Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Plot Group: Three Days, Five Authors, Ten Stories…

by Christine Rimmer

Hey, everyone. So nice to be here. Thanks, Anita, for inviting me.

As you can see from the title above, I’m in a plot group. What’s not to like about that?

A lot, I would have answered if you’d asked me that question six years ago. For the first twenty years (!) of my life as a romance author, I was the ultimate in solitary creators. Critique groups? No, thank you. Critique partners? I don’t think so.

And plot groups? No, not for me.

That is, until my longtime friend, Susan Mallery, just happened to mention that she had an opening in her plot group, which meets in Las Vegas twice a year. I was intrigued. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe because Susan is really, really good at what she does. Maybe I wanted some of that. Maybe I was beginning to see myself as getting just a little bit stale. Hey, after fifty or so books, approximately how many I had written at that time, I needed a new way to look at my writing process.

So I signed on for Susan’s plot group as a trial. I loved it from the first session that first group I attended back in 2004. And today, I can’t imagine my writing process without plot group.

And it’s about more than just the excitement of having five great writing brains go to work on your story idea. It’s also totally practical. When I started with my plot group, I turned in three solid series books a year. Now, I turn in four. Plot group has not only improved my books, it’s made me a faster writer. I don’t have to waste so much time wandering in the wilderness of my own story idea. At plot group, I hone what I start with. Then, when I sit down to write a synopsis, I’m already at least halfway there. It’s a real breakthrough for me.

Yes, it’s true. Even longtime authors can learn very effective new tricks.

Here’s how we do it. A week before we leave for our three days in Vegas, we send each other basic starting material for two stories each. It doesn’t have to be much. Just a starting conflict and a bit about the characters is enough. Or more, if further progress on the story has been made.

Once in Vegas, we meet for two sessions per day, two books per session, with plenty of down time in between to eat, read, gamble, watch moves, whatever. We like the more modest away-from-the-strip casino hotels. With lots of restaurants on-site. And a gym, and maybe a shopping mall nearby. Keeps prices reasonable and options open.

All sessions are a half hour to ninety minutes. We give as much time as is needed to get character goals, character conflicts, opening scene, major turning points, black moment, escalating bad stuff, and scene ideas. We double-tape each session to allow for technical glitches. And we keep it way simple: cassette tapes, hand-sized cassette recorders. We each go home with two sessions, two books each. Having the sessions on tape is just fabulous. When I start a new synopsis, I pop in a tape and transcribe as it plays. The whole session is there for me, alive and immediate. I’ll add in notes to myself as I transcribe. Sometimes, once I’m working with the plot on my own, I’ll change it up considerably. I always add and take away from whatever we plotted. But I have so much to start with, so many options. My synopsis takes me a couple of days now—as opposed to weeks when I was plotting by myself.

Yes, we have rules. Simple ones. We all try really hard not to talk over each other, to speak clearly and loudly, so there’s no mumbling on the tape.

The owner of the story has to lead the session, keep it on track, speak up when she doesn’t like the direction we’re taking. No matter how brilliant we think we are, we promise to respect that author's opinion and go in a different direction.

We each must come with a starting place for each story. If a session goes badly, we rewind and start again, take a break if we have to, and then come back with it. We have spare sessions in the schedule for books that just don’t seem to come together.

And lastly, all idle chit chat, gossip, confessions and discussions are held in the highest degree of confidence. If anyone violates this rule and gossips about a plot group member outside of plot group, she will never be asked back—and the rest of us will make a point of saying rude things about her at every opportunity. This one is not a joke. We all put ourselves on the line at these sessions and we need to know we're in a safe environment.

And that’s it. I love plot group. Beyond the professional value of getting more books—and better books—out of the interaction we share, I get a chance to get away to my own private writer’s retreat twice a year. It’s a real battery recharger.

No, you don’t need to go to Vegas. You can do it with fellow writers at someone’s house, just for a day. Or even an evening. You can rework the format to fit your own needs and budget.

But if you’re not already in one, a plot group is definitely something to consider. Take it from someone who’s been in the writing business since time began. It never hurts to learn a few new tricks.

So, chicks. Do you have a plot group? If so, how does yours work? I love to take questions, as well as suggestions.

Christine will be giving away a signed book from her backlist—winner’s choice, subject to availability—to someone who comments on today’s blog.
Christine Rimmer has written sixty-five contemporary romances for Silhouette Books, Harlequin Books and HQN. A reader favorite, Christine’s stories consistently appear on national bestseller lists, including the Waldenbooks and USA TODAY lists. She has won Romantic Times BOOK review’s Reviewer’s Choice Award for best Silhouette Special Edition. She has been nominated three times for the RITA and four times for Romantic Times Series Storyteller of the Year.
A Bravo's Honor is Christine's current release.
More info on Christine Rimmer as well as her backlist can be found at:


Marilyn Shoemaker said...

Christine, every interesting post. As a reader I've always found how an author writes a book fascinating.

Did any of you have input into the Lone Star Sisters Susan recently completed? If so, the series so far has been amazing.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Christine,
Thanks for joining us here on the Prairies! We're really pleased to have you here.

Plot group sounds like a great idea. I especially like the idea of running away to Vegas :) Our writing group (Saskatchewan Romance Writers) has done a couple of variations on this theme. If a member is having trouble with a story, we've done plotting sessions together at retreat or at monthly meetings. We've also done group plotting sessions as writing exercises. One of these sessions turned into a full length novel we called "Cold Feet". I love throwing out ideas and feeding off the energy of the other writers. Your more organized, twice a year group sounds like a fabulous idea.


Ban said...

Oh how exciting that sounds ! A few of us belong to a beta blogger group that was first set up for posting snippets but I for one would welcome questions about plot, character developement etc. The problem with that is - it is soooo much easier and productive to have a discussion group in person - the ideas flow and bounce of each other ...
I'd love to go to a plot group someday - as Janet said, maybe someday we'll arrange a get together.
Thanks Christine !

Christine Rimmer said...

Good morning, everyone. So nice to be here and chat a little about the writing process!

Just one other point I want to make upfront is that we do have two forms we use at plot group. One has cues for the plot elements: plot points, scene ideas, conflicts, etc. And the other contains our rules.

If you would like a copy of these two handouts, email me at and let me know you would like them. I'll get them to you in attachment.

Christine Rimmer said...

Marilyn, hey!

Yep, we plotted everyone of the LSS. And I agree. Susan did a beautiful job on them. Of course, as the books developed, they veered in places from what we plotted. That's kind of how the process works. Plot group gives us so much--but still, the books are completely the author's own in the end.

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi Jana. Thanks so much for the warm welcome.

Yep. Running away to Vegas. What's not to like? You bring up an important point about the energy of all those bright, talented writers in one room, each taking what's there and making more of it, the work amplified by all those brilliant brains focused on one story. I guess that's why they call it brainstorming. We do really have to inforce that rule about not talking over each other. Sometimes we get so excited, if we're not careful, the tape can be just a blur of laughing and shouts of "I have it, I have it!"

Christine Rimmer said...

Ban, hi!

As Jana mentioned, there is something about the energy when you're all physically in a room during a plotting session. A real joy and increased creativity, somehow.

One point I would make is that the combination of plotters has to be compatible. Meaning they all like to come at the work in a compatible way. In our group, we're all kind of generalists, if that makes any sense. We want the broad strokes and then to move on. We've had temporary members who needed to do everything in detail and in order. That never lasted. We're all more forging ahead, maybe getting the third tp before we figure out a good opening. That drives careful, one-step-at-a-time plotters up the wall.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Christine and a big welcome to you. Thanks for visiting and answering questions today.

A weekend away to plot and brainstorm ideas sounds wonderful. A set amount of time set aside to concentrate strictly on plot issues would be something I would find very helpful.

Do the writers in your group all write in the same genre or subgenre?

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi Karyn. My pleasure!

Re our various writing genres. We are Susan, Maureen Child, Teresa Southwick, Kate Carlisle and yours truly. Susan is writing mainstream romance and mainstream women's fiction. Maureen has written historicals and straight paranormal in the past. Now, she writes Desires, Nocturnes, mainstream romance and mainstream humorous paranormal. Terry and I both write for SSE now, though we have both done other things--mainstream romance in my case and a romantic mystery. Historicals and traditional series romance in Terry's. And the so-talented (and NYT author first time out!) Kate, our newest member, was unpubbed when she joined us. Now she writes cozy mysteries for Signet and she just signed to write Desires.

So...we have a lot in common, but we do write different things. We find the variety of approaches useful to get things in our stories we might not come up with on our own.

Deb H said...

A plot group sounds great. I don't recall hearing about such a thing before, at least in the way you presented it. I can see how having like minded people with similar goals could increase a writer's effective use of time.

Thanks for bringing a peek into the writing process and revealing another way for us to consider improving our craft. It also appears to be a way to establish life-long friendships and support for an otherwise solitary process.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Janet said...

Welcome, Christine. We're so glad you joined us here on The Prairies today :)

Plot group sounds fabulous. As Jana said, we have done something similar as a 'one time only' deal at our SRW meetings and retreat. I love those sessions - coming up with ideas, working on character flaws/conflict, developing a plot towards the black moment - Muse lives for that type of creativity.

Some of us have done something similar using MSN messenger as well. Of course, it's not the same as in person, but it does give the 'real time' effect and the conversation is easily saved.

-an aside to ban - we can set that up for betabloggers, ban. And I think the blog is the perfect place to ask for suggestions/help with characterization, plot, conflict. I'm hoping we can morph our little group into something like that (and yes to getting together some day :)

Christine - does your group try to keep your members to a certain number? You have 5 right now - do you consider that to be a top end for a plot group?

Looking forward to the conversation here today - a great topic, thanks so much for sharing this with us.

Silver James said...

Hi, Christine and Chicks! Just dropping in to say "Hi and bye" on my way out the door to the OKRWA meeting. Christine, you are in a fabulous group. Maureen and Kate are awesome!

Hello, my name is Silver and I WANT A PLOT GROUP like this! I love bouncing ideas and "what ifs" off the imaginations of other creative people.

Janet, et al., I'm all for betabloggers evolving!

Thanks for dropping by, Christine! Catch ya'll after the meeting.

Anita Mae, my spam word is dinglen. You needed that for your Pass the Plot chapter. :D

Christine Rimmer said...

Deb H, so glad you stopped by.

Yes, plotting with a good group not only gives you fresh ideas, it does save time. I write more and faster--which is always good.

And about the friendship and support, it's invaluable. I had known Susan for several years before I joined the group. But since we've all been plotting together, I've gained so much in help when I need it, not only for my stories, but for the other aspects of the writing life. I really trust my plot pals and feel I could count on them for almost anything.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Christine. Your group sounds like a great mix of writers. Thanks as well for offering to share your plotting form and rules guide with us.

Christine Rimmer said...

Janet, what great ideas for your group. In person is wonderful, but when you can get any kind of real-time on it you can get a lot done!

Great question re the number in a group. Susan says that five is optimal. But we have done it with four and even three once and it can work. The thing with five is you have a lot of ideas with that many people, but if you get more than five, it gets a little unmanageable and everyone gets worn out before we all get 2 sessions each.

Christine Rimmer said...

Silver, hey! Say hi to everyone at OKRWA. I have to make it a meeting soon. I miss them! And Kelli McBride is doing a workshop on website design this month. Should be a great one. :) Enjoy--and thanks for stopping by first.

I also love the whole get-away aspect of plot group. It's just me and four brilliant women, lots of time to work--and the down time is all my own. No dinners to cook, no clean-up afterwards. It's a real recharger.

Christine Rimmer said...

Karyn, you are more than welcome. And re the rules and plotting checklist, it helps to have those things on paper, just to remind us.

Especially with the plotting checklist, you can refer to it during the session--have it out where everyone can see it. Then you can check off that you got each point that should be included

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey everyone a warm welcome to you Christine and everyone else who's taking time out of a busy Sat to visit here.

I really like the idea of a plot group and right away thought of the possibility of a few of us using the 2 retreats for that purpose - especially the spring retreat where we can arrive earlier or stay later. This is such a great post, Christine.

I must admit however, when I told the Chicks you weren't going to do your original post re writing about sex, I rec'd at least one email asking why not. :)

Well, summer is finally here with a hot muggy day expected to reach 30c/86F. At least we have the breeze flowing through the house.
I have a family reunion going on here at the farm but I'll be stopping in throughout the day to see how things are going. Sounds like you've got everything under control, though Christine so I can rest easy on that. :)

Susan Mallery said...

Hi Chris--I didn't know you were blogging today. Thanks, Marilyn, for letting me know.

What Chris isn't tell you is that I had to *beg* her to come to plot group about 3 or 4 times before she would agree. She wasn't sure her process would support imput from others.

As you can tell from her post, she is now a firm convert to the plot group process. A reminder to all of us to step out of our comfort zone from time to time.

The only thing I would add to her wonderful post is that you don't have to be a plotter to benefit from plot group. We do have pantsers in the group. As we don't get into the scene-by-scene detail, we end up with a general direction, turning points, conflict and resolution. Which is about all a panster is looking for. Those of us who seriously plot have more work to do before beginning, but as Chris said--it's so much easier with that jump start!

Christine Rimmer said...

Anita! So glad you're here. Enjoy that reunion. I love those. I'm in the process of baking a cake to take to a party tonight to celebrate Father's Day. Yes, a day early. But we celebrate whenever we can.

LOL re the sex thing. It just kept getting longer and longer (!) I was trying to get to my whole concept of sex scenes in a romance being a true action scene. But I kind of kept wandering. Maybe I'll pull it together one of these days. And it wasn't a total loss. I got a lot out of reading Jana and Karyn's posts here on the subject.

Oh, and about having it well under control. Thank you! It's not that difficult around here, where everyone is offering great insight and ideas to bounce off of--not to mention good questions!

Christine Rimmer said...

Susan! (Insert hugs and cries of undying affection here).

I should have thought to tell you to drop in if you had a moment today. And I'm so glad Marilyn did!

Yes, alas. It's true. I did worry that my precious process might not be improved by the addition of four other brilliant writing brains to help make my stories soar. What a fool I was. Not anymore, though. I know what's good for me and I'm so glad you invited me and then kept after me until I finally realized I would be an idiot not to at least give it a try.

Result: So many benefits to my precious process, I can't even name them all!

And also...what Susan said about pantsers getting bennies from plot group, too. Everyone can benefit, no matter what your own precious process may be.

Janet said...

Glad Susan jumped into the conversation - she answered my next question (I am a pantser).

I'm also the lone e-mailer. I was looking forward to your post on Sex. Jana and Karyn did an excellent job in that department (for anyone looking to read those entries go here, here, and here). Hopefully, you can pare it down, Christine, and come back to The Prairies to give the talk!

Have you ever had a book, even after a plot session, just refuse to cooperate?

Christine Rimmer said...

Janet C, hey! Jana and Karyn did do such good work on the sex scene question. I'll keep in touch re adding to that discussion. :)

Re those books that just won't behave--even after a good plotting session. Yeah, it happens. Not real often, but now and then. When it does, we might call each other for a little telephone brainstorm on the problem(s). Sometimes it takes that--and sometimes you find you just have to sit down with all the elements you do have and figure out what's missing.

As Susan said in her comment, even if necessary stuff is missing, you always come away from plot group with a bunch of places to start. So even if you don't have it all--you rarely do--you have a lot to build on.

Most of the time, you end up going a lot farther than what happened in plot group. It's the nature of the beast that you take what you get and start from there--rather than from the very beginning. But there's always still a lot more work to do on your own, even if you get to use most of what happened in the session.

I personally have never had a book where I had to toss out everything I got in plot group. Even the ones I have to seriously rework and rethink have a lot of what we plotted in the finished product.

Also, I find for longer books--longer than, say, an SSE--I will sometimes need two sessions to get what I want. I'll do one during one of our meetings, transcribe and make notes after I get home. And then bring what I have and what we've done before back for a second go-round. Sometimes it's all just too much to get in only one session.

Christine Rimmer said...

It’s been a great Saturday visit, everyone. Thanks so much for dropping by and contributing to our plot group discussion. I’m off to that early Father’s Day dinner I mentioned earlier in the day—freshly made cake in hand!

If you have any more questions or comments, please ask away. I’ll drop in tomorrow and reply to any last remarks.

Happy Writing, Chicks!

Helena said...

Sorry, I'm late at the gate, but I have been having a wonderful grad reunion this weekend, and then a visit with my son this afternoon. Good excuses, both, but not reason enough to skip this prairie ritual we chicks have going. It's always wonderful to have a guest come in and give us ideas for making our writing process better.

As you have already been told (over and over) this plot group idea is very intriguing. Janet is a pantser, others worry plots to death, and I believe I am somewhere in the middle. I am also kind of a loner, but I am open to discussing my stories with a group of writers which I do on a regular basis, so this would be an extension of that idea.

Your hints and specific "how-to" comments have been very helpful. I would not be surprised to see more of this type of activity springing up.

Thanks for being here today, Christine!

Penny Rader said...

I love the idea of a plotting group, especially since I'm in the very early stages of planning a series (and I am an excruciatingly s-l-o-w writer).

Christine, do you have any tips for developing conflict and turning points?

I'm going to print off your post and share it with my crit group. I'll also be emailing you for the two forms you use.

Christine Rimmer said...

Happy Father's Day, all!

Helena, I'm glad you found time to drop in. I know this is a busy, fun&family time of year for all. I do think plot group has changed my writing life so much for the better--which I know I've said over and over during this visit with you all. I do hope your prediction comes true and more writers enjoy the benefits from such a group.

Christine Rimmer said...

Penny, got your email and sent you the forms.

Re tips for developing conflict and turning points, that's a big subject. I would say that everything springs from character. A situation can be fraught with conflict, but it's how a character--that particular character with his/her issues and flaws, deals with that conflict that keeps us turning pages. In the end, you have to figure out what your character wants above all and then figure out how far he/she will go to get it.

And that's where the turning points come in. For the main turning point, we have a way we approach them in plot group. (Don't know whether this is Susan Mallery's or someone else's, but here we go:)

First TP: We get there's a problem.

2nd TP (or midpoint): It's worse than we thought

Third TP: There is no way this can work out.

As you see, there's a build in the crisis factor and tension of each major TP. You definitely want that in your book. So you are building conflict/tension as the book progresses.

That's about as far as I can take this in a comment, but hope the above helps a little.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Christine, thank you so much for guesting with us this weekend. I'm heading over now to make the book giveaway announcement...

chey said...

Hi Christine,
The plot group sounds wonderful. I can see how talking things out could be helpful.

Philip O'Mara said...

Interesting insight into an author's thoughts.
It’s time to read a great new romantic comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
This is an adult sporting comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.