The "How to Write Your Book"
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
Yearbook Extra titled ďHow to Write Your Book.Ē
I significantly revised the articles for online publication.
From Concept to Outline
How to plan the initial stages of
your book's development
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
explain how you can realize your outline's creative potential and move
through the process of starting and completing your rough draft of the
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