The 59-Cent Book Outline

When you write two books per year, organization is key. I can’t spend half my day staring at a blank page, waiting for a muse who isn’t going to show (and doesn’t exist). I need to sit down with a plan and get to work.

You can buy fancy software to assist in the outlining process. I tried Scrivener once. It was intimidating, so I enrolled in a class to teach me how to use Scrivener. I continued to flounder. I berated myself for being too stupid for Scrivener, but then reminded myself that I’m smart enough to know when it’s time to go back to basics.

Enter the 59-cent poster board. Okay, I actually spend $1.18 before tax, because I use two poster boards to outline one book. (Still a heck of a lot cheaper than software).

Part of why I struggle with outlining on a screen is that I need to be able to step back and see the big picture. Scrolling through a document or going back and forth between tabs doesn’t work for me.

I place my two poster boards on my dining room table and use a ruler and pencil to divide each one into 12 rectangles.

The picture below shows the prep for the outline. I print out all of my notes and place them in piles to represent each chapter, adding pamphlets, brochures, receipts, ticket stubs, and any other information I’ve gathered along the way. In the foreground, you see the poster boards, already sectioned into chapters and ready to be filled in.

Note: No one eats at the dining room table when Mom is outlining a book.

Dining room table outline

Each pile represents a chapter, so I take that information and study it. Where is the flow, the arc, the punch line? How will it open? Is there an underlying message? What is the best order of events? As I answer these questions, I fill information into the corresponding section on the poster board.

And here is the finished outline. Two poster boards representing 24 chapters of a book. Now when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I’m going to write about.

Poster board outline

Each rectangle representing a chapter includes:

  • Chapter Number
  • Chapter Title
  • Setting
  • Scenes to Write
  • Order of Events
  • Dialogue Cues (reminders of dialogue so that all characters are consistently represented)
  • Flow Connections (reminders of how to bring a chapter full circle and how to connect the end of one chapter with the beginning of the next)

With this in place, I’m ready to go. Next week I’ll write about how I schedule the first draft.

From one word nerd to another, Happy Outlining!

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