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The Problem with Book Outlines - Advice for Authors

Writing about contentI was speaking with a potential author on the phone today who was having trouble with the outline portion of his book proposal. Of course, building the book outline is one of the most important elements in writing winning book proposals, so all new authors stress over getting it right the first time.

You probably won’t get it right the first time.

I’m not trying to be negative here, so hear me out. Every once in a while I get a proposal where the author just absolutely nails it, but the majority of the time the first draft outline is a great start that needs some fine tuning to get it ready for the shelf.

I look at the book proposal process as a collaborative effort with the author. If I believe in your book idea and you as an author, then I am going to take the time to help you develop your ideas into something that I think has the best chance of success.

An exercise I like to suggest to authors who are bogged down in the outline is to forget that it’s a book. We will worry about turning it into a book a little later, but for now imagine you are creating something other than a book outline. How would you think about your outline differently if I told you were:

  • Drafting a presentation for SxSW, Microsoft TechEd or TED (insert the most appropriate conference here)
  • Writing the script or talking points for a podcast or video
  • Preparing a series of blog posts on a subject

Sometimes thinking about content as just a book is limiting. As publishers move to providing content in a variety of formats - not just books - I think it’s important to open our thinking up a bit during the proposal process. Not everything will necessarily end up in the book per se, but the ideas that don’t may make for great supporting materials, or interesting marketing and promotional angles.

Thinking beyond the book allows you to be a bit more creative with your ideas. Couple that with an editor who is willing to work with you to develop those ideas into a great book is a winning combination.

(Photo credit: Massdistraction)

  • Gail Garrett

    Hello. My family was involved with the mafia and many people say to me, “You should write a book.” Wel, here I am… whom should I talk? Gail

  • Chris

    Hi Gail,

    I’d say you shouldn’t talk to anyone! Ever!

    Seriously, if you want to privately contact me via the form on this site, I can put you in touch with the right people at Wiley.

  • Dorie LaRue

    I am writing a novel, an academic satire, about a teacher who has a Bosnian student who lived thru the Seige. The problem is he is very boring. I want to make him a bit funny in a dark ironic way. Come to find out many many Bosnians have a great sense of humor. I’ve found tons of Bosnian created jokes on dozens of websites. I want to have my character tell some of these jokes. 1. Is this a good idea? maybe it would turn agents off 2. can it be done at all-legally. Should I cite? Or will readers realize it is a retold joke. Should I contact the websites asking permission to use the joke? Thanks.

  • Chris

    Hi Dorie,

    If you are writing a novel, citing sources is probably not really the way to go, since the book is to be a work of fiction. If you want to have your character tell jokes you know someone else wrote and published I suggest you contact the writers of those jokes and get their permission.

  • Kaitlin

    Please, I’m writing a book too, and I’m only eleven, so I’m afraid of how the publisher/editor will think of me. I’ve tried my best and have edited it, but I don’t think it’s a very good plot. Of course, there’s a lot of action, romance and very childish scenes… but it’s about someone who’s afraid she’s killed her best friend. Do you know how to make my story better? Is too much action or childish scenes okay? How can I find scenes to put in the snyposis?

  • Kaitlin

    I’m almost finished making the snyposis, and here’s the thing: I think there’s too much suspense, mild child scenes for kids, and about three romance scenes. There isn’t anything that include bad language or sex, although there might be mild violence and about one kiss scene.

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  • Dlarue

    Two years later I am about to go to press. The problem is no one knows who the original writer of the jokes are. Jokes are not protected by public domain, and they are different from satire and parody.