Module 2: Planning

Planning Your Book, Part One: Brainstorm and Outline

Jim Menick, an editor from Reader's Digest, introduces a lesson in prewriting organization. This video shows you how to plan the plot of your book by suggesting techniques for brainstorming and outlining, such as free writing, making lists, mind mapping, forming questions, classical outlining, summary outlining and storyboarding. Even the most spontaneous writers can improve their work by learning these creative exercises.

Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Jim Menick, and I'm an editor here at Reader's Digest. I'm happy to introduce you to the webinar, "Planning Your Book." What we're going to start with first is brainstorming – putting together your book, figuring out what you're going to say. The book doesn't just happen; it doesn't fall out of your brain and write itself. You have to know where you're going. You need a road map, indeed, a draft. My favorite example of somebody who really roadmapped like it was going out of style is J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter books. She, and you can see these – they're online – she worked out enormous, and I mean enormous in terms of size, spreadsheets covering seven books, hundreds of characters, thousands of pages. Every single scene, every single character, every single turn of the plot is in those spreadsheets. I'm not saying you're going to do that level of planning – you're probably not sitting down now to write seven books – but without that kind of planning, or at least a similar kind of planning, you're never going to get where you want to go. You have to have a plan, and you have to know how to get there. So let's get started with part one.

The writing process is personal to each author. Some authors are meticulous planners, plotting every detail of their stories before they begin. Others write by the seat of their pants, without any idea of where the story will end up. Most authors lie somewhere in between. Whether you're a planner, or prefer to write freely, there are benefits to planning at least some parts of your book before you begin writing.

There are several techniques to help you plan your book before you begin writing. Two of the techniques are brainstorming and outlining. Even if you consider yourself more of a spontaneous writer than a planner, you should give one or two a try and see if it improves your work.

Brainstorming is the technique that allows a free flow of ideas without the constraints of organization, evaluation or judgment. It can be used at any time throughout the writing process when you're lacking ideas, or if you have too many. Brainstorming before you begin can help you capture your thoughts and explore new ones. You can brainstorm about your book in general to get started, or you can brainstorm something more specific such as a particular character, the setting of your story or a chapter. There are several brainstorming techniques that are useful for writers. These include free writing, making lists, mind mapping and asking questions. We will go through each of these in the following slides.

Free writing is where you set a time limit or a page limit and write whatever comes to your mind about the topic. Even if you can't think of anything to write, you must continue to write for the time or page count that you've set for yourself. Don't think of this as the beginning of your story, instead, it should be just a free flow of ideas that you are capturing.

With the list method, think of a topic you'd like to brainstorm and start listing ideas. Set a number as your goal for your list, for example, 50. Continue writing until you've reached 50. Don't worry about the quality or the order of the items you are listing, just get them out onto the page so that you have them to work with and expand upon later.

Mind mapping is used to organize your brainstorming ideas. Start with a circle in the center of a blank page, use a large sheet of paper or whiteboard, whatever you have available. In the middle of that circle, write your main idea or initial thought, and then just branch off from there. Draw other circles branching from the first one, filling them in with related ideas or subplots. Continue expanding on each idea, creating more and more branches and associations. At the end, your page will be filled with a mind map of ideas that will help you develop your story.

Another technique asks you to form questions rather than answers. Write down your topic, whether that's your story's plot or a character, and then give yourself space to write under six categories: who, what, when, where, why and how. Start writing questions that need to be answered, such as: "What is the one thing the main character can't live without?" "Where will the story unfold?" Give yourself a time frame and write down as many questions as you can. At the end of this session, dig deeper into some of the interesting ones.

Outlining is a divisive topic for authors. Some authors can't work without outlines, while others can't stand them. But many authors benefit from outlining or making a blueprint of their books. It helps authors who continually start projects, but can't figure out how to come into the completion point. There are several ways to outline. The basics of popular methods are classical, summary and storyboarding.

A classical outline is what most people visualize when they think about outlining. Roman numerals, letters, numbers for heading and subheadings. This is a highly organized form of outlining and relies heavily on sequential thinking. It is most popular for nonfiction works. The goal of the classical outline is to divide main ideas into subordinating ones, while at the same time, coordinating ideas into a cohesive whole. This kind of prewriting organization brings clarity to the work.

In a summary outline, you can start by either sequentially listing events, or you can create a working title for each of your chapters and list them in logical order. Then you write a short summary of each chapter, clearly defining your goals. If it's a nonfiction book, you can also list your resources as they would appear, including books, interviews and web links. With novels, you would include the characters, settings and chapter timelines. For memoirs, you would summarize important life events. This kind of outline is linear in nature. Some authors combine classical and summary outlining for a complete and detailed plot blueprint.

The last method we will discuss is index card outlining or storyboarding. This technique is popular because it allows for a constant reorganization of ideas. Before you begin, you'll want to have at least some of the story's elements figured out so you have some sort of framework. A basic beginning, middle and end are sufficient. And along with that any other ideas you'd come up with. Start by creating short scene summaries on index cards or post-it notes. Then place them in order and rearrange them at will. Post-it notes can be easily arranged on a wall, and that offers a visual way to follow the story's plot. If you're technically inclined, a program like Microsoft's PowerPoint or Mac's Keynote allows you to create cards electronically and then rearrange them as needed. A storyboard allows you to see your storyline from beginning to end physically in front of you. It also allows for easy editing. For a smooth writing process and well-developed book, you can adopt all or some of the techniques we discussed.

And that concludes part one. For information about publishing your book, go to, where you can get some information and a free consultation.