Writing an Outline

eighteenth century chardin child 1It’s the first thing an agent or publisher is going to see, after your query letter: the outline of your book. So, important. But also, confusing, to try to decide what might work. Some people assert it should be short. Others, long. Descriptive. Analytical. Comparing the work to other authors’. Steering well clear of that. Giving the full story. Only giving a teaser.

I’ve been writing outlines to hook publisher-fish for more than twenty years now, and for more than fifty published novels. In the early days I had to have a full ms to back up my outline and sample chapters; these days, much more usually, I go from outline and sample chapters and wait for a contract before I commit myself to the full deal. That means I need to write pretty successful outlines: for despite being well-established, it’s still not guaranteed that publishers will take on my projects. Here are some of the things I’ve learned. These mostly apply to fiction, but can be adapted for non-fiction:

  • Received wisdom means little in this game. Everything is so subjective you can’t make a general rule. Which means these tips are not fail safe formulae!
  • Too short or too long an outline is pretty much as bad as each other. An ideal length I’ve found for my outlines is two pages or around 1,000 words.

  • They’ve worked best when they don’t tell the full story and definitely not the climax, but leave an intriguing question at the end. Publishing professionals are also readers and need to have something to look forward to, just like any other reader!
  • Sub-plots are best left out of an outline, even if they’ll be in the finished book.
  • If you’re going to compare the work to anyone else’s(and it’s one of those matters on which everyone has a different view, and no one view is wrong), then do it at the end in a very short sentence. Best not to use super famous examples though—don’t compare your work to JK Rowling for instance. But a writer whose work you genuinely admire in the same genre as yours may well be worth mentioning—not because you’re really comparing your work to theirs, but because it signals to the publisher/agent that you read intelligently, and aren’t just dropping celebrity names!
  • Concentrate on character and story, just as in the novel itself. Only it needs to be severely distilled. *Analysis in a fiction outline is best left out. But you could include a short—very short—bit on themes, if you must! (I’m not keen on it myself. Themes belong in English studies, not in novel outlines.)
  • The style of the outline doesn’t have to be the same as that of the novel itself: but it should give a little of the ‘flavour’ of the book, which will be of course much more obvious in your sample chapters. Even though the outline is of a more humble variety of writing than a chapter in a novel, it still needs to be nice to read!
  • Don’t be too quick to assign a genre category for your novel unless it is not obvious from the outlined story what the genre is. With children’s books, however, it can be quite useful to include a fairly vague age range suggestion, at the end preferably(eg, For readers 11 and up). If your novel mixes different genres together(a common experience for me), it’s fine and even pretty useful to mention the elements that you think are involved: eg, in the outline for my novel Moonlight and Ashes, I described it as a ‘fairytale thriller’. Worked!
  • If you are specifically commissioned to write a book, say for an existing series, your outline needs to be a little different from what I’ve mentioned above: you may well be asked to say exactly how the book ends, for instance, and/or to provide an outline of each chapter as well. But you usually get specific guidance on that.

 Do you have any tips to add? Please share them in comments.

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    Very useful, Sophie. Outlines are too often afterthoughts and, since they are pivotal to agent appeal, may make or break an otherwise damned good book. Thanks for the spotlight.

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  2. says

    This was helpful. I haven’t seen too many articles on the specifics of writing outlines and yes, my feeble early attempts were a stab in the dark and failures. Thanks for the specific advice.

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  3. says

    Interesting that in querying two books for two wholly different audiences, I have yet to find an agent who wants the two-page outline!Usually, the outline helps me get past a sticking point in the plot or the development of a character.

    Under what circumstances are you, as a veteran, asked for an outline?

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    • says

      I always get asked by an outline(synopsis) even by publishers I’ve worked before and who are planning to take the book–it’s part of the package they take to the acquisition meeting, to help get support from the whole of the publishing team to acquire the book. Later it’s also often used by them when they’re selling rights to international publishers.

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  4. says

    Great post, Sophie. I am a serious outliner. Most of my books actually start out as a mind map (in an app like Mind Node), and I’ll figure out if I’ve got something worth working on or not. From the mind map software (sometimes I even use paper ::shudder::), I”ll move to Excel. In Excel, I try to get everything linear, and as detailed as possible. As I’m working up my outline in Excel, I’ll make note of points that might go into a one-page synopsis later, which is what I’m asked for most often. When the Excel outline is complete, I’ll actually set up the entire novel in Scrivener, creating the chapter folders and the different text files for the scenes I’ve planned. I don’t know that outlining is necessary; I think it’s fine to write from the seat of one’s pants if that’s what gets you churning out the word count. I do think that outlining will help the writer avoid the trap of getting only so far and not knowing what happens next. And I think a lot more writers fall into this trap than are willing to admit it.

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  5. says

    This information is priceless Sophie.

    Based on your post, I know I will have at least two outlines. There is no way I would be able to use my initial outline during my fishing expedition, and I’m definitely okay with that. Basically we need to be ready to share condensed versions of our story, whether it’s an outline, a paragraph in a query letter, a synopsis, a short story, or all of the above and more.

    I will add this to my education folder.

    Thanks again Sophie for enlightening me with a crumb of your many years of experience as a published author.
    (Thank you Founders and Mamas- I’m still on cloud ten about Writer Unboxed.)

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  6. Ronda Roaring says

    This was an interesting post. Here’s my reaction:

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong, fellow writers, but usually, in the US at least, most books must go through an agent rather than directly to a publisher except for picture books. The manuscript for a picture book should be submitted in full. Even well-published writers submit to an agent first.

    2. I’ve never had an agent ask for an outline.

    3. When you say outline, do you mean
    I.
    A.
    1.
    2.
    B.
    1.
    2.
    II. etc?

    Are you serious that you submit novel ideas to publishers in this manner and have them contract with you for a book based on this? That’s amazing!

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    • says

      Hi Ronda
      By outline, I mean a synopsis of your book(often called an outline.) Yes I do get contracts mostly these days based on outline and sample chapters, because I’m well-established and the publishers know me and my work and know I’ll deliver. And i prefer to do it that way otherwise it’s a lot of work on spec! (I used to have full ms at the ready, of course.) I have an agent and so what I do is send her my outline and sample chapters and then she takes them to the publisher. Yes of course with picture books, you have to have the full text of that.
      In Australia though most writers have agents, and most work goes through them, you can still go direct to publishers in certain circumstances–even as a beginner trying to sell an unsolicited. They have ‘pitch’ days on which you can email them query letters and outlines–and if they like what they read they will ask you for sample chapters. That’s why the outline is so important.

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  7. says

    Great article, Sophie, on a subject that scares even the most veteran writers! In fact, I initially read your advice as “1,000 pages, not 1,000 words” because my brain could not compute that a mere 1,000 words was all that was required!

    For my published non-fiction book I was fortunate to just be asked for Table of Contents, the introduction and first chapters. But when I’m ready to query fiction again, your clear advice will come in handy.

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  8. says

    Good one Sophie,

    I had an epiphany recently.

    What if writers published chapters of their books as article on a blog.

    Once you have 50 or so good posts that are popular, BOOM there’s your book.

    Then you can take the direct marketing angle.

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  9. says

    I saw “outline” and my brain imploded in shards of color and light and chaotic splinters and a scream resounded in my head: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

    But, I have told myself that with this latest novel I was going to write an outline – note the word “was” – as the novel is completed and I am in edits and no outline was fashioned *sigh* — lawd. BUT! I can still do an outline and in fact it ‘twould be easier now that the novel is completed to practice on one.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

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  10. says

    Love it, Sophie. Outlines are an amazing tool once you can wrap your head around them. Themes are extremely important to me as a writer, but as you say, you don’t need to say much about it in the outline. Ideally the characters and story would sufficiently demonstrate the themes, wouldn’t you say?

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    • says

      Absolutely, Andrew–themes should emerge naturally through story and characters. And very often those themes change and evolve as the novel develops.

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  11. says

    Hello Sophie, I just stumbled onto your website and have a few questions about this post. For starters, what does a fiction outline look like? Do you have an example you could share? I once created an outline for a non-fiction book but it consisted mostly of phrases and concepts and was rather brief. I doubt this would work with a fiction book, which is what I’m working on now. Thanks much!

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  12. says

    I am scared to death about writing an outline for my w-i-p. I haven’t done one for my first novel either. I find it really difficult to condense the story. This blog entry of yours is a great help – many thanks.

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