on a task after the latter has moved on to other things, or even fallen asleep.✻ Eventually, it will find an answer, which it presents to a portal accessible by our conscious mind, i.e., working memory.
    🅠Do you use a shift in focus to get those boyos humming?
    🅐It’s not necessary. The boyos (AKA The Guardienne) will perform on their own, without prompting. I now thank it/them for their contributions to my work.

    ✻ or passed out: Keith Richards woke up one morning and wondered what was on the recorder next to his bed. He had been so stoned, he couldn’t remember doing anything at all between installing a new tape and waking. It was “Satisfaction,” the song that rocketed the Rolling Stones to superstar status. (Duker)

    • Good morning, JG. I had a feeling you would have some good comments about this post. I particularly liked “the intuitive mind is independent of the rational mind.” That seems to be the case, but it appears that one has to try to get to the destination through the rational network before the intuitive is prompted to take over.

      (Do you believe that story about Keith Richards?)

      • Yes, I’ve heard the same story from several sources. I’ve heard others that are just as strange.

        The intuitive core can be triggered in several ways. An emergency will set it off every time. Pele tells about finding himself in the zone during a final match with Sweden. I’ve been there once; it’s not ordinary confidence; it’s a feeling of knowing you can’t fail.

        I need to find a safe way to activate the Guardienne while writing. I’ll let you know if I do!

  2. I love Wordle. Hadn’t heard of this game. Will no doubt get hooked on this one as well.

    If I get stuck on something, I let it go. Usually when I come back, it’s worked out.

  3. Phrazle. Twice a day. There’s a morning and afternoon puzzle.

    The Boys have their own way of doing things. I pretty much leave them alone, except at night, when I might put them to work on a specific problem.

    • I remember you told us about Phrazle a while back, and I played it once or twice. I should have another go at it.

      I don’t think the Boys in my Basement work the night shift. I need to talk to them about that. 🙂

  4. I enjoy crossword puzzles, but I don’t do them as often as I like. When ideas are stuck, they’ll sometimes work themselves out when I go for a jog. I’ve tried thinking about a plot conundrum when falling asleep, but so far that hasn’t worked!

    • Going out for a run is always helpful to me, Vera. Maybe all the pounding “jogs” some brain cells loose to travel another path. (I think there may be a short story in this idea!)

  5. I like Wordle, Phrazle (thanks JSB, but I only do one puzzle a day), and the NYT Mini Cross. I do the full crossword on Mondays and Tuesdays, sometimes Wednesdays. I play Words With Friends with my writing buddy, and sometimes with strangers.
    Decades ago, I loved Anacrostics, but those haven’t shown up in an online email type platform yet.
    Then there are all the other ‘non-word-based games’ that I play during breaks.
    I’ve got enough to do that those focus shifts take care of themselves, although I suppose you could argue that I’m deliberately moving away from the writing with the back-of-the-mind idea that something will click in the WIP.

    • Sounds like you have a good repertoire for shifting focus, Terry. Have you tried Connections? It’s a new NY Times game that challenges the brain in a different way.

      • I looked at Connections and figured it would eat up too much of my time. I like things I can finish quickly so I can say I’ve accomplished something and then move on to the ‘real’ stuff.

  6. “Have you had a similar experience of ideas popping up only after you start another project?”

    When brainstorming or researching, the good news/bad news is that often I’ll get ideas for other stories while working on that particular story. Usually that’s great. But the downside is if you REALLY get rolling and off track on another story idea, it lends itself to the perpetual cycle of never getting a project done. It has taken time but I’m learning how better to train myself to make quick notes and stay on the current task.

    Will have to give Spelling Bee a try.

    • Good morning, BK. I’ve also had the issue of ideas popping up that don’t fit the story I’m working on. That can be great for the imagination but not so good for the WIP. You’re wise to jot things down to come back to them later.

      Have a great writing week.

  7. Great post, Kay. I don’t play word games, but the Spelling Bee game sounds interesting.

    I’ve had many experiences of ideas popping up while I’m doing something else, usually falling to sleep, waking up, or mindless physical work What I’ve noticed, though, is that the more creative projects I fill my time with, the more diluted the solutions become for a particular project. I don’t know if the boys in the basement have a work limit. I wish I could train them to work faster, or at least be able to tell them which project I want them to work on.

    Have a creative and productive week!

    • Good morning, Steve.

      Great observation: “the more creative projects I fill my time with, the more diluted the solutions become for a particular project.” You have so many creative projects going at one time, it’s not surprising the boys in the basement are having trouble keeping up.

      I’m trying to figure out how to increase the work force in my basement.

  8. Good morning, Kay! Wonderful post. I used to play Words With Friends obsessively, but stopped several years ago. I’ve been intending to play word games, and the NYT Spelling Bee sounds perfect, as does Phrazle, mentioned again by JSB.

    I have had the experience of the Boys in the Basement furnishing me with new ideas on a WIP when I’ve shifted to a new activity—like yard word, yoga, zumba etc. It’s also happened after I’ve put time in journaling on the WIP—a bit later, when when doing something else, voila! a new idea popped into my head. That happened just the other day in fact, relating to the murderer’s story and details around the murder, which of course, affect the subsequent investigation.

    I need all the help I can be from the Boys in the Basement. Thanks for this fun, thought-provoking post that got my Monday off to good start.

    • Good morning, Dale!

      The “boys in the basement” experience is such a great one. I have a feeling that authors and other creative people encounter this phenomenon more than others do.

      Have a great and productive week.

  9. Love the “ejectable” story, Kay! I don’t play word games now although I used to enjoy Scrabble and a word jumble puzzle in the daily physical newspaper (remember those days?).

    The boys in the basement visit regularly. Walks are the best prompts for my subconscious to take care of business, same way a dog knows to do its business.

    Last night, I worked on a scene for about 20 minutes and couldn’t think of the right comeback in a dialogue exchange. Finally, I closed the computer and started for bed. I didn’t get up the stairs before the perfect line hit me. Had to open the computer again, add the comeback, and then write a new half page that followed as a result of the comeback.

    BTW, Anne R. Allen’s blog yesterday had an excellent post on the subconscious by guest author Jim Denney: https://annerallen.com/2023/09/writing-superpower-in-a-world-of-ai/

    • Good morning, Debbie. I love your story about finishing work for the day, heading off to bed, and having to turn around and record the new idea. That’s happened to me many times!

      Thanks for supplying the link to Anne’s blog. I read Jim’s article yesterday. (Do you suppose AI has Bots in the Basement?)

  10. I play Wordbrain and like to do cryptograms when I have time. Like several others, when I get stuck, I leave it and when I come back the answer is there. Will have to look up Spelling Bee.

    When I run into a problem with my story, I’ll go to bed mulling it over and usually when I wake up the solution is in my head. 🙂 I really believe in the boys in the basement/girls in the attic thingy.

    • I play Wordbrain also, Patricia. There are so many great word games available.

      Like you, I believe in the phenomenon of boys or girls in the basement or attic. Wherever they are, I’m grateful for them!

      Have a great week.

  11. Great post, Kay!

    I’m not sure when my Boys work, but I can tell that it’s usually when I’m not thinking about them. I need a bigger crew, though. Maybe there’s a BITB.com where we can hire a few?

    When I get stuck, I go out and play with my several praying mantis. The best bug in the world IMHO…they calmly hang upside down in my outside plants, waiting for lunch to walk by.

    Maybe I should hang some ropes in my office and wait for an idea to appear. Or, maybe not. My kiddos already think I’m weird enough.


    • Good morning, Deb!

      If you find a place where we can pick up a few more BITB, please let me know. I could use the extra help.

      I’ve seen some of your photos of the praying mantis. Quite an elegant looking creature.

    • Robert Louis Stevenson, the inventor of Mr. Hyde, did allow for the possibility of more than one ride-along in our minds, speaking as Dr. Jekyll: “I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.” Thus far, however, cases of MPD (or “DID,” as is now the fashion), consisting of more than one personality, seem to have been fictions evoked by eager and unsuspecting, if not downright unscrupulous, hypnotherapists.

  12. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

    Which is why I have a plastic slate and pencil at the side of the pool when I swim. (I could show you if you allowed image uploads 😉 I think half of my breakthrough ideas for my first novel came while swimming backstroke and staring at the clouds.

    • Good morning, Harald!

      It seems that exercise is a proven way to get the Boys working on a problem. Swimmers have an advantage over runners — you can stare at the clouds. That would be a little dangerous while out for a jog.

      Have a great writing week and enjoy every lap in the pool.

  13. I love how many people sleep on it and wake up to a story solution. Sadly, that has never worked for me. Maybe one day!

  14. Hi Kay, Good stuff. Sorry I’m late. Back when I was in high school (early 70s) our English teacher had a daily game with us. On a “on your mark, get set, go” we had to open our dictionaries (yes, we each carried our own personal dictionary) and put our finger on a random word. We then wrote the word in our notebook as fast as we could to a maximum of ten words, then we went on with the rest of the class, and at the end we had to find each word’s meaning and write it down. We then went around the room and read out the word and the class had to blurt out what they thought it meant. What a way to keep a kid in the game.

  15. I don’ have boys in the basement, but I DO have girls in the garage. 🙂
    I play Words With Friends every day with 2 others, one author and one not. Between the 2 I have about 8 games going. It’s a challenge!

  16. I love Wordle’s ability to create the ideal balance between simplicity and intricacy. It’s simple to learn the rules and get started, but the game soon becomes increasingly difficult as you go. Trying to guess the five-letter word in the allotted time keeps me focused and alert.

    • The version of Wordle I play doesn’t have a time element, but I like games that require you to get the right answer within a time limit. I think it trains the user to focus completely on the problem at hand. A good talent to have.

      Thanks for stopping by, Sophie.

  17. Sorry I’m late, Kay! I wasn’t at my desk yesterday.

    To answer your question, I don’t play word games. Music activates my girls in the attic. Also, around 7 p.m. every night, while my husband showers, I sit in my office that overlooks “Animal Planet,” the yard that lures the most wildlife. While I relax, sipping my last tea, “the girls” get extra creative, so I wind up writing in Notes on my phone. Some of my best twists emerged that way. No idea how it works, nor do I delve into why (don’t want to jinx myself). 😉

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