The "How to Write Your Book" Series was published in its original form in Writerís Digest Magazine in 1997 and 1998 as ďThe Evolution of a Book,Ē and later reprinted as a long special section in the 1999 Writerís Yearbook Extra titled ďHow to Write Your Book.Ē I significantly revised the articles for online publication.

Part One

From Concept to Outline

How to plan the initial stages of your book's development

© 1997-2000, Paul D. McCarthy  All rights reserved.     

Writing a book begins with an idea. Sometimes, if you are lucky, inspired or talented in a particular way, the idea is sufficiently clear, strong and well-formed that the writing can begin immediately. You know what the book should be and how to write it.

Most of the time though, starting the writing will not be that easy or quick. What we can benefit tremendously from is solid, extended and thoughtful preparation. Many of you are probably already doing this.  You think hard about the kind of book you want to and should write, consider various ideas, choose the concept that seems best, and then develop it into a brief or detailed outline that will guide you through the writing of the manuscript.  

The advantages to this kind of preparation are many. For example, ideas that arenít working can be discarded before youíve gone too far with them. Itís a lot better to find out when your book is still in the note-taking stage that it doesnít have the potential you thought it did (or even that itís just a bad idea), than to discover this same truth when youíve written a third of the manuscript, canít see where itís going, and donít like what youíve done. Also, itís much easier to develop and refine a concept when itís in the form of notes and an outline than to revise or restructure a partial or complete manuscript.  

Whatever your current knowledge and experience, you probably want to learn more about developing your book ideas. To build on what you may already be doing, or develop a process that will help you write your first book, letís examine the basic stages of conceptual development and explore ways of making your preparation for writing and development of your ideas even more efficient and productive.  

In the first section of this series we will cover:

The Right Idea

Before deciding which book idea is best, you must define your creative goals. You may want to learn more about yourself as a writer, and challenge yourself by attempting a very different plot structure than you've used before. Or you may want to write a nonfiction book when you've previously attempted only fiction.

You also may want to concentrate on expanding the size of your audience. Perhaps you've written several mysteries, romances or thrillers that have sold modestly well, but you're now ready to attempt a bigger novel that will satisfy your regular readers and appeal to a large number of new readers.

Whatever your goals, broaden, don't narrow, the possibilities. Before choosing an idea to begin work on, come up with as many different ideas as possible that are generally connected to your defined goals. This can be a very creative process because as you think of ideas, other ideas will often occur, taking your thinking in unexpected and exciting new directions.

Consider the kinds of books you enjoy reading and know best, and do exploratory research in relevant subject areas, whether it is winter gardening in the Northwest or the history of a nearby Civil War battlefield. Analyze your particular strengths as a writer and let these suggest certain possibilities. Perhaps you're able to present complex scientific issues in an entertaining and popular form, or you're well-suited to historical fiction because you combine a love of research with storytelling ability.

When you've collected a good group of ideas to consider, the exploration and selection begins. Think through each idea. If it has potential and will help realize your goals, keep it for further consideration. Discard those ideas that on further reflection are thin, too familiar, or will require research or storytelling that you aren't interested in doing.

Also, and this may seem obvious, be sure that you like the particular idea enough to want to give the enormous amount of energy and time that developing and writing a book requires.

Consider the likely ideas in terms of the audiences for those books. You should either understand already or be able to understand who the appropriate readers are and what kind of book will entertain, inform and satisfy them. If those readers are too far removed from the kind of book you could write well, move to those readers who are much closer to you in their interests. In developing a novel about ancient Egypt, for instance, keep in mind the audience for that kind of historical fiction rather than the readers of serious archeology.

Sometimes it is helpful and necessary to test the remaining possible ideas before making a final choice. Develop each idea further by taking notes about how it could be worked out, compare its potential and interest with the other ideas, and consider how it might help achieve your goals.

One idea may be a lot of fun to write but have a very small audience. Another idea may be strong but not as strong as the other remaining ideas. And still another idea may be very exciting creatively but goes in the wrong direction (for instance, it becomes clear that the major character is so inherently amusing that the story could only be written as a comic novel instead of the more serious dramatic narrative you had in mind).

Time can also be a factor. If there is a short deadline for completing the manuscript (to fulfill a contract, for instance, or to fit into your calendar), don't write a book that is too different from your previous books or too challenging to be your first book. Such projects will likely require a significant amount of learning, in research or writing or both, that will extend the completion of the manuscript well beyond the deadline. 

Finally, choose the most likely idea. This choice does not mean a final commitment but simply a decision to move the idea to the next stage. If the idea continues to work, develop it through the succeeding stages. But if at any time you exhaust its potential or lose interest in it or realize that it isn't nearly as exciting and challenging as you'd thought, set it aside and start conceiving and developing new ideas.

Developing the Concept

You may begin this stage with only the basic idea itself-such as, "a small novel about the American Revolutionary War from the perspective of a British doctor"-or with pages and pages of notes and ideas about how to develop the book concept that you produced as you went through the first, exploratory stage. Wherever the development begins, the goal at this stage is to keep adding to the idea or material until the overall form and structure of the book starts to emerge.

Continue testing the concept's value and appropriateness. Perhaps no matter how hard you think about it or how much more research you do, the idea can't be developed further. Maybe it was more limited than you realized, or while it may be a great idea for someone else, it doesn't excite your imagination and creativity the way it needs to. A novel about two emergency room doctors who fall in love and then have to deal with the combined pressures of emergency medicine and a relationship may have seemed rich with dramatic potential but then in the development it becomes extremely depressing.

Sometimes, wonderfully, the idea keeps opening up, getting more complex, provocative, and challenging. You get steadily more excited about it, with the ideas for development flowing with increasing rapidity. In this case, stay with the concept until every note and thought that occurs has been written down. Perhaps you anticipated that the genealogical research on your mother's family would yield only the usual biographical facts, and then discovered that your maternal ancestors were notorious and wonderfully colorful people, making the family history a far more vivid narrative than you had imagined.

There is considerable freedom in this stage of development. Don't be concerned yet about arranging your thoughts and notes into any formal structure or outline. Think long and productively about the concept, keep adding to the conceptual material, and revise your notes, deleting those that are no longer relevant or that need to be changed because of the new ways in which you see the book.

The notes and thoughts can be about anything related to the book. The possibilities include very particular aspects of character or plot; the overall narrative progression; how the book should be different from other, somewhat similar books; the nature and extent of the research; and the book's unifying structure and its moral and psychological themes.

As the note-taking and thinking continues, a pattern and implicit structure may begin to emerge and suggest itself. There may be so many notes about the main and secondary characters that it becomes clear what the interrelationships, conflicts and ambitions should be. These qualities, in turn, suggest how the plot should be developed or revised. Your basic concept is a novel about a loving and large family that suffers the deaths of two of the children in an earthquake or forest fire, which also destroys everything they own After considerable thought about the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the family members, you start to see how, inevitably, the family would respond to the tragedy.

Perhaps you have an idea for a book about criminal computer fraud on the Internet but aren't sure how encompassing it should be, whether it's best to concentrate on a number of representative cases or on a single, dominant criminal figure. Then, in researching Internet crime and studying other books on the subject, you determine how to differentiate your book from the others and deliver a thrilling narrative by concentrating on the dominant figure whose criminal career would serve as the spine of the book while simultaneously incorporating relevant issues.

It is also possible that even with extensive notes there is not yet an apparent structure. This doesn't mean that the concept isn't working or that the process isn't productive; it does mean that you must invest deeper thought about how the book should be plotted or organized.

This stage of development concludes when one of three events occurs: the book's structure becomes evident in the notes; your thoughts about the structure are sufficiently complete that you see clearly how the book should be arranged; or when you've recorded every useful thought and idea and are ready to start arranging this mass of material into a rough outline.

Beginning the Outline

The complete outline should be a concise overview of the whole book. During this stage keeping working with your notes until that overview is achieved.

If a structure or pattern in the notes can be discerned, or there are extensive notes about how to develop that structure, arrange your content notes so they follow the approximate order of the roughed-out structure. If the story is about an unfaithful spouse who seeks redemption in good works, determine the opening-perhaps the infidelity or the circumstances that produce it-and then indicate how the novel develops from there, whether a lapse from redemption with further infidelity or an increasing religious fanaticism that has its own consequences.

The structure does not need to be firm and is better left flexible. In this initial stage of organization, the goal is simply moving from loosely ordered notes to something more linear, thematic and direct, something that makes it easier to see which thoughts and ideas are not longer appropriate and should be cut, where the book is well thought through or thinly developed, and what other developmental possibilities there may be for the book's overall structure 

Because this is a stage of clarification, clear away as much conceptual material as possible, retaining only what is essential. As you were developing the concept, masses of thoughts and details were fine but now refinement is vital. Too much material is obscuring and confusing. It's not necessary to get rid of the deleted material entirely, of course. Save it somewhere in case you want to go back to it later for inspiration or to confirm that there is nothing usable.

If you're planning a biography, for instance, divide the life of your subject into significant periods, or organize the material thematically, grouping it in terms of the main issues and crises that your subject struggled with. Keep your organizing elements large so they are easier to keep in mind individually and collectively, and keep the notes focused.

You'll need to proceed differently if you're beginning this stage with only a mass of notes and thoughts and no particular and evident structure. Start grouping the notes, even if only joining one or two at a time. Put all your thoughts about a character in one place, the major conflict in another place, and the book's intended audience somewhere else. You may find that the process of arranging stimulates your thinking and produces new ideas. When that occurs, place those ideas within the emerging groups and patterns.

Gradually, the notes will become organized into major groups, and the book's structure or plot will become more focused. As the sharper focus occurs, adjust your organizing so that it follows the book's appropriate new directions and changing form, even if it means rearranging all your notes.

Your fully organized notes are close to an outline but there's one more step: distillation. Concisely express each note and clarify what's essential. In the process of distillation, you will further focus your thinking about the character, theme or plot point you're addressing in the notes, and about the overall book. Also, you will make it easier to keep track of the book's various parts.

While each note should be concise, the outline itself can take whatever length and detail is appropriate for you and the project. You may need only a single page that reads almost like a table of contents but has all the chapters carefully worked out. Or you may be more comfortable with an extensive outline that includes a host of characters with psychological profiles and family histories, a detailed description of the plot, and notes about the places where the point of view will shift from one character to another.

Once the outline is revised to the point where you understand the book as well as necessary, begin the actual writing, with the outline as your guide.

If you aren't sure whether the outline is sufficiently developed, begin writing anyway. If the writing goes well, keep the outline on the side and continue writing. If after a good start, you realize you're losing your way in the writing, go back to the outline and develop and rework it, at least from the point at which you got lost.

Concluding the Outline

Starting the writing does not necessarily mean that the outline is finished or no longer useful. Sometimes your preparation has been so solid and the outline is so elegantly thought out that the whole book can be written with little reference to the outline and with no further additions or changes to it

Often, though, the outline continues to be a work in progress that is regularly referred to and revised as the manuscript is written. To get the most benefit from it, keep revising the outline so that it incorporates all of the significant new developments in the book.

Keeping the outline current can often be done economically. As you understand the book better, make your notes more brief and the outline more skeletal. If you're writing a work of history, revise the table of contents to reflect the reordering of the chapters, or the addition and deletion of other chapters. If you're halfway through a thriller, you may only need a sketchy reminder of the major plot twists in the first half and the probable twists in the second half to keep your writing focused.

It may not be necessary to keep revising the outline all the way through the writing. If at any point the outline has done all it needs to, complete the manuscript without it. However, it may also be so helpful that you revise and refer to it through completion of the manuscript and even through manuscript revisions.

As you continue to write, gain experience with the process of developing a book from concept to outline, and learn better the particular approaches that work best for you, adapt these suggestions so they are most effective for you. You'll no doubt add other methods and approaches learned from other authors or devised on your own. Also, expand or contract the amount of time spent developing the book in each of the four stages in the ways that are most appropriate for your style of writing and the particular book. 

Through it all though you should not only become a better, more productive and efficient writer but get an increasing amount of pleasure and satisfaction from your writing.

In the next article, Part Two, From Outline to Complete Manuscript,  I'll explain how you can realize your outline's creative potential and move through the process of starting and completing your rough draft of the manuscript.

Return to the start of Part One or see the other sections of series:

And then go on to the story Inside Simon & Schuster: A Publishing Story.  After reading the story, see the background articles on:

You may also DOWNLOAD A PRINTER-FRIENDLY version of the entire How to Write Your Book series in MS Word format or in plain text.