Creating A Book Outline
I began my writing adventure by typing the first chapter. My lack of planning led to many issues, and I have since learned to start every book project with an outline. It saves editing time and results in a better story.
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to describe my outline process. So… What is a book outline? It is a high-level plot summary. Once done, an author can review their concept and make radical changes. The result is a basic story framework that a writer can turn into an entire book.
How much plot is needed to begin an outline? The writer should know the general beginning, middle, and end. The length is about a paragraph. There are formal methods of creating an outline, such as the flower method. Some writers use whiteboards, post-it notes, 3x5 cards, and circles with connecting lines. My method is chaotic, terse, and cryptic because this is how my bonkers mind works.
I condense ideas into sentences that describe the base elements. The resulting difficult-to-understand mess has awful grammar and spelling. I encourage myself to explore, experiment, change, move, delete, and add during the process. The value of an outline is at this stage, and writers have complete freedom to make significant changes and push their concepts to the extreme.
Once a basic outline exists, I repeatedly review it with questions like: Does the story make sense? Is the logic sound? Is this section necessary? Is motivation apparent? Are the characters interacting enough? Does the action need more conflict? Would rearranging the sections lead to more drama? Are readers going to understand the plot? Are there any unresolved issues? Is this story so good enough to be turned into a book?
It is important to note that the character description parallels an outline. Character descriptions are an essential step but a different topic.
When my outline looks good, it is possible to show/explain it to a beta reader to get feedback. This basic description is suitable enough to identify problems and provide feedback.
This next paragraph is an outline section from my recently released fourth book. I intentionally did not clean it up to show my raw creativity. There are many apparent grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and run-on sentences. I understand this cryptic mess reads confusing, but it is clear to me.

Go to Russia, (because force) find grace, difficulty with culture, wonder around woods for two days, find grubby apple tree, building remains, ponder life, gets feeling that grace knows I am looking but refuses to show herself. men at apple tree, take to china on weird Russian plane, (loud) taken to Chinese palace, describe, lots of servants, meet Chinese harvester, pincushion man, his history: land owner, horses, agriculture, gold mining, (not environment good) communism took much of it, now no land, still had gold, built relationship with communists, owns 3 party members, they leave him alone, has a lot of dirt on them. Ask questions, claims to have developed his secret process. angry james for letting the secret out. Angry at cleopatra, did not know grace, angry that grace told james secret, secret reserved “only for the divine, not worthless people like you.” pincushion man pressure james (threat to kill) to reveal total secret. pincushion man has years of experience with torture. James talk and they compare notes.

Wow, what a rabble. However, from that mess, I wrote four chapters. The outline has a slight amount of dialog: “only for the divine, not worthless people like you.” That shows intent and what the character is thinking. I refer to one character as “pincushion man.” I did not have a name for him at that stage. My concept was that he was constantly using acupuncture, but when I tried to write that concept, it seemed silly, and I chose not to include it.
How did I use this mess to write a book? Let’s examine the first sentence. “Go to Russia, (because force) find grace, difficulty with culture.” This is out of order. In my mind (not in the outline), I had this major scene planned “(because force)” meaning that people forced James to fly to Russia. Because I had already fully developed it, I knew exactly how to write it up and did not need details for the outline.
For the next section, James needs to get to Russia. Details are required for the book, including buying an airline ticket, getting time off work, and budgeting. While I was writing this section, I kept in the back of my mind the next section, “finding grace.” (Grace is a character’s name, but I did not bother to capitalize the word.) This foreknowledge caused me to include all the necessary hooks, like background research about the local area where I would search for her.
Now that James had landed in Russia, he encountered the typical difficulties of adapting to a foreign country, and I described these details. I wanted a big mistake to show James is fallible. Before James leaves his home, he “remembers” to pack a translation book. When he lands, he realizes he forgot this book. This step adds drama and shows James is not perfect.
Let’s examine the most powerful part of an outline by pretending I identified a critical plot problem. The character James is not working. How can I fix him? What if we change the sex? How easy is it to make a major change at the outline stage? A straightforward word replacement: James to Jackie. Total time: five seconds.
Let’s change the character’s sex in a completed first draft with a word replace. “James entered the room wearing his muscle shirt. He looked angry.” The replacement is: “Jackie entered the room wearing his muscle shirt. He looked angry.” Jackie is a woman who is called “he” and “his.” The other problem is that most women do not wear muscle shirts. So, this change requires more effort than a simple replacement, and even with lots of editing, the reader would think Jackie is an oddly masculine character.
My outlines are about three pages long. As I write the book, I keep it on my second screen and refer to it as needed. An added benefit is using an outline reduces writing stress and makes the process more enjoyable. Now that I am better at creating them, they track 90% of the final plot. The missing 10% are details or issues found during the writing that require expanding or adding to the story. That is my chaotic process, and I hope you found it interesting.

You’re the best -Bill
December 13, 2018 Updated November 18, 2023

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