I’ve done this before, and while it helped hone my line-editing skills, it did nothing to help me plot the book, a question which remained a puzzle for me for a long time. In addition, I remember reading someone else’s book, chapter by chapter, thinking it had a weak plot. But I waited until I read the whole thing to comment on the plot. (I had to — I didn’t know how it ended.) In a situation like this the writer wastes time honing details on something that’s got a weak premise.
So, what’s the solution?
Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck of MyBookTherapy.com have a suggestion: a craft group, not a critique group. Such a group focuses only on looking at the story from a high level, at the forest not the trees.
My first experience of this with Susie was when she read my first chapter and synopsis for a workshop and told me how I should adjust the synopsis to strengthen the plot. I remember thinking, “But the book is already written!” Well, of course, I needed to rewrite the book, that was the message.
It’s easier to discuss all this when the book isn’t written yet.
Your craft group can brainstorm new story plots in this way: each writer can pick a type of structure he or she is comfortable with and create a table with a lot of blanks. This can be as simple as goal-motivation-conflict for each of the point-of-view characters. Or it can be as complex as Susie’s LINDY-HOP, an acronym for a long list of items that, when pulled together, make a typical strong plot. It could be somewhere in the middle, with each character’s inner and outer goals and conflicts, with antagonists. Simply choose something you want to use as the backbone for your plot.
Are you a seat-of-the-pants writer, rather than a plotter? The high-level view can still be very helpful. Just take the suggested plotting ideas with plenty of grains of salt, and see where the story leads you.
And if you’re a total seat-of-the-pantser? This may not be your cup of tea. But you could consider it as a way to save time on rabbit trails.
Is your story already plotted? No problem. Grab your craft partners and plot some scenes (at a high level). Each scene, to be strong, needs its own mini plot with its own goal, motivation, and conflict, along with some kind of resolution (bad or good) and a setback at the end. (See my post on polished scenes.)
What you DON’T do is go over each others’ chapters and suggest line item changes. This can tinker with an author’s voice. We want that to come through as authentic. Need line editing? That’s something you can arrange for independently.
So, here’s your assignment: grab three friends, making a group of four. Bring a large sheet of paper to write ideas on. For the story of the scene, start with some premises. Then see what everyone suggests as possible directions for the plot. Have a great time!