Monday, February 22, 2010

Pam's Puzzle Pieces of Plotting

Pull up a chair, and grab some of Ruthy’s to-die-for coffee or tea. What’s on the menu today, Ruthy? While we’re waiting for the rest of the spread, I’ll grab ten or so white mocha cappuccinos from Starbucks for the early risers.
When I was a teenager, my daddy and I put a puzzle together every year. Shopping for a jigsaw puzzle was SO much fun. In the weeks before Christmas, Daddy and I searched for the perfect puzzle. We liked big puzzles, the bigger the better, 5000 pieces or more…that’s probably not big by today’s standards, but that size fit perfectly on our “puzzle” table. Once we found the right puzzle, we couldn’t wait to get started.
Daddy and I loved pastoral scenes. Barns, horses, cattle, dogs, cats. And of course we had to have a big expanse of sky and a pond or lake because it’s hard to tell the lake pieces from the sky pieces, which is part of the fun.

Once we got home, we dumped the entire box out on the table and painstakingly turned all the pieces face up. While we were sorting, we could pick out a good many of the edges, and corner pieces, the frame of the picture.
As we worked on the outline, we continued to sort all the little pieces, grouping them by color, and texture. I say texture because the solid green of a John Deere tractor is different to the green leaves of a tree. We would find all the sky and water pieces, and any pieces that were obvious…like the green of a tractor, or the fire-engine red of a 1964 Mustang.

We spent hours and hours searching for the right pieces, never hurrying, never forcing a piece. If a little piece of cardboard didn’t fit, we laid it aside and picked another. We studied the pieces we’d put together, then shuffled through the pieces left, looking for another piece to fit the hole. We worked on sections like the sky or the barn or the green tractor, and felt great satisfaction when we completed a whole section.
And, finally, we put that last piece in and our puzzle was complete, a perfect replica of the picture on the box, but better because we put it all together ourselves.
Isn’t this just like plotting out a brand new book?

You come up with an idea – the picture on the box. You start plotting the outline, the frame of the story. Then you come up with little pieces, scenes, group them together and decide where they should fit in the story. And, piece by piece, your book starts to take shape before your eyes.


But it takes time. You can’t force it. And if you’ve managed to somehow throw the pieces of three or four ideas (puzzles) into the pile, you’ll have to keep sorting until you weed out the ideas that don’t work for the story you’re working on.
I’m far from an expert at plotting or piecing puzzles together, but I do know the more you work at either, the better you’ll be. Keep working, and you’ll learn to spot the right colors, the right textures, the right shapes, sizes, feelings, emotions, external conflicts, internal goals, and motivations to put your puzzle together.
You can create a beautiful story, one piece at a time!
And, now, for a little fun in the sun, here are some online beach puzzles that look like they were tailor-made for Seekerville! The beach scene above is one of the puzzles on the site.


  1. I love your puzzle analogy, Pam! Sometimes that's totally what it feels like, and I just have to dig and sift until I find the ideas that work for me!

    PS While I'm on my way to bed, for those of you on the East Coast, I set the timer on the coffeepot and filled it with fresh ground hazelnut mocha. :) It should be ready by the time you mosey in.

  2. Wow. Excellent post, Pam! I've never compared puzzles and plotting together quite like that before, but what a wonderful description!

    Sometimes, I feel that my book/puzzle is completed, except there's one missing chunk in the middle or around the edges. But you just have to keep looking to find the piece, even if that means looking under the table or underneath seat cushions ;)

    Mmmm... that coffee looks good, Camy! I've never had hazelnut coffee before, but it sounds delicious :) I'll have to try it for real someday.

  3. Morning Pamster,

    I LOVE PUZZLES. Our family always had one going also. Its very stress relieving. 5000 pieces though. That would almost take the whole year. I'm impressed.

    And I never thought of writing as a puzzle but you're so right. Must be why I love to write. But the revising especially is getting that right piece to fit in.

    Ruthy must be sleeping still. To go with Camy's Hazelnut mocha,

    I ordered from Einstein's and have assorted flavors of bagels, blueberry, cheese, sesame, poppyseed, etc.

    To go with, there is a selection of cream cheese spreads: hazelnut to go with the coffee, honey and nut, veggie spread, strawberry and plain cream cheese to go with the lox.

  4. And I'm not even going to the puzzle page because I'll never get any writing done today if I do.

    Okay, maybe at the end of the day for a reward.

  5. I love puzzles, Pam!

    I have a degree in Interior Design, but being slightly color blind and having no depth perception, I had a difficult time working traditional commercial design.

    Then I discovered open office systems! OMG, joy returned to my chosen profession because it had little to do with colors and accessories and EVERYTHING to do with functional and interactive.

    I put *office space* puzzles together for years and loved it!

    Now, pull out my plotting board and work the same concepts. Idea, idea, idea, rearrange, new sticky note, new idea,'s all good!

    Great analogy, Pam! I know everyone approaches plotting from a different angle, but you and I are on the same side of the puzzle, LOL!

    Big pot of coffee brewing. It's cold here in Colorado!

  6. Good morning everyone!

    Mmmm-mmm, thanks for the coffee, Camy! Just what I needed to jumpstart a Monday morning.

    A few weeks ago while trying to put my wip together, I realized how much puzzles and writing have in common.

    I say writing because it's not just about the plotting. Even pansters have to find that piece of the puzzle and plug it into the right spot to complete the beautiful picture of a finished novel.

    I'll be scarce today. Gotta go to the day job, but I'll try to check in periodically.

  7. Before I head off to work, I've whipped up a batch of sawmill gravy and homemade biscuits.

    It's not fancy, but it'll stick to your ribs.

    Dive in!

  8. Mornin' Pam!

    I've never been one for puzzles, but as I read your post, two things happened to me:

    1.) I had a sudden urge to do a puzzle


    2.) I realized that the way you compared putting puzzles together and plotting is exactly what happens with me and I never even equated it to "solving the puzzle." Often I will write an ending scene before I get anything else (i.e. the first scene I wrote in A Passion Redeemed before I even knew the story was the ending scene), and when this happens, it IS like finding those coveted corner pieces that become the framework for a great puzzle!

    Very cool analogy!! Now, if I can just solve and finish the current one I'm working on, I'll be in puzzle heaven!


  9. I'm totally in on both the white chocolate mochas from Pam AND Camy's hazelnut mocha.

    I'm such a GIRL!!!

    Pammers, I loved this! Oh my stars, girlfriend, this is a perfect analogy for organic plotting, for seamless story-telling.

    Just mentioning those subtle nuances of color, shading, vibrance. Isn't that what each word, each phrase we use, does for a story???

    I love this because the piecing together is so representative of how I work a story in my head, then on paper. What others see as seat-of-the-pants, is really a mental process that I don't bother putting on paper.

    When you put a puzzle together, no one scripts which piece looks like it goes here or there. And that's how my plotting brain works, it just sifts through ideas and plugs them into stories for later use.

    And that pumps the FEEL of the story into the foreground and what HAPPENS in the story as the border of the puzzle. To me, what happens is never as important as what you evoke a reader to feel as they read. Joy, pain, sorrow, empathy, warmth, sensuality, romance...

    Pam, I'm printing this because I love how it explains the simplicity of a complex process.



    Hey, I don't know if anyone else brought food yet, but we had a wonderful baby shower for my daughter yesterday (Baby is due 3/27) AND...

    I have lemon roll (homemade Ruthy sponge cake filled with homemade lemon filling, to die for...) tiramisu, pretzel bottom jello (so FUN!!!) and I brought tea for our tea drinking buds.

    In fact, I would love a vanilla spiced chai right now.

    Oh, yum. :)


  10. Sandra.




    No, Ruthy is stealing Melissa Endlich's wonderful (yes, I'm sucking up because the woman is THAT good) ideas and incorporating them into the final edits of Made To Order Family so I had to incorporate the flow before I hopped online to play with y'all.

    I stole "y'all" from Missy, Pam and Deb just because it's SO cool to say.

    But Tina yelled at me (she's SO bossy) for dagnabbit but isn't saying "DAGNABBIT" just a whole hoot and a holler's worth of fun on a rainy day????

    (I have no idea what I just said, but I'll defend to the death my right to say it, LOL!)

  11. Great puzzling and plotting analogy! I was never very patient with jigsaw puzzles when I was a kid, though and I'm not very patient with plotting now so the analogy still sticks. And I couldn't resist and went to the puzzle sight. WOW!!!! You've just given me a gazillion more reasons why there will continue to be holes in my plot! Thanks (I think).

  12. Hi, Pam! So true about the puzzle piece analogy. It is like trying out different pieces of a puzzle when you're plotting. For a long time I was having a really hard time plotting my next two books. I think I was trying too hard, trying to force it. Now they both seem to be falling into place. I completely changed the hero in one book, which helped tremendously, and even changed the setting where a large portion of the story would take place. Now the ideas are flowing much faster.

    In the second book, I changed the hero's thinking a bit, gave him a "girlfriend-almost-fiance" and that helped a lot with future and potential conflict. But I still have a long way to go for both of them. But I'm afraid if I try to rush it I will end up with a mess and writer's block. What do you do when you really want to figure out the plot more quickly?

  13. What an excellent analogy. I'm in the 'turn the pieces face up' phase of plotting a story now.

  14. I used to really love getting jigsaw puzzles for the kids for Christmas. Got them a new one every year and we had such fun assembling them.

    Until I realized I was doing it alone. Worse yet, I was staying up until all hours to work on them.

    One of the first glimpses of myself as an OCD Insomniac.

    So, I quit buying puzzles...and started writing books. My own puzzles come to life. (well, maybe better to say, 'come to Word Document'.)

  15. And Ruthy, honey, Dagnabbit is a cuss word, so clean it up, 'k?

  16. Great analogy! I love puzzles too and sometimes I get the "itch" to do one. It's hard to tear yourself away from those things once you get on a roll.

    What a wonderful memory to share with you Dad!

  17. Mary, you want cuss words????

    Meet me offline, baby!


    Hey, this whole puzzle thing.

    I mean REAL puzzles, like Pam's talking about so eloquently???

    I don't do those.

    I'd rather die.

    I'd rather die TORTURED with hot pepper slivers slid beneath my fingernails and then hold my hands in lemon juice.


    I'd run screaming.

    I.... Don't..... Do..... Puzzles.

    My mind is puzzle enough.

    But the ANALOGY is perfect.

    The reality would put me under.

    And yet, nice wife that I am (you reading this Dave??? Hah, I'd have to teach him how to GET TO THIS first, so he'll never know what I'm about to say...) I've got a bedroom (can I say bedroom, Mary???) we're redoing so it looks somewhat normal when normal people come to visit and it's got an overhead light AND we're putting a table in there, just for puzzles.

    Because Dave loves doing puzzles.

    Which might explain his attraction to me because I've been puzzling the poor man for decades.

  18. Hi Pam:

    I love the idea of a father and daughter putting a puzzle together as their special project. What fond memories this stores away to bring back when comfort is needed. I hope you can use this image in a novel. I can even see the puzzle, framed – for it was once proudly hung on the wall -- now dust covered in a forgotten corner of an attic. Will its discovery help put the heroine’s broker heart back together?

    I’ve heard of the person who could not see the forest for the trees. But sometimes you want to see the trees. You want to see how each tree relates to each other tree.

    Be creative! Turn the puzzle over. See the pieces and not the picture. Look for connections and not context.

    Permeate the box.

    The puzzle of life does not come with a picture, the pieces are infinite, both sides are illustrated, and many of the pieces are exactly the same shape.

    We never know, even when many of the pieces fit together, and we can see, for the first time, a small part of the picture; even then, we never know if what we see is true or just a coincidence.

    Thus some ‘wonderful’ plots fall apart and must be restructured. The pieces fit but the picture is wrong or the picture is right but the pieces didn’t fit.

    Mr. Newton, you built a good part of the puzzle but, as good as it was, it was not right. Mr. Einstein, your puzzle picture works better, and will work better…until your Einstein reworks it. Then we’ll see a new picture. But it will just be a new picture.

    Don’t let the plot
    Get in the way
    Of the HEA.

    O Decafe, where is thy sting?
    You deceiver.
    You’ve made pretense an art
    but the love is not there.
    You leave me empty and tired.
    Coffee should be, not mean.


  19. Ah, Vince.

    An ode decrying decaf.

    You rock, Dude!

    Love your post.

    Most eloquent and not unexpected.

    Of course.

  20. Pam, wonderful post! And Vince, thanks for the wonderful poetry! :)

    You know, I don't do puzzles. They drive me mad! I'm terrible at them. My mom LOVES them and has worked them my whole life. I would sit with her for a few mintues, and while she'd place 10 or 20 pieces, I could not get one. NOT ONE! I think it's some brain defect. (And I hope it doesn't bode poorly for my writing!) ;)

    It's funny Vince mentioned framing. My hubby and kids worked a puzzle while we were on vacation at my in-laws farmhouse a few years ago. They couldn't bear to break the puzzle down after all that work so left it for everyone to enjoy looking at. Well, my MIL glued it to backing and had it framed! She just brought it to us a couple of weeks ago, and it's hanging here at our house. :) So cool and such a good memory! (And no, I didn't work on it at all! It was a Dad-kid project.) LOL

  21. I went and did an online puzzle. I'm slow.

    They rated me on time....LOSER.

    I can feel the longing to go again, do another one. Like a fever raging in my blood! LIKE AN ADDICT WHO'S FALLEN OFF THE WAGON.

    Okay, remain calm. Move along people, there's nothing to see here in the wreckage of my mental health.

  22. The puzzle site actually rated me on time, judged me to be a loser, then oddly enough, started blinking a light offering me a high school diploma online.

    You think that means anything?

  23. Well, that was embarrassing.

    Did you know the timer on the 48 piece puzzle STOPS after TEN MINUTES.

    So unfair.

    Mary, quit picking on me.

    I'm sensitive.

  24. Love your analogy, Pam! Once upon a time, it was a family tradition to buy a new jigsaw puzzle (the harder, the better!) every Christmas, and then everyone would take turns around the card table fitting pieces together over 2-3 days until it was complete. Some of us (me included) could hardly tear ourselves way for meals or bedtime. "Just one more . . . just one more . . . " And we'd fight to be the one to place the very last piece!

  25. Mary, I can guarantee that puzzles are addicting esp those on the computer.

    Oh my, have you tried MahJong? My friend gave it to me and I hate her for it now. HA.

    You will never get sleep if you start.

  26. Well, I will admit that while doing a crossword puzzle of a hoary marmot, I got so distracted by whether or not 'hoary marmot' would be a cuss word in Christian fiction, that I went over time.

  27. I mean jigsaw puzzle. Not crossword puzzle.

  28. Great post Pam. the puzzle analogy is excellent.

    And I like to do puzzle.

    But I'm puzzled, Mary if Dagnabbit is a cussword?

    What's Dadburnit?

  29. Wow, Pam, those beach jigsaw puzzles are amazing! How sweet that you and your dad shared the fun of putting a puzzle together every Christmas.

    Love your puzzle analogy for writing books! As someone who loves to work jigsaw puzzles, I know a piece may look like it fits but forcing it won't work. Time to regroup. To look at other pieces.

    Ruthy, thanks for the fabulous leftovers from your daughter's baby shower! No one bakes like you!

    Vince, love your suggestion for a grieving scene. You expressed my love of coffee, the "real" stuff beautifully!

    I'm giggling at all the jigsaw puzzle addicts in Seekerville. Nice to know I'm not alone. I can't stop until my neck and back are killing me.

    After your experience, Mary, I won't dare to do an online puzzle.


  30. Quick, someone delete Tina P's explicit language laden comment!!!!!!

    Dadburnit is even WORSE cussing.

    Dadgummit, though, surely that's okay.

  31. Hi:

    When I lived in New York, where they talk really fast, ‘Dadburnit’ simply meant: Dad burn it. You know, like when you want to tell your father to throw the old newspaper into the incinerator, you just say: “Dadburnit”. It only takes one second. Now Dadgummit, (the second ‘m’ is never pronounced) means Dad ate it without his false teeth, i.e., ‘Dad gum it’.

    Now that other ‘d’ word, that is a cuss word, at least, it is north of 161st street.


  32. I am so sorry that I haven't been able to chat today...

    and... I'm not sure if I'll be back online tonight.

    I've got to call all my friends and family to beg them to buy pulled pork plates for a fundraiser.

    Whose idea was it that we had to sell 60 plates each????


  33. Pam,
    This is a really great analogy : D I've never thought of it that way, but it really does make sense!

    By the way, I LOVE puzzles too (have you heard that enough times yet today??? *wink*)!! I had this Mickey Mouse puzzle that when you stood back it was M.M., but when you went up close you noticed that every single piece was a still picture of a different scene from different Disney movies!! It was CRAZY! In the end, I lost a couple pieces or they never came in the box : (

    Great post!

  34. When I first started writing, I pretty much plotted thr entire story before beginning. I HAD to know what was going to happen all the way to "The End." I've since learned that in many cases, my characters take on a life of their own and even though I'm telling their story, they're leading the way. I love those moments. I've learned that it's okay to write without a plot. I now begin with a loose outline and allow my characters to tell their story. This works much better for me.

  35. I love puzzles and always do them over christmas too. Im still doing a couple but normally only do 1000 pieces as I have the table for that one.
    Sandra I did make the mistake of going to the site!
    I am not a writer but can see the analogy. its interesting cos I have also used this for different things.
    Like in the course I am doing last year we had a class on filing and I see filing like a puzzle it all fits together!

  36. Oh, Sandra, now Mahjong is something I LOVE!! Very addictive. :)

  37. Since I love puzzles, the bigger the better, I love the analogy. I love it when that one piece is missing and then you find it and that one piece fixes the gaping hole in your plot.

    My parents got me a puzzle board for Christmas. It has drawers around the sides to put the pieces in while you work on the puzzle. And when it's time to eat, you pick up the board and move it off the table. I love it.

  38. You know what I love?

    The fact that so many people GOT my analogy today.

    Not only got it, but added to it.

    Like Ruthy's comment about each word or phraze being a piece of the puzzle, adding nuances, texture, depth, emotion, and how it describes the story a bit more.

    And Erica is in the "turn the pieces up" phase. Loved that, Erica!

    Perfect additions to a...dare I say it? ... perfect blog post. lol


    Generally, people scratch their heads when I talk...uh...type.

    You guys get it. You really get it!

    Oh, and I'm glad to report that we've sold 44 plates with the potential for another 10-15 more before the weekend.

    Three cell phones and the house phone made us sound like a bunch of telemarketers!

    Oh, and Vince, I always enjoy your comments. So insightful. Loved the poem too.

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  40. Love the alliteration in your post title :) I also loved the puzzle talk about how you tackled the puzzle and bonded with your dad on the puzzle. My own father still puts puzzles together and I fondly remember putting puzzles together as a family when I was younger.

    Your post also came at a good time when I was talking about puzzles with friends and on my blog. I even linked to your post about puzzles. thanks for sharing.

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