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, 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. 

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.

Thanks 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.  

Breakout cover image

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2 Comments

  1. Martha
    Posted June 1, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Are the letters across the top the documents you used like p for a poem? What a great way to keep track of everything. It is a challenge to keep the big picture in front and this seems like a great way to do it.

  2. Rase McCray
    Posted June 1, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    This series has been utterly fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing your process like this.

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