Posted by: nancyisanders | February 3, 2014

Nonfiction Picture Book: The Outline

Are you a Panster? Or do you like to work from an outline?

What’s a Panster? Someone who works by the seat of her pants…in other words just likes to make up the story as you go without using an outline.

And which way is better?

I’ve seen lots of arguments all over the Internet favoring one or the other. And often I hear people in either party INSIST their way is the best.

But here’s what I’ve learned over the years of my writing career working with editors on nearly 90 published books…drum roll please…

It’s best to be BOTH!!!!!

Learning to write an outline (also known as a synopsis) before you write your manuscript is your ticket to earning income as a children’s writer. That’s because if you want to sign a contract before you write the book (or magazine article) the editor will insist you cough up an outline first. I talk more about this in Section 9.4 Contact Your Target Publisher in my book, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career.

However, learning to let your imagination run free and letting your story come to life as you work on it is your ticket to fresh, unique, packed with emotion, and charged with real characters readers want to fall in love with.

So how do you do both? Here’s a strategy I’ve developed over the years that works really really well for me. I wanted to share it with you because I hope you’ll give it a try. See if it will help bring you success, too.

Step #1. Decide to create an outline. Like for this nonfiction picture book manuscript.

Step #2. When you sit down to create your outline, turn on your “Panster’s” imagination. Pretend you’re writing your story and let it come to life in your mind. The benefit is that you don’t have to struggle with words at this point to achieve your goal because you’re not actually writing the story yet…you’re just jotting down key points to include in your outline. But let your imagination go wild! And dream up your story from beginning to end.

Sure, if you have entire scenes come to mind, go ahead and write them down! Keep them in files you’re creating for your project. But let your characters develop and your plot develop and get it from the start to the finish line. By this point you’ve got your Basic Plot Worksheet A to help you along.

I’ve learned how much fun this can be! When I write work-for-hire chapter books, I’m required to submit a 15-chapter outline that’s pretty detailed in it scope. It almost feels like I’m writing the book…without the angst of having to worry about dialogue or scenes. It’s exciting to see the story gel and the characters come to life and the structure of the entire story from beginning to end get down on paper.

If you’ve been someone who shies away from writing outlines, the key might be to allow yourself to go into the same zone as when you’re writing a story, and just spend time there enjoying watching the story grow and grow until you can see it from beginning to end.

Step #3. As you develop the story in your head from beginning to end and jot down the elements of each section, this will form your outline. Verify that it follows the structure of our Basic Plot Worksheet A and contains the significant changes at the right intervals with the turning point in the middle. Just a note: Your outline doesn’t need to be put into a formal format like they teach you in school. Bullets are fine to use in a picture book outline (or synopsis). Paragraphs under each chapter are great to use in an outline or synopsis for a novel.

Step #4. When you’ve actually got an outline to work with, you are ready to start writing your manuscript.

But here’s the amazing wonderful thing I’ve learned!!!!! Editors realize that outlines aren’t written in stone!!!! As you sit down and work on your manuscript and start creating scenes and actually developing your characters to their deepest levels and weaving in facts, you do not…I repeat YOU DO NOT have to feel hampered by your outline! You can toss out huge chunks of it if it’s just not working. You can reorganize and revamp and let your story grow as it’s begging to grow. In other words, you can still be a Panster if that’s your true style of writing! Editors understand that something magical happens while you’re actually in the writing process. And if your outline really really takes a U-turn, just check in with your Editor to talk about it. I’ve never met one that didn’t just say at this stage, “Go for your gut instincts here!”

But your outline was there to get you started and help keep you from wandering aimlessly for 1000 extra words or 20 extra chapters. Plus, it helped structure your plot so you’ve got a strong framework for your manuscript.

So with all this in mind, are you ready to start working on your outline? Great! Just keep your enthusiasm fired up and in the next post I’ll tell you the steps to take to create an outline for a nonfiction picture book.

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