can a nice person make a great villain?

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Can this woman make a note-worthy villain?

I’m a lover of all things YA, from fantasy to contemporary romance to dystopian–pretty much everything but horror. I like my sleep waaaay to much to tap into all that nasty.

I digress.

Most antagonists follow a pretty similar formula. For the sake of this post, let’s assume they are human, and not some force of nature or psychological element opposing the protagonist.

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If its a fantasy, the sky is the limit for what type of villain rules those worlds. A dystopia–piece of cake. It’s society and/or the powers that be against the hero. And romance? How about that obnoxious young girl at school who’s trying to keep the love interests apart?

Villains come in every variation, from epically bad, with a touch of sadness, to the quintessential grim reaper. But can they simply be a nice person?

I’ve been mulling over this since this weekend. Family gatherings tend to mess with my head, and the one I attended on Sunday left me contemplating this conundrum. Because, well, let’s face it. It sucks when one of the nicest people hates your guts…

 

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She smiled her greeting and offered a warm hug. I felt the embrace to be genuine, though I knew it wouldn’t last. Soon, I would be invisible to her, and not worth indulging in conversation, or worse, the object of her scornful reproach when I overstepped and tried for humor and a gentle good-nature ribbing. Then the smile would tighten and the light would leave her charming blue eyes. A hot summer breeze couldn’t melt that ice once ignited.

It hadn’t always been this way. I recognize the nice person she endeavored to be. It’s just, the nice only went so far and it never included me.

I sipped some water, watching her interact and smile and ask all kinds of questions to the other party-goers. She reserved that interest in only those who mattered. I wasn’t on her a-list. And as she hung on every word, so intent, so fully absorbed in the one speaking, the writer in me sorted through the questions batting around in my head.

What was beneath that collected exterior? Why was she trying so hard to be sweet and effervescent with everyone she met? If it wasn’t real, what was she hiding? And could it be so dark, so twisted that she could be classified as a villain in a novel?

The words came to me…

Brittle. Something clashed with her warm smile. I saw it in the way she held onto the conversations too tightly. She had to be in control.

Ulterior motives. Not to leave others feeling loved or comforted, the niceness was for her sake. She needed to believe the best about herself and would go to any length to protect that image.

Absolute rigidity.  Any strength taken too far can become a weakness.

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And so, I stood in my little corner of the room and allowed the word “villain” to swirl through my thoughts. It only took a few tweaks to turn her into a potential novel’s antagonist. For though I believed she was truly a nice person, darkness lurked behind her smile. She was wound too tightly, grasping for control, manipulating others to believe what she wanted them to believe. Intent on control whatever the costs…  

I swallowed. Perhaps it was a good day to be invisible.

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What do you think? Care to share?

Happy writing!

Sue 

 

 

 

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An open letter from a reader to an author…

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image credit: pixabay.com

Dear author,

Books are words in motion. Stories vividly told take me to worlds unknown. They let me fall in love, make me hate, sweep my emotions to the highest heights or darkest places.

I read to lose myself. To shove my daily worries aside so I can breathe again. No more family worries. No more teenager stress or financial woes. For the time that book is cracked open and sometimes long after it’s closed, I’m free.

Each story is unique. Each one has potential. I root for every book I endeavor to read.

Nothing disappoints me more than a story that doesn’t reach that potential. Sometimes I press ahead, determined to discover the golden nuggets buried within. I act as an invisible editor, sweeping all those “murmured, mumbles” confusing POV shifts away so I can continue. So I can finish what I’ve begun.

Sad when a story suddenly deflates, leaving me with no choice but to close the book for good. Tragic when a decent editor could’ve helped that author keep that story on track.

So, as a reader, I beg you… move mountains for me. Cast characters that my heart absorbs right off the page. Give me imagery so compelling it lingers long after I’m done. But please, please don’t bore me.

I promise I’m on your side.

love,

A reader

Passive/Active voice explained… finally!

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 image credit: pixabay

Today is my lucky day! Judy Post, a dear and wonderful writer-bud who is an awesome author of urban fantasy has answered my plea for help with passive/active voice. Please be sure to check out her links at the end of her informative, eye-opening article.

Welcome, Judy!

 

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Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog, Sue!

 

The writers in my writers’ group are fierce about catching passive and active verbs, so when you asked me to write about active and passive voice, I thought I can do that.  I get nailed on it a few times in every manuscript I read at Scribes.  But then I pondered what would be the difference between active verbs and active voice, and that expanded the question.

 

First, let’s look at active verbs.  Somewhere, in the mushy middle of every manuscript, I get lazy or mired and work so hard at keeping all of the story elements afloat and moving forward that my brain doesn’t spit out active verbs like it did at the beginning of the story.  In the last fourth, the active verbs return to me, because the pace of the story is picking up and pushing me along, and my verbs try to keep pace with the increasing tension.  But somewhere, inevitably, in the middle, I resort to lazy verbs:  the “to be” verbs.  “He was….”  “They were….”  “He had been…”  The big no-no’s of writing.  For instance, “Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird” uses an active verb.  “To Kill A Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee” is passive.  Active verbs are stronger and give a sense of doing.

 

The more specific verb you use, the better.  For instance, I could say “The werewolf ran toward Reece.”  Ran is an active verb.  It shows action.  Action builds tension and pace.  But if I say, “The werewolf crouched and sprang at Reece,” I paint a more vivid picture.  Vivid pictures bring your story to life.  So not only do you want to use action verbs, you want to use strong, specific action verbs.

 

Strong, active verbs give a story momentum.  They carry it forward, but there’s more to voice than verbs.  For me, an active voice implies a protagonist who ACTS instead of constantly REacting.  I’ve read books where the hero or heroine is acted UPON and then he/she reels from the events and just keeps repeating the process.  There are times when people are victims or lost, but for an active story, the hero has to make decisions and act on them.  He might fail, but if he does, he makes another game plan and tries again.  I prefer strong characters over weak ones.  I write urban fantasy, so my characters are more than happy to grab a sword or wield magic, but strong can mean facing life problems head-on, digging into an obstacle and working to overcome it.  Life offers plenty of obstacles and challenges.  An active voice, I think, means the protagonist is determined to overcome them.  Every book starts when a protagonist gets tripped-up by life.  Something changes in his world, and he doesn’t like it.  The rest of the book tells how he deals with it and tries to fix it.

 

An active voice also implies persistent tension throughout the story.  In my mind, conflict and tension are two separate things.  A book’s conflict is something the protagonist must overcome—the book’s big question.  In urban fantasy, the conflict can be a demon that’s popped up in Bay City to feast on mortals.  My protagonist’s have to defeat him, and of course, demons aren’t easy to send home.  My friend, Julia Donner, writes Regency romances.  Romances, by definition, have to bring two people together by the end of the book.  These people have to overcome obstacles to finally find a happy-ever-after.  The hero’s conflict in her last book was that his father was a cruel tyrant and the hero had dyslexia—he couldn’t read.  Therefore, he felt inadequate and defensive, which led to a propensity to pound anyone who made fun of him.  He’d loved the heroine since he’d first seen her, but didn’t feel worthy of her.  The heroine, on the other hand, was at the mercy of her unscrupulous cousin, because her parents had gone to Canada and disappeared.   She needed saved.  The major conflicts of the two characters led to the tensions that kept the story moving.  The hero didn’t want the heroine to discover his secret.  He thought he’d lose her for sure if she did.  The heroine needed someone she could trust, and the hero’s evasiveness didn’t invite that.  Every single scene cranked up those conflicts and tensions.  Tension keeps us turning the pages to see what happens next.  It doesn’t always have to be big.  It can be a conversation between two people who disagree or between two people who don’t realize they DO agree.  Tension just means that inner squirm, when we FEEL for the characters in each scene.

 

I’ve probably talked about active and passive as much as anyone wants to hear, so thanks to Sue for inviting me again.  Here’s a link that gives more examples.

(and be sure to check out Judith’s links below!)

Amazon author page

webpage

blog

author facebook page

twitter: @judypost

A Plot for Panster-Sue…

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image credits: pixabay.com

If you’ve been around writing long enough, you know all about the labels of plotters and pansters. Some of you proudly embrace your title. Others refuse to be categorized as either. Some lucky ones have figured out how to be both!

Perhaps you’re all about plotting. You have the major turning points laid out, the chapters titled and organized for maximum impact. You’ve completed character wheels for every character, including the baddie…

control-427512_640Look at that outline, all neat ‘n tidy. If I sound snarky, it’s just because I’m jealous…

 

Or maybe you’ve accepted that will never be your style. You have to write organically. You need to write the story to know the story. Your characters have to show you the way, so you jump without a parachute…

 

 

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Okay, so I couldn’t find someone jumping without a parachute. Probably a good thing, anyway…

It’s a no-brainer where I fall. Yup, my brain lives in pantserville.

I’ve fought the pull of plotters. I’ve lived in mad envy of a well-oiled story. I’ve beat myself up for failing to plot one too many times.

So last week while on Sabbatical, I dove into my failed NaNo novel, Drift. I’d finished the first quarter of the book, right up to the first turning point, but was stalled on the mid-section of the book. I have tried everything to plot this story…

1. I outlined.

a. I figured out the major turning points or disasters.

b. I wrote them down.

c. I didn’t know what came next.

2. I created a Excell spreadsheet listing every chapter with summary.

a. Well, every chapter up to the first turning point. Then I got lost because…

b. I didn’t know what came next.

3.  I gave up and pretended not to worry about plot structure at all, believing it will all work out in the end.

a. I wrote some stuff.

b. I still didn’t know what came next.

4. I heaved a BIG SIGH

I’m not sure if it was the Sabbatical (which entailed a break from my computer for writing as well as for social media) or if I stumbled on an unused part of my brain, but for some reason, I finally figured out how to plot!

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yeah, me!

Now, to get back to the subject at hand (pun intended). As I said, I was stalled. I knew the major turning points, but what to do with all that stuff that goes in between?! Since I was going old-school, I took a piece of paper, wrote the turning point scene at the top and left it blank. Then it hit me – I knew what should come right before and right after that point. Out came more paper – each noted with basic information on top and left blank.

I continued this way until a full scene materialized. So, seeing as I already had a blank piece of paper and pen in hand, I wrote that scene. This led to the next and the next, and well, within the span of an hour or so, I had the middle and end of Drift plotted.

I’m not sure why this worked for me and why I couldn’t simply draft an outline like most able-bodied writers can. Something about physically seeing the chapters as separate pieces of paper clicked. And, as a side benefit – I was able to insert transitional chapters or move some around…

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Just think. All this goodness happened without staring at a computer screen. Lucky me!

And so, for those of you who roll up your pants and wade in, only to find yourself stuck mid-way through, I encourage you to give the Sue-thingy (that’s a real term – you can Google it) a go. You never know. Might work for you, too.

I wish you all the best!

Sue

 

 

 

 

Five awesome how-to books that changed things for Sue…

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image credit: pixabay.com

I am a writer who put the cart before the horse. Yes, I know that’s cliche, but when one fits, one should use them.

I digress…

My first story came from a dream. I woke, jotted down the gist and proceeded to spend the next three years trying to make sense of the mess I’d created.

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Imagine a little kitten, playing with a ball of yarn. Yup, tangled plot points, confusing character arcs… this story had it all!

I approached my next story a little better armed. I’d read up on plotting, but my panster-brain refuse to digest the information. That story holds together, but just barely.

Fed up, I dug into how-to books. I was time to teach an old dog new tricks. Each (all found dirt cheap on Kindle) approach plotting from unique perspectives. One works better for plotsters (Martha Alderson). The rest will appeal to pansters. Regardless of your leaning I think you’ll find them helpful.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit, so without further ado, I give you the five awesome how-to books that changed things for Sue…

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson

Blockbuster Plots by Martha Alderson

Writing the Heart of Your story, by C.S. Lakin

Write Your Story from the Middle, by James Scott Bell

The Story is a Promise, by Bill Johnson

 

Character development in five oh-so-easy steps…

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A compilation of my characters from three books, created by image credits: my uber talented daughter: McKenna Bahr.

My first story came from a dream. I can still see her–a woman standing in a crowded amphitheater, anxiously watching a man climb a stage and use it as a throne. All knelt before him, except her. She alone was unable to bow.

I’m glad I woke and scratched down the dream. Today it has evolved into a mega-epic Irish historical fiction called Summoned. Although the dream gave me a basic plot, it was the woman that captured my imagination. Who was she and why couldn’t she bow? Why was she so afraid?

Some characters are tricky. They slip through one’s fingers, evading clear definition. She did not.  I got her right away–a young woman named Kathlin, seeking control over her own destiny. It’s a tradition in our family to create at least one gift at Christmas time. My daughter painted this bookmark of Kathlin…

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Others, though, refuse to be defined. The appear well-developed, but a bit of examination reveals all the little character holes. You can’t fool a reader. They know something’s off, even if they can’t put their finger on it.

My protagonist from Fairless, Tipper Jones,  falls into this category.

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Unlike Shay, the golden-haired fellow on the right, Tipper has continued to elude my capture. Here is what I’ve struggled with:

First draft feedback: But WHY is she so against the Traditions? What makes it so bad that she’s willing to risk extreme punishment to defy them?

Second draft feedback: Okay, so she’s had these visions and is seeking a dream-boy. But what about her? What does she need that she can’t get without sacrifice? And she’s static–she continues to miss opportunities to change and grow. She needs to soften up in the middle and stop being so reactive.

Sigh.

Third round and boy, am I scratching my head. Okay, so better. But we still don’t understand what she needs. It isn’t enough! We want more!!! Gack. What is it with this character? How do I flesh her out?

I headed back to my old stand-by how-to books and came up with this oh-so-easy list. It’s helping me. I hope it helps you!

1) Take some time and journal. I like to write as if I’m the character. Details may pop up that won’t make it into the story but will flavor the scenes.

For instance, I didn’t know Tipper Jones struggled with a poor self-image until I wrote about her early school days. Then I learned how she saw herself–through the eyes of her teacher, who felt she was too loud, too brassy; and her peers who didn’t understand her doubts. Beneath all that reaction and anger, she felt she was somehow broken inside.

2) Journal the arc. Where does the character start and where do they end up?

This gave me the framework for Tipper. In the beginning, she’s stubborn, set on self-reliance, and doesn’t trust easily. Knowing this helped me create characters and scenes that would challenge her to change.

3) What’s the lie? What is one simple belief -or the lie- that influences the action of this character? Answer this and you’ll know your character’s dramatic truth.

Tipper believes she can fudge the truth. She can bully her way through any situation and somehow it will all come out okay. But her self-image is distorted and she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that every action comes with a consequence. Her dramatic truth: her brokenness is actually her greatest strength.

4) Understand the difference between compelling and sympathetic. I want my readers to relate to my characters, not feel sorry for them. Quirks are fine, but I like to dig deeper to discover the real nuggets.

This is from a scene near the end of the second act:

Tipper crept to the back room and found Shay lying on a bed of straw. Soft blonde hair fell across his incredible golden eyes. She resisted the temptation to move the]lock back. He needed sleep. And she needed time to form her plan.

She’d left her home. Tossed traditions aside, put her family in danger and for what? What was the real reason she had left?

Self-determination.

She needed to define herself without rules placed upon her by others. She needed to seek and know who she was and what she was capable of. Sadness flared when she looked again at Shay, but she pushed it away. She wouldn’t find it staying with this irritating, lying, beautiful boy-o. It is time to rise above her limitations without his interference.

She smiled sadly. Or what he would call help.

In the pre-dawn light, she opened her pack and extracted a pen and paper, careful not to wake Shay. He deserved better than this. He was only trying to help her and his sister, but she could see no other way. She’d leave him a note and try to put into words the dream that demanded fulfillment.

Dear Shay,

            How can I leave you, knowing how angry you’ll be when you wake and find me gone? And yes, I’ve taken James, so no need to check.

             I’m sorry for this and for the worry it’ll cause, but I could see no other way. I have to finish what I started. I have to do this on my own.

             Protect her Shay, watch over Gwen and I’ll seek Liam. It’s as it should have been from the beginning. You on your quest, me on mine.

            Forgive me?

            Tipper.

 

She wanted to write what was in her heart. She wanted to tell him she loved him. The words were there, just aching to come out, but she couldn’t say them. Not yet. Not this way.

She folded the note and left it by his bedroll where he’d see it when he awoke. There was no helping the betrayal he’d feel. She stood up. It was time to for the journey to continue. She walked through the barn, keeping her movement soft and light. “Be well, Shay,” she whispered as she closed the door.

“Be well, Shay,” she whispered as she closed the door.

5) Allow their brokenness to become their strengths. And know, some characters shine without any effort while others will haunt you forever.

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Shamus O’Reilly, from Fairless as imagined by my daughter, McKenna. He’s one of my all time favorite boy-os and one of my writer’s group most-loved characters. 

Both Fairless and Summoned are on wattpad.com.

I wish you happy writing!

Sue

a dozen tiny questions…for my protagonist

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Tell me, my protagonist, who are you, deep inside? Whisper to me. Paint a picture. What one word would describe your soul?

What lie do you believe that will propel you into uncharted territory? At your core, what is your dramatic truth?

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What dreams haunt you, demand you obey? Tell me, what will you give up to seek them?

What makes you laugh? What is the one secret you refuse to tell? What is your darkest regret? Your greatest joy?

What part of you is broken? I won’t judge, I promise. I’m broken too.

Who are you beneath the mask,  the hair color, the eyes that sparkle and shine? Tell me please, so I can know.

 

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I’ve been asking these questions of my protagonist, Tipper Jones. Only with draft number three and answering these questions, do I have a feel for this elusive character. 

What about you? How do you develop your protagonists? What questions do you ask of them? Care to share? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy writing-

Sue

5 steps to chapter revision…

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Next up: breaking down your story into bite size pieces. I have to be careful not to overload my creative little mind, so at this stage, I’m still focused on the macro while examining chapters. Here are five steps I find handy:

1) I work off a printed copy of the story, so any changes I make at this point aren’t permanent. This is important. It gives me freedom to read with a critical eye. Later, when I’m ready to make changes to my digital version, I make a copy of THAT document (again, freeing myself from the worry that I’ll delete something important).

2) Next, looking at chapters from a macro lens, I ask myself the hard questions.

Does the chapter have a reason to exist? Is it fluff? Backstory? Does it drive the story forward or hold it back? What part of each chapter works, what doesn’t?

Once I’ve identified weak chapters, I mark them with a sticky note and write something like “this chapter is going bye-bye, but keep the dialog on page so-and-so. It’s too awesome to cut.”

You may have heard the expression, “kill your darlings?” Yup, I’m pretty vicious at this point, but I wasn’t always this way. When I first started writing, I fell in love with every word. I truly couldn’t see one stinking thing to cut! Time, distance, exposure to new ideas and three novels later, I’ve become a heartless writer. I make bold decisions, deleting without fear (insert mwah-ha-ha).

3) Chapter order. Again, using that pulled-back macro filter, I look at where I’ve put turning point chapters (or even just scenes). Do they make sense where they fall? Or could I up the tension by rearranging the order? Yes, this is a pain. Cutting chapters, or moving them around destroys transitions. But at this point, you have to go back and re-work the entire novel anyways. Why not get the big stuff done first?

4) Chapter structure. As in, does it have one? I mentioned in my previous post that I use the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson to plot. Randy (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) suggests each chapter is either a goal, conflict, set-back or reaction, dilemma, decision. Taking the printed copy, I scan the surviving chapters to see if it meets one of these criteria. It’s amazing how I’m able to see the weaknesses and the strengths more clearly using this method. Sometimes, all the chapter or scene needs is a bit of tweaking to tighten the tension.

5) I know some of you are itching to take out that red pen. So, it’s time. Keeping in mind I’m not looking at sentence structure yet, I mark passages that drag and need cutting. I’m reading as a reader – looking at the chapter critically and thinking Where am I skimming? Where have I lost the tension? Do I have enough dialog and action to move the story forward?

I’ll look at chapter again next week. For now, I hope these general tips and ideas are helpful. And please, as always, I’d love to hear your take on revision!

Happy writing!

Sue

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Looking for more writing tips? My author website can be found at www.suebahr.com

Looking for a taste of my writing? I can be found on wattpad.com under “Vermont Writer.”

Thanks for visiting!

Five ways to fall in love with editing…

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image credit: pixabay.com

I love drafting a novel. I love the breathless feeling when I finally type “the end”. For a precious moment, I can sit back, satisfied my novel is complete. Characters exist, the plot is framed, the lump of clay has taken the shape of a book.

But then the moment vanishes when I realize this lump needs a whole lot of work to ever see the light of day. My heart speeds up. My throat goes dry, as I face down the beast formed from 80,000 words.

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Where do I start? How do I fix broken subplots? What do I do with characters who took on a life of their own and left my carefully crafted outline in the dust?

I’ve attacked this fear by studying how-to books. I’ve read blogs, gathered information and tidbits and sage pieces of advice, but no matter how much I’ve learned, I still don’t like editing.

Some of you buckle down and get the job done. Lucky dogs! I have to trick my mind into believing it’s easy. Here are five things I’ve found helpful:

1) Stop calling it editing. Call it (at this stage) what it is: revision. At this point, you needn’t be concerned with fine details. You’re looking at the BIG PICTURE. Which leads me to the next point:

2) Think of your mind as a lens. Imagine pulling back to see the larger view. Now is the time to look at turning points. Where do they fall? Do the characters have an arc? Examine primary plot points – are they resolved in the end? If you’ve followed my suggestion, you’ve printed off your wonderful first draft. Now is the time to dig in. I use post-it notes to mark turning points (which typically fall at the 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 way mark, depending on how many “acts” your story has).

3) Once you’ve examined the larger points, tighten that lens- but only a little- to look at chapters. Do they have dramatic tension? I follow the Snowflake Method which proposes that each chapter is driven by either a GOAL, CONFLICT, and SET-BACK or a REACTION, DILEMMA AND DECISION (if one chapter is a GCS, the next would be a RDD).  Using that theory, I note, right at the top of the chapter GCS or RDD. I even break it down a bit further by noting each element in the chapter.

For example: if it’s a GCS, I’ll mark the chapter this way:

Goal: The protagonist needs to find safety, which means tearing up roots and leaving again (she’s on the run from an abusive father).

Conflict: She’s part of a gymnastic team that is top-notch and heading for States in the Spring. If she leaves, she’ll miss out on her chance to place (and thus, lose out on chances for scholarships).

Set-Back: She has no choice. Father has found her. She has to leave, and abandon her dream.

It’s amazing how much this has helped me – both in editing and in plotting a chapter.

4) Let’s go back and play with the word “revision”, and tweak it to re-envision. Here’s the time to read through the chapter and let it play out in your mind, much like watching a movie.  This allows you to dive deeper into the story without worrying about small details like word choice and sentence structure. Which leads me to number five:

5) Take notes. Take lots and lots of notes as you re-envision. Resist the temptation to go back and rework the micro when you still have to fix the macro. Keeping a notebook handy keeps the ideas flowing and your creative juices primed. I’ve filled pages with everything from setting adjustments to mood and emotional content. Then, as I progress to the stage of editing (sorry for that word!), I won’t have to search my memory to pull forward all those picky details.

I hope these ideas help. Got some of your own and care to share? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy revising!

Sue