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.

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