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leapThank Rob for writing day! And the SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest conference I attended last month. The YA Cannibals had another very successful session of sitting around and actually working on our fiction this past weekend. So I finally used the notes I made from one of the sessions by Kendra Levin, editor for Viking Books.

One of Kendra’s many revision recommendations was to take a first draft of a story and do a brief summary of the plot–not just one, but at least 10. She gave us a simple template to work with. We were to fill in the blanks of the this sentence:

“After _____ (inciting incident), a _____ (protagonist description) must _____ (main action) or risk/while risking _____ (the stakes) [during _____ (setting, if unique)].”

So, I took my draft outline of my work-in-progress, IF I WERE ME, and tried to plug it in to this literary mad lib. It told me a lot about what was wrong with my draft. My first attempt was this:

“After laughing at her grandfather’s death, a confused teenage girl must grapple with if she’s losing her mind to a disease only clones can get while risking giving up her individuality and life instead of succumbing to the disease.”

So, several problems here. The main ones are:

1. My inciting incident isn’t that big of a deal and puts the focus on her grandfather instead of the main character.
2. All teenage girls are likely confused. This doesn’t really make us interested in my main character.
3. The main action is good, but the description is anorexic. We don’t see the real horror of the disease.
4. The stakes are like what? What is going on? What’s her individuality have to do with losing her mind. I’m trying to consolidate the stakes too much.5. Could the stakes be higher? I did say “give up her life,” but in what way?

So, I did my ten versions with this in mind. I kept refining. I let myself make a good sentence instead of trying to cram what I already drafted in my manuscript into the mini-mad lib. Here’s what I finally landed on:

“After showing symptoms of a deadly brain-destroying disease only clones succumb to, Tam must decide to ignore it and attempt to live her normal life trying to enjoy first love and her college hopes or risk being diagnosed so that she can make plans to end her life before becoming a weak, deranged and dying version of the helicopter mom she hates.”

Better right? There may be more work to do there, but at least now you can see more characterization and identify about five things that are going to go terribly wrong. You can see the struggle Tam is going to have in the book. What’s cool for me is that this informs my new draft in some pretty exciting ways. In the first draft of the manuscript, Tam thinks she’s going nuts and becomes horribly depressed and wants to kill herself. But the way I’ve framed the next draft because of the above mini-mad lib, Tam is more empowered to grapple with decisions instead of simply self-destructing. She has clearer high-stakes choices. SPOILER ALERT: She’s going to make some bad ones. Obviously. (I’m rude.) And also, the inciting incident is going to be bigger and much more impactful to the main character and therefore the book.

So now I have to go write it. I’ll check back in with a progress report in a few weeks! Cheers.