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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Plotting as a team sport
By Shirley Karr

At least once a year, my critique partners and I go on a retreat. Sometimes we work on existing projects but usually we time our retreats for when we need to plot a new book or series. We'll plot at least four books in one weekend.

At our most recent retreat we set a new record -- in-depth plotting for one book and big-picture plotting for two trilogies and three five-book series. Twenty-two books planned in four days. And we're all still friends after such intense work sessions.


We head to the beach or mountains or a friend's high desert getaway, anywhere away from our Regular Lives. A favorite destination is a suite at the beach with a kitchen, pool, and hot tub. Split the cost four ways or more, it's easy on the pocketbook. We maroon ourselves – no radio, TV, internet or other distractions. Outgoing calls to check on loved ones are allowed during breaks. Any incoming call had better involve flames, flood or blood. We bring writing tools, snacks, books on writing, and more snacks. Did I mention snacks? Chocolate plays a crucial role. Vitamin C, as Delle calls it.

After much trial and error – our group has been together 12 years – we've developed a routine that allows us to be creative and productive and not overwhelmed.

We head out Thursday morning. Yes, this may require taking vacation days. We're serious about this. And doing this in just a three-day weekend made our brains bleed. The drive out is the time to catch up and kvetch, get all the non-writing chatter out of the way. Once there, we go for a walk, settle in and set goals for the weekend and discuss how to accomplish them. We determine the order for our sessions and their length. Currently we favor 80 minutes of work then ten minutes for bio breaks and refilling the bowl of M&Ms. An hour is too short but 90 was too long. Longer breaks are also scheduled for meals, soaks in the hot tub, walks on the beach (those negative ions are a good thing), and private writing time.

We've retreated with as few as three and as many as six participants; I wouldn't go any higher. A mix of backgrounds is good – you don't all have to be writing the same sub-genre. Make sure the personalities are fairly equal, though. You don't want a dominant person steamrolling over someone who's just coming out of their shell. And make sure you're all on good terms to start since any fragile relationships may shatter under the pressure. For the most part these sessions are fun but you *will* want to scream at one or all of the others at least once during the weekend. Trust me.

During your session, you present what you have, what you know about the book or series, and what help you want from us. We toss ideas, play "what if?" and poke holes in the plot, reactions and motivations until we have an airtight GMC, BM, and HEA.

Get comfortable. Sweats and ponytails are good. Sprawl on the sofa, lounge on cushions on the floor. You can sit on wooden chairs around a table but you'll soon be wishing for some cushions. Lap blankets, fuzzy slippers, and mugs of cocoa or tea are good if your location is chilly. We love to crack open the patio door to let in the fresh sea air as well as the sound of the pounding surf, and since it's cold we turn on the gas fireplace. Share the snacks. Just make sure to include some protein with all those carbs or you'll be nodding off.

Having a task to do helps keep everyone engaged during the sessions. We found it works best if one person takes notes on the sessionee's laptop or AlphaSmart, another makes notes on a white board for those of us who are visual, and another is the timekeeper and tracks the tempers if the session gets too intense. We often disagree -- that's a risk you take when such disparate minds come together on one project. You may have to stand up for yourself and not let the group get carried away plotting a perfectly lovely story which you have no interest in writing.

You could go out or order room service, but we bring potluck to keep it cheap. Pizza, hearty soups, salads – stuff that can be quickly heated up or thrown together. Meals are a great time to continue discussions and learn more about your plotting partners.

Everyone should get at least two sessions, preferably a day apart. You need time for ideas to ferment and for gaps in logic or other problems to present themselves so you can solve them in the group, before you get home with a story that won't work.

Sunday when you're packed and almost ready to head home, have a wrap-up session. Did you meet your goals? What went right, what went wrong, what will you do the same/differently next time?

Everyone works a little differently. The above is a starting point so you don't have to make some of the rookie mistakes we did our first few retreats. You have to learn from other people's mistakes because you'll never live long enough to make them all yourself.

Happy plotting!


At 9:36 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

My critique partners and I have done the writing retreat, too. It's one of the few times we can get together these days. We don't plot, we produce pages since it's rare to find uninterrupted time. We bring breakfast and lunch foods, but go out to dinner.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Shirley -

Thanks for sharing the learning curve on how a brainstorming/plotting group has managed to be productive AND stay together for so long. I do something similar with another author each year (usually twice a year) that has been a tremendous help for both of us.

BTW - I think I took a photo at that same stretch of beach last year when my hubby and I rode motorcycles up the coast.

Mo - definitely a good way to do the "isolation" thing and produce pages. Sherrilyn Kenyon and I lock ourselves away somewhere for a week as often as we can. We used to chat only about general things during a meal since we were working on our own projects, but now that we're cowriting a series having time to discuss story issues in person rather than over a phone or email is wonderful.

I think you (Mo) said yesterday you use the BIAW as a gift or vacation for yourself. More writers should consider looking at it that way, that they deserve to have a week or long weekend to focus on their stories uninterrupted just as they would if they were traveling for business away from family and other interruptions.


At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Shirley Karr said...

Diana, that pic was taken at Cannon Beach in January 2006. We usually stop for a picnic lunch before heading inland since we hate for our retreat to end, but that time the wind was blowing too hard. Sand in a sandwich is not very tasty.

Sometimes family members have a hard time understanding why we put so much time and effort into our writing, especially before we sell. It's like a musician putting in all those hours of rehearsal before they get the recording contract -- in order to *get* the contract. If you take your writing serious enough to do a retreat, it might help them take it more seriously, too.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Dianna, I'll guarantee if you stopped at Cannon Beach and you had a camera with you, you took a picture. Cannon Beach has an incredible way of inspiring emotion. It's almost impossible nt to want to photograph it.

We've used another version of this in Rose City Romance Writers, a Plotstorming party, which I think I've talked about before. The difference with Shirley's group is that they have met together as a critique group for years and they bring a lot of history and common knowledge with them.

I love plotstorming parties but they require something I don't love: thorough housecleaning. So since I have condo access at the beach for minimal $$, I'm considering hosting a retreat with a few friends there in the next year.

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Shirley karr said...

Delle, definitely go for the condo at the beach. We tried doing a retreat at Joey's house once. Nice as her home was, it just wasn't the same, wasn't as productive, as when you can get away from all visible reminders/distractions of your daily life.

Yes, one of the benefits of having been together so long is that we don't need to be tactful. Instead of the polite "have you considered..." we can go straight to "your heroine comes across as an idiot -- is that on purpose?" type comments.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

My chapter does these once a year, but it's more intensive. We have as many as 8 people, we do prewriting the two weeks before, and do mini sessions Friday night, marathon session Saturday and are done by Sunday afternoon. It's exhausting, but I've had good experiences.

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Christine said...

I went on a retreat last year that was hosted by a romance chapter. I didn't plot or write, it was mostly classes and interactions with other writers. The only problem I had with it, was I didn't know anyone and I felt very lonely. I did enjoy the walks on the beach and the lessons.

I'd love to organize something with writing friends. Alas, I just moved and I am alone again. I thought I'd be HAPPY with all the lack of social interuptions to my writing, but I've discovered that I crave people time, too.

But I do have a lot of time to write LOL... a case of "be careful what you wish for."

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Where do you live, Christine? --Not that I want you to answer publicly, but I'd like to point out you've made the first step to filling that need. First, if you're an RWA member, find a nearby chapter. If there are none, try to get on the Outreach chapter, which is full of people who live in isolated localities, or who perhaps didn't click well with a local group, or just want more ties. If a specialty chapter appeals to you, check it out. There may be other local writing groups to try, too.

A lot of us get our social buzz from online writing friends. I critique with an author in Florida, and two others independently in my own area. I have to go 25 miles to a chapter meeting, and can only do that when someone else drives me (crooked eyesight). But I find staying in communication with other authors is vital to my well being. So I'd really like to encourage you to hunt up a group, either locally or online.

Once you know other people, if there aren't any retreats or plotting parties, you can be the instigator of one of these special sessions. Figure out what you and they need most then how to get it. RWA has 10,000 romance writers, and there are bound to be some who are just your type.

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Christine said...

Oh I am an RWA member and have joined two chapters in my region. One is 45 minutes away and the other is nearly 2 hours away. I've been to three meetings already. I love the chapter meetings and I've enjoyed meeting the other writers, but even though I know some of them live here, it's hard to be the "newbie" on the block. I don't want to be pushy and force my way into any established groups, so I am biding my time until people get to know me better and feel like including me. Having been down this path before, I figure it will take a year for that to happen and gel.

I LOVE the online communities. They are a lifeline for me. And they are very helpful with keeping me motivated!!

One of the chapters I joined has an October retreat. I joined too late to get in on that one, but I plan to go next year. By then I should know someone. And they will know who I am by me going to the meetings.

I know these things take time, and I am chugging along fairly well. But, I do miss the people I hung out with whenever I came out of my writing hole and wanted to to reward myself with a little "play" time.


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