How to plan your Book

If you are serious about writing a Book … a plan is essential.

A great thing about a plan for your book is that it will keep your writing focused. A plan will also enable you to see potential problems before they occur.

But you don’t have to stick to the plan rigidly. You can change it while writing, as your ideas change.

There are three easy techniques you can use for planning: (a) electronic mind-mapping, (b) electronic index cards, and (c) chapter outlines.


A mind-map is a diagram used to outline information visually.

Mind-mapping is, in essence, a way to generate ideas based on a central topic. If you’ve never come across one before, I suggest you google ‘mind-map’ and you’ll soon find plenty of explanations and pretty illustrations.

As you’ll see, a mind-map is usually created around a single keyword in the centre of the page or screen to which associated words, concepts and ideas can be linked using lines.

It is often referred to as a spidergram or spidergraph because that’s what it looks like … a cobweb of thin lines or filaments with major keywords radiating out from the central idea. Lesser ideas are joined to these keywords with further filaments.

You have to see one to appreciate the beauty and functionality of a mind-map. You’ll find plenty of examples using Google.

Mind-maps were popularised by Tony Buzan in the 1970s as manually-drawn aide-memoires and brain-storming tools before PCs were invented.

Using a mind-map

Here’s how you can a plan a book using a single sheet of paper and a pencil:

(1) Write down your main keyword or phrase, one which best articulates the basic idea you are going to write about, in the centre of the page. This could be the title of your book.

(2) Around the page, jot down any keywords for ideas that relate to this main keyword. Write down everything you can think of … you can always drop the redundant ideas later.

(3) Draw lines to link related ideas to each other and to the central keyword. The main ideas should be linked to the central keyword and the subsidiary ideas linked to the main ideas. Redraw the lines as necessary so that all your ideas are linked appropriately.

You don’t have to complete all the mind-map in one go. Drop it for a few hours or a few days, come back to it and you’ll probably find that you have a raft of new ideas that you can add in.

That’s the great thing about mind-mapping. It’s not just a way to record the ideas you already have. It triggers new ideas. As you write down key ideas, new ideas will keep popping into your mind. This is why mind-mapping is such a marvellous brain-storming and planning tool.

The mind-map for your book is not set in stone. You can add to it as you write and more ideas keep cropping up. In addition, you can relegate ideas from major or main ideas to subsidiary or lesser topics as you go.

And therein lies the rub … with changes and additions, the mind-map gets messier and messier and every now and then you will have to redraw the whole thing, which is really time-consuming. That’s why I prefer an electronic mind-map.

Mind-mapping software

Mind-mapping programs are available for down-loading on the internet. Some, like the Tony Buzan version you can get at, are quite expensive.

Most of these applications have features you do not require as a writer planning a book but still you have to pay for them, which is why I prefer the free basic version of XMind from It has all the features you need to jot down ideas and link them, without the complicated extras. It just takes a minute or two to read the ‘Getting started’ page and to get going.

The great thing about mind-mapping software is that you can change the spidergram … add and delete ideas and topics, promote and demote ideas from main to subsidiary, and so on … without it getting messy at all. It saves hours and hours of manual drawing and redrawing.

I have used XMind to plan non-fiction books with great success. I just list all my ideas and link them as main and subsidiary topics. In the end I have my section, chapter heads and sub-headings spread out in a nice clean diagram and a ready-to-go table of contents or chapter outline. I usually end up changing quite a bit as I go along.

I have not used mind-mapping software to plan fiction but I understand that some novelists do so with good results. I’m not sure it would be much good for creating a plot-outline. But you could use it for holding outline character sketches and using lines to link characters and show the relationships between them.

Index cards

Writers have been using 6″x4″ cards for decades, perhaps ever since the first cards were produced more than a hundred years ago for use in libraries.

Each index card will have a main idea and a few notes. For a novelist or playwright, there would be one card for each scene in the story. For non-fiction, there would be a separate card for each chapter or section within a chapter.

Index cards are used to rearrange the running order of a book, play or movie script. They allow a fiction writer to shuffle scenes around to get the plot to flow better. Similarly, a non-fiction writer can use the cards to ensure that the exposition of his argument is logical and intelligible.

If, like me, you prefer digital, there are plenty of index card equivalents available for downloading from the internet. But there is no need to buy these as you probably already have the ideal solution residing as an application on your hard disc … MS PowerPoint.

The functionalities a writer requires as regards index cards are simple and you can use PowerPoint to do all the things you do with physical index cards. All you have to do is to create slides with the information you would put on an index card … one slide for each card.

Once created, the slides will usually appear as a column down the left side of the PowerPoint screen. Go to View and click on Slide Sorter. Like magic, the slides will appear arranged in rows across the entire screen.

You can move the slides around to change their order … by grabbing and dragging with your mouse.

Once you are satisfied, click on Slide Sorter again and your slides (or electronic index cards) will appear in a column down the left side in the order you have chosen … neat!

Chapter outlines

A linear chapter outline is useful, especially for non-fiction.

The outline can consist of just a list of the chapters or it can be more detailed by incorporating sub-sections within chapters. You can also add notes on what is to go into each subsection.

If you have used a mind-map to plan your book, perhaps with index cards also, drawing up a chapter outline will be a doddle. It’s just a matter of copying. You may already have notes on the index cards which you can add into the outlines of individual chapters.

For free no-obligation proposal on helping you to self-publish your book from Thorn Island, call:

from Ireland: 087-4163688 or from other countries: +353-87-4163688

or email: or or

Preliminary Research

Finding out what people want before you write your book

There are many reasons why you would want to write a book: … to make money … to get your ideas across to a large audience … to establish your expertise in a particular field … to promote or support your products or services … to enhance your CV … and so on.

Whatever your reasons, you will want your book to be read. This means that you have to write the kind of book that fulfils the needs of your audience. But what do your readers want?

To suss this out, you should analyse of the top five to ten books on the topic you are going to write about. Begin by drawing up a checklist of queries that need answering.

What to research

Naturally, the questions will vary depending on the knowledge you have already of the market, the kind of book you will write (fiction or non-fiction), and its genre. Here are a few suggestions:

[1] Length … the longest, shortest and average lengths in print-length; the page count of an e-book varies depending on how the reader sets the size of the font in his reader, so make sure you get the number of pages of the printed book or its equivalence if it has not been printed.

[2] Style … the writing style or styles used — formal, technical, conversational, colloquial etc; make a note of any stylistic features common to the books you are analysing.

[3] Target audience … age range, gender, educational level and reading age, levels of expertise etc; some of these factors would be obvious from the writing style and the genre itself.

Another thing you need to look out for is themes or issues that appear in the five to ten books you are analysing. In non-fiction, for example, certain topics are always covered in books on particular subjects and these topics are therefore likely to be the kinds of material readers of these books always expect.

The genre or subject area of your proposed book will suggest a host of other questions. In a non-fiction book, for example, you might like to know what are the particular topics in a subject area that have been dealt with at length by other writers and what are the topics you on which you can offer new insights.

Obtaining and recording the answers to all your queries will help you write the kind of book your audience want to read.

Recording with MS Excel

But first you need to list all your queries and set up some sort of system that enables you to record the answers you discover during your research.

I use Excel to record the information I gather as I find it very useful when making comparisons.

I write the titles and authors of the books across the top row; this is my list of books for analysis. And I record the various features I am researching (eg, length, writing style and so on) down the left-most column.

Then, as I gather information, I record it in the appropriate cell. For example, if the printed length of a particular book is 120 pages long, I enter 120 in the cell where the ‘Printed length’ row intersects the column for that particular book.

This method has the advantage that it enables me to compare an individual attribute (eg, length) of the different books by reading a row across the page.

So where do you go to gather this information? The short answer is Amazon.

Amazon has about 70% of the worldwide market in e-books, perhaps even 80% according to some estimates. If you confine your research to Amazon you are unlikely to be missing too much (with some exceptions). You’ll also find that plenty of information is available.

Researching on Amazon

Go to Go to Kindle Store and then to Kindle-eBooks. Now search on your topic, genre or category. A list of books with covers and very brief descriptions will appear.

At the top right of the list you will find a ‘Sort by’ box with a drop-down list. Make sure it is set to ‘Sort by Relevance’. If not, you can change it easily by clicking the little down-arrow and picking ‘Sort by Relevance’.

The books on the list will be ranked, from the most important on down, on a combination of the sales and reviews they are generating.

Amazon updates its book rankings hourly so this list will change a bit from hour to hour as fresh reviews are posted and Amazon sells the books.

You need to choose the first five to ten books for analysis. Record the titles and authors in Excel across the top row as mentioned above.

Click on the book covers to go to the main sales page for each book in turn. Read the Book Descriptions closely and copy and paste them to the Excel spreadsheet and save the file in your hard disc. The cells will expand a bit but you can limit their width. And you can reduce the descriptions to key words and phrases in order to save space. Now you can read and compare the descriptions side by side.

Further down the sales pages you’ll find About the Author. These ‘bios’ are not much good at this stage but you might like to record them in a separate spreadsheet as they could prove useful when you are writing your own About the Author for Amazon.

The next section going down is the Product Details. This contains the Print Length of the book which you should record in your Excel spreadsheet.

The product details section also contains the book’s Amazon Best Sellers Rank. Record this also and leave a blank row underneath it. We’ll discuss this in a minute.

Further down you’ll find Customer Reviews. Read these as they can give a good insight into who is reading particular books and what they like or dislike most about them. You can record these details also using key words and phrases.

Now go to Look Inside by clicking on the cover shown at the top of the page. First off, check out the Table of Contents (TOC). This will give you an excellent insight into the book and, as you cannot copy and paste from Look Inside, you will need to copy it manually.

I like to copy the full TOC (chapter headings and sub-heads) into a separate spreadsheet. I then copy and paste the chapter headings into my main Excel spreadsheet. As all the TOCs will be in the same row it is easy to compare the contents of the different books.

With Look Inside you can read several pages of the text. This allows you to examine the writer’s style. Note the styles in your spreadsheet so you can compare them across a single row.

Amazon Best Sellers Rank

The Amazon Best Sellers calculation is based on the sales of all books on Amazon. It is updated hourly to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon.

Amazon also ranks its sales by various categories. In addition it publishes lists of the top 100 paid Kindle e-books and the top 100 free downloads.

The one thing that Amazon does not publish is actual sales of individual books, whether printed or electronic. Yet it would be nice to know the daily sales of the five or ten books you are analysing so you can work out the revenues you can expect for your writing efforts.

Estimates vary as to how the overall Amazon Best Sellers Rank translates into actual daily sales. A loose consensus, based on surveys of authors, is that an overall ranking that is:

  • lower than 40,000 means a book is selling less than one copy a day
  • between 8,500 and 40,000 – less than 10 books a day
  • between 3,000 and 8,500 – 10 to 30 books a day
  • between 2,000 to 3,000 – 30 to 55 books a day
  • between 1,000 and 2,000 – 55 to 100 books a day
  • between 200 and 1000 – 100 to 350 books a day
  • between 80 and 200 – 350 to 550 books a day
  • between 65 and 80 – 550 to 650 books a day
  • between 20 and 65 – 650 to 1,100 books a day
  • between 10 and 20 – 1,100 to 2,000 books a day
  • between 5 and 10 – 2,000 to 3,500 books a day
  • between 1 to 5 – 3,500+ books a day

You can use this table to convert the ranking of each book you are analysing into the range in which its daily sales fall. However you have to bear in mind that the table reflects estimates by writers, that it has not been issued by Amazon, and that as a guideline it is continuously fluctuating. However it may give you an idea as to the revenues the books you are analysing may be generating on Amazon.

Other sources

There are plenty of other sources of information on e-books.

Writers’ websites: Many writers who publish an e-book have a website, either a specific website for a particular book (such as a sales page for the book) or a website for themselves as an author on which they promote themselves and the books they have written.

You won’t find a link to these websites from Amazon. But if you google the title of a book and/or the name of its author you’ll probably be able to find the related site (provided it exists, which is likely).

The information you find on these sites may quite illuminating. The sales pages of particular books can give valuable hints of what’s in a book, which you can record in keyword form in your analysis spreadsheet.

The sales pages can also provide a good idea of the sort of sales patter your potential audience prefers (provided the book is successful). You should copy, paste and save these materials in MS Word for reference when you come to write the copy for your own sales page.

Other e-book sellers: 20 to 30 percent of the e-book market is accounted for by online sellers other than Amazon. There are dozens of them.

These retailers include Barnes & Noble eBooks, Sony Reader Store, Random House eBooks, and BooksOnBoard, which sell all types of books.

There are also more specialised online sellers such as eHarlequin eBook Store (for steamy romances), Taylor & Francis eBookstore (academic and professional subjects), and Cambridge eBookstore (for professionals and students) among others.

However you should be able to get sufficient information from Amazon unless you know that a particular type of book (eg, an academic tome) does better on one of these sites.

For free no-obligation proposal on helping you to self-publish your book from Thorn Island, call:

from Ireland: 087-4163688 or from other countries: +353-87-4163688

or email: or or