Whether you’re trying to write a collection of articles or a book, some projects are so intimidating you’re tempted to give up. The trick is to break the job down into smaller tasks and just do one of them. Then, do one more and keep going until the day you find your project complete.
You have an idea for a novel. Let’s say the idea is that the protagonist has a problem with an adversary and as she tries to overcome it the problem gets worse. The first part of the story will be about finding the people with the skills she needs to beat the problem. The second will be about defining the adversary. Maybe they are hidden because they’re in organized crime or some huge government black ops group gone rogue. The nemesis keeps causing trouble for the protagonist until halfway through the novel when her group understands what they’re dealing with and can counter-attack. In the third part of the novel, they make several unsuccessful attacks on their enemy. In the last fourth of the story, their attacks become more successful as they work their way to the top of the problem organization.
If you start writing your novel with just that paragraph as a guide, you’re looking at a huge job. Not only is it a big project, but even the four parts of the story are huge – 25,000 words each if you’re going for a full length novel. Writing this way, or pantsing, makes your project seem huge and gives you little guidance on the path of the story. It could wander off in any direction. There are so many ways you could become lost and give up. I know. I’ve tried to write a novel with nothing but a rough idea where it was going. It’s frustrating.
To make your project easier to deal with and stay on track, create a chapter outline. I’ve written about chapter outlines and the multiple draft process in the article Preliminary Documents for Planning a Novel if you’d like to look at the big picture. For this post, I’m only going into detail on the outline.
When the story idea above is expanded into a chapter outline, it changes your four task writing job into 30 to 100 smaller tasks. It also improves your odds of producing a long enough story to fill a novel.
The first paragraph of a novel can make or break it. If it puts readers off when they’re deciding if they’ll buy your book, you’ve lost a sale. The outline gives you some first chances at writing that intro paragraph and you haven’t even started writing your book yet. What am I talking about? The story in the outline? It depends on how much you want to put in the outline.
An outline needs to at least have the important details of each chapter that move the story forward. The intro hook and outro cliffhanger are nice to have too, but not necessary. It will happen that you want to write a scene while it’s in your mind even though you’re working on the outline. There’s nothing wrong with that. Write it in.
You will review and revise your outline several times before you start your novel because it’s easier to fix an outline than a novel. The outline is the solution to the “staring at a blank page” problem. When it’s time to write your novel, the ideas for each chapter will already be there. If you write the first paragraphs of chapters in the outline, you’ll be off to a good start. One paragraph naturally leads into the next with the outline telling you where you’re heading.
Non-fiction is a lot like fiction at the outline stage. You’re still telling a story but it’s the story of how to do something complex enough to need a book.
The outline for a non-fiction book starts with chapter titles. The “story” starts with simple stand-alone concepts, builds toward more difficult ideas that use the earlier chapters, and wraps up with the big picture of the subject. Once you’ve got your titles close to their final order, you begin filling in the details to be covered in each chapter, just like a novel.
As you write your non-fiction book, there will be a lot more research and fact checking but that shouldn’t slow you down. You already know your subject or you wouldn’t be writing a book. It’s just like fiction. Write what you know, even if you only know it by analogy (ex. driving a get-away car is like driving a taxi) or from reading and research.
I’ve haven’t given a full set of rules for breaking a book project down into small tasks. Do you really want rules? Working out your own path will put your individual style into your writing. It doesn’t matter how you choose to outline or what kind of mess you make of your first draft. The only writing your readers are going to see is your final book.
Crack that first paragraph, that first summary of the idea behind your book, and you have a prompt that gets you writing more. With a good outline, you have all you need to keep going to the end.
Article by Ivan Izo.