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Just Write: How to Build an Outline

We all have a story to tell, but where do we start? When we set out to write a memoir, how do we sort through the details of our memories and experiences to pull out a compelling tale without feeling overwhelmed? How do we record our personal history in a way that honors our past without being completely bogged down by the important bits? Truth is, creating an outline for your story is such a monumental task it might seem to impossibly to even try. But starting your writing project without a clearly defined plan is a recipe for a disorganized and poorly progressing plot. Luckily, there are a few tactics that will break it down into manageable, reasonable chunks. But before you begin to collect the pieces of your story, you'll need to decide two things, as each of them will change the way you format your skeleton.

1) Autobiography or Memoir

Is your intent to record the events of your entire lifetime, or to tell a tale of a singular event within it? If you intend to document your whole life, then detail from your earliest memory to your latest adventures would be relevant to your outline. But memoirs are more focused, so the details you record for their outline should only be memories related to that particular time frame.

2) Personal or Published

Is your intent to preserve your story for your descendants, or perhaps just get it onto paper and keep it in your private bookshelf? Or do you wish to publish it? If you have even the slightest inkling that you might want to try publishing your book someday, you should write it as though you will publish. This means you'll need to layout your outline with a catchy, dramatic introduction, some emotional highs and lows as you move through your skeleton, and a conclusion to wrap it up.

Now that you've got that sorted, it's time to start building the outline. You might be tempted to start by writing vignettes, and if that's where your creative muse if pulling you then by all means feel free to follow it. But the most effective and least overwhelming way to build your book's skeleton is not as structured. Especially if you think you might want to publish your manuscript at some point.

Get a journal you really love. You might prefer to use a digital notebook on your phone, or get a notebook that's light enough to carry with you wherever you go:

  • Spend a few weeks jotting every memory you think of down as a bullet point.

    • Don't bother including a whole bunch of details. Keep the note simple.

    • Don't worry about organizing the bullets. That comes later.

    • Nothing is too big or too small. If it pops into your head, write it down.

  • Get yourself a big pack of note cards or post-its. Write each bullet on its own.

Now it's time to make a timeline:

  • What are the major events of your story? Organize those events chronologically by month and year.

  • What are the major news events that happened during the world when your story took place? Look up the exact dates of those those events and add them to your timeline.

  • Go through your note cards or post-its and add any memories you can to their corresponding spots on the timeline. Going through old photos can help place memories more accurately in time, too.

You'll end up with little piles of note cards or post-its in each area of your timeline. Many agents won't entertain a manuscript that isn't in chronological order, so, depending on your vision, it might be imperative to follow your timeline. But not all memories are created equal. In each of the little piles of recollections there will be major events and minor events. There will be elements of love stories, difficulties, triumphs, family drama, personal growth, and rites of passages.

Start organizing your piles:

  • Pull out your major events first. These are the things that you might consider to be a focal point of a chapter.

  • Add easy partner events to your major events on your next pass through. If your major event is your fairytale wedding, the stop at McDonald's in your wedding dress afterwards would be a sub-event to that major event.

  • Try to place any remaining note cards or post-its on the timeline.

    • Try to sprinkle elements along your timeline. Ensure, wherever possible, that all the love story pieces or family drama or personal growth isn’t concentrated into clumps.

    • If there's not an easy place to put the memory, decide if it's necessary to your story. It may be better to cut that detail.

    • Feel free to move things around a bit. That's why it's all on note cards or post-its: so everything can stay flexible until it fits into place!

When you have everything where you like it, all you need to do is type it up! Use your favorite word processor to type up your outline.

I've completed one manuscript and I'm currently working on a second, but I am no expert at writing. I am, however, someone who painstakingly researches much of what I do. This post is the first in a series, Just Write, where I’m curating knowledge I have gathered that I hope will help you start to write your own book. If you've always wanted to share your story or publish your memoir, but you weren't really sure where to start or what to include, keep an eye out for future posts.

I'll also be popping up on TikTok with some memoir writing prompts (which will also be shared to my Twitter), so please follow me there!


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