Notes from a Plot Party Virgin

I was a Plot Party Virgin, up until last weekend when I attended my very first plotting event sponsored by the Bucks County Romance Writers. Truthfully, I’d never heard of plot parties before, and didn’t have a clue what to expect. All I knew was that it would take 6 hours, that I needed a stack of stickees and a brand new book idea, and that at the end of it I should have an entire novel plotted out. Yeah, it sounds almost too good to be true.

In my last post, The Plot Sickens, I shared how my writer’s crit group, The Rebel Writers, struggles with plotting issues, and included some special resources we’ve been using to help our novels develop and flow.  We’d all been wrestling with plotting issues — all had the GREAT IDEA that petered out, the agonizing middle that tortured us, the unknown ending that baffled us.  And I was personally struggling with finding and fleshing out my next novel idea.

According to my online research, plot parties seem to be fairly common among romance writer’s groups. The BCRW group does a party every year, and many members told me they always come out of it with a completely plotted novel.  Sounds excellent. But since this was a romance group and I’m a mainstream author, would I end up with some bodice ripper plot I’d never set out to write in the first place? And what is it they say about “design by committee?” Isn’t that how a camel was created?

So last Saturday I showed up with some trepidation, my stickees, and my idea. A fairly vague idea at that, involving three sisters, some wonderful Italian recipes, and an unpredictable grandmother who stirs up everyone’s love lives.

There are many ways to run a plot party.  Sometimes the group comes to the party with a previously-issued list of questions about their ideas that they’ve already filled in.  Sometimes the group receives a special list of questions that they work through filling in as the party progresses. Our party, the stickee party, was thought up and led by Judi McCoy, who is author of numerous titles, including her series of Dogwalker Mysteries.  In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly dubbed them “delightful,” and said her books were filled “with humor, quirky characters, and delicious hints of romance.”  We were in good hands.

First she had a few ground rules for us.  We sit in groups with no more than 4 people. We don’t sit with a crit partner we’ve worked with before, since we want the suggestions and ideas to be fresh. If an idea is proposed to an author and that author says, “My character wouldn’t do that,” then they give that idea away and someone else can use it in their own work, otherwise, all ideas belong to the person the group is currently helping to plot.

When we were all seated in our groupings of 4, we chose one person to be the first “plotee” (eventually everyone would get a chance), and one person with good handwriting to be the scribe. The scribe would put the ideas down on stickees, and then face those post-its down on the table, stacking them. When done, the theory was that the plotee would have a stack of notes containing all scenes from her newly plotted novel. And the writer could, of course, rearrange these scenes with ease later, simply by rearranging the stickees if needed.

I, as a virgin, was of course selected to be the first plotee in my group.  I had to give the basic plot line as I knew it, what sort of book it was to be (mainstream, literary, for a particular publishing line, etc.), basics about the hero, basics about the heroine.  And from then on, the group’s job was to ask questions, especially “why?”

I’m happy to say that for me, it totally worked. Seriously. My group (which only had 3 people), posed some interesting questions, which opened my mind to some wonderful twists and turns.  Even when they proposed something that would not work in my plot, it was helpful, because I was clarifying exactly what WAS to be in the plot.  An hour and a half into it, we were done. My modest quarter inch stack of filled-in stickees does not have scene by scene notes, but the framework is there, and I’m ready to roll. Ye-hah!

By now, frankly, we were a little burned out!  Here’s were plot party members tuck in to an impressive spread of food, vital to any successful event. And we all eat a little more than we probably should…Hey, we were working hard!

Then back to work we went. I think the stickee format was especially helpful for me, because I had a strong feel for the sort of book I wanted to do.  My other two group members were in a different position. Kate had written 10 pages of her new novel idea, a paranormal with boundless possibilities. As we worked with her, we asked her many questions, but she was unsure of the answers, so we didn’t actually plot out her novel. She did wind up with a huge stack of things to think of and consider, though.  When it came to Becky’s turn, she didn’t really have a novel idea to start with. So we spent our time asking about what sort of stories interested her most, and her life experiences, and she felt encouraged and that she would start exploring some of the ideas that we’d discussed.

So, in the end, not everyone came away with a fully plotted book, but we all left with work to do, and a feeling that this was a day well spent.  I encourage anyone to pull one of these events together.  You’ll be energized, you’ll get excited bouncing ideas around, and just maybe you’ll leave with your own stack of stickees that will set you on the path to writing your next great novel.

Special thanks to Judi McCoy, to Becky and Kate in my group, and to the BCRW for hosting the plot party.  Gotta go. I’ve got a new novel to write!