Countdown to BREAKOUT: It takes a village (of writer friends!)

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. 

It takes a village…(of writer friends!) 

No matter what I’m working on, I depend on writer friends and critique partners to provide early feedback and ideas for how to make the project stronger. When I shared my early draft of BREAKOUT, written in first person from Nora’s point of view, one theme emerged over and over. People wanted to hear more from Elidee. She’s one of the three main characters — the one who’s just moved from the Bronx to Wolf Creek, where she’s one of two black kids at the whole middle school. Might I want to think about rewriting the book, not only from Nora’s point of view but from Elidee’s as well?

I thought about that, and the more I did, the more I realized that the different  perspectives different characters had on what was happening in this town were the most interesting part of the story. I wondered what it would be like to start over – to reimagine this not as a story told from one or two points of view but as a collection of documents reflecting many perspectives. I was traveling when I had this epiphany – I’d been attending the NCTE conference and was on the same flight home as my friend Linda Urban. We were supposed to be in different rows but managed to talk a nice lady into swapping places so we could sit together.

“So…” Linda said. “Do you want to talk about the book, or are you too wiped out from the conference.”

“I’m wiped out,” I said. “But I want to talk about it anyway.” I told her what I was thinking, that I might want to start the project over and write the story as a collection of documents.

The very best writer friends listen and ask questions that push you to think harder about your project. Linda is one of those friends.

“So is there a reason that these documents came to be collected together? Who collected them and why?” she asked. “Maybe there’s some story to it. Or maybe not. But I’m thinking of the book Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and how there’s a reason all those emails and notes are together. Were you thinking about that?”

I hadn’t been. But I was now. Linda helped me brainstorm what kinds of documents might be part of the story, with a focus on the kinds of communication that are part of the end of a school year, when this story takes place – morning announcements at school, field day plans, overdue library book notices.  Here’s what that airplane brainstorming looked like by the time we landed for our layover in Philadelphia.

An hour into this in-flight brainstorming session, I noticed that the woman sitting on the other side of me had stopped reading her book and seemed to be listening. She was a teacher who was also returning from the conference, I could tell, so it didn’t surprise me that she was curious about what we were working on. But when she and I started talking, I realized that she had more of a connection to the story than I could have imagined. We’ll talk about that – and how this serendipitous meeting helped shape the story –  tomorrow. Here’s today’s prompt:

Your assignment: Choose an article from this morning’s newspaper – a story about something that happened in the news. How might you rewrite that story through a series of different documents, all sharing different perspectives on what happened? Brainstorm a list of documents that you might 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



1 Reply on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: It takes a village (of writer friends!)

  1. How interesting that you basically started over. It just goes to show how important those reading partners are and that as writers we must think of the overall good of the story even when it means a major over haul.