From idea to brain dump to outline to writing your first book

November 3, 2017 book outline blog post Sarah Lentz
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In the beginning...

Every book starts with an idea. Then we take that idea and build on it -- breaking it down into sub-ideas -- often by creating an outline. 

Often that outline starts out as a list or a mind-map -- a visual brain-dump. 

From there, we flesh it out. We take the big ideas that sprang from that first idea and expand on them, seeing where each one takes us and making connections as we go. 

We turn those big ideas into the big branches for our new outline. And we use the outline to create a template for the book, setting up chapter headings and subheadings, inserting page breaks, and getting a better sense of how long our book is likely to become. 

Then we write to answer the questions built into each heading and subheading. And we write to invite our reader to come in and stay with us -- to answer their questions and (hopefully) provide something more. 

This is nothing new, I know. But if you're still wanting to get that first book written -- and you're not inclined to wait for someone else's permission to become a published author -- it can't hurt to give you a step-by-step tutorial.

I can also throw in some juicy tidbits that I learned while creating and self-publishing my own books. 

Because you need to know that this process doesn't always go like clockwork -- and it doesn't have to. Good news for us messy-desk people. 

Step 1: The Brain Dump

This can take the form of a mind map or a simple list you create in Google Docs or Word -- or any word processor that allows you to create bulleted and numbered lists. 

I'm a list girl -- and Google Docs is my favorite tool for this. As an added bonus, I don't need to stock up on poster paper and Sharpies. I don't know where I'd put them, anyway.

Below is a screenshot of a brain dump list I started on Google Docs for my next book. 

It's nothing fancy. I haven't even changed my title, yet, and I keep the main headings bullet-free, since I've found that to be easier. 

If I want, I can go through it later and add more bulleted subheadings or add un-bulleted main headings with subheadings. I can even add highlighting.

I'll probably also change my headings to heading format, so my Google Doc will add them to my left index bar under "New book idea." 

It's looking more like an outline than a mind-map, I know. But this works better for me than filling out a big piece of paper with a mind map. Plus, colored markers don't last long in this house. Ditto for sticky notes.

Step 2: The Rough Outline

Here's where your brain dump starts to resemble a real book's table of contents. If you used the "brain dump list" method rather than the mind map, the transition is pretty smooth. 

If you prefer the mind-map method, you can simply take the biggest umbrella topics on your map and use them for your chapter titles (not set in stone). 

I did change the style of my chapter headings to "Heading 2," so now I see them on the left-hand index bar, too -- which already looks like a table of contents without the page numbers. 

Just seeing it like this is motivating for me. The book has grown from a hazy idea to an actual outline. It has the bones of a book. 

Next, we'll take this outline and turn it into a book template in MS Word. 

Step 3: The Book Template

1. Select and copy everything from the Google Doc outline (Ctrl-A & Ctrl-C), and paste it into a Word doc (Ctrl-V).

2. Change style to "Simple" and change the page size to the trim size you want for your book (I usually go with 6" x 9" for my nonfiction books). 

  • Go to "Change Styles" (to the right of the "Styles" box), click on it, go to "Style Set," and select "Simple."
  • Go to "Page Layout" on the menu and click on the tiny arrow in the lower right corner of the "Page Setup" section of the menu bar. 
  • Go to the "Paper" tab and set the width and height to 6" and 9" (or the dimensions you want).
  • Click "OK."

3. Break up the outline, using page-breaks, to create the following pages

  • Title page
  • Copyright info page
  • Dedication page
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter pages
  • Conclusion
  • "Now that you're finished..." (to ask nicely for a review)
  • About the author

4. Set the "Title" and "Heading 1" styles.

  • Select the book's title
  • Change the font and font size (if you'd like to).
  • Right-click on the the "title" style, and select "Update Title to Match Selection."
  • Do the same for one of the chapter headings: select it, center it, and set the desired font and font size. Then, while it's still selected, right-click on "Heading 1" and select "Update Heading 1 to Match Selection."
  • Go to every other chapter title and other page title (like "Introduction" and "Conclusion," etc.) select it and click on "Heading 1." Now, they'll look like your first chapter title, and your book's framework will look more professional

5. Admire your handiwork. 

Step 4: Add Subheadings

If you already have subheadings collected from your mind-map or brain-dump list, you've got a head-start with this. I kept the subheadings from my list when I pasted everything into my Word doc, so all I really needed to do was change the font and font size and set the "Normal" style to match my selected body text. 

Once you have subheadings, you can select the first one, set its font and font size, and update the "Heading 2" style to match it. 

Step 5: Writing the Book

Oh, this is nice, you're probably thinking. Step 5 = get to work! 

So helpful. 

Actually, the least I can do is give you some idea of how I went from outline to written book in less than 90 days. 

Basically, I wrote the Introduction first. 

Day 1: Write the Introduction.

And stop. 

What? No editing??


But how long should it be, you may be wondering?

It depends on the book, but with every book, you want to write enough to give your reader a sense of what they can expect from the chapters ahead -- without giving away too much -- and to entice them to keep reading beyond your introduction. 

For some, 500 words is plenty. Sometimes, you'll start with 2,000 words and shave it down to around 1,000 when you begin the editing process (which is after your whole first draft is finished). 

Write as much as you need to to give your readers a sense of what you have in store for them -- and to make your ideal reader want to read more. Then stop. 

Day 2: Write Chapter One. And again, no editing.

[*By the way, if you're chafing at this "no editing" bit, you should know I'm only sharing what I did that worked for me. If you want to write each day's chapter and then edit, I'm not going to tell you you can't or that you shouldn't. Do what works for you. For me, I found it more helpful and motivating to just focus on getting my first draft written, and editing only slowed me down. It's just a little trick I learned by doing NaNoWriMo in 2015.]

Do pretty much what you did for the Introduction, but this will no doubt be longer. Once you have subheadings set up, you can write between them. If you have a small outline at the top of the page, you can either leave it there to give your readers a taste of what's to come, or you can turn that outline into a series of subheadings and fill in the spaces between.

Days 3, 4, 5, etc.: Write Chapter 2, 3, 4, etc.

Rinse and repeat -- one day at a time. You get the idea.

Give yourself a daily writing assignment, get it done, and then give yourself a break and maybe some chocolate or some other reward for getting that much closer to being able to say you've written a book. 

And if your chapters take more than a day each, that's okay, too. Once it's broken into subheadings, you can break a chapter into two or three days' work --- more if your chapters are really long or you don't have much time each day to write. 

I recorded my word count every day and totaled my word count each week. It kept me motivated. I also set word count goals for each day -- once I had a good sense of how much I could commit to writing on a daily basis. 

For NaNoWriMo, I aimed for at least 1700 but didn't want to quit until I had at least 2,000 words written. For my books, I made 1,000 words my daily minimum, and I usually exceeded it.

And when I was finished, I tallied up my total word count. And I was amazed. 

I wrote the actual book in about a month. Then came editing. And then came formatting and book cover design. And I spent the last month or more getting ready for my book's launch and learning how to promote it. All together, those took about as much time as it took me to write the book. 

Converting Your Word Doc

Once you're ready to actually convert your finished and edited Word doc into a Kindle ebook, you have a few options:

Pay someone else to format your book and convert it to a ready-to-upload MOBI file for KDP -- or to both MOBI and EPUB files, if you're wanting to publish your ebook more widely (Barnes & Noble, iBooks, etc.)

Learn how to format your book (and having the template prepared beforehand makes this much easier) and convert it to a MOBI file using Calibre or PublishXpress or simply save it as an HTML file ["Web page, filtered (*.htm, *.html)], open it up on Kindle Previewer (free download), then export it as a MOBI file, and upload that file to KDP. 

Here's a free downloadable PDF to help with the Calibre route. You can only edit the HTML in the EPUB file, but you can then open that edited EPUB in Kindle Previewer, too, and export it as a MOBI. 

I've tried more than one method with each book, and I usually go with the one that looks best to me on KDP's own online previewer (after I've uploaded a MOBI file). 

Your Book's Cover

When it comes to designing a professional-looking book cover, you have two options:

  • Pay a professional designer
  • Design one yourself

It should go without saying that the D.I.Y. approach is more than just uploading a nice image to your design program, throwing some fancy fonts at it, and calling it good. 

Fortunately for us do-it-yourselfers, there are resources available online to help us learn how to design a book cover that doesn't scream "I did this mah-self!" There are so many terrible covers on Amazon, and I've yet to find one that's selling well for authors who aren't already really well known. 

You can even get feedback on your covers by joining Facebook groups and posting your newest cover design. 

Check out this group: Does my book cover suck? 

Of course, learning how to design a book cover that looks like the work of a professional takes time and energy. And there's no shame in deciding you'd rather put that time and energy into something else and let someone else design a cover for you. 

I have a few recommendations, with different price points. I know a lot of people cringe at the very mention of Fiverr, but I've actually seen some good covers created by Fiverr designers. So, I'm including them, too. 

If you need any help...

Please don't hesitate to contact me with questions or comments or to share where you are as a writer and where you'd like to be. 

If I can help with any stage of the book-writing process, I'd be happy to. You can leave a comment, send me a message on my Contact page, or just email me at

You can also send me a message on Facebook, if you'd rather. 

I look forward to helping you get your book written, polished, published, and launched. For some of my freelance services (the newer ones), I ask for testimonials rather than money. I'd like to know that my clients truly love my work in those areas before setting a price for them. 

And if you truly love my work, your testimonial might end up on the Services page of this blog. I aim to earn your trust. 

Take an idea, explore it with a brain dump (list or mind-map), outline it, and get a great start on writing your first (or next) book. Free downloadable guide to using Calibre to convert your Word doc to a Kindle ebook. #selfpublishing #outlining

By Sarah Lentz

Writing and designing book covers are two of Sarah Lentz's favorite things. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, their four kids, and two messy but adorable guinea pigs.

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