Countdown to CHIRP: Let’s talk about Charts!

Welcome to Countdown to CHIRP, a wonderfully nerdy blog series about the writing process behind my February 2020 MG novel, CHIRP. Here’s a little about the book from Bloomsbury, so you’ll understand what I’m talking about when I share all the nitty-gritty writing and revision details…

When Mia moves to Vermont the summer after seventh grade, she’s recovering from the broken arm she got falling off a balance beam. And packed away in the moving boxes under her clothes and gymnastics trophies is a secret she’d rather forget.

Mia’s change in scenery brings day camp, new friends, and time with her beloved grandmother. But Gram is convinced someone is trying to destroy her cricket farm. Is it sabotage or is Gram’s thinking impaired from the stroke she suffered months ago? Mia and her friends set out to investigate, but can they uncover the truth in time to save Gram’s farm? And will that discovery empower Mia to confront the secret she’s been hiding–and find the courage she never knew she had?

In a compelling story rich with friendship, science, and summer fun, a girl finds her voice while navigating the joys and challenges of growing up.

CHIRP comes out in less than two weeks! Have you already pre-ordered your copy? If not, I’d love it if you would… Pre-orders are a HUGE help to authors and in this case, pre-ordering comes with presents! If you fill out this form after you pre-order, Bloomsbury will send you a poster and set of bookmarks to share. And if you order via my local indie, The Bookstore Plus, I’ll personalize and sign your book, too!

Okay…now let’s get back to business and talk about CHARTS.

Charts are a huge part of my revision process, from my first passes, revising on my own, through the final work that I do with my editor. Some of these are charts I use with nearly every novel, and others are more specific. But they all help me to get a bigger picture view of a book with lots of moving parts.

This is what my every-novel Big Picture Chart looked like for CHIRP.

This chart boils my entire novel down into two big pages so that I can see, at a glance, what’s there and what’s not. The numbers across the top of the pages represent each chapter of the novel. The column on the far left is a list of characters, themes, story elements, ideas, recurring themes and metaphors, and other stuff that I want to make sure is represented throughout the story. After I’ve created the chart, I do a full read-through of the manuscript with the chart in front of me. As I read chapter one for example, I’ll check off each character that appears, and each idea or theme or whatever. If that character or idea doesn’t show up in that chapter, I leave the box empty.

It takes a whole day to do this read-through, checking off boxes for each chapter as I go. But when I’m finished, I have a very clear look at the balance of my story, and I can start to see issues. If a character vanishes for eight chapters in the middle of the book, for example, readers are likely to forget about them. The same goes for mystery elements or important ideas. When I look at my completed chart, I can see where the holes are. (Fun fact: I once wrote a book where the family had a dog in chapter 1 and then it never appeared again. I had to make a lot of “add dog!” notes in that manuscript.)  Once the chart is all filled out, I go back to the manuscript to see where I might be able to work in that missing character or idea, and I make notes.

I tried this big-picture chart with one of my first novels, and it was so helpful that I made it a regular part of my process. It works for just about any longer form project. But sometimes, it’s not really enough. CHIRP is a mystery, and I found that I wanted a tool for keeping track of those mystery elements, so that I could track what was happening with clues, etc. throughout the book. For this revision pass, I also wanted to look at how the mystery elements balanced with the other parts of the story like Mia’s warrior and entrepreneurs camp, and the secret she’s keeping. So I made a project-specific chart to do all of that. It was a big one! (Warning: don’t read the actual words on this chart until after you’ve read CHIRP – there are spoilers galore!)

Here’s a closer look at the first page – spoiler free, so you can see how it works.

For this chart, each row represents a chapter, and each column is labeled for something I wanted to keep track of. I chose to include my word count for the chapters (some were still kind of fat at this point in my revision process), the date in the story when each chapter takes place, the mystery elements, the Launch Camp and Warrior Camp elements, and Mia’s state of mind with her secret. Reading through to pay close attention to these elements allowed me to see the book in new ways — something that’s not always easy when you’ve already been living with a project for a year or two. That’s why I find charts to be such helpful revision tools. They force me to assess what I’ve actually put in the pages, compared to what I think is there, based on the story in my head.

Once ALL that revision is done – from my own work, to working with critiques from friends and my editor, it’s time to send the book off to copy edits and design. (It’s almost a book now!) We’ll take a look at that last step in the process next week.

For now, I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering CHIRP. If you do that through my local indie, The Bookstore Plus, I’ll personalize and sign your copy to be mailed out on release day. And wherever you pre-order, Bloomsbury will send you a special gift – a CHIRP poster and a class set of bookmarks to share! Just fill out this form after you’ve pre-ordered.

Pre-order Chirp and get a poster and a set of 30 bookmarks for your school or library. Visit bit.ly/chirppreorder for details

Thanks so much for taking the time to read about CHIRP. I’m so hopeful that this book will find the readers who need it, and I’m grateful for the early praise it’s garnered from readers and reviewers alike…

“Kate Messner strikes the perfect balance of joy, pain, and strength in this deftly layered mystery about family, friendship, and the struggle to speak up.” –  Laurie Halse Anderson, bestselling author of SPEAK and SHOUT

Chirp is so many things: a mystery, a family story, and a story of the power of friendship. It’s about learning to speak out when it seems the whole world would rather you shut up. Sure to be passed from kid to kid to kid” –  Laura Ruby, National Book Award Finalist and author of the York Trilogy

“Once again, Kate Messner has written a book that will be a dear and important friend to her readers. A loving and compelling ode to the joy of friendship, the many kinds of strength, and the everyday bravery of girls.” –  Anne Ursu, author of THE LOST GIRL

“Messner deftly weaves together myriad complex plot threads to form a captivating whole. . . . Rich, timely, and beautifully written.” –  Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews

“Messner addresses #MeToo themes authentically and with care as her story moves toward empowerment: Mia displays fear and confusion alongside a hope to reclaim the strength she once felt as a gymnast. Layering mystery elements, strong and myriad female characters, and a poignant analogy involving chirp-less female crickets, Messner gently guides Mia on a journey of resilience that both comforts and inspires.”

–  Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

“Messner honors middle graders by exploring important, relevant issues at their level of understanding. This book will prompt discussions of gender inequality, consent, and sexual abuse. A must purchase.” –  Starred Review, School Library Connection

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