Friday, September 29, 2017

Plot Group by Jenn McKinlay

Plot group, critique group, writing club, house of pain, whatever you want to call the shared writing experience, I have never done it. My entire writing career has been me, alone, staring into the abyss (aka, my computer monitor) snatching the words out of the deep dark and twisting them into some sort of storytelling order. I have always been a solo unit and have never even let anyone glimpse my work(s) in progress. Never. Not once. Until this weekend.



This weekend, I am headed off to the Valley Ho Hotel (it’s actually in my neighborhood) with two mystery writer friends where we are going to hole up and plot murder and mayhem of the fictional kind together, taking a short break for my book signing at the Poisoned Pen on Saturday afternoon and then it’s back to the cave.

Am I nervous? A little bit. I’ve never done a collaborative process before. I did some research and found this fabulous post on Jungle Red (naturally) that Hallie posted a few years ago and the tips in it are excellent: http://www.jungleredwriters.com/2011/08/dark-side-of-writing-groups-editor.html So, thank you for that, Hallie!

Why haven’t I done the writing group thing before? Mostly, because up until now, my life was hemmed in by my chauffeuring hooligan duties. Now that H1 is driving (gulp!), I have more freedom for meetings, clubs, groups, etcetera, so I am taking full advantage. Also, it was so very personal in the beginning. I mean, what if fellow writers thought it was awful or that I was a hack? I couldn’t handle that!


I am curious to see how it goes. The three of us are all traditionally published authors with multiple series in our backlists. We’re each looking for a fresh angle for our fictional chicanery and hope that our hive mind can generate some new twists and turns in our plotting, thus it’s called “plot group” as opposed to “writing group”. I hear there will be snacks involved so either way it's a win-win for me. I will be sure to report back in the coming weeks to let you know how it went. 


Chime in, Reds, do you work completely alone, with a critique group, beta readers, spousal input, or what have you? If you do, how do you like it? If not, why not?

35 comments:

  1. Jenn, I expect your weekend will be productive and fun and that your plot group efforts will turn out well for you and your friends. I hope you enjoy the new experience . . . .

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    1. Thank you, Joan. I am nervous but I trust these writers, so it's worth it. Plus, snacks!

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  2. I hope you'll report back to us on how it goes. Good luck! Can't wait to read what you all come up with.

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    1. Murder! Mayhem! Shenanigans! Thanks, Mark!

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  3. I know your plotting retreat will be a success, Jenn. I was part of a writing group for many years. They were excellent critique partners and I learned a lot. I only withdrew from it last year, partly because of the long drive in the dark. But I've had plotting sessions like yours with other author pals while on retreat and often come away sparked with new ideas and twists. Have fun!

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    1. I hope so, Edith. I figure it's always worth it to try something new.

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  4. I’ve spent many years joining various writing groups. It can be two things, non-supportive or competitive. They’ll be nods and smiles, but that’s the best it gets. This week, this very discussion came up with my foursome. We discovered we all had dropped out of the writers’ group we’re members of, unbeknownst to each of us. We’re still on the email list, but inactive.

    It was decided that people in general don’t know how to offer help. You can provide a list on how to critique, but it doesn’t work. We tossed around the idea of breaking off and forming our own Mystery Writers’ group when the lightbulb turned on, the elevator made it to the top... oh, yeah we already branched off.

    For the past year, once a month four of us meet with a writing coach, Beth (Jaden) Terrell, she drives down from Nashville for a two day creative writing workshop. We take turns hosting and Beth stays at our homes. We wine and dine her. Pay her for the two days and of course extra for evaluating and editing. We found over the course of the year, we work so well together, role-playing, acting out scenes that we don’t want anyone else to join.

    Separate from Beth, we four have shared our anxieties toward inviting extra heads. Our decision prevents this woman of vast knowledge from earning more income. But we’ve taken our writing to a serious level and fear an additional person could screw up the dynamics we’ve come to enjoy. I mean, how many of you know 75 year old bleeding hearts who pack Berettas in their purses? Charlie’s Angels on walkers.

    It’s an expensive way to get together, but the knowledge we’ve gained in the craft of writing is beyond what we imagined. The reason I share this information is this. Each of my fellow writers have finally realized getting together with other people to share plots or scenes, especially action scenes, (refer to weapons above) hasn’t worked. But having one person with experience (Beth) to direct us has been more productive.

    Whether we’ll ever be published is an altogether different avenue because once a month we learn something new and we’re so glad we aren’t published having time to rewrite and clean up the mess. “Oh, there’s a safety button on that gun?”

    The bottom line is, why do you want to join a group? To share your latest essay or support for story writing. If it’s the latter, keep it small, be cautious. I’ve known some people who criticize to suppress. Meet only with people in your genre and on your level. And...if one person dominates consistently, request they give time for others, if they don’t, bow out gracefully. Your time for writing is valuable. It may not be Ann Coulter $10,000 choosing the best seat on an airplane valuable, but valuable nonetheless.

    Writing is a passionate endeavor which should only bring you pleasure not headache or heartache. Make every moment count with a group or without.

    Obviously, this dissertation is not for Jenn or any of you great writer’s here at Jungle Red.

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    1. This is fantastic, Pam. Thank you. I really appreciate all of your words of wisdom and will take them to heart over the weekend.

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  5. LOVE the Valley Ho - that's the one with the 50's decor? Your group sounds great and that you are all so invested in it. Looking forward to the post mortem -- hope you'll share.

    Early on and for years I was in critique groups and I feel as if I'd never have gotten good enough to get published without it. Right now, I'm not in a group but I sometimes give a manuscript to writer friends. Lucy and I get together and torture our plots.

    Thanks for linking to that interview I did with freelance editor Lorraine Bodger. I hired her to give me feedback on several of my first published books. Well worth the investment. I think her comments ring true today, the pros and cons of writing groups. What's harder and harder to find is a really good freelance editor who has the time to take on your manuscript. Lorraine has cut way back on the number of projects she takes on. What you're spending seems like a bargain, Jenn.

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    1. I love the Ho, too! I always feel like I should be drinking a martini and listening to bossa nova lounge music. Hopefully, it will inspire or maybe it will throw me into a pit of noir. We shall see.

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  6. I could not write without my critique group. From keeping me honest with the repeated words and weak structure, to helping me solve plot difficulties, to reminding me that no, I don't suck - they do it all.

    Good luck with your group!

    Mary/Liz

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    1. The reminding you that you don't suck part? Priceless. I am particularly fragile this week - release weeks are brutal - so the timing of this could not be better. Thank, Mary!

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  7. (A little extra comment because I forgot to click "notify me.")

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  8. Good luck with the sojourn, Jenn. Having raised a passel of girls, I know trying to write with chaos is not easy, and that having adult minds to bounce ideas off can make a big difference. Plus: Valley Ho. I've always wanted to stay there. Looking forward to your report.

    The closest I've ever gotten to a critique group was at Rhys's nine-day workshop last year. It was a life-changing experience, and very respectful and valuable. And I could, if I wished, continue to access the same group. Most of us still keep in touch. I'm a bit angry with myself that I've gotten sidetracked. Shh, don't tell anyone.

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    1. I won't tell anyone now get back to work, Karen. :)

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  9. Mary, it's taken me until now to see that "notify me" button, duh.

    Jenn, enjoy your weekend.

    Hallie, is this the same place we used to call the "Valley Ho House?" No pun inteneded of course.

    Reds, have a good weekend and write me some new books. xox

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    1. Thank you, Ann. I'm excited to see what we come up with!

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  10. Pam makes some good points. I've been in a number of critique groups, and the group dynamics have to click to make it work.
    --Small groups work better than large ones.
    --Everybody has to write, not just show up for the cookies and gossip.
    --The critique has to focus on the work, not on the writer. I don't mind getting help fixing a character's flaws, but please don't try to fix my own personal shortcomings.
    --Keep it positive. I don't mean you have to like everything, but don't lead your comments with, "This is the worst horses--t I've ever read." Creative people respond much more happily if you say, "Have you ever considered . . . "
    --Keep it short. One group I was in limited all comments to three minutes, with no interruptions from the author. At the end, the author had three minutes to rebut/explain, and then the whole group moved on to the next work.
    --Always remember, it's not your story. If you read something and see great story potential, but the author wants to head in a different direction, let her. It's her story, not yours.
    --Don't be a downer. I was in one group with a published author who was the most relentlessly negative person I've ever met. Her insights into my story were good, but when she started talking about the publishing industry, her relationships with her editors, her career prospects, or just about anything else, I wanted to jump off a bridge. I always left those critique group meetings depressed.
    --Don't let the group become an echo chamber. I was invited to sit in on my sister's group one time, and discovered that something I had written violated a "no fuzzy creatures" rule they had that was a purely arbitrary outgrowth of one member's pet peeve. The group spent most of my critique time pointing out the fact that I'd violated this rule I didn't know existed, and the rest of the time congratulating themselves for catching me. Not helpful.

    Most importantly, everyone has to respect everyone else as a writer and as a human being. It doesn't matter if you're on different levels in your career as long as everyone shares the goal of improving what they write.

    Plotting sessions aren't the same thing. Plotting sessions are fun. That's when you get together for wine after work and kick around all the ideas--both workable and completely crazy--until something clicks, and you see your way forward. From what I hear, the Valley Ho is a perfect place to go for that. Have fun!

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    1. Gigi, stop. You’re dredging up all these memories I’d put behind me. It’s unbelivable the people who have such nerve to be so degrading, but...it happens.

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    2. Gigi- You perfectly list the reasons why I've never done this before, but the gals I'm plotting with I trust implicitly because they've both listened to me fret/whine for years. An aside - I'm always amazed at the competitiveness I see in some writers. Seriously, as a librarian, I can assure you, there is room for everyone. People don't pass on reading a great book because they're too full like literature is a buffet and they can't cram in another bite. Honestly, it boggles.

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    3. I agree about enough room Jenn! When I was first published, I did some traveling with Deborah Donnelly and Libby Hellmann. People would ask us why we traveled in a pack, and Libby would always say "all boats lifted."

      I think we all feel that way about the Reds. Jenn, your plotting retreat sounds divine to me!

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  11. Valley Ho. Nice.

    Groups? Not a joiner. I'm a lone wolf, a rebel. Except my mentor. He reads everything. Then there's my bestie. She gets it after him and the edit he's suggested. And, of course, my husband who does all my tech and action reviews.

    I do Author Coffees, though, where once a month/six weeks I get together with two other local author friends and we bitch about what a crappy job it is sitting on our asses all day playing with imaginary friends. ;)

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    1. You are three people ahead of me already. I have only just begun letting the Hub read what I'm working on - after 30+ books. I did have some beta readers at the library where I worked when I started out and they were amazing. Also, I entered writing contests for the critiques - the anonymity made it okay.

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  12. I can see the pitfalls of writer's groups. How many novice writers are too thin skinned to listen to amateur criticism? How many mothers want to hear their baby is ugly? On the other hand we have the work of the Brontes, and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein thanks to a type of writer's group. I do wish someone had grabbed Tolkien by his lapels in his critique group and said WOMEN ARE PART OF MIDDLE EARTH TOO write them!!!

    Having a professional guide the beginners makes the most sense to me. Having the professional friends bounce ideas off each other works too. How does someone become a beta reader? -- wondering while volunteering simultaneously.

    Yes, Jenn, please report back on the days with the Ho.

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  13. I've never belonged to a critique group, because I suppose I'm scared that others will rain on my parade and dampen my confidence in the new book but Cara Black and I do talk through tricky plot points when we can't see t way ahead clearly and I do give the finished ms to my husband and daughters to read. I think it depends on the relationship you have with the fellow writers.

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    1. Exactly, Rhys. I write comedy so if a critique partner said my work wasn't funny, I'd probably be wrecked. But plotting? Yes, this I can share.

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  14. I have never participated in a writer's group or a critique group. Like Aimee, I'm not naturally a joiner, but I know that some writers can't imagine not having a group. I have a handful of beta readers with whom I brainstorm plot ideas, and they also read my work at various stages. Throughout the writing of a book, I discuss it with my hubby who makes suggestions, but he doesn't read the manuscript until it's an ARC. The key is to find people you trust who are good at giving feedback, which is a tall order.

    Jenn, your weekend sounds amazing, and I'm sure it will be fruitful. Sometimes, you really can't see the forest for the trees with your own manuscript.

    I love the Ho, too! I was mysteriously upgraded during my last visit and ended up with a giant bathtub in the middle of my room. For a woman who loves to take baths, it was bliss!

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  15. I would worry that I was the only writer in the group who wasn't completely confident in my writing in a critique group. I can imagine everyone else being proficient at character development and plot and setting, and me being clueless. I think I would prefer to let a few trusted people read my work. However, I hear glowing reports of writers who participate in such groups, and, like Hallie, credit those groups with their success as an author.

    Jenn, what you're attending sounds like a lot more fun, a relaxed putting heads together to collectively create a story. And, who can resists snacks and a stay at a lovely hotel? Enjoy your weekend!

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    1. Kathy, even writers with published books under their belts miss the boat sometimes on things like character development, plot, and setting, especially in their early drafts!

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  16. So late today! Crushing a story on channel 7. Anyway… I have never been in a writers group. After all these years as a reporter, working, I'll be at happily, with other people and every story, it is absolutely wonderful to get to do something by myself.
    I do come out and wine to Jonathan when I can't figure out what happens next, but I have decided that is all part of the process.
    It's funny, because I love to work with other people and their manuscripts. I always think it is so much more fun to think of what someone else might do!
    I do use a professional editor though, because I do think having a set of new eyes is critical… but only if that set of eyes knows what it is doing!
    I adore the Valley Ho! They have a fabulous bloody Mary bar that I am never there at the right time to partake of. With, like, bacon, and shrimp, and other glorious additions. Please have one for me… And let us know how this works. Maybe we can do a jungle red version.

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    1. Crashing a story, I meant to say, though I hope we also crush it.

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    2. I'm sure Jonathan doesn't mind when you "wine" to him...

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    3. CLASSIC dictation error! Love it! Better than whining, any day...

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  17. Since I'm not actually writing anything I don't know if I am really the best to respond to this.

    Like Ingrid and a couple of others, I'm not much of a joiner so I don't know that I would be able to join up with a writer/critique group. I suppose if I was going to do an attempt at a book it might be a good idea for this newbie. Though the idea of being "locked" away with anyone for a weekend makes me queasy.

    (In the fictional world where I actually do write a book, I must remember to bother Ingrid and Hank to read it... for pointers on the unfinished or for a possible blurb on the finished I don't know yet LOL.)

    I suppose the closest I come to any kind of collaborative effort is when the reviews editor for Mystery Scene sends back my drafts with suggested edits. Though in that case I have never minded the prompts if it makes my review stronger.

    I have to say that I have enjoyed reading everyone's responses today. Gives a wide spectrum of insight on the topic.

    Good luck Jenn.

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