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How to Write a Book Part 2: the Idea, the Outline, and that First Draft!!!

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Welcome back, writers, to the second installment of How to Write a Book! In this issue, I will go over what you need to get started in pumping out that first manuscript. If you missed How to Write a Book Part 1: Blogging, Websites, and Writing Groups, I've conveniently provided a link for you here:



All books begin with an idea for a story. Some of these ideas are more worthless than the leftovers in the back of your fridge. In fact, a rather high percentage of our ideas for books just don't make the cold cut. But once in a while, like the rare times you actually decide to clean that fridge, a really good one appears in your brain, like a movie played on repeat. You can't get it out of your head. You think it's fan-frickin-tastic. So does your mother. But before you start slamming that keyboard every night, you'd better do some serious brainstorming.

An idea surviving brainstorming is like passing GO the very first time. It's collected the 200 bucks to add to it's meager stash of cash, yet it can't afford to really buy anything yet. It has to go around the horn again (in this case, your brain), picking up other mini ideas as it travels. At this point, your idea should be written down, and all your mini ideas should be branching out of it. Where is the story going? Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end? Does it have a main character yet? Does the villain die an excruciating death, or does the villain triumph at the end? Does your story even have a villain?

When you're finished with your brainstorm, you should have a minimum of the following for your story:

Brainstorm Checklist

1. A beginning, middle, and end

2. The protagonist, or hero/heroine of your story. What do they hope to accomplish?

3. The villain's identity. What are they after?

4. Established location and time period------when and where does your story happen? Does it work for your characters and their situation?

5. The genre---is it a children's book, middle-grade fiction, non-fiction? Is it mystery, biography, true crime? Identify your audience!

Now is not the time to worry about details like the names of people and places. What you are trying to do at this point is the preparation for the bare bones of your story, which will be the outline. If you completed the above checklist, you are ready to visit your online writing groups and run that idea by them, preferably in a one-sentence summary. You could start the post out with, "Would you read a book about...insert your one-sentence summary here...? I am looking for honest answers. If you said no, please write the biggest reason why this idea isn't appealing to you." Be sure to put the genre in there somewhere. Keep the post simple, and others are more likely to respond. And who says you just have to ask your writing groups? There are about 3.6 gazillion reading groups out there as well in cyberspace, so take advantage of that!

When your post has been up for about a week or two, now is the time to analyze the feedback. Were many of the responses favorable? Did people ask for more information on it? If so, than you may have the makings of a good book on your hands. If you got a lot of nos, well, it's back to the drawing board. Like I said, not every idea is good, but even the bad ideas have value in the mere fact that you can learn what NOT to do. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to learn how NOT to do something.


Now that you know your idea is marketable, it's time to do some actual writing. But before you wield your writing tool of choice, you first need a plan. You wouldn't drive from Florida to California without some kind of map, would you (digital or otherwise)? Well, the outline, as boring as it sounds, serves as your 'map' for your book. You can't just start writing without knowing where your plot is headed. I hoped you saved that page of brainstormed ideas, because you're going to need it!

I suggest creating the outline on a computer, because when, not if, you need to add more information to it, you can have all the space you need for additions, revisions, and decisions. Also, use double-space so you can hand-write revisions in later if you happen to be away from the computer. I know the word 'outline' seems complicated, but don't worry about following the formats you followed in high school and college. This is YOUR project, and you won't be graded on it.

Here is a sample of a first outline draft for fiction:

My Book Title

I. Chapter One Title, or just "Chapter One."

A. Chapter Beginning-what do you hope will happen in this chapter?

1. Main Character attempts to accomplish a task.

2. Details

B. Middle-Conflict leading up to chapter climax.

1. Main Character encounters resistance by something, whether by villain, circumstances, or weather, etc.

2. Details

C. Chapter Climax

1. Main Character faces and deals with the resistance.

2. Details

D. Chapter aftermath and Ending.

2. Main Character, having solved his/her problem, is ready to move on to Chapter 2.

II. Chapter Two Title, or just "Chapter Two." (REPEAT AS FOR CHAPTER ONE)

And here is a sample of a first outline draft for non-fiction, such as a self-help book:

I. Chapter One-The Problem

A. Chapter Beginning, Middle, End

II. Chapter Two-The Solution, and How I Discovered It.

A. Chapter Beginning, Middle, End

III. Chapter Three-The Beginning of my Journey

A. Chapter Beginning, Middle, End

IV. Chapter Four-How to Use this Book.

A. Chapter Beginning, Middle, End

Obviously, a fiction book is going to be slightly more complex in structure than a non-fiction book because of all the tiny details such as character backstories, places, etc., but essentially, the process for each remains the same. The goal is to create a map for you to follow, a guide that you can write your manuscript from directly. Feel free to make these outlines as detailed as you want. The more detail you put in, the better you will get a feel for that world inside your head that is scratching at the inside of your skull, begging to come out. Speaking of things coming out, PRINT OUT YOUR OUTLINE AND PUT IT IN A SAFE PLACE! Alternatively, you can email a copy of it to yourself and keep it handy on your smartphone, but I find it easier and less battery-draining to have an actual copy I can touch, scratch things out on, and chicken-scratch new ideas in.


At last, we have arrived at the dock. Now it's time to put your foot on that gangplank, outline in hand, and begin penning that first draft. Keep your outline with you at ALL times when you are writing the draft. You'll be referring back to it more than you did with the instructions to that home gym, a piece of equipment that is probably still in six pieces on your basement floor.

Okay, so your laptop is up and running, a nice hot cup of coffee is near, and your outline is at hand. Now what? Create a save file for your book, one that you will keep all your chapters in, using the title of your book for the file name. It is much easier to keep all chapters in the same file, trust me. I tried it both ways, and opening a million files was never fun. Next, look at your outline and read the notes you put there regarding the first chapter. Everything you need to get started should be there. All you have to do now is expand the information.

Each chapter should start with a "hook" that will get the reader to glance beyond the first sentence. The hook should be making the reader ask, "But what happens next?" Here are three examples of good hooks:

From "Albert Perkins and the Lost City," by Lazarus Gray:

"It had been a long time since Albert 'Dr. Rocky' Perkins had seen the sky turn such an unusual array of colours, and certainly never in this locale." Immediately, you start to wonder, what's going to happen? A natural disaster? A hurricane? And will Albert Perkins live through it? Trust me, this is a great read, which you can find by clicking this link:


From "The Sinner," by Amanda Stevens

"The caged grave was an anomaly in Beaufort county. In all my cemetery travels, I'd come across only a handful of mortsafes, all of them in Europe. They were a Scottish invention, cleverly devised and manufactured in the early nineteenth century as a means of thwarting the nefarious grave robbers who dug up fresh human remains for profit." In this example, the hook could be the first sentence, or the first paragraph. In this case, it's both, and it not only serves to give the reader fascinating tidbits about graveyard history, it also makes them read more to see if the book contains more interesting facts. This book and the next are on my "to read" list.

From "Doll House," by Sam Campbell

"It rained the day of my mother's funeral." Short and sweet, yet so effective at pulling you in.

Once you have your hook, you can actually begin writing! Crazy, right? At this point, just let the outline guide you, and be sure that your chapter has the following:

Chapter Checklist

1. Chapter "hook" that pulls readers in.

2. Beginning, middle, end.

3. Conflict of some sort, followed by resolution.

4. End of chapter cliffhanger, making readers crave the next chapter

Every chapter should follow these basic guidelines. In the same way, your entire manuscript as a whole needs to follow them too, on a much larger scale. Chapters are like mini books of their own, each one leading up to the next and the next, until you have a whole book. It's kind of like an episode in your favorite television series. Each episode tells a little bit more of the story, until the entire story is told. What will your story tell?

Click this link for the next installment, How to Write a Book Part 3: Revising that First Draft


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