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Puzzling the Plot

My brother in law and his partner like to piece together jigsaw puzzles.  They call the activity, puzzling.   After both have spent their work day dealing with the public or more to the point, the entitled public, puzzling is relaxing: not aggravating like the news, not demanding like reading.  Puzzles have a form, rules and can be finished in a reasonable time frame.   

They offered to include me in the grand opening of a new puzzle.  With great ceremony they opened a new puzzle box and  and carefully distributed the  detached pieces picture side up across the table.  

The first activity, they explain, is to build the frame.

The second is to spend minutes, or hours, finding the next exact piece to fit into the frame.

Sometimes a person focuses on fitting together all the pieces that have similar colors or patterns, and set the collection, checking the box lid,  into the general area of the still incomplete puzzle, reasonably confident that they will find  the linking pieces that will eventually attache and connect those sections into the frame.

Sometimes they work for 15 minutes to find where a specific piece belongs but in the end, still can’t find a home for it.  At that point they  are allowed to declare that the puzzle is stupid and walk away to watch a favorite Netflix series.

What I appreciate most about puzzling is the  nonjudgemental permission to  walk away.  The pieces are not swept  back into the box. The offending piece that refuses to mate is not set on fire.   

You don’t give up on the puzzle.

Because the next morning, that puzzle piece will  suddenly reveal where it belongs, it will find it’s place in the frame.  You can move on and find the next, then the next, piece, always moving towards the goal of finished picture.  

Just like plotting a story or novel.  

We often start a novel with a clear  picture in our head of what the finished novel should look like.

We  build the frame intended to contain all the characters and adventures.

We spend hours, days, months scrutinizing our plot points and pieces and work mightily to make them fit in the frame and contribute to the overall picture.

The only time puzzling does not resemble plotting is during that moment when you realized that all the pretty pieces, all the colors:  the butterfly, the antique car, the palm tree, doesn’t fit in the frame.  Sometimes a whole collection, no matter how meticulously worked and no matter how beautiful, doesn’t fit at all.

In a puzzle, this never happens.  In a novel, it happens all the time.  Sometimes our completed novel doesn’t match the picture in our head, at all.

Don’t be discouraged, celebrate the completion of a whole novel.  Take those beautiful sections that didn’t fit anywhere and save them for another novel, or blog, or short story.   

A novel is just like a puzzle, you can  leave every piece on the table and walk away.

Stupid puzzle.


Catharine Bramkamp is a successful writing coach and author. She has published over 300 newspaper and magazine articles in publications like Modern Maturity (AARP), SF Chronicle and Santa Rosa Magazine. She was a contributor to two Chicken Soup Books and has published anthologies of her work, non-fiction works and novels. Her work has also appeared in a number of poetry and fiction anthologies. She has experimented with the self-publishing world since 2001. She has published and self-published seven books through companies like Author House, author assist companies like 3L Publishing and through traditional publishers like Write Life. Her poetry collection, Ammonia Sunrise, will be released in August 2011 by Finishing Line Press and her mystery novel, In Good Faith will be released by Write Life in 2011. Catharine holds a BA in English from UCSB and a MA in English from Sonoma State University. She is a 25 year member of California Writer’s Club. She is an adjunct professor for the University of Phoenix. She works with authors of both fiction and non-fiction to make their dream of producing a book come true. For more information on that, visit her at Catharine has lived in Sonoma County for 25 years and considers wine a food group. She is married to an adorable and very patient man who complains he’s never featured in any of her books. Her grown children who are featured in a few of her books have fled the county.

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