Now that you have a general idea of what kind of book you want to write, let’s plan it out!

*Nonfiction*

At this point, you should know the topic of your book and have a list of at least twenty things you want to discuss about that topic.

1. Get that list out. Go through it and put a number “1” next to topics that are big-picture ideas–concepts that could fill an entire chapter. Put a number “2” next to ideas that are a bit smaller, and belong underneath one of the bigger-picture ideas. Put a number “3” next to anecdotes or thoughts that would only take up one paragraph or sentence. (You will probably have more “1”s than anything else. This is a good thing.)

2. Take all of your “1” ideas and put them in order. If you’re telling a true story, this will probably be chronological order. If you’re writing an informational book, list them in the order you would use if you were presenting the information to a friend or client during a conversation. It’s okay if you have to play around with this to figure out the best order; work with it until you find an arrangement that makes sense.

These “1” ideas are going to be the main chapters of your book. Number the list once you’re done.

3. Now sort your “2” ideas so that they fall underneath one of your “1” ideas. These are sub-chapters that support the idea of the main chapters. Label them with A, B, C, etc.

4. Put your “3” ideas underneath relevant “2” ideas. These are individual paragraphs or pieces of evidence that support the “2” ideas. Label them a, b, c, etc.

Your outline will now look something like this: (This sample book is about how to make a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich, because those are delicious.)

1. Buying Ingredients
A. How to Pick Good Bananas
B. Bread: Homemade or Store-Bought?
a. That one time I tried to make bread and it rose too much and invaded my kitchen.

2. Knife Selection

3. Slicing Things
A. Slicing Bread
a. How different types of bread slice differently.
B. Slicing Bananas

And so on.

5. Add in any additional main chapters you left out (1, 2, 3, etc.).

6. For each main chapter, figure out any additional sub-topics you want to include and add them to the list (A, B, C, etc.). If you’re writing a typical nonfiction book, you should have between two and five of these sub-chapters for each main chapter. These encompass the meat of your book–the information you want to impart to the reader.

Add any additional anecdotes, one-liners, or thoughts for each sub-chapter as a, b, c, etc. (These are just reminders to yourself; you won’t necessarily have them for every section.)

7. SUPER IMPORTANT! Once you’re happy with your outline, go through it and make a note next to each item listing why it needs to be in the book. Make sure every item is imparting value to the reader. If you’re writing a true story, the value will be a deeper understanding of what happened and why. If you’re writing an informational book, the value will be information that the reader can use to benefit their lives. Delete any sections that don’t have a solid reason to be included.

8. Wait a day, and then revisit your outline. It’s not set in stone; you’re going to tweak it and modify it throughout the writing process. It exists as a tool to help you keep yourself on track, so don’t be afraid to change it to suit your purposes!

9. Have questions? Stuck on something? Share your thoughts in the comments! Next week we’ll discuss how to discover your narrative voice!

*Fiction*

1. Make a list numbered one through five. Leave extra room under number two; it will be the longest section of the list.

2. Under number one, write down the starting point for your book–the event that changes your characters in a significant way, which you determined last week. This will take up the first one or two chapters of your book.

3. Under number five, write down the ending you determined last week–whether or not your characters succeed at accomplishing their goal. (“They save the city,” “Everybody dies,” “They fall back in love,” etc. Keep it simple.) This will take up the last chapter (or in some cases, just a few paragraphs) of your book.

4. Think of the crucial event that causes the ending you wrote down. Is it a gigantic battle? Is it a showdown between the sheriff and the drug kingpin? Is it a car chase, a bank heist, or a kiss in the rain? Write that event down under number three. This is the climax of your story, which will take up a chapter (or two or three) toward the end of your book.

5. You now have your beginning, climax, and end. Good job! Now it’s time to fill in the connections between them. Refer back to the obstacles you wrote down that are standing between your characters and their goal. Under number two, write down at least three encounters your characters can have with these obstacles prior to the climax. (Note that these encounters don’t all have to be with the same obstacle–you can have more than one thing stand in your characters’ way.)

6. Now look at your opening scene in section one, and your first encounter with obstacles in section two. What needs to happen to move the characters from the opening to the first encounter? List those events between the two scenes.

7. Repeat with events that need to happen to move the characters from encounter one to encounter two, from encounter two to encounter three, and so on. (By this point, section two will be pretty big. This is okay, as section two encompasses the majority of the book.)

8. Repeat again with events that connect your final event in section two with the climax in section three. List them at the end of section two.

9. Under section four, list events that link the climax and the ending. (“The main character dies.” “They go to the election party.” “Bob and Mary discuss their new-found love.” “They get a new puppy.” etc.) The length of this section will depend on your genre, and may take anywhere from just a few paragraphs to multiple chapters.

10. Read through your list of scenes and revise as needed until you have a step-by-step chain of events, starting from your initial incident and leading to your resolution. If there are links missing from the chain, think of scenes that will fill in those blank spots and add them into the outline.

11. SUPER IMPORTANT! Every scene in a novel needs to contain conflict–a disagreement between characters, between character and environment, between a character and himself, etc. Conflict is what causes the characters to make decisions that reveal who they are, and is the primary way you move your story forward. (Some conflicts will obviously be more significant than others.)

It doesn’t matter if it’s the final battle between good and evil or the characters are just sitting around trying to figure out what to do–every scene needs to have something happening that is relevant either to furthering the plot or furthering character development (preferably both). Go through your list of scenes and write down the main conflict happening in each one, as well as what new information it conveys to the reader about the characters and/or the story. If a scene doesn’t have any conflict, add some. If you can’t, cut the scene.

12. Revisit this throughout the week, and don’t be afraid to change it! Your outline will evolve as you get more into the story, so don’t feel like you have to set it in stone right now. This is just a starting guideline to help you dive into the writing process feeling prepared.

13. Have questions or concerns? Share them in the comments! Next week we’ll discuss how to create a three-dimensional main character!

*This Week’s Word Count*
Nonfiction: 0
Fiction: 0

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6 thoughts on “BIYC: Organizing Your Book

  1. Hey Amy,

    This chapter works great.

    Rearranging events and filling in the blanks in between is very helpful for smoothing out the overall plot line. The creative process of brainstorming ideas is fun to do.

    You may want to give a little more time to the writer/author for the development of plot and sub plot lines.For some one week may be rushing this important process of taking it from the mind to a workable outline.

    This chapter is a wonderful visual tool for ‘getting it down on paper’ which for many may be the hardest thing to do. The writer/author can be excited that they can actually see their own story that flows better and makes sense.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, J.R.! I’m glad this outlining strategy works for you. You make a good point about outlining taking more than a week; I’ll keep that in mind in future posts. πŸ™‚ How much time works best for you?

  2. Thanks for the advice! I think I figured out how to combine the climaxes of a couple of plot lines and make the third story more of a subplot. I’m sure it will get more complicated as I delve deeper into the novel but I feel like I have a much clearer picture of what the “real” story is now. So that helped. πŸ˜€

  3. Hi Amy, so glad you’re doing this blog! I had a quick comment/question – I’m planning a pretty lengthy and complex fantasy story (not nearly as lengthy or complex as, say, Game of Thrones but you get the idea). I realized while making this outline that, going by the criteria listed here, I actually have thee different stories going on simultaneously – basically, there are three different events that create three different problems, all during in the first 100 pages or so, and they’re each resolved separately in the last few chapters of the book. They’re not completely unrelated, though, since they’re all happening to the same group of characters and the first “starting point” sort of causes the other “starting points” to happen. But, the “climax” of the book is resolving a problem that isn’t even introduced until about 1/4 or 1/3 through the book. Is it a bad idea to structure a novel this way? Should I go forward with three separate outlines, or try to figure out which problem/resolution is most important?

    Thanks for the help! I’m really looking forward to working on this!

    1. Hi Ben,

      Glad you’re enjoying the challenge! I can see a couple different ways to make that work. The first is if you have one storyline that is bigger/more epic/has higher stakes than the other two. That would be your main plot, and the other two would be subplots. This works especially well if the subplots are more character-development-related than plot-related (e.g. a brewing fight/brewing romance between two characters, somebody dealing with something from their past, etc.).

      The other way this could work is if you can find a way to link all three of the plots together. Plenty of books start out seeming like there are multiple things going on, but then they eventually tie together, either because it turns out the same larger problem is causing the smaller ones, the various antagonists all turn out to be working together (or fighting with each other; either way works), or the heroes need to solve one problem to solve the others.

      You could also link them through character development, though this tends to work best when there are only two storylines. If the two stories share enough parallels, you could have them serve as counter-examples for each other, where the characters make choices/mistakes in one that they must decide to repeat or change in the others.

      You can mix and match these strategies to develop connections between the three stories and make them work together cohesively. As far as the outline goes, once you know which plot is the “big” one (this should always be the one with the highest stakes), then make that your main outline, and make sub-outlines on either side for the other two. Draw lines between connected events so that you can see where the plots intersect and weave them into one whole.

      If the three stories are really not related to one another and there’s no way to connect them more deeply, you may want to consider writing a trilogy of novellas instead of one big novel. πŸ™‚

      I hope this helps!

      -Amy

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