Tips from a Writing Pro

How do you outline a book?

Jonathan Baldie

Jonathan Baldie

Jan 28, 2020 — 5 mins read
Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@glenncarstenspeters" target="_blank">Glenn Carstens-Peters</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com" target="_blank">Unsplash</a>

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Writing an entire book and then publishing it can sometimes seem like a mystical, opaque process for those outside of the writing world. In fact, to them there may not be any indication of a process at all - just the writer emerging with a book!

Well I can tell you that for my first book in 2018, I definitely had a process, one that I've tweaked and used ever since for my big book projects. For my smaller projects I use a different process, which I'll talk about in another blog post.

In this post, I'll be describing the planning and outlining parts of my book-writing process. We'll go from the initial idea, right up to the point before we start drafting the book itself. Think of this as the "pre-writing" phase of the process.

This process is no less important than the writing itself, because without a plan or an outline, I think you're far more likely to wander into oblivion - you'll have no guiding direction, no research notes, and no way of knowing your progress.

Having an outline and a plan is especially important for novice authors. It gives you the confidence that you're travelling in the right direction. It gives you the comfort that you're following an established procedure. It's just good sense.

When I get an idea for a new book, I note it down in my phone. I have a Slack channel named "creative ideas" with just me in it, and it has dozens of my ideas that have since become real, published books. It's like a brainstorming list.

The reason I do this is because we humans are good at generating new ideas, but not so much at storing them. I'm a follower of the "Getting Things Done" approach, known to us in the community as "GTD". I'll explain what this entails.

The GTD approach involves storing any new ideas or tasks into a series of lists depending on their category, which you can organise by their nature - just as I split them into ideas or tasks. Think of them as virtual "in-trays" for the mind.

Because my ideas are in a convenient list on my phone, I can continue going about my day after I've thought of them, and let the ideas mull in my mind. Sometimes I'll keep thinking about them, finding connections that seem interesting.

If I've thought about an idea for a few weeks, and researched some promising material, and it seems like it could be a marketable concept for a book, then I'll progress to starting a rough outline. This means I've validated the idea.

Then, in my notes app, I make a blank page for this rough outline. I'll sketch out some of my thoughts about the book idea, maybe even starting a barebones structure. Here's an example outline I wrote for my book Little Slices:

Example outline for my book, Little Slices

In each of these bullet points, I'm listing further ideas and concepts for each potential chapter. You are, in fact, looking at what became the first and second chapters of the finished book - if I find the rough structure works, I'll use it!

But for my longer books, like The 24 Laws of Storytelling and Social Intelligence, I'll spend much more time on the outline, because the books demand a lot more detail. For Social Intelligence, I read 100 books in a year to get this level of detail.

As I'm reading books, watching related YouTube videos and documentaries, I open up my outline document and add those thoughts. I like to keep all the notes for each chapter in one file, just so I don't lose track of where things are.

This process of looking for material and noting it down can be very fun, and as I'm gathering my research notes, I try to organise my outline into chapters inside the document at an early stage. These should be the natural categories of the idea.

For Social Intelligence, this meant having three parts: social intelligence as a concept in its own right; social intelligence in a position of leadership, and social intelligence when you're facing an adversary at work or elsewhere.

For novels though, it's a bit different. There is still a strong emphasis on the outlining phase, but it's more like laying down the tracks for a journey. You're imagining a top-level view of what the story will look like for the reader.

I recommend following James Scott Bell's advice by writing your novel from the middle. That means starting your outline with a strong character choice - do they evolve, or do they make it out of their crisis?

Then, you fill in the start of the book with the lead character's "pre-story psychology", explaining who they are before they need to go through their transformation in the middle of the story. This can all go in the outline.

Now fill in the second half of the book with the lead character's "proof of transformation", where you give evidence that the midpoint's transformation is real. Bell gives the example of Lethal Weapon, where Riggs hands over his bullet.

I've written a lot about this outlining approach and how you can use it to generate story ideas. I find that it's a reliable approach for outlining novels that are fantastic, meaningful reads - I highly encourage you to read Bell's book.

Don't be afraid if this all seems a bit scary. What you're doing with this outline, is putting all your ideas into a single document, and then providing yourself with a roadmap when you actually start drafting the book.

I want you to think of outlining books as Google Maps for the drafting stage. Know how you can just switch on Google Maps and let it take you to your destination? That's what an outline should do for you.

That doesn't mean, however, that you're locked into a journey. Like Google Maps, your outline should be flexible enough that you can take a slightly different route if there's a blockage, and pick up the route right where you left off.

Creating a book outline is, for me, a fun part of writing my books. It involves researching and thinking about the book, recording notes, and then organising those notes into a structure that makes sense. You can't go wrong with that.

outlining planning
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