Memoir, Revising, Writing Residencies

How To Write a Book Proposal When You Are a Pantser. Part 1: Chapter Outline

I am a pantser. Like Joan Didion says, I write to understand what I’m thinking. So when I look at the task of writing a detailed outline of a book I haven’t even written yet, I falter. (This is a nice way of saying I got a lot of writing done while procrastinating on this particular step of the book proposal process.) But I had a week in a rented house in another state with a writing friend. It was time.

I knew being on a computer staring at a Word document was going to be too much like my day job. Not to mention, the Internet was right there. So I packed for this week like it was 1985. I had writing pads, index cards, tape, scissors, binder clips, paper clips, highlighters, and my favorite uniball signo pens with off-black ink (h/t Jet Pens).

The first day I took my coffee to the dining room table and got to work. My friend—a wonderfully organized human being who outlined her book in an afternoon—looked on in amusement as I began ripping index cards into pieces. Main ideas went on half index cards. Related ideas went on index card quarters. The ripping was a satisfying way to dissipate some of my nervous energy.

The rest of the day looked like a tarot reading or a bridge game. I stared at the cards. I moved a few cards, and then stared again. What patterns would the mosaic of index cards reveal? What was the future of my book? I had been struggling bringing parts of the book together. How was a Confederate navigator related to my fascination with the night sky? I started to write little connecting ideas and taped them to the bamboo skewers my AirBnB host so helpfully left for visiting writers such as myself.

The next day I gently laid placemats over my index card idea array. It was still there, available for reference, but I had a clean slate so to speak. Out came the index cards again. Back when I molded young minds for a living, I told my students that research papers began with a thesis statement, but that creative nonfiction began with a research question that the essay answered. (And this, my friends, is how I justified teaching creative writing in a research writing class.) I needed the research questions my chapters would answer.

So I started writing questions on index cards. When I had two placemat’s worth of questions, I laid two more placemats on top of my craft project art installation research notes. This was the high-stakes part. Clearly I needed to visit the bakery across the street for sustenance. No one should have to write a chapter outline without chocolate. I don’t make the rules.

By the time I had three research questions for my two themes, I decided I was ready to commit to paper. I modified Jennie Nash’s Outcome Outline and wrote a chart. (I’m a scientific editor. I love charts.) Using the bamboo skewers as a straight edge, I made four columns. Chapter number, research question, the answer to the research question (the point), and the “because of that,” which I vaguely retitled “direction.”

It was time to harden my heart. The third day I took my outline chart and my coffee back to bed. It is best to be comfortable when killing your darlings. I looked at each question, point, and direction (leading to the next chapter) and thought really hard about whether they belonged. I did my best to be faithful to what I was actually writing, rather than what I could write. I looked at the wobbly points and questions, and…I killed them.

“It’s an iterative process,” I said to my friend at least twice a day when we took breaks in the kitchen. By the end of the week I had one and a half revisions of my chapter outline. And a week later, at home, in bed—because you must be comfortable when you are killing your darlings—I am revising my third outcome chart. It’s messy, but I think it’s true. And yes I wrote this blog post as procrastination.

Onward, my friends! Writing is hard, but it beats working.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)


Three Principles of Revision

Revision. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. Just make sure you do it. Revising is the difference between casual and professional writers.

Note: I consider professional writers not as people who get paid for writing (I’m a poet after all), but rather people who are working at certain level with a certain amount of experience and education, whether formal or self-administered.

Macro Before Micro

You know what this means. Don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Don’t spend two hours moving a few words around in a paragraph that you are going to delete later. Make sure you’ve said mostly the right things in mostly the right order before you polish that prose to a high sheen.

Note: This does not apply to poetry quite as much. In poetry, micro is often macro.

Know Thyself

If you’re a writer with a certain amount of education (formal or self-administered) and experience, then you have a general idea about your strengths and weaknesses. My poetry buddies used to make fun of me (affectionately) for the “Goldstein leap” where I would have a carefully constructed poem and then a reckless leap for the ending. I never had the penultimate line, and I often needed it. As a result, I always check for the Goldstein leap at the end of the poem.

When I teach, I make my writing students make up their own revision checklist. This is great for catching the small things you always forget (passive voice, repetitive sentence structure, citation arcana) as well as bigger issues. Although many students would have the some of the same items on their list, each one was slightly different. You have your own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Work to support one and address the others.

Don’t forget your strengths too! Are you good at titles? Do you write killer dialogue? Are your descriptions to die for? Do you write your references perfectly every single time? (If so, you should consider a career in copyediting.) Listing your writing strengths is a good exercise for reminding yourself the things you do well.

Kill Your Darlings

Nothing against your darlings! They are beautifully worded, delectable sentences, words, paragraphs, and image. But just because you love them does not mean they fit in your current work. Take them out and save them for later. Every poet I know has a list of images or lines that they periodically try to put into a poor unsuspecting poem. Is it a possum, brick dust, or the fact that sparrows can sense magnetism? Think carefully about what is good for your specific work, rather than just what is good.

What are your favorite revision tips? What are your darlings?


Editing is Weird

That isn’t to say copyediting isn’t weird (I could tell you stories), but editing one’s own work brings up a variety of questions that one has to answer herself.

For example, yesterday I spent more time than I should have deciding whether the Ents should stay in my manuscript. (I also am unsure whether Ents is uppercase or lowercase, but that’s a job for the professional editor side of my brain.) The Ents appear right after I mention The Hobbit. A person might conjecture that Ents appear in The Hobbit. But it isn’t clear, and two of my non-Tolkein-reading friends stumbled at them.

How many times do I have to qualify my dog’s name with “the dog”? One might think she were a human (or a tree person). She thought she was a human. Do people remember dog names from chapter to chapter?

What is the name for paper that is lined like notebook paper, but has a vertical line a third of the way across the page rather than at the left margin? Does it have a name? What is it for?

When I asked my spouse about the paper, he said, “What do I look like, Google?” And I said, “You know a lot of random facts. I was hoping that was one of them.” Spouse fail.

What questions do you ask while editing? Do I have to introduce Ents?