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Need Help with Plot? Try a Retreat!

Oh, those writing blues! They can strike from any direction and can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s the over-editing strike, the my-brain-is-dead-strike and other times it’s the dead-as-a-doornail-middle-of-the-book strike. Often for me it’s the I’m-too-tired-of-this-book strike. At some point in your writing career (no matter where you are) you’re gonna get plain ol’ tired of putting your fingers on that keyboard and making magic…or crap. Whichever.

So what do you do when the creative well runs dry? There are plenty of options and some involve tequila which could get you in a whole lot of trouble…or pregnant. Whichever.

But I have a solution.

It sounds like work…and it is…but it fills the well and keeps you from buying maternity clothes (yeah, some of the Rubies needed this nine months ago)

It’s a plotting retreat.

What’s this, you may ask? Well, it’s a writer’s getaway cloaked in a workish sounding label. Okay, it is work, but the good kind.

So this past summer during Nationals, I sat talking to the VP of my local chapter who happens to write for Harlequin Love Inspired, and she mentioned she’d talked to a few other writers who’d taken a plotting retreat and spent the weekend plotting out 3-4 new ideas that could be viable plots for future book proposals. She thought it sounded like a fabulous idea for working mid-listers such as a few of the writers in our chapter. We have several who write for Harlequin and thus churn (which sounds not so glamorous or artsy) 2-3 books for our respective lines each year. If you do the math, you can quickly see that over, say, five years, such a writer needs at least 10-15 ideas to develop into proposals…and that’s only if they get accepted. Rejections mean more ideas. And more ideas can be stressful. So why not get some help?

So we gathered a group of four writers, all serious, actively working, and intent on dividing plotting with gossip, industry speculation and a bottle of wine (okay, I wanted the wine). That’s step one. Gather your group. I would recommend keeping it under five just for ease. Also consider suitability. You don’t have to write the same genre, but you might want find some common bond that unites.

Next set some ground rules.Β  The best plotting groups have focus. We set up a Yahoo group with loop to discuss what our expectations and needs are. It also allowed us to store our ideas in a database and create a basic document outlining our expectations in the file section. Our guidelines were pretty loose. Come up with a basic idea(s) and give everyone an idea of what you wanted – highlevel outline, general brainstorming, indepth plotting or just scattered idea clouds to develop more fully at a later date. I found myself wanting to talk plot but also some general advice on career planning. We also decided to take some time to talk about industry, specifically our publisher. But as you can see, you can make this as detailed or as open as you need.

Next find a date and place for the retreat. Lot easier said than done. Try merging four women’s schedules. This acutally needed some tequila. Okay, that was just me. Kidding. I didn’t drink anything when trying to find a date, but I should have. We decided on the end of October mostly because it’s sometimes cool and the ONLY date we all had available. We decided to use my camp on the lake (I provided a picture of this most relaxing retreat) because it was free. Not free-free. I’m paying a second mortgage, but you know what I mean.Β  You can choose from several locations – beach house, lake, hotel suite or a plotting group member’s house. Remember, you can write some of it off as a business expense since you are actively engaging in the business of writing, so make it enjoyable and a nice getaway so you not only work but find some time to enjoy your work.

Next, we loaded our files and asked everyone to look at everyone else’s files so each member was somewhat familiar with the other members’ needs. This didn’t take long for me because I didn’t do it. I was a bad member…not the best start…but the other girls forgave me (besides one other didn’t do it either). So be flexible and apologetic when you don’t hold up your end of the deal. Next time, I’ll be better prepared since this was a first time run.

Last, pack your bags, grab your laptop and head for the plotting retreat. Ours was close by and we had to stock up on groceries…and there was no internet to distract us which was nice. We had fun. We plotted eight books. And we talked about our career plans, industry, and how hard it is to be a writer at times. We watched the sun set over Caddo Lake, took walks on the pier, wrote, edited, and basically took time to think about ourselves and where we were headed…if all our plans and plots went accordingly.

Overall, it was successful.

So…what do you think? Worth the time? Not for you? How do you plot your books? And if you are a pantser, could this work for you, too? And what would be your ultimate plotting destination? I know…lots of question. Pick one and let’s discuss πŸ™‚

47 responses to “Need Help with Plot? Try a Retreat!”

  1. Count me in! Every year, my local chapter has an all-day plot party. We don’t go away or anything. We just meet in someone’s home and spend the day working in small groups set up by subgenre. Everyone always comes away with a lot of great ideas.

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    • liz talley says:

      This is a great opportunity your chapter offers. We don’t do anything like that, but that’s a good idea. Guess we were pretty selective, but that’s the beauty of a plotting retreat – you can make your own rules.

      Our chapter is relatively young (even though we’re an early chapter with RWA) and we’re working to get our newer members more involved. This might be a good idea.

      Did you find that working by genre there was any tension…did you worry about someone taking your ideas and developing them? Did y’all have guidelines? Each person in my group works for a different line within the publisher so there was no conflict of interest.

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      • Our chapter is pretty tight knit, so I don’t think anyone worries about having ideas stolen. After all, we all have to face each other every month. And it’s not like there wouldn’t be other witnesses from the brainstorming group who would know.

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  2. Kat Latham says:

    This is a brilliant idea and one that makes me so jealous of people who live near other romance writers. I’d have to hop across a very large pond to get to my writer friends. As wonderful and encouraging as online writing groups are, there’s no substitute for being able to meet in person. This was one advantage I realized other people had over me at Nationals – most of them were used to talking about their writing out loud instead of just writing about it in queries or synopses. Producing the words verbally is a different challenge, and activities like chapter meetings and retreats must be invaluable in developing this skill.

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    • liz talley says:

      This is true, Kat. I’m very much accostom to talking about my work…in fact, my family is rather sick of it which is why this plotting retreat worked so well for me. I tend to make my mother’s eyes glass over at times.

      I so wish you had someone close by to do this with, but I’ve also found chatrooms to be a good backup plan. I know many writers who live far away from their cps or plotting partners and use the chatrooms as a way to do what they need to do. I love using the Winter Writing Fest chatroom for writing sprints and writing advice – can’t wait until January so I can reconnect with the wonderful writers who gather there. I’ll look for you there πŸ™‚

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  3. Carla says:

    I have SO wanted to do this, but putting me and my 4 writer buddies together at the same time is damn near impossible. Our schedules are as cranky as me before coffee. Sounds like it worked well for you, though, Liz, so I’m going to see if I can’t try to work something out. I’m setting myself up with a goal of two books a year and so far it’s one book for two years. This has to change, and my friends often have some amazing ideas from fresh minds. Very useful when I’ve been working with the same characters for so long that I just don’t *see* them anymore. Great idea!

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      In this day and age schedules will never meld. It’s one of those make it happen things.

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      • liz talley says:

        This is exactly right. You have to pick a date and stick with it. One of our members couldn’t make it because she was sick. Would have been better to have all four there, but we managed with three.

        And I sympathize with you on allowing books to manage you rather than you managing them. I have to crack a whip on myself regularly because I tend to over-analyze, re-write, etc. but at some point I have to make myself move onward and upward so I can get the damn thing finished. It’s taken some getting use to. Good luck with tackling two a year. I’ve been doing three but may have to slow down with Supers going back up in word count.

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        • Carla says:

          Believe it or not, there was a happy dance in my house when I heard that (about the word counts going up). One thing I’m not is brief. πŸ™‚ At least, not on the first draft, but for the next pass, I turn into Edward Scissorhands. Hey, it works.

          And you’re right. I think we just pick a date and stick with it. May 5, 2012 works for me. Now to get Robin Kaye enough allergy meds so she can join us. (We’re going to Maryland Sheep & Wool that day. Don’t knock it; yarn inspires me!)

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          • liz talley says:

            Actually that sounds fun. And, I’m a little stressed about it going up. My first book was 65,000 and now it’s going up by 20,000. I don’t think I can write 3 of those a year…but more room for you, right? LOL

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  4. Rita Henuber says:

    Agreed, they are great! I’ve had a couple at my house. One large (10 people) one small (4 people) smaller is better as you are able to get to everyone’s needs. I think different genres is best. No one gets hung up in their particular genre and plots are paramount.
    Tequila is dangerous. It DOES make your clothes fall off.

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    • liz talley says:

      LOL. That is does.

      I liked having it diverse genre-wise because it didn’t feel cross-purposed. One of our group writes medical, one suspense, one inspirational, and then there’s me which is I guess straight-up contemporary. All of us have the same plot issues, but our road to getting there is different so it was not as threatening for some reason.

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  5. Elisa Beatty says:

    That sounds utterly fabulous!!!

    My schedule is so totally crazed right now, I can’t even imagine it (plus I’ve got three different half-done books I’m trying to finish before I can even THINK about new plots), but the idea of time to plot with other writers is delicious!

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    • liz talley says:

      I’m at the beginning of book three in my new series, so it was hard to shift gears, but I really wanted to be prepared for what I wanted to write after I turned in this book in February. I’ve decided on ignoring my historicals for a while more, developing two Superromance proposals (one I already turned in – came right home and wrote it up) and a ST book that I hope will turn into a series. It’s more WF than straight-up romance, so it will be a challenge for me, but I think I’m ready. There. I said it. I have to do it. πŸ™‚

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  6. Kat Cantrell says:

    So jealous. I wish I could do something like this but the other half of my writing brain (*waves at Cynthia J) lives two and a half states away — and one of the states is Texas, which should count as two. One day, when we’re both making money hand over fist, it might be more feasible. πŸ™‚ Until then, we’ll do it the old fashioned way, via email…

    Great plan, though!

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    • liz talley says:

      Nothing wrong with doing it over email πŸ™‚ I also think arriving at Nationals (if you are going) a day or two ahead of time and setting aside an afternoon for plotting would work, too. You could order room service and then reward yourself by going out on the town that evening…or with a spa treatment.

      I rewarded myself with a spa treatment in Orlando in the middle of Nationals. Skipped the Pan retreat…or was it Pro?…and booked a facial. Talk about restorative at a time when you are stressed! Worked wonders.Worth the money – I skipped going to the parks and skimped on food to do it, but it rocked.

      Okay, I’m digressing, but it is important to block in time for you. That’s all I’m saying πŸ™‚

      Good luck getting together with the fab Cynthia. If anyone needs some girlfriend plotting time (and a spa treatment) it’s sweet, resiliant Cynthia. She’s my hero πŸ™‚

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      • Kat Cantrell says:

        She’s my hero too! πŸ™‚ I love the idea of getting together early at Nationals. From your lips to God’s ear – hopefully we’ll both get to go next year!

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  7. Kristina Mathews says:

    So far my plotting process has been like getting a cat. They just show up. But the feedback I’m getting is that my writing is fine, but my stories might not be easy enough to sell. So I’m looking for ways to come up with a concept that will sell and make it my own. My goal is to write Super Romance, so it’s not like I can just throw in a Zombie or Ninja or whatever the next hot thing will be.

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    • liz talley says:

      Okay, scratching that zombie out on the next proposal. LOL.

      I think different can be good, so don’t overthink it too much. But once I started writing for Supers, I had to be more organized – something I’m very challenged at being. To deliver 2-3 books a year means I have to have my ducks in a row, and I’ve found my weakness to be plot. I can do funny dialogue, my pacing’s fine, and I do pretty well with the arcs, but plot? Ugh. Do they have to do something?

      So it’s helpful for me to take the cat and offer it up for inspection. They are my ideas but my group helps me flesh them out so they have more substenance by asking questions like “So what’s the conflict?” Hmmm…that’s a good question. πŸ™‚

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  8. Addison Fox says:

    Liz:

    This sounds absolutely fantastic!!! And you’re actually the second author I’ve heard this week talk about a plotting retreat.

    A chance to re-fill the well AND focus on writing….sounds wonderful!

    Addison

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  9. Kathy Altman says:

    Liz, I admire not only the idea but the fact that you were all able to pull it off! Three out of four writing buddies ain’t bad! πŸ™‚ I love the idea of an intimate brainstorming session that energizes your writing and at the same time gives you a chance to relax away from home. I guess it depends on finding just the right mix of writers, too. I’m definitely going to have to think about this…

    And by the way, I’d love to read a Liz Talley historical!

    -Kathy πŸ™‚

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    • liz talley says:

      Kathy! My new Superromance buddy!

      It was a good place to fill the well and come up with my next venture(s).

      I have two historicals under my virtual bed…in fact, that’s how I came to be a Ruby – via my Regency GH final. But, I feel like I’ve established my voice with the contemporaries, and not sure if I’m ready to dilute it yet.

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  10. Liz, just popping in to say what a fabulous session this was. Our chats, on both the plotting and career front were soooo helpful to me in getting my focus back to where it should be. I loved your site on the lake and I came away bursting with the desire to dive in and get to work on the books we plotted. I can’t wait to do it again!

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    • liz talley says:

      It was fun and beneficial, wasn’t it? And I love the lake. I feel like stress melts away while I’m there. Something to getting back to the simplicity. Ol’ Thoreau knew what he was about.

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  11. Vivi Andrews says:

    The retreat sounds fabulous, but I couldn’t use it for plotting. I do NOT do well with external input before I’ve completed the first draft. Talking about industry stuff & career planning, doing writing sprints – count me in. But letting anyone else into my ideas before they are complete? Nooo, ma’am. Can’t do it. Luckily I have a stack of plot ideas to keep me busy – so many I worry sometimes about having the time to write them all in this lifetime. So I’m not afraid of that well running dry.

    I’m glad your retreat was productive, Liz. Always fun in the company of writers.

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    • liz talley says:

      This is probably because you are strong at plot as an author. I know where I need help and it’s in that arena so bouncing ideas and having people pull the rug out from under my characters works perfectly for me.

      But we did spend a good deal of time talking career planning and visiting the pros and cons of self-publishing, the decrease in print runs, and stuff like that. I have to say it steadied me a little at a time when I felt a bit on edge with where I was heading.

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  12. I love to brainstorm my plots! True, 90% of what others come up with won’t work for one reason or another, but that other 10% is priceless. And a plotting retreat sounds like heaven! My chapter does a retreat every year but I never can make it. I might have to try a little harder!

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    • liz talley says:

      Usually, I don’ take the ideas, but they move me in a direction or concrete in what I know I want to happen. My CP is good at tossing the kitchen sink at me when it comes to plot. I dodge most, but I never end up with egg on my face because it makes me think hard about my GMC and how to get them where they need to go.

      10% sounds about right.

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  13. Shoshana Brown says:

    Oooh–that sounds like fun. And maybe if I talked my brilliant plot ideas out with a group before I started writing, I wouldn’t get to the end of the first draft and realize that the heroine’s motivation for the entire second half of the book makes no sense. Or maybe that’s just my process. Either way, hanging out with friends some place pretty and talking about writing stuff sounds awesome.

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  14. liz talley says:

    I often do the same thing, which is why I MUST edit as I go. Funny, how different all our processes are, isn’t it? But, yeah, pretty lake, good food and great friends is always a good idea.

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  15. My critique group (8 of us) are doing a weekend retreat at the beach in the spring. We’ve been trying to figure out how to structure it, and your wonderful description of plotting circles will definitely occur – thanks!

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    • liz talley says:

      Ah, I love the beach. That’s a fab place to go. I thought of the plot for my second book standing looking out at the waters. I had already started another book which was targeted to Blaze which is what I thought my first one would be, but I was unsure of whether I could make it work. I stood there and prayed, beckoned, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but I asked the world around me to give me direction. And, bam, it hit me and suddenly, a series was born.

      I hope the waves do the same for you πŸ™‚

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  16. Amanda Brice says:

    Great advice! And it’s 8 months ago I needed to be told to step away from the tequila, not 9. πŸ˜‰

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  17. Beth Langston says:

    I go on 2 weekend retreats each year with 4 writer friends. It is hard to find a date in common–so we have a rule that says “3 or more is enough to make a date.”

    We don’t plot all weekend–just sporadically. We have writing sprints, but they’re really more like marathons since they last for hours. And it stays silent while we’re writing.

    Someone can call a “plot clinic” and then we all arrange to stop and help. Another way we work on our plotting skills is through movies. Each night, we pick out a romantic film, watch it, and then spend a lot of time critiquing and analyzing.

    I, unfortunately, don’t know how to function without internet–so Wi-fi is pretty important when we’re picking out a rental property. (we typically use vrbo.com ; that’s worked out well for us. YMMV).

    And Amy is so right about picking a compatible groups of folks to go. If someone loved to chat, she would go crazy at one of our retreats–’cause there is so much silence.

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    • liz talley says:

      Sounds like you have a good plan in place. And I’m so stealing the movie idea. That’s a great way to analyze plot, gathering several different opinions.

      Next time, we’ll try that πŸ™‚

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  18. I’m so jealous. Sometimes I feel like I live in an isolation ward. If not for the phone and the computer, I’d be a real nutcase (as opposed the the current pseudo-nutcase variety.) πŸ˜‰

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    • liz talley says:

      Easy to feel that way sometimes. I’d love to have you down here…all of you. We’ll go to the lake and connect πŸ™‚

      Honestly, I love having this blog to connect with some of my favorite people every day. What a blessing the Rubies and friends are.

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  19. Kelley says:

    I love these ideas! I have yet to find a group of romance writers in Pittsburgh but maybe when I’m ready I’ll venture further out into the world and discover a group.

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    • liz talley says:

      Well, it’s about to be chilly up there with snow coming down, right? You need a “let’s not go crazy from seasonal blues and wear your long handles” retreat. Hot chocolate, mittens and a roaring fire. You gotta track down those writer friends who are close and make that happen. Sounds like a hoot πŸ™‚

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  20. Rita Henuber says:

    Sooo. When is everbody coming to my house??

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    • liz talley says:

      I know! We so need a trip to FL. As soon as I get my kids out of the house and on scholarship in college, I’m there. LOL. The way time is flying for me, just blink and I’ll be there in my coverup. Because I’m not getting in that hottub without a coverup. We’ll let Kim wear the bikini since she’s soon going to be down to a slip of nothing.

      Beach, wine, hottub? Rita’s sounds like a sure bet for creative juices flowing.

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    • I am SOOOOO there, Rita!!!!

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  21. liz talley says:

    Okay, friends, I’m off to bed. I will check back tomorrow in case anyone has any brilliant suggestions that might make a plotting retreat even more awesome than it already is. Thanks for all the great comments and suggestions πŸ™‚

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