It’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.