Celebrating MABEL AND SAM AT HOME: A conversation with Linda Urban

“This highly recommended tribute to the imagination is comprised of delightful pictures and three clever and entertaining stories.” –Booklist, starred review

There’s a beautiful new picture book in the world today, and it’s a perfect choice for kids with big imaginations. MABEL AND SAM AT HOME is written by my friend Linda Urban and published by Chronicle Kids. Here’s the official description…

At the new house, there were movers and shouting and boxes and blankets. There were many places a girl like Mabel and a boy like Sam could be tripped over or smooshed or trod upon. There was one safe place where they would not. And that is how Mabel became a Sea Captain. In this three-part picture book of moving house and imaginative play, Mabel and Sam sail the high seas of their new home; tour the intriguing museum of their living room; journey through outer space to the safety of their own beds; and discover how far afield—and how close to home—imagination can take them.

Linda and I are good friends who constantly talk writing – over lattes in Burlington, VT or chatting online. We thought it might be fun to invite everyone else into one of those conversations as we celebrate Linda’s new book. So get yourself a cup of coffee or tea or whatever you love, and listen in….

KATE:  Hi, Linda!  You already know this, but I’m SO excited about your new picture book MABEL AND SAM AT HOME releasing today, especially because I was there to hear some of your early noodling on this project. This is a picture book, but I think in those earlier days, you were thinking of it as more of an easy reader or transitional chapter book, right?

LINDA:  Right. You know  I have wanted to write an easy reader for a long time, but as soon as Mabel and Sam started talking it was pretty clear that their vocabulary would be too complicated for very beginning readers.  A transitional reader seemed more reasonable and I wrote five chapters about these two imaginative kids using play to get comfortable in their new environment. A few editors who saw it mentioned that the story had a very visual quality that suggested the possibility of a picture book interpretation, but it was Melissa Manlove at Chronicle who sorted out how that might actually work.  It was her idea to cut two of the stories and treat the other three as episodes/adventures in one expanded picture book.

You’ve worked with Melissa, I know.  She’s got amazing vision and can see a project in ways nobody else does.  I think you’re working on something for her now that might feel similar?

KATE: Yes! Melissa really does have an amazing gift when it comes to looking at a manuscript and imagining what it might be. We were having a very casual dinner in Montreal (Melissa was there for a conference) when she asked what I was working on and I told her, “Well…it’s kind of a mess right now, but I have this idea for a picture book about American presidents…” In ten minutes, she’d whipped out a pen, asked for an extra napkin, and sketched out how the project I was describing might look on the page. It’s fun knowing how she worked that same kind of magic with MABEL AND SAM AT HOME.

One of the other things I love about your new book is how you capture the dynamics between brother and sister and the real-kid language of imaginative play. How much of that came naturally, inspired by your own kids, and how much of it was the result of playing around with language as you revised?

LINDA:  When my kids were little they played in very much this style — sort of like little kid improv, riffing on each other’s ideas, picking up language from one another and rolling it around to see where it led.  

As a parent, I was terrible at it.  I could not engage in their play in the natural, free-form, open-ended way that they did.  I was fine to serve tea to or to string up blankets for safari tents, but I was not IN play in the way that they were.  I was always aware of how much time there was before I needed to make dinner or checking myself on the logic of space walking without an oxygen tank.  And they sensed it. I was audience or prop master, not player.

One of the great things about writing, for me, is that when I am writing well, I am experiencing the fictive world through the character, much like my kids do when they play.

For me, so much of that experiencing is in point of view as understood through dialogue.  I’d love to claim some sort of careful crafting here, but really, if I’m feeling IN the character, the dialogue is of that character, too.  

This is not to say that there wasn’t a lot of revision.  There was. And it tended to be of two different kinds. One sort is the analytical revision, the kind that comes with the conscious mind that recognizes a scene takes too long or that an action verb would be more powerful than using a verb/adverb combination.  The other sort is what Robert Olen Butler would call “redreaming” and feeling myself go back into that character world and expanding or rephrasing in a more improvisational way, just like kids do when they play.  Is it the same for you, Kate?

KATE: In many ways, yes – it’s always interesting to me how when you and I are teaching together at a workshop, I gravitate toward the big-picture revision things (like my beloved charts!) and you have such a gift for the fine tuning of words and sentences and language. And I know that your notebooks play a big role in your thinking process, too, whether it comes to brainstorming or revision. Can you talk a little about that – how writing about the manuscript but not in the manuscript is helpful? (And could we maybe see a page or two? Pretty please?)

LINDA:  I’ll see if I have a notebook page for Mabel and Sam around, but I can tell you that the notebook part of my thinking is most valuable to me because it is in the notebook and not typed up in the same sort of format that my manuscripts are.  

When I first started writing, it was all play.  While I dreamed of publication, I wasn’t writing with anything under contract or expecting that THIS would be the book that sold.  It was all loosey-goosey messing around and mostly just for me. Once I sold something, a little bit of that play slipped away. I started thinking that the writing needed to “count”, you know?

When I started writing by hand in a notebook, though, a lot of the play came back.  Of course what I was writing wasn’t for anyone else to see! It was in handwriting and messy and it looked and felt nothing like the sort of thing I’d submit to an editor.

I’m a big fan of Lynda Barry and I believe a lot of what she says about how the hand being in motion can sometimes let us access thoughts and memories and modes of play that typing doesn’t — at least, I believe that’s true for me. So I mess around a lot in my notebooks in order to experience things differently, to come at them from new angles, or to get outside of my own awareness.

I’ll go look for a notebook example now.  

I know you carry a notebook with you everywhere, too.  But I think you also have project notebooks, right? How are they different and when do you find you use them most?

KATE: I do!  It’s important to me to get away from the manuscript. It’s like I can’t talk about it while it’s right there in my face, so writing elsewhere helps a lot. But these scribblings are not as pretty, so I have a major notebook crush on yours. I especially love seeing how they help you move forward with a story.  

Hey – can we talk about the art in this book for a minute? Because as you know, I read this manuscript long before there was even an artist on board, and I truly cannot imagine it in the hands of anyone except Hadley now. It’s brilliant.

LINDA:  IT IS! Completely, beautifully, stunningly brilliant.  I love the way she characterized these two kids. I love the way she grows and broadens the color palette as the grow  more and more comfortable in their home. I love the way household objects take on metaphorical value and then return to themselves again.  

I think her work in Iridescence of Birds and Another Way to Climb a Tree is wonderful, but she has outdone herself here.

There’s such a growing sense of warmth and comfort as the book comes to a close, too.  I want to live in that room, with that family, under that moon.

KATE: Me too! And that’s a perfect note for us to end on for now, I think.

Linda, thanks for doing this with me, and congratulations to you and Hadley on such a magical adventure of a story!

Everybody else….you should go read it now. Seriously. Read it to a kid if you can. And then imagine an adventure of your own. 

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Countdown to BREAKOUT: Design notes and covers and book release day!!

Breakout cover imageThree years ago tonight, two inmates broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Northern NY, launching a massive 23-day manhunt…and a spark of an idea for a novel. Many drafts and revisions later, BREAKOUT is out today from Bloomsbury!

This book, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, is about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. And this is the last blog post in a 23-day series I’ve been sharing here, detailing my three-year writing process for this book. You can find the other posts here.  And now you can read the actual book! Signed copies are available from The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, or you can order regular copies from any other favorite bookseller. Now on to today’s post…about putting the finishing touches on this novel.

Design Notes and Covers and Release Day! 

Usually, when I write a novel, I don’t need to worry much about design notes. Laying out the chapters in a book with a traditional narrative structure is relatively simple, but that wasn’t the case with BREAKOUT because the entire novel is made up of different kinds of documents. There were letters, written by different characters who needed different handwriting styles. There were news reports, petitions, recipes, and text messages, all of which had to be formatted differently. There was art, including multiple pages of graphic novel panels that Nora’s little brother Owen draws as he’s dealing with his fears over the prison break. And that required a detailed design memo. More than one, actually. Here’s a page of the first-draft design memo that I sent the team at the beginning of the design process.

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read BREAKOUT yet, don’t go to that website listed on the design note!)

As the Bloomsbury team began to work on designing this book, they realized that there was a need for even more detailed notes and created additional design memos like this one.

The team went to work, and then there were multiple reviews of the designed manuscript, with more proofreading. We call this step in the process reviewing “first pass pages” and “second pass pages” and so on…until every detail is right and the final draft can be sent to the printer.

And of course, every book needs a cover. I’m incredibly grateful that Bloomsbury hired artist Christopher Silas Neal to do the art for this one. Chris is the illustrator for several of my picture books with Chronicle and designed some other book covers that I really, really love.

Chris started the cover design process with sketches of different possibilities, and then a rough draft of one idea.

We all loved the look of this cover, but there was a concern that people might think the girls running were the escaped inmates when really, that’s meant to represent a relay-race element of the story. Bloomsbury asked Chris for another draft, keeping the overall feel of the cover but perhaps doing more with light and action that doesn’t involve the girls running or the prison.

And here’s a fun secret about this cover…. Authors and cover artists don’t usually collaborate like this, but Chris and I found ourselves on the same shuttle bus at the wonderful Gaithersburg Book Festival while all of this going on, so we spent our 15-minute ride back from the author reception tossing around ideas. Could we maybe use the tree fort as an image? What if there was a police helicopter? With a search light beaming down from it?! Here’s the final cover.

Breakout cover image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One last writing assignment for today: If you could design a cover for the book you’re writing right now – or redesign one for your favorite novel – what would it look like?

 

Thanks so much for joining me as I shared the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to pick up a copy of BREAKOUT and read it for yourself. Here are some ways to do that:

ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here. They have signed copies on hand, or if you’d like one personalized, I can do that on June 15th when I’m at the store for a book event. Just make a note in the comments how you’d like it signed.

BUY BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order BREAKOUT from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour these next two weeks, please come by and say hello!

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Countdown to BREAKOUT: Copy edits and proofreading

Guess what? BREAKOUT comes out tomorrow!!!

If you haven’t already pre-ordered, today is a great day to do that – it’s the last day you can take advantage of this fun offer from Bloomsbury for a free poster & set of bookmarks. 

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day!

Now…on to our second-to-last day of Countdown to Breakout, a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers. It’s earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Copy Edits and Proofreading

Because BREAKOUT is a complicated book, written entirely in documents that turned the project into a great big puzzle, my editor and I went back and forth with revisions even more than usual. But finally, I sent back a revised draft and got the note that authors wait for: “Great! I’m sending this off to copy edits now!”

Copy edits happen at the end of revisions but before the book is laid out as a pdf for printing. A professional copy editor – someone who’s really great with details, grammar, spelling, and punctuation – reads the manuscript and makes notes about any issues. Sometimes, that’s done with colored pencil on a paper copy, and sometimes, it’s done electronically, using “Track Changes” and the “Comments” feature in Microsoft Word. That was the case for BREAKOUT.

This is the very first page of the story, and you’ll notice that the copy editor has made several different kinds of suggestions here. She’s corrected my capitalization from an upper to a lower-case i on Post-it Notes, since that’s a brand name and the i isn’t capitalized. (Clearly, I did not retain this knowledge, as I’m pretty sure I capitalized it again in one of the blog posts in this series.) They’ve noted that I used the word “all” twice in the same sentence and asked if I’d like to delete one of those (yes, please). Copy editors also note continuity errors – like if it’s Friday on one page but then only one day passes and somehow it’s Monday on the next page.

Once the copy editor and my original editor have gone through the whole manuscript to make these notes, it’s sent back to me. As the author, it’s my job to approve the suggested changes, address any queries the copy editor posed, and make any other eleventh hour changes I’d like to make to the manuscript. This is the last stage of the publishing process where major changes are supposed to be made.

Kids at school visits sometimes ask what happens if I don’t like the suggested changes, and that does happen from time to time. When it does, I slow down, read the sentence again, and ask myself why the copy editor made that suggestion. If it’s a situation where there are good reasons not to make the change, I mark that suggestion with the word STET, which means “nope – please leave this as it was.”

Once I’ve reviewed the whole manuscript and addressed all of the suggestions and queries, I send it back to my editor. Sometimes it comes back again with additional queries, so we go through the process again. Then the book goes to the design team, which is normally a relatively simple process of laying out the pages, designing chapter headings, and designing the title page. In the case of BREAKOUT, though, it was a lot more complicated because every page was a different document that needed to be designed differently. (I owe the BREAKOUT design team a LOT of chocolate because their efforts on this monster of a book were heroic.) Tomorrow (book release day!!!) we’ll talk about that last element – design, and how the team turns a story into a beautiful book that you can hold in your hands.

Today’s Assignment: When you’re proofreading a manuscript, it helps to know the common mistakes you tend to make. My personal weaknesses are overuse of the word “just” and not knowing whether or not to hyphenate a compound word. Spend a couple of minutes brainstorming the kinds of errors you tend to make; it’ll help you keep an eye out for those issues the next time you’re proofreading!

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: Revising again…and again…

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Revising again…and again…

Turning a book in to an editor is a great feeling. That project that you’ve worked and worked on for months, and sometimes years, is finally in someone else’s hands! At least for a while…

When I visit schools to talk about writing, one of the questions that kids often ask is, “Don’t you feel sad when your editor tells you all the things you have to change to make your book better?” I tell them that, in fact, it’s just the opposite. I’m thrilled. You see, when I turn a book in to my editor, I’m telling her, “Here…I’ve done everything I can possibly to do make this story as strong as it can be. I’ve used every trick in my toolbox, and I’m out of ideas. Help?” When she writes back, her editorial letter and notes give me a whole new perspective on the story. Her questions get me thinking in new directions, and suddenly, I have a second wind. That means that the book I thought was as good as I could make it can be even better.

Here’s what some of my editor Mary Kate Castellani’s notes looked like for BREAKOUT…

When I get this round of notes from my editor, I usually read through the full manuscript first, adding notes of my own when I have ideas for how to address the questions or concerns raised in her comments. There are more Post-It notes, and then I sit down with the whole project – manuscript, notes, editorial letter, big chart and all, and go back to the drawing board. Again.

It’s not uncommon for a manuscript to go back and forth three or four times, or even more than that, before it’s ready to move on in the process. And often, I’ll have additional readers – both regular critique pals and expert readers – take a look at various chapters during this part of the process, too. When the revision issues are all addressed, the project moves on to copy edits, which we’ll talk about tomorrow.

Today’s Assignment: Find a piece of writing you’d like to work on some more, and read it as if you’re an editor getting ready to publish it. What questions could you ask the writer that might nudge them to think more deeply about the characters and their motivations?

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: Working with an Editorial Letter

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Working with an Editorial Letter

Once I turned in a manuscript to one of my editors, and she wrote back, “Wow! This is a really clean first draft!” I laughed. It was a “really clean first draft” because it was actually a fifth draft. I’d never send one of my editors a first draft. Those messy beginnings are for my eyes only. A first draft is the work that I do to discover the story I want to tell, and then I can begin the process of revising to turn it into something worthwhile. Typically, it’s my fourth or fifth draft that goes to my editor. I just looked through my files, and I’m pretty sure that for BREAKOUT, it was draft #7.

My editor – in this case, Mary Kate Castellani at Bloomsbury – reads the manuscript and makes notes. She writes me an editorial letter – an overview of what she sees as the strengths of the story and the places where she’d like me to do more work. Usually, this is multiple, single-spaced pages and divided into sections by topic.  Her full editorial letter is full of spoilers, but here’s a section that isn’t.

This particular editorial letter was five pages long – it gets much more detailed in subsequent pages – and this was one of two letters that Mary Kate sent me for BREAKOUT, at different stages in the revision process. When I took the photo above, I’d begun the process of going through the editorial notes to underline key ideas. That’s because I have a tough time revising directly from a five or six page letter. Instead, I take time to read the letter multiple times and digest the big ideas. I go through to underline those things I want to work on and think about more, and then I make my own to-do list with the major jobs that my editor asked for in her letter.

In addition to sending an editorial letter, my editor also makes notes directly on the manuscript, most often, asking questions that push me to think more deeply about the story and its characters. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some of those notes.

Today’s assignment: Writing yourself an editorial letter is a great way to step back from a writing project to look at it more objectively. Take a piece of writing that you’re working on and pretend you’re the editor to whom it’s been submitted. Using Mary Kate’s letter above as a mentor text, write yourself an editorial letter about what’s working well with the story and what needs more work.

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: The Big-Picture Revision Chart

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

The Big-Picture Revision Chart

Much of my revision process for BREAKOUT involved marking up individual manuscript pages with notes – crossing out lines, paragraphs (sometimes whole pages and chapters!), choosing stronger words, adding details, and things like that. But it’s hard to get an overall sense of a 400-page novel when you’re looking at individual pages, so at this stage in the revision process, I need to find a more effective way to see the big picture – a global view of what I’ve written.

My favorite tool at this stage in the process is a big-picture story chart that I developed, and I use it with all of my chapter books and novels. It’s a big piece of paper with a grid of vertical and horizontal lines. Across the top, I write each chapter number (or document number, in the case of BREAKOUT) and down the left hand column, I make a list of all the characters, themes, and issues I want to track as I revise. BREAKOUT is a long book, and a complex one because the story is told entirely through documents, so this chart was a bit of a monster. (Note: If you’re worried about spoilers, don’t enlarge this to read the tiny details until after you’ve read the book. BREAKOUT is a mystery, and clues are one of the things I keep track of in a chart like this.)

So down that left-hand column, you’ll see that I’ve listed characters, and I also include other issues and themes I want to keep track of in the story, including the upcoming relay race, Elidee’s obsession with Hamilton, Nora’s journalism, Alcatraz references, Lizzy’s interests in math and comedy, the prison, Elidee’s old neighborhood, clues to the mystery, issues of race and privilege, etc.

Once I’d created the chart, I read my manuscript and checked off each element or character that was represented in each document. This takes a long time – usually a couple of full days – but the end result is a big-page synopsis of everything I’ve written. The checkmarks or lack of checkmarks show me which characters and ideas are woven smoothly and consistently through the novel and which ones need more attention. If I find a long series of documents where a certain character or idea just disappears for pages on end, I go back to that section and see where I might be able to drop in a reminder, even if it’s just a quick reference. I make more notes on the document and on Post-It notes as I review the manuscript using my chart. And then it’s time for another revision pass.

Once I’ve done everything I can possibly do to revise on my own – and with the help of critique buddies – I send it to my editor. Mary Kate Castellani at Bloomsbury edited BREAKOUT (along with my other Bloomsbury novels like THE SEVENTH WISH, ALL THE ANSWERS, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, WAKE UP MISSING, and more), and tomorrow we’ll take a look at how her work on this book helped me to find even more ways to strengthen the story. But first – let’s play around with this idea of big-picture charts a bit more.

Your Assignment: Choose a book – either the book you’re writing right now, or a novel you’ve read recently – and imagine what its big-picture chart would look like. Make a list of characters, themes, clues, elements, and big ideas that you’d include.

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: Revising on my own

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Revising on my own

One of the things that always surprises kids at my school visits is just how much revision real authors do before a book is published. I let them know that the books of mine in their school library are never first or second drafts. Or third or fourth drafts. Or fifth drafts or…you get the idea. Typically, I do anywhere from 12 to 20 drafts of a book before it’s good enough to be published. That includes complete rewrites as well as revisions based on comments and suggestions from critique partners and my editor. And BREAKOUT is no exception.

Here’s a look at what this book looked like during my revision process.

This is a program called Scrivener that I use when I’m drafting a new book, and I usually stick with it for my first six or seven revisions before switching over to Microsoft Word. Scrivener originated as a tool for screenwriters but is incredibly useful for novelists, too, because it allows you to plan and write by scene. This is basically how I outline, creating a little on-screen index card for each scene or chapter in the story. When you write that chapter, the full text is attached to the card, so you can move scenes around and try them out in new places simply by dragging the cards from place to place on your screen.

BREAKOUT is different from a regular novel in that it’s written entirely in documents, so in my later drafts of this book, instead of having 20 or 30 index cards representing chapters, I have 175 cards – each one representing a different document that does some of the storytelling.

And maybe you noticed that the cards are different colors on the screen. That’s because you can color code them to represent different voices or settings or whatever you want, as you write. In this case, each color represents a different kind of document. That made it easier for me to see how the pacing of the story was going, and how the different storytelling elements were balanced. Here’s a sample of how the color coding worked for BREAKOUT:

Purple = Nora’s letters

Red = morning announcements at school

Slate blue = Elidee’s letters

Royal blue = Lizzie’s letters

Purple blue = Owen’s comics

White = Recorded conversations

Pink = News stories & reports

Light blue = Miscellaneous (school assignments, recipes, petitions, carnival flyers, etc.)

This was all incredibly helpful to me as I revised BREAKOUT because I could see at a glance how well each major character was represented in the story and also how the pacing looked. For example, I knew that most of the humor in the book came from Owen, who makes mini-graphic-novels, and Lizzie, who wants to be a comedian when she grows up and writes parody news articles in the style of her favorite parody site, The Rutabaga (yes…that’s a play on The Onion.)  So if I looked through the color-coded cards and found that a long time went by without any royal blue or purple, I’d take a closer look and see if there were places where the story in between might benefit from a dash of humor from Owen or Lizzie.

Once I’m out of ideas for how to revise in Scrivener, I print out my manuscript and read it aloud. (I used to be a strictly print-on-paper-and-mark-up-with-colored-pens-person, but lately I’ve been using an iPad Pro and Apple pencil and finding that works just as well but is easier on my home printer.)

As I read aloud, I make notes on the document for line-specific changes that I want to make like deleting sentences (or paragraphs or pages!), changing individual words, or combining scenes. I also jot ideas on Post-It notes for more global issues, like rethinking a character’s motivations over multiple scenes or going back to add more references to an issue earlier in the story.

Here’s what some of those individual marked-up pages for BREAKOUT look like. (Don’t worry – I checked to make sure they’re spoiler free, so you can read them as carefully as you’d like without ruining the story. Also, these are from a revision pass on a relatively early draft, so some of these pages didn’t even make it into the final book.)

This is pretty much what every single page looks like as I work through a revision. I also have some specific big-picture tools I use at this stage of the revision process, and we’ll take a look at one of those tomorrow.

Today’s Assignment: Find a page of something you wrote. It can be anything – a short story, personal narrative, persuasive letter, poem…whatever. Read through it, and ask yourself “What’s one specific thing  about this piece of writing that’s pretty great?” Then see if you can find places to add more of that element – whether it’s descriptive language or humor or sharp dialogue.

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: The writer’s to-do list

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

The Writer’s To-Do List

I have a bit of an obsession with charts and checklists, so no book I write gets done without them, and BREAKOUT is no exception. I’m a relative fast first-drafter, so when I’m working on the first draft of a book, I tend to write from start to finish without going back to revise. But what happens when I’m writing along and notice an issue or something I want to go back and fix? I keep a big piece of paper next to my laptop with the words “Known Issues” at the top, and I add things to it every day.

My Known-Issues list for BREAKOUT met an untimely end when I spilled guacamole all over it and had to throw it out, but here’s the sort of thing that ends up on such a list.

-Go back to Chapter one and add Dad

-Where’s Sean in chapters 2-3? 

-Lizzy is funny. Let her be funny more often. 

– Add scenes at beginning so we see Elidee in community before breakout happens

-Need more with Nora & Dad

-Add dinner table conversation about prison demographics

You get the idea. I add notes as I write, and by the time I finish the last chapter, that list is pretty long. It becomes my first-pass revision to-do list, and those obvious jobs are the first ones I tackle. Then I usually print out the entire book, read it aloud, and mark it up with a colored pen.  (That was my process for BREAKOUT – more recently, I’ve been doing this read-aloud revision on an iPad pro. I import the document into an app called Notability and use the Apple pencil to mark it up.)

Then I make another to-do list. Then I go back and revise again. Rinse and repeat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This third draft -or sometimes fourth – is the first one I send to a writer friend for feedback. I’ll email one of the writer pals with whom I swap manuscripts and ask if she has time to read. If she does, I send the document, and she makes notes, usually using the comments feature on Microsoft Word. Then she sends it back and I do another round of revision or two. Usually by then, I’ve thought about other things I’d like to change.

I manage all of these drafts and revision jobs with both monthly goals and daily to-do lists in my bullet journal. I check off each chapter as I’ve revised. What does that revision look like on the page? We’ll take a look tomorrow.

Today’s assignment: One thing I like to do when I’m trying to identify where my manuscript needs work is write a letter to myself, from my work in progress.

Dear Kate, You’ve really given me a strong beginning (love the excitement of that prison break scene) but things really slow down in Chapter three. I feel all sluggish and blah. Help? 

If your work-in-progress could talk back to you right now, what would it say?

 

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: Picking Strawberries

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Picking Strawberries

While I was revising BREAKOUT, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Elidee would miss when she moved from the Bronx to the small town of Wolf Creek, NY. She was incredibly homesick, and there was a lot to miss. People had promised her Wolf Creek was friendly, the sort of place where you could knock on your neighbor’s door to borrow an egg. With the prison break, though, that friendly welcome seemed to have vanished.

But I knew that Elidee was the kind of character who would still find small moments to appreciate, and I needed to include at least one of those in the book, too. But what?

My answer came in June, when I was still revising, and the strawberries got ripe. There’s a local farm called Rulf’s near where I live, and as soon as the berries are ready, Mr. Rulfs opens the fields for u-pick from 7am to 6pm. We go every year, but this year, I was imagining the experience through Elidee’s eyes, and I found one thing about Wolf Creek for her to love.

 

Here’s the poem that Elidee wrote, based on the notes I collected when I was out picking that day.

“my own Saturday morning”
by Elidee Jones

(Inspired by “saturday morning” in Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson)

Today in this new place there are strawberries.
Bigger and fatter than we grew
In the community garden back home,
Sweetest I’ve ever tasted.
Mama didn’t have to work so we went out picking
With Mrs. G, who knew a place
Where you get a wagon ride back to the fields.
Old white man in a green baseball cap helped us up
Then climbed onto the tractor and we were off,
Bumping over a rutted dirt road
Past knee-high cornfields and trees with baby apples
Out to the strawberries.
Rows and rows and rows beyond rows.
College girl in cutoff blue jeans weighed our baskets
And sent us with a man darker than Mama and me put
together.
He was from Jamaica, just like Grandmama’s daddy,
But he comes here to work in summer and fall.

So he showed us where to pick and
I squatted down in the straw between the plants.
Started filling my basket but then I found one
So perfect and warm from the sun
I wanted to eat it right then.
I held it, scratchy seeds in my palm,
And caught Mama’s eye.
She shook her head.
“Not until we pay for them.”
But then someone said, “Nah, go right ahead.”
Jean-shorts girl was grinning down at us.
“Grandpa Bob says everybody should enjoy a few while
they pick.
It’s part of the deal.”
Mama smiled back at the girl and nodded
So I popped that strawberry into my mouth
Before she could change her mind.
It was so warm and sweet and full of sunshine
It almost made me cry,
And I thought just maybe
Grandpa Bob would be the sort of person
To loan you an egg if you needed one.
Maybe the Wolf Creek Mrs. G. talked about
Wasn’t a total lie
After all.

 

Your Assignment: Spend a few minutes writing about an experience a newcomer might have (and love) on a summer Saturday in the place where you live.

(Tomorrow, we’re leaving the poetry behind to talk charts, to-do lists, and planning!)

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed

Countdown to BREAKOUT: Visiting a Character’s Neighborhood

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, my new novel for young readers, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. This blog series runs from May 14th to June 5th, release day for BREAKOUT. If you enjoy the posts, please consider pre-ordering the book!

Visiting a Character’s Neighborhood

One of the expert readers who read a draft of BREAKOUT really pushed me to work harder to develop Elidee as a character and suggested that one reason I might be struggling with that was because I didn’t understand where she came from. Most of the other characters share my small-town background, but Elidee had just moved to the mostly-white town of Wolf Creek from Highbridge, a neighborhood in the Bronx. A neighborhood where I’d never spent time.

I obviously couldn’t conjure a different background for myself, but I could at the very least spend a day in Elidee’s neighborhood, paying attention. So the next time I was in New York City for a writing meeting, I took the train to Highbridge. I visited the art museum near Elidee’s neighborhood and peeked through the fence at the community garden.

I wandered by school as classes were letting out, and noticed that some kids walked past Yankee Stadium on their way home, along a street with fruit stands, and where baseball players’ faces are painted on the buildings.

I stopped in at the deli up the street and ordered a chopped cheese sandwich, which was greasy and wonderful.

I went to Mullaly Park, which would have been Elidee’s neighborhood park. I noticed where the basketball courts and skateboard ramps were, and how the 4 Train thundered by every so often.

I took pictures and notes so I’d have more details about Elidee’s world in the Bronx. Then I went home, back to my revision desk, with a better sense for what she must have missed when she moved away. There was a lot to miss – more than I’d been able to imagine without visiting. But I knew that Elidee also needed something to love about Wolf Creek, even if it was a small moment. Tomorrow’s post is about the strawberries.

Today’s Assignment: If you moved away from the place where you live now, what small and unexpected things would you miss?

 

Breakout cover imageThanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  I hope you’ll also want to read BREAKOUT for yourself, and I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering now. Here are some ways to do that:

PRE-ORDER SIGNED COPIES OF BREAKOUT FROM THE BOOKSTORE PLUS

If you’d like a signed copy, you can call my local indie booksellers at The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here and note in the comments field how you’d like your book signed. I’ll personalize and sign it for you, and it’ll be mailed out on release day! 

PRE-ORDER BREAKOUT FROM ANOTHER FAVORITE BOOKSELLER

You can also order from your own favorite bookseller, either online or in person at the store. (Indie bookstores are always my favorite because that way, you can buy a great book and support a business in your own community. You can find your nearest indie bookseller here.)

Bloomsbury is offering a great incentive for pre-orders, too – a free poster and set of bookmarks to share. Details about that are here.

And if you live near one of the cities where I’ll be on book tour this June, please come by and say hello!

Posted in CountdownToBreakout | Comments closed
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