Writing

How I Plan My Books

The thing about writing advice is that I don’t want to give it. Partly because I only have one book out so far, and partly because I think the process is probably different for everyone. What I do know though is that when I started writing my first book, I looked around for ages trying to find ideas.

I’d never been much of planner when it came to essays or books or papers. I was much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type. But last year was tumultuous and I needed some kind of plan or the book would never have been written. So I thought I’d show it to you in case it’s of use. 

Since I was working with a team of people – not just the usual editors and publishers, but also a co-author – we used a shared Google spreadsheet to plan our book. It went through several iterations, but nothing huge changed. We added a chapter here, smushed together a couple of chapters there, but on the whole it remained much the same.

Here’s what it looked like:

When I pitched my next book to a publisher I sent them a similar document with the new book’s outline. Partly this was to preserve my own sanity – if I knew what I wanted to write then it’d be much easier to pitch – but it also showed that I was serious enough about writing the book to have put this level of thought into it.

So, what are all the headings? They’re mainly self-explanatory, but here’s a quick description anyway.

Chapter Title 

What’s the name of your chapter? These can be changed later in the process, you definitely don’t have to finalise them at the beginning. But working out chapter names can help you to concisely see what you want from each chapter. It also makes it easier to work out the order in which they should appear in the final book: sometimes you’ll find the names just don’t sound right in the order in which you’ve originally placed them.

Chapter Description

One or two lines – no more – about each chapter. This sheet is for reference, it’s not where you’re actually going to write the whole thing. But having a sentence reminding you what you mean when you said ‘Digital Forensics And Evidence Acquisition’ can be pretty helpful, especially if you leave your writing project alone for a bit and then go back to it later.

Recipe Number 

You can probably ignore this. My publisher decided they wanted to publish our book as a ‘cookbook’ which was slightly annoying, and because of this they wanted ‘recipe numbers’. You might want to number your sections for some other reason though.

This shit takes planning

Recipe Title 

Again this will probably be called something else in your version, unless you are in fact writing a cookbook. These are your headings. They might be called various things by the publisher: section headings, a-heads, or subsections. Try to make them as snappy as possible, whilst still getting across what they’ll be covering, so that readers flicking through can go “Oh! That one sounds relevant!”

To Be Written By 

Only relevant if you have a co-author. However, you might want to replace this with a Deadline column. I wrote one chapter per week and just put the deadlines in my Google calendar, but you might want to reference them in your book plan too.

Level

Another one that might not be relevant to you, but it was helpful for Windows Forensics Cookbook because we were pitching it at quite a wide audience. (As wide as a Windows forensics audience can be, anyway.) We wanted people who were new to forensics to be able to pick it up and follow the recipes, but we also didn’t want experienced forensicators to get bored. We achieved this through labelling each section as ‘Simple’, ‘Intermediate’, ‘Advanced’ or ‘Wow’ and trying to keep a balance between the first three. The ‘Wow’ sections were reserved for deep-dives into subjects like anti-forensics and data visualisation using graphical interfaces.

# Pages

This is important to put in, and it’s also important to use it as a minimum rather than a would-be-nice. When you’ve finished your book, you’re going to go back through and cut a lot of superfluous junk anyway: if it didn’t hit the word count to begin with, you’re then going to have a lot of rewriting to do. And trust me, much as you’ll be excited about publishing a book, by the time you get to edits you’ll just want to throw the fucking thing across the room and never see it again.

Of course you can change all these headings to whatever you want. Currently my second book’s plan only has Chapter Title, Chapter DescriptionHeadings and # Pages. I may add a Deadline section later.

This is geared towards non-fiction books since that’s what I wrote, but it’s easily adaptable to novels as well. The novel I started writing last year, which I paused when I got sick and haven’t restarted yet, has a similar planning spreadsheet.

The headings in that one are: ChapterPOV (“point of view” aka who’s speaking – the story is told from the perspectives of several characters), Chapter DescriptionSubsections / Pages, and Min. Word Count.

The main difference, apart from POV, is the Subsections / Pages column. The chapters aren’t strictly split into sections, but there are themes and things that need to happen in each chapter, so I added them in. Ideally this will make the story flow and mean I’m less likely to end up with something like what happened in 2015, when I wrote a novel called The Pause and then realised I’d got the timeline all wrong, became frustrated, and gave up.

Planning chapters properly should avoid this

You can make this bit as granular or as broad as you like (hell, you can do whatever you want, it’s your book plan). I went quite granular, and in fact in the end I’d essentially written the book in one-sentence bites which then just need to be fleshed out if I ever get around to finishing it.

Some of mine look like this:

The numbers on the right are word counts: you can see from these how granular the plan is. When I started writing it I found it much easier than I’d found writing The Pause because the plan was so detailed. I had sort of planned The Pause, but the plan was just a bunch of scribbled notes all over my desk which I’d transcribed into a Word doc, and I went into it just kind of hoping for the best.

Although I never expected this to be the case, I have found it much easier writing with a plan. Perhaps you will too.

You can download my Windows Forensics Cookbook plan and mess around with it to your heart’s content if you want to.

How do you plan your books?

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