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, 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 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?


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