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Outlining a Book: Chapter by Chapter

First of all, there’s a special weekend coming up here in the States. To all the moms out there, and especially my own, thank you for all you do to raise your kids and support them in the dreams God plants in their hearts.

From my perspective as a daughter, it’s really incredible to have that maternal support as I pursue my writing dreams.

From my perspective as a tutor of middle schoolers, that support is something beautiful to behold, when “my” kids’ moms cheer on their babies as they learn new concepts and pass big tests and make huge strides in their educational and life journeys.

So, Moms, keep up the great work rooting on and raising up your kiddos. We need you to be our first cheerleaders when we test out new pursuits and our steady rock when we discover life is bumpier than expected. (Because, kids, it is.) I hope your special weekend is incredible with lots of rest and pampering by those husbands and children who love you right back.

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Here is the much-delayed, highly-anticipated, asked-for article about how I outline a book prior to writing a single word in the first draft.

Let me know in the comments what other aspects of my writing process you’d like to learn more about.

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Outlining a book can take many shapes and forms. A quick online search can provide dozens of formats and sequences and ways of getting those plot ideas into a workable frame before penning that first draft. I’ve browsed through many of those articles and tried several different ways of outlining… all to come up with my own method in the end.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I don’t outline all my books the same way. Nor do I necessarily outline every book before diving in. I used to be a pantser, after all.

However, I discovered along the way that writing by the seat of my pants (pantsing) wasn’t always helpful or productive to the story I was trying to tell. Oftentimes, I ended up with slumpy middles, which is never a good thing. Or, major gasp, I would abandon project after project for not knowing where they were heading next and feeling discouraged by writer’s block when I tried to sort it out mid-first draft.

So for the last several years, I have been attempting to learn how to be more of a plotter—or at least the hybrid plantser.

What I’ve learned about plotting is that some things work for me while others simply don’t. Some things that work on one story might not work on another. Therefore, I take plotting one story at a time and see what that story calls for on the outlining side of things.

My go-to plotting style right now is a chapter-by-chapter outline. This format has worked well for me on a couple of past projects and seems really conducive to my writing style and the vibes I’ve been getting from the few story ideas I’m playing with at the moment. Once I have a chapter-by-chapter outline completed, I reference it a lot in the first-draft phase of writing so that I either stay on track or adjust the outline in order to follow an even better path discovered during the writing.

So here’s how my chapter-by-chapter outline works.

I usually need a few things before I get going on the outline. Namely, the leading character, their love interest (my current story is a contemporary romance set in County Surrey, England), what their goals and main struggles are, where the story will take place, and perhaps a meet-cute or key plot point or two. It can take me anywhere from a couple of hours to several weeks to brainstorm enough plot points or character traits with which to work, but it’s always worth that time spent thinking and pondering and perhaps even talking things out with a writing buddy or my mom – and especially God – so that some ideas can start clicking into place for me.

Once I have that up-front work done and the notes jotted either in a fresh notebook or in a new file on my computer (or both), then I start creating the chapter-by-chapter outline.

I typically begin with chapter one (or the prologue, if there is going to be one) and write out one to three sentences of the major things that will happen in that chapter. If there is more than one scene in the chapter, then I’ll do one to two sentences per scene.

I like to keep these short so that I won’t have lengthy paragraphs to read before starting the day’s work during drafting. A bonus to that is that there is a lot more room to play within the crafting of the first draft.

For the remainder of the outline, I go one chapter at a time, plotting out what might happen next in one- to three-sentence increments.

Usually I have a set number of chapters in mind before I begin this process, so I know about where to have the first-quarter twist, mid-point mindset pivot (where the character begins to take charge of their destiny), the third-quarter setback, and the near-end climax.

However, if I don’t have a specific number of chapters in mind, then I sort of wing it until the story takes a natural bend toward wrapping up.

At regular intervals of this outlining process, I pause to read back over what I’ve already written down and brainstorm options for what could still be coming up. I make sure to check any notes I have on plot points to see if I’ve checked any off the list, if any no longer fit the direction the plot is taking, and if I’m still on target for reaching the remaining viable options. If more brainstorming is needed, I take the time to do that, because it’s always worth the extra time to make sure I’m discovering the right-for-this-story plot.

Then I proceed to do a few more chapter blurbs on the outline before repeating the above process of pause-and-check.

During this outlining process, I do try to sort out the ending in some fashion to make note of how I want the story to wrap up. It’s definitely the whole “beginning, middle, and end” thing, folks! Once I have that juicy finale nugget in place, it becomes easier to keep that end-goal in mind as I’m drafting.

Why is that important?

That’s going to be an upcoming article, so stay tuned to Writing to Inspire to find out.

After I reach the end of the chapter-by-chapter outline, I let it rest overnight and then read it from beginning to end to get a feel for the story as a whole. This is when I fix any plot holes I see or shore up the faith thread or make note of which major plot points I need to keep in mind as I’m writing the early chapters. During this read-through phase, each chapter blurb might grow to 4-7 sentences, but I try to keep them as brief as possible for ease of reading upon kicking off each drafting day’s work session.

Upon finishing the read-through revision, my outline is generally ready to be used. Up next would be digging into that first draft. (Unless I’m writing a book proposal to send to an agent or publisher. In that case, the next thing I would do is create a synopsis, using the chapter-by-chapter outline as a point-by-point guide.)

What about you?

What does your outlining process look like?
Does your process look similar or different to mine?
Is there anything about my process that you might try in your next story’s outline?

Springtime in Surrey Updates!

Earlier this week, I turned in revisions of The Cottage on the Hill. Personally, I’m really pleased with the changes. The faith thread deepened and widened much more than I was expecting. That, I believe, was due directly to God’s whispers and nudges as I wrapped up an edit job and then got to work on the revisions of Cottage. He guided me in such a way that I knew it was from Him, and I believe Moira’s and Adrian’s story is kilometers better for it.

This is my first attempt at a mood board for a story. What do you think of it? Does it make you want to read the book?

Pictures borrowed from Pinterest.

For the latest official updates directly from Wild Blue Wonder Press, visit their Facebook and Instagram accounts.

My fellow authors are sharing about their stories as well. Check out any or all of their links for the latest tidbits of news.

Faith Blum | Instagram
Grace A. Johnson | Blog
Rachel Leitch | Blog | Instagram
Erika Mathews | Instagram

For more updates from me, be sure to follow the blog here on Writing to Inspire. I also have been posting updates on Goodreads and Twitter. (Click the links for an example on each.)

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