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.