Stirring the Plot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing the cat would stop walking across the keyboard so I can write already...

Hey, Wicked Friends! It’s hard to believe another month has gone by and it’s my turn to do some blabbing on the blog. I hope you all had a lovely September. I think I did–it went by in a blur for me!

Yes, we have a uniform. No, I can’t tell you what MTB stands for. We are sworn to secrecy.

I’ve spoken before about the wonderful retreats I and my writer friends go on several times a year. One of my posse has a gorgeous Vermont ski house that sleeps a dozen people very comfortably–and believe me, when this all-female group is at its largest, those 5 bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms come in handy!

Today I thought I’d tell you about an aspect of these retreats that you writers might be able to apply to your own groups (and I sincerely hope you all have at least one teammate in your dugout, because it is NOT easy going it alone). Our main focus is always our plots–and we always collaborate. But here’s the thing: we write in different genres. And each genre has its own set of expectations. Depending on who can make it to the retreat, we may have writers working on mystery, Amish romance, steamy romance, urban fantasy, paranormal, women’s fiction, young adult, or even middle-grade chapter books.

That’s a pretty big range. So how is it that a mystery writer can help plot a shapeshifter novel?

First, we have all known each other for years, are close friends, trust each other implicitly, and are familiar with each other’s work. So we have an innate sense of what will fly and what will not fly for any particular author. The corollary to this is that we have a tacit agreement that anyone can give any opinion without fear of the recipient taking offense. This is huge. Without this kind of trust and honesty, the group simply doesn’t function. We all understand that we are not there to pat each other on the head and say, “Good job!” (although we give lots of support) We are there to make everyone’s story the best it can be. And sometimes that means tough love.

Second, we respect the process. Our retreats are structured so that we have both group plotting time and personal writing time. We rarely deviate from our routine, because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Our hostess has an MBA, and she keeps us on track if we start to veer off topic. Depending on the size of the group, we have one or two plotting sessions. We sit around her big table, and the writer who is “it” gives us a nutshell version of her story. Sometimes we exchange story premises beforehand, but usually we just wait until we get there, and then listen. The woman at bat may have just a nugget of an idea, or may have most of her plot worked out but needs help ironing out details. She tells us what she needs, and we start firing questions and ideas, which leads to more questions and ideas, and very soon a plot takes shape. It’s frightening, sometimes, how fast it comes together with that many creative brains working in unison. We can usually plot an entire book in a half hour. And then we move to the next.

Third, we all understand the basics of good fiction: compelling characters, a memorable setting, plenty of conflict (both internal and external that moves the story along), a clear goal for every character, which also moves the story, setbacks/failures, a logical and exciting climax, and a resolution that satisfies in some way. These basics cut across genre lines. (Literary fiction is its own thing–but it’s not our thing, LOL!, so I’m leaving that out of this discussion) So if one or more of these element is weak in the story we’re plotting, we can identify it and come up with ways to strengthen it.

And fourth, we understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The questions that the women’s fiction writer asks of the young adult writer are quite often something the YA writer might not have considered. Different perspectives make for fresh, innovative stories. And creative energy feeds on itself. It gets faster, bigger, and badder the more it’s nurtured.

What about you? Do you have a friend or colleague you can be completely honest with, whether you’re a writer or not? Can you take constructive criticism without getting offended? Who are your MTBs?



9 Thoughts

  1. I love this, Jane! I have also done that on retreat, and it definitely helped me figure sticky plot points or fill gaping holes. You are lucky to have such a solid group to work with – and the Vermont house sounds pretty awesome, too.

  2. Being able to brainstorm with other writers is one of the best benefits of having writer friends. Back when I was writing romance and was in a critique group, we used to have weekend sleepovers that were ideal for this purpose, and a lot of fun, too. We didn’t try to do any actual writing, since there wasn’t enough room for separate writing spaces, but many many plot problems were solved.

  3. I can definitely see how the diversity of your group would be a strength. People who know the genre but aren’t in it all the time can help you think outside the box. And if something is too outside the norm to work, the author doesn’t have to accept it, but maybe it will trigger something else.

    I find I am bad about taking constructive criticism, but part of that is because usually what I wind up with is criticism from people trying to save face. That makes me bristle even more. But even when people try to come to me in tough love, I have to think about it for a while to figure out they are right. It’s something I try to work on, but it is hard since I am usually around the first group the most.

    1. Hi, Mark! Jane is on the road this afternoon so I’m filling in. Authors (probably anyone in the arts) has to grow a thick skin fast — not that I don’t still bristle at times, okay, lots of times!

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