July 13, 2011

make an outline

If you want to be organized about writing a book, I say be as organized as possible — make an outline. An outline breaks down the order of key plot elements in your story.

Did you ever outline a paper in school before writing it? If so, it probably looked something like this:

I. Intro
- End with thesis statement.
II. Body
A. Point 1
B. Point 2
C. Point 3
IV. Conclusion
- Begin by restating the thesis.

You could outline your book this way, or do what I do: break it down by chapter. This gives you a better idea of how many chapters your book will be and where natural breaks in your story will occur.

When I outlined my first two books, my basic outline was about 2,000 words long. I had 16 chapters in one book and 22 in the other. Under each chapter heading, I had one to three paragraphs briefly describing the plot element happening.

It looks something like this:

Chapter one

Lisa arrives at work to find that her brother has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Tyler, a bike messenger, unexpectedly finds himself involve in the investigation.

What is useful about having a brief outline like this is you know the key action that will occur in that chapter. It is also helpful later when you are pitching the novel to an agent or publisher. Most would like to see a brief outline before they read the whole book.

I alike to flush out my outline into what author Stephanie Bond calls a working synopsis. A working synopsis has more details and addresses each plot element as it occurs. Here's that same example flushed out.

Chapter One

Project manager Lisa arrives early to work and sits down at her desk. She reaches to turn on her computer and notices a folded piece of paper sitting on the center of the desk. She opens it and screams.

Bike messenger Tyler enters the same building and leaves a package on the secretary's desk. He turns to leave, but hears a woman's scream. He contemplates whether to investigate or leave, and decides to see if she needs help.

Tyler walks into Lisa's desk and she shows him the note. It is a ransom letter stating that her brother and boss has been kidnapped.

When I do this, I have about 1 double-spaced page for every 10,000 words of the book. That means a 100,000-word novel will have a 10-page working synopsis. For me this is not an exact figure. I find some chapters require more explanation than others.

What is most beneficial about doing this is that you have the action all figured out before you write. During the times you set aside for working, you can focus on crafting the words precisely without having to wonder where you will take the story.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to contact me and let me know what you think by leaving a comment to this post, or on Twitter @lmchap.

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