Countdown to CHIRP: Outlining, Drafting, and Outlining Again (and how Scrivener helps with the process)

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.

In previous posts about CHIRP, I’ve talked about the story spark, doing research on a cricket farm, brainstorming character and story elements, and project planning. Confession: I adore this early stage of the writing process. I love research. I love the curiosity and the possibility of it. And I love the magic of new ideas, the way they hold so much promise.

But at some point in the writing process for every book, there comes a time when you have to start writing the actual book. This is tough for me because once I start drafting, my vision of that “perfect book” comes crashing up against the reality of the writer I am today, crafting an inelegant rough draft. The book that first appears on my computer screen in rough-draft format bears little resemblance to that perfectly crafted novel I was imagining. But that ugly rough draft has to be written. Because you can’t revise a blank page.

Because rough-drafting is the tough part of the writing process for me, I tend to do it quickly, so I can get that first draft over with and start revising, which I love. I use a program called Scrivener, where I sketch out my chapters using index cards on the computer desktop.

You’ll notice that before Chapter 1, there’s a VISION card. That’s where I write my two-sentence vision for the book I’m writing. I do this for all of my novels. The first sentence gives a quick overview of the plot, the sort of thing you’d read on the book jacket. The second sentence speaks to the heart of the book.

The document attached to that index card contains some of my big-picture thinking for the book. Ideas about characters’ motivations and story themes and how they weave together. For CHIRP, that “Vision” document also includes a quote from an amazing talk that author Meg Medina gave at a retreat I attended while I was working on this book.

Sometimes when you’re working on a project, it takes a while to find the heart. Listening to Meg speak that day, I realized what I was really writing with this book…the story I really wanted to tell. So I kept this quote on a paper index card above my desk while I worked, and I included it in my “Vision” document, too.

That document also includes notes about what might come next. I always start my novel drafts with a very (very!) rough outline, which gets revised as I go along, making discoveries as I write. Often, after I write, I’ll take a few minutes to summarize what I think comes next. Here’s what that looked like along the way while I was working on CHIRP.

In addition to the “Project” folder where I write my chapters, Scrivener has another folder for “Research.”

I’ve come to love this structure because that’s where I transcribe all of my research notes for the book, as well as various ideas I explore with off-draft writing as I’m brainstorming. Here are a couple of the pages from my “Research” folder.

Sometimes while I’m drafting,  I realize that I need to take a break to do more research. That happened after I decided that one of Mia’s summer camps would be Warrior Camp, where kids do obstacles like you see on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” I didn’t know enough about those camps to write realistic scenes, so I made arrangements to visit a camp at the Vermont Ninja Warrior Training Center. I sat in on a day of camp, talked with coaches and kids, and generally collected the sights, sounds, and smells of the place.

While I’m drafting, I don’t usually stop to revise. I like to finish that first draft before I make any changes. So as I write, I’ll often go back to my Mission/Big Ideas page to make notes about what I know I’ll want to work on in the first revision pass.

Once I’ve written the last chapter, I’m ready to take a short break and then dive back in, fixing up those issues I’ve already identified. That becomes my first round of revision, and I’ll share some photos of what that looks like in my next post.

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 to request.

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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