When I go to conferences or retreats or workshops, I believe that if I learn One Thing that will help me (even at cooking lessons or art classes) in the future, then the event was worth my time.
So at the end of my wonderful weekend near Waco (Valley Mills is about 25 miles NW of Waco, but it's not alliterative), we had a session of "What did you learn at the retreat this weekend?" I honestly don't remember what everybody else said. Maybe by the time I get to the end of the blog, I will. There were only four of us left by Sunday morning--that's all that stayed the night, so it's not that much for me to remember. You would think it wouldn't be difficult. But I've slept since then. Several times. Anyway...
What I learned at the retreat: You Have To Keep Your Focus on What The Story Is About.
During our critique sessions, and our plotting sessions especially, the group kept going off on tangents, and someone (often me) would have to get us back on the point.
Over the years, I have been on a lot of committees. Committees have a bad tendency to go off track and start talking about--all kinds of silly things that have nothing to do with why the committee is meeting. I don't like to sit around at meetings for hours on end. I want to get the business done and move on. I have spent a lot of time in meetings going "Okay, so we're going to have a booth at the Fourth of July celebration, and its going to be the library's used book sale, right? What other fundraisers do we want to do?" when the meeting got off on those little tea cakes Frances brought to the luncheon... I'm big on moving things along.
During the retreat, I found myself going: "Okay, so what's this book about? Is it a romance? A mystery? A post-apocalyptic adventure? What?" (You try saying 'post-apocalyptic' three times fast. Ain't easy, is it?) Not to move things along, but to be sure I was properly critiquing the material. If you don't know what it's supposed to be, it's hard to make sure that's what you're reading.
When we were plotting--we worked on three different stories for three people--we had discussions on "what is the main plot, and what is the B-plot." One of the stories was like "Twilight" in that she wanted the main plot to be the romance, but had a suspense plot with a bad guy as the subplot. Except when we were plotting we kept coming up with ideas for the subplot.
How the bad guy would find out about the heroine. How the heroine would feel about the death in the story. It was almost like we wanted to do that plot more than the main plot--and we would have to get off the subplot tangent and go back to the main plot. How would the author show the budding romance between her victimized heroine and her cop hero? Then someone would say something like--"Oooh, but what if she has a gun? And the hero sees her gun, and runs a trace on it. And--and--" and we'd get sucked right back into that suspense subplot. Which played off the main plot and pushed it forward--but wasn't the main plot.
I kept coming back to "But what's the story about? What kind of story is it?"
Brainstorming a plot is sort of like plotting by committee. All ideas are welcome. It's the author's job to decide which ideas she likes. It's the author who has to keep control, who has to know What Kind Of Story It Is, and maintain a focus on that, on what he wants the story to be about. Whether you create an extensive chapter-by-chapter plot outline, a quick one-page list of plot points, or just start writing without much more than an idea of how the story will end, it's important to remember What The Story Is About.
This, actually, is why I have my one-page outline to write from. Because in my past--I think it still lives in my file cabinet--I have a historical romance that I wrote before I learned this lesson. I call it my 600-page octopus, because it's at least that long, and it goes off on as many tangents as an octopus has arms. (or more) I kept forgetting what the story was about, and sticking in this adventure, or this mini-romance, or that complication. That story grew, and grew, and grew, and got absolutely nowhere. I didn't maintain focus.
It has taken me a while to learn that I am so easily distracted by every shiny story bauble that floats by, I MUST have that outline so that I can maintain that focus on What This Story Is About. Otherwise, I'll end up writing some other story. Or no story at all, but another octopus. You may need some other tool to help you maintain focus, or you may not need any tool at all, if you're a fly-into-the-mist, seat-of-the-pants writer. (I am in awe of you types.)
The important thing to take away is that novels are really long. They take a long time to write, and it can be easy to get distracted. In order to get from the beginning, all the way to the end, you have to keep in mind What The Story Is About.