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, 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. 

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.

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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