Plotting Retreat

I actually feel worse this morning than yesterday, but I have to go today - I woke too late to call in. Besides, it's Writer's Workshop Day, and computer lab, so that should make it easy. It's also tutoring. Bleh.

Yesterday we rested a lot, watched Return of the King and 6 Supernaturals. I added two skeins to my afghan (2 to go!) and printed out JoAnn's story and my cp Elizabeth's. Didn't have the eyes to read, though.

Last night's dream was that the dh and I had bought a fixer-upper in a fancy neighborhood years ago, got overwhelmed with the payments and abandoned it, then decided to move back in. Only the neighbors (who in my dream were family but who I've never actually seen before) wouldn't leave us alone. Seriously. So it became my goal to get time alone with the dh.

My chapter is having a plotting retreat at the end of next month and I'm debating going. I signed up, because last time I went, I got Beneath the Surface plotted, but as you know, I tend to be a hermit, and, well, that's a lot of togetherness at a plotting retreat. You eat, clean up, sleep (okay, I actually go home to sleep because it's only about 15 minutes away and I can't sleep in a strange place) together. You help each other a lot, but...together. A lot.

Here's my experience after the last retreat.

For years I’ve heard of people going to writing retreats, for years I’ve envied them. So this year when Deloris Lynders announced the SARA plotting retreat, I was more than a little tempted. Only one problem – I don’t plot. Oh, I know my characters, and I know my setting and premise, and I generally have a vague idea of where the story will end up, but plot? No. My bookshelves are full of plotting books never opened. Just looking at a green binder gives me hives. The names Swain and Vogler put knots in my stomach.

So why did I want to go to a plotting retreat?

At the urging of my husband and friends, I signed up, with the idea that I’d plot out a new story. Then another book was rejected and I thought, well, I’ll take that one instead. At least I had a little more idea what I wanted to happen and would have a little more to offer when it was my turn. I wouldn’t look like a total idiot. After all, of the people there, I probably had been writing the longest. What would it look like if I didn’t know what I was doing?

I arrived Friday night and after a companionable dinner, the eight of us sat around the living room as Deloris led us through our story blurbs and conflicts. More than once I wondered what on earth I was doing here, as she threw out words like “Hero’s Journey,” “protagonist” and “contagonist.” Yes, I’d heard them before, but I avoided them like advanced math. But listening to other people’s stories was inspiring. Some of the attendees knew more about their stories than I did, some knew less. But all were willing to lay the story out to receive help. We all wrote out our casts and our blurbs on giant newsprint and taped them around our host Marjorie’s living room.

We worked late that night, none of us got to bed before midnight. I had trouble sleeping as so many stories ran through my head.

We rose early, and I was certain I’d be worthless, but after we started working, I was inspired and energized. We each took a turn, and were given an hour and a half to work through our story. Deloris led us through the hero’s journey, beginning with the everyday world, and wrote it out on newsprint. We talked through it, where the characters were at the beginning, where we wanted them to end up, what steps they’d have to take to overcome it. We talked about the four stages of love: attraction, respect, trust and love, and discussed where each step would come in our stories. A few of us had difficulty when it came to the tests and enemies step, so we’d jump ahead to the Black Moment, realize what we wanted to happen there, and work backwards.

By the time we reached my story, I was gaining confidence. I told them that the story had been written and sent back so I wasn’t married to any of the plot points. It was very interesting that as we worked through it, we came up with a very similar plot, only packed with more emotion and stronger character arcs.

I didn’t feel confident enough to offer a lot of input on the first couple of stories we worked through. But after the tension of talking out my own story had passed, I became very involved (It could have been the six pack of Diet Cokes, who knows?) Ideas were clicking, and I felt like a whole Christmas tree of light bulbs had gone off in my head. Just focusing on our stories, getting the input from other writers, was so inspirational.

After dinner we watched MOONSTRUCK and talked through the hero’s journey in relation to the movie, as well as the roles of the cast – who was the mentor? The emotion? The contagonist? Those lightbulbs kept firing.

The next morning the lack of sleep and the immersion in writing-related activities and conversation started to take its toll. Deloris gave us more newsprint and told us we were going to divide it into squares by chapters and plot lines, so nothing got dropped throughout the story. Yes, great idea, but seeing 96 empty squares almost pushed me to tears. How could I know what chapter each event would take place in? We’d worked through a lot of the external plot, yes, but I had no idea where the first kiss was coming in, or the first love scene. My characters usually guided that. I felt as if I wrote it down, it was in stone.
Deloris was so patient. She sat with me, guided me through writing down what we’d discussed on Saturday, the big events of the story, how they impacted the characters, told me we’d fit in love scenes when the plot slowed down. When I saw a huge gap in the villain’s plot line, she assured me that as long as he was brought to the reader’s mind at some point in the chapter, that would count. She even told me I could call her and talk it out if I needed more help.

Meanwhile, she, Linda and Megan worked their charts on an Excel program. I like Excel programs. They aren’t as permanent as paper. Deloris promised to send her Excel programs to everyone who attended.

We had all come in at different places in our stories. Some people had no idea beyond the initial premise. One person didn’t know if she wanted her book to be young adult, women’s fiction or romance. Two people writing paranormals had already done a lot of world-building. Another came in with one story and left with another. We plotted eight books over the weekend, eight solid books that will be great if their authors keep this enthusiasm for them.

As I drove home, my brain continued to fire. I realized that even in my hour and a half, I hadn’t addressed enough of the emotion necessary to make the story as powerful as I could, but thanks to the retreat, I was able to work through it, address the issue, pull out story points that wouldn’t have occurred to me before.
Have you ever been to a plotting retreat? How did it work for you?

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Judy said...

Hi, Mary. Visiting from Marianne's. I've never been to a plotting workshop (or any kind of organized workshop, actually) and would really love to. It sounds inspiring and a bit scary. I'm like you... I kinda write by the seat of my pants. In the WIP I'm working on now, a main character showed up in chapter... I don't remember.... seven or eight... and I had no idea she was going to even be coming to town!!! How sad is that?

Kelly Boyce said...

My chapter does an annual 3 day retreat every year and I can't wait for it. Last year we did a fun Friday night, four craft sessions with writing exercises on Saturday, then Sunday we spent brainstorming on a new idea. It was great fun. I'm already counting down the days until May!

Allie Boniface said...

Sounds like a great experience. I've never been to one...I think I would feel intimidated...

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary!
I LOVE small plotting retreats of 3-5 people tops. I don't love big retreats. Good luck deciding what to do.

Colleen Gleason said...

Oh my word! That sounds like so much fun. I am completely envious. We're never that productive on our writing retreats!!

Can I come to your next one?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Sounds like quite a productive day! Glad you got a lot out of it. :)

MJFredrick said...

Welcome, Judy! LOL - in my last book, my heroine fell in love with the bad guy! That was just so wrong! But yeah, the retreat was more inspirational than scary!

Kelly, how many folks go to the retreat? This workshop is held at someone's house, so we cap it at 11.

Allie, I was intimidated as hell. But the middle of the second day, I got into the swing of it, and really learned a lot. I can't say I used what I learned in my other stories, though.

Mary Beth, I imagine you could get a lot done with only 3-5 people, and really go in depth. I think the PLOT MONKEYS do that a couple of times a year.

Colleen, Deloris was in the service, and is a HS teacher, so she knows how to keep us on track!

Michelle, it was a great learning experience. I'm just trying to balance my need for privacy vs. another learning experience ;)

Cindy Taylor said...

The plotting retreat sounds great. I hope you can manage the privacy so that you can get as much of the learning as possible. The idea of going home at night is a good one.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Mary, I hear you. I don't think I could ever do a plotting retreat like that--partly because there's no break from the togetherness, partly because I don't want other people's hands in my writing like that. :)

My chapter does a weekend retreat every spring, and while there is a lot of togetherness (meals, meetings, a game Saturday night, writing in common areas), and while we CAN do plotting workshops and brainstorming and critiquing sessions, the goal is to focus 100% on our writing (We call it All About Me). We are in a conference center that's like a hotel, at a church camp, so we have privacy and can escape from the group. It's the most energizing, productive, optimistic, empowering writing event I've ever been to.

MJFredrick said...

Cindy, it was very educational. And energizing. But I think I would like Natalie's experience much more, where you can go to your room if you're overwhelmed! That sounds awesome. Of course, our retreat only costs about $20. That would probably be significantly more.

MJFredrick said...

Natalie, I don't usually like other hands in my book, but I have this one idea that I just can't get a handle on. I'm hoping the retreat will set me on a path!


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