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)