Articles for Aspiring Authors
Outlining. That word may conjure images of 7th Grade English, scribbling at your desk in frustration while a stern teacher looks over your shoulder. Many of us learned how to outline in middle school, and it’s a skill we haven’t revisited since our braces came off and the acne faded away. Have no fear! You’re a grown-up now, and this project isn’t being graded. You have free reign to structure your book outline to benefit your writing process—whether that’s a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach or a color-coded Excel spreadsheet.
Why Should I Create a Book Outline?
No matter which type of book outline you choose, planning before you write has many benefits. Outlining can help you define your goals, stay focused, and finish your manuscript quicker. You don’t need to spend huge amounts of time outlining, but some (mostly painless!) prep before writing will be time well-spent since you won’t be spinning your wheels by staring at the blank screen of death.
When you start with a plan, you’ll unconsciously make connections and think about your draft, even when you’re not actively writing. Mentally writing in the shower is one of the perks of outlining, because it will get your thoughts percolating. Be sure to keep paper and pens scattered about so you can capture your brilliance the minute it bubbles up, rather than letting all those ideas fade away.
Once you have a plan to write your book in outline form, you’ll be better able to put these thoughts to paper and compose your chapters when you do sit down to write. This means a finished book in less time!
So, I have some good news: there’s no “right” way to outline. Each writer will have their own process that’s personal to them. Keep reading for tips on how to outline different ways. If one of these exact methods doesn’t strike a chord with you, you can combine methods to create your own way that works best for your unique book.
We’re going to start with ways to outline a non-fiction book. If you’re writing a novel, there are plenty of relevant tips you can apply in the section about outlining a non-fiction book. Likewise, even if you’re writing non-fiction, the section on how to write a fiction outline can help spark some ideas for your process, so we recommend authors of all types of book read the full list:
5 Ways to Write a Non-Fiction Book Outline
Most non-fiction authors find outlines useful due to the nature of their books. Generally, works of non-fiction require research and citation of sources (although many novels require their own research!)
An outline can help organize your research so it doesn’t overwhelm you, plus your outline will help you create the best structure for your finished book.
1. Mindmap + Book Outline
This is the main method of outlining that we teach in Self-Publishing School. The mindmap method requires you to create a brain dump based on your book’s topic. Write your topic in the center of a piece of paper, then use lines and words to draw as many connections as you can. It doesn’t need to make perfect sense from the get go—the goal is free-form thinking to get all of your ideas out of your head and onto the page.
You’ll start to notice connections between different categories of information. This makes it easier to spot the relevant “book-worthy” ideas. Then you can pluck those ideas out of your mindmap and put them into a cohesive book outline. We also recommend doing a mindmap for each chapter you select from you original mindmap. It will help you structure your entire book chapter by chapter. Fun, and so easy—we told you this would be (mostly) painless!
If you’d like to learn more about the Mindmap to Outline procedure we like to use at Self-Publishing School, check out this Action Plan.
At Self-Publishing School, we encourage students to make a mess with their mindmap. Regardless of what your mind map looks like in the end, it is an essential element to your book writing process. This mind map will be the jumping off point for you to begin your outline. In this brief video, Chandler explains how to turn your mindmap into an outline:
2. Simple Book Outline
A simple book outline is just as it sounds; keep it basic and brief. Start with the title. Don’t get too hung up on the perfect title at this stage of the process; you just want to come up with a good-for-now placeholder. You can always change the title later—in fact, you probably will—but starting with some kind of title gives you a better idea of where you want your book to go. Plus, it jump starts the creative process.
Next, you’ll list all of the key points that cover your book’s overall theme and message. You’ll use these key points to generate your notes. Later, you’ll flesh out these notes to draft your book chapters.
3. Chapter-by-Chapter Book Outline
Your chapter-by-chapter book outline is a pumped-up version of the simple book outline. To get started, first create a complete chapter list. With each chapter listed as a heading, you’ll later add material or shift chapters around as the draft evolves.
Create a working title for each chapter, and list them in a logical order. After that, you’ll fill in the key points of each chapter. Finally, you’ll link your resources as they would appear in each chapter, including books, interviews, and Web links.
4. Sketch Your Book Outline
Perhaps you find the idea of a written outline confining. That’s OK — there’s another option which might appeal to your artistic side. Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, wrote about how sketching your ideas can simply complex thoughts.
To create this type of book outline, hand-draw your book concept in sequential order. This may be as simple or as elaborate as you desire. Feel free to use a Bic pen and a spiral notebook, or take it to the next level with color medium on canvas-sized paper. Others find satisfaction in sketching ideas with dry erase markers on a white board, or the old-fashioned feel of chalk on blackboard.
5. Book Outline With Scrivener
If you like being uber-organized, then the writing software Scrivener might appeal to you. Their book outline program allows you to upload your research, organize it by moving it around, and filing it into folders.
The program does have a fairly extensive learning curve, which can be a major downside—especially if you tend to procrastinate and really want to get your book published quickly. However, some writers say it revolutionized their organizational process for longer works. You can read more about the program and its uses here.
6 Ways to Outline Your Novel
While you can incorporate the book outlining tips we shared in the non-fiction section above, creating an outline for your novel will be inherently different from creating a non-fiction outline. Your novel outline will require character development, evolution of plot points, and resolution of conflict. While the methods may be different, the goal is the same—organization and pre-planning so that you can write a great, cohesive book much faster.
1. Basic Document
Your goal with the Basic Document format is to use a Word or Excel table to give structure to your theme. Create a table and organize and summarize your key points and plot. You’ll then create a separate section for characters and themes, and an additional section with relevant research.
2. Post-It Wall
This is for the creative mind, and another method we teach in Self-Publishing School. All you need is a blank wall and a box of Post-It notes. Carry a pad of Post-Its with you wherever you go, and noodle your book on the fly. Write your ideas and inspiration on your Post-Its when the mood strikes you.
Next, affix the Post-Its containing words, snippets, doodles, and phrases to the wall. After a week of this exercise, organize these words into novel outline form. Voila—simple, effective, creative!
3. The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method was created by fiction writing coach Randy Ingermanson based on the notion, “Good fiction doesn’t just happen. It’s designed.”
The process of the snowflake method focuses on starting small, then expanding. For example, you’d start with one line from your book, then add a paragraph, then add a chapter. Since the snowflake method is fairly detailed and based on scientific theory, Randy’s article is worth a read so you can review the detailed steps involved in this outlining method.
4. The Skeletal Outline
If you’ve ever written a term paper or thesis, then you’re probably familiar with the skeletal outline. You’ll lay out your narrative points in the order they’ll appear in your story, which involves a broad 7-step story arch. This gives you a big picture idea of the flow of your story, so you can adjust your story and add subplots for maximum impact.
5. Novel Outline Template
Why reinvent the wheel? If you’re impatient to jump right into the fun part—writing!—or you aren’t sure exactly how to format your novel outline, then a pre-formatted template outline might be your saving grace. A fill-in-the-blank novel outline can help you develop your plot, characters, and ideas without getting bogged down with the notion of striving for “proper” outline form.
6. The Reverse Outline
Sometimes looking at the problem from a different angle can give you the answer to the question. The same applies to outlining. Reverse outlining is exactly what it sounds like: Write down how your novel ends. Then once you know the ending, outline backwards to get to that happy (Or sad? You’re the author!) ending.
Here’s the take-away: No matter which option you choose, ultimately, you’ll write faster and better with a book outline. If one way doesn’t work well for you, then experiment and try another. Remember, your goal is a finished manuscript, not the gold medal for “Most Perfect Book Outline.” Discover what works best for you and you’ll be one step closer to a finished book.
Self publishing at any age is a major accomplishment, but when you have to balance your responsibilities as an author with homework from your 3rd grade teacher, you deserve special recognition. Which is why Emma Sumner is gaining tons of media attention for “The Fairies of Waterfall Island,” a 10,000-word, 120-page book now available on Amazon.
Because of her young age and big dreams, Emma has been booked for on-air interviews with local media including NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, and PBS to talk about her book, and more offers for interviews are coming in daily.
How did this young girl go from idea to published, without an agent or publishing company? As her father, I was right there with her throughout the process and in this post I am going to show you how she did it, including pictures, links to recordings, and the precise breakdown of costs.
The nine steps an 8-year-old took to go from blank page to self published book:
The tips and tricks that I share below come straight from Self-Publishing School, where Emma and I learned from the best in the business. Click here to find out more about Self-Publishing School.
#1 Start with a Challenge
When Emma first came to me and said she wanted to write and publish a book, I wasn’t sure if this was just a passing idea in the mind of a bored grade-schooler, or if it was really going to something she would be passionate about and continue with. I was happy to help her if it was a real goal and not just a whim, so I gave her a challenge.
Emma’s challenge was:
- Complete 1 chapter to her story
- Write at least 150 words
- Create 3 different characters with backgrounds
- Have a plan ready for the rest of the book
What did Emma do? She came back that same night with:
- A handwritten story in her spiral bound notebook that had 172 words (she made sure I counted),
- Four distinct characters
- A plan for a total of 10 chapters and four other characters that she would introduce later in the book.
It was clear from her effort that she was serious — so I was, too!
Here’s a look at the first draft of what she wrote:
At that time, the 170-word story was the longest thing she had ever written. It gave her a taste of what was possible if she put forth the effort.
YOUR TURN: How can you challenge yourself? Be creative and find ways to create achievable goals and then turn them into a challenge. You can write them down as a contract with yourself, or even bring on a friend as an accountability partner to encourage and motivate you.
#2 Build a Rewards System
Emma’s first reward was a simple one. We decided that the next morning after she finished her first 150 words I would wake up early and before I went to work I would sit down and give her story my full attention as I read it from start to finish.
The next morning I read her story and instead of giving constructive criticism, I just gave encouragement. I told her how much I loved it and left a small sticky note for her to read when she woke up.
It is vitally important in the beginning to forget about the little things like grammar or spelling and just be proud of the fact they (or you!) completed the challenge. Most children (and adults for that matter) are most vulnerable in the writing process the first time someone reads their words.
Whether you’re reading your child’s, friend’s, or your own work, focus on the good. There will be plenty of time for the rest later when it comes time to edit.
Here are some examples of the rewards we used to motivate and encourage Emma during the writing process:
Challenge: Complete detailed descriptions of your top 4 characters
Reward: We will go onto Fiverr.com and get someone to do a pencil drawing of the character based off you description
Challenge: Finish Chapter 2
Reward: I will copy your handwritten notes to the computer and teach you how to use Microsoft Word
Challenge: Finish Chapter 10
Reward: We will sit down and write an email to a cover designer
YOUR TURN: What is your reward? Find something that you can get excited about that will also lead to more progress with the book.
#3 Make a Plan
After Emma completed her first challenge of 150 words, we decided that we needed to have a plan for moving forward. Instead of just writing everything out and hoping it would all make sense, we sat down to plan out what we wanted to do.
Each week we met on Saturday morning, waking up before the rest of the family. During our “strategy sessions,” we would have breakfast together and plan out the week. Oftentimes these planning sessions would happen at a local Panera Bread or Starbucks.
These sessions became about much more than just the book, as we enjoyed the father-daughter bonding time without distractions. To this day, these Saturday morning meetings have been my favorite part of the entire process.
After the first couple weeks we started to bring my laptop along with us so she could sit down and write for 20-30 minutes after we finished our “business,” before we went home.
Here are some of the things that we would do each week:
- Decide on goals
- Pick out rewards
- Talk about the story line
- Talk about any struggles
In order to allow Emma to refer back to what we talked about each week we would record the session with the audio recording feature on Evernote on my phone. With the recordings available to her on our iPad at home she could just tap on the button for this week’s strategy session and review it whenever she wanted, even if I was still at work.
To hear a small clip of one of the first “Strategy Session” recordings click here Audio for Strategy Session
YOUR TURN: Do you have a plan? If not, it is time to start getting back to basics like mind mapping or outlining.
#4 Create Accountability
For Emma we found a great way to keep her accountable while also promoting her book and making it fun for her. Inspired by Pat Flynn and the group he created to help launch his first eBook, we created a private Facebook group filled with friends and family called “Emma’s First Book.” Each week she would record a short video to the group and report back on her progress.
The group quickly grew from 20 people to over 200 people within a week as friends and family started to message me asking to add one of their friends or coworkers who was interested in watching Emma’s progress.
As people began to comment on her videos and post encouragement for her, we began to incorporate this as one of her rewards. If she finished the weeks goals she could spend 20 min. commenting back to the people in her group.
Here is a picture of Emma’s group taken the first week she started it.
YOUR TURN: Who is going to keep you accountable? Find someone in your life, in person or online, that you can meet with for 10 minutes each week and check in on your goals. They may not be writers, but maybe they have another goal in mind for weight loss or exercise, and you can work together to keep each other on track.
#5 Celebrate Big Wins
As I mentioned earlier, Emma and I would create weekly challenges and rewards to make the week-to-week process more fun and exciting, but beyond that we also celebrated each time she achieved a big milestone.
More important that just the celebration was the fact that we were doing it together. She was able to share her victories and be proud of her accomplishments, and I was there to cheer her on. During these celebrations we did not talk about strategy and details but we just reflected on how far she had come and what more she could still do.
For example when the book was half way done we celebrated with dinner out on the town.
YOUR TURN: Who can you celebrate with? Find a friend, family member, pet, stuffed animal… anyone who can help you enjoy the wins.
#6 Hire The Pros
Based on my experiences with publishing my own books, I knew there were four things we needed to hire professional help to accomplish: illustration, editing, cover design, and formatting.
There’s a wide range of costs for each of these items, so as a family we worked out a budget and made a decision on what we could afford. Then we contacted outsourcers that fit our needs, based on a list of preferred contractors from Self-Publishing School.
This was a time-saver since we didn’t have to waste time or money dealing with an untested resource. Before starting with each we discussed our project, described the book and Emma’s personality, and asked some questions about their style via email to make sure they were a good fit.
We worked with people from Boston, Michigan, Mexico and even Sweden. Emma was involved in communicating with each of them by both email and video chat.
What did it all cost?
Cover Design: $450
Total Invested in the book: $790*
*Unless you want to count all the hot chocolates and breakfast sandwiches during our Saturday meetings, in that case I should probably add another $150 🙂
Depending on your budget you can choose to go much lower or even much higher. The range is huge for each category. You can pay well into four thousands for each category, depending on what you decide to outsource and who you use. Don’t let that scare you, though, as you can even choose to do it on your own for little to no money at all.
That being said, we are extremely happy with the choice that we made. Check out the cover below:
To get access to the Preferred Outsourcers that we used along with many others check out Self-Publishing School.
#7 Try New Things
While working on this project, Emma learned much more than just how to write a book. At each stage we took any opportunity we could to introduce a skill or technology that would expand her knowledge and comfort level.
For example, when she was ready to transition away from writing in her spiral-bound book to computer, she learned how to use a laptop, start Microsoft Word and type her story.
Here are just some of the programs or skills Emma has learned during the last year:
- Typing with Microsoft Word
- Using a thesaurus
- Typing and sharing documents with Google Docs
- Using Skype to do video chats
- Posting, commenting and doing live videos in Facebook
YOUR TURN: What new skills are you looking forward to learning? Make a list of things that you want to try and incorporate them as you go.
#8 Remove Barriers
Often, small points of resistance can keep you from moving the entire book forward. These little things can cause you to stop your progress, lose your inspiration or even cast doubt that you should be writing at all. If you can identify those small roadblocks and find a way to remove them early on, then you will be more successful
For Emma, one of her points of resistance was that she often worried so much about her spelling and grammar that she would not make any progress. She would see the red line under the word show up in Microsoft Word and get completely distracted, and then end up feeling discouraged. Then her progress or creative momentum would be ruined.
Our solution was simple: If spell check was the issue, let’s get rid of it! We disabled spell check completely and chose to forget about spelling until the entire first draft was done. Then instead of having her worry about it, we let the editor handle it. 🙂
YOUR TURN: If you find something that is blocking you from moving forward, take the time to identify it and find a solution. When you think about writing (or completing) your book now, what barriers do you predict? Make a plan to get rid of it!
#9 Build a Launch Team
A launch team is a group of people chosen to help you market the book and spread the word about your launch to the rest of the world.
By the time Emma was done with her book, she had a large group of people who had been following her progress and were ready to help her by being part of her launch team.
To make it easier to get information out to the group we created a small landing page and invited her Facebook group, and other other groups including the Self-Publishing School Mastermind Program, to sign up.
Starting about 2 weeks prior to launch, we began sending emails to everyone who had signed up, letting them know what to expect. Then a week before our official launch, we put the book up on Amazon and only notified those on the launch team. Many people on the team had never purchased a book on Amazon before, much less read a book on Kindle or left a review, so we had to be very detailed on our instructions.
She had a total of 95 people sign up to be on her launch team, and in just one day after we hit the publish button on Amazon she had 87 books purchased and 16 reviews up.
YOUR TURN: Start thinking about who will be on your launch team and how you will manage it. I strongly suggest signing up for an email service like ClickFunnels, Aweber, or MailChimp so you can collect email addresses and contact your launch team directly.
#10 Give Back
As part of this journey we wanted to make sure that Emma learned more than just how to write a book, and one of the biggest lessons we were able to incorporate was the idea of giving back to charity.
Here are just some of the benefits of giving back with your book:
- Inspiration: Inspire others around you to be a part of your journey.
- Motivation: When the book will help others either directly or indirectly, then you will have even more motivation to continue.
- Satisfaction: Giving back to a charity to which we feel personally connected has given both Emma and me a great feeling of pride and satisfaction that would not have been possible without that participation.
In order to maximize what you can do for a cause, pick a charity that can work with you to help get the word out about the book.
Here are some things to look for:
Does the money stay locally or go to a national or international fund?
You may want to find a charity where the money stays to help the local community.
Do they have a local chapter or contact?
It helps to have one person that knows the local area to help you set up speaking engagements
What kind of social media presence or email list do they have?
Part of raising money to donate means getting the book in front of those who will be willing to buy it. If the charity has a large contact list, they can help send that information out to more people — which will help them AND help you!
Does the charity have a marketing team?
Many large charities already have a marketing and PR team in place that can help create engaging posts or advertisements, as well as using their already established network to get your book into the media.
Don’t be afraid to ask these questions when you get in contact with the charity. After all, you want to make sure you are donating your time to the right cause.
Emma and I talked with several charities before finally deciding on Autism Speaks, a wonderful group with both national and local ties.
You can find out more about this great charity at AutismSpeaks.org
YOUR TURN: What charities or causes do you feel passionate about or connected to? Start now by using the resources above to evaluate your options.
A Dream Come True
“The Fairies of Waterfall Island” has already exceeded our wildest dreams. Every time we talk about it Emma says “I am just so excited, I never thought it would actually get this far.”
Each new step from writing to editing and now to publishing has been challenging, but the rewards have been incredible — in our relationship, in the growth I’ve seen in Emma, and in the inspiration she’s been to other children and adults.
To support Emma and her book go EmmaLovesBooks.com where you can find a link to purchase the book and more information on Emma and her journey. Remember that all proceeds for the first 3 months go to Autism Speaks.
I hope that with this post you can see that anyone can turn their dream into a published book. You just need to follow the steps, and you will be there with Emma before you know it.
Level Up Your Life by Writing Your First Book (And What to do if You Hate Marketing) [Steve Kamb Interview]
Steve Kamb is the author of the recently released “Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story.” He is also the creator of nerdfitness.com, a worldwide community of average people looking to live better lives. He hopes to one day become Captain America.
During our 2016 Self Publishing Success Summit, Steve shared some helpful tips for those who want to become a writer, but maybe don’t know where to start.
It’s All About the Baby Steps
If you only sit down to work when you have five hours of free time you likely won’t accomplish much. Instead, make progress getting small things done consistently, instead of finding time to cram everything all at once. And we all know, cramming is usually not the smartest way to get work done anyway, right?
Write Now, Edit Later
Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated but regardless, it’s still important to write! Sit down and write, even if you just have ten or fifteen minutes. You can edit later. Being a writer starts with getting content on the page, and if you never sit down to write, that content won’t be there when it comes time to edit. So write now, edit later! The first draft is always the messy one. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly how you want it. The editing will be taken care of in later stages. In the words of Steve Kamb, “Screw motivation, cultivate discipline.”
Promote Your Book
So you’ve taken all of those spare minutes and crafted a book out of them, you’ve edited that content, and now it’s time to really promote it. This is not the time to step back! If you feel good about your work, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your message if you don’t promote it. At first it may feel uncomfortable to promote something you’ve done, but if you really believe in the message of your book, let that override any feeling of discomfort. Go for it! This is what you’ve worked so long and hard to complete. Give other people the privilege of reading it.
Reach Out to Your Followers
Many people have at least some type of a social media presence or following. Having followers of your content is great, but reaching out to these followers in real life and connecting with them as people, not just as numbers, will bring you so much progress. Reaching out to people personally will create much more value and loyalty for your work and your brand. This personal connection will take you far.
Create a System
Progress is necessary if you are to see any success as a writer, but physically tracking your progress can bring levels of encouragement you didn’t know you needed. Everyone needs encouragement to continue once in awhile, and creating a personalized, fun system to track your progress could be the factor that keeps you going. Spend some time developing a system, or even finding an existing one, where you can track your progress. This will encourage consistence, resulting in more content to work with.
Steve Kamb put two years of thought into his process of writing. He said starting was the hardest part of the journey for him. Four months in he hadn’t written one word. With only four to five months left before his first draft was due, he realized he had to start writing content. After figuring out he had to write about five hundred words a day, Steve got to work. Every week day he woke up, made coffee, turned on one of his favorite playlists, and wrote. Sometimes he would exceed his word count for the day, other times it was hard to even make it to five hundred words. But with consistence, Steve wrote his book and has achieved the success he is known for today.
As parting advice, Steve says to just “shut up and write, shut up and market.” An introvert at heart, Steve loves the writing part of the process but not so much the interviews, the guest posting, the photos, or even the marketing as a whole. Despite this, he says to enjoy the process. You will never write a first book again, so you should enjoy the moment, taking pride in what you have worked so hard to accomplish. In addition, Steve’s main goal was not for people to simply buy his books in bulk, or buy himself onto a bestseller list. Instead, Steve Kamb wants the message of his book to spread. After all, this is where the impact lies!
For more information on the Self-Publishing Success Summit, you can check out our All-Access Pass to receive LIFETIME access to all the Success Summit master classes, a private Q&A session and community, and $1,141 in bonuses.
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