As an author in training, you want to approach your Table of Contents (TOC) as both a creative and business process. In the first case, creating your TOC offers you a chance to get inspired and give your idea shape. You discover the bare bones of the content readers will find within your book’s pages and structure it. In the second case, you have the opportunity to evaluate your TOC from a publishing business perspective to ensure it lines up with your target market as well as with your angle, theme, purpose, pitch, summary, and benefits (your overview of the project). You determine if the content you have proposed will:
- Fulfill the promises you made to your readers—give them benefit.
- Be unique—be different than your competition.
- Be necessary—answer questions or solve problems.
- Hit readers emotionally—allow them to relate to what you have written.
- Tell compelling story—entice them in.
- Target your intended markets—be written for your readers.
Not every writer begins writing with a TOC as a map, although many do. Others like to write “by the seat of their pants,” allowing their books to flow out of their heads with little planning. (Some refer to this as “mappers vs. pantsers.”) I recommend that both fiction and nonfiction writers develop a TOC because it provides organization, direction and focus as you write. It also reduces some need to revise and cut in later drafts of your manuscript.
To develop a TOC, however, you must organize your story or information into a book structure. These are called chapters. Many ways exist to begin writing a book. Getting organized provides a good first step, especially if you plan to write nonfiction and have research you’ve already compiled or need to compile before you can write. Organization can be key for novelists as well, especially if you have many characters or events to keep track of in your story line. Memoirists usually need to dig up memories and facts and then organize them into a coherent structure for a story.
Whatever your organization method of choice, when the time comes to create your TOC, you want access to your research in some organized manner if the material you’ve accumulated will help you determine what content to cover in your book and in what order. Otherwise, you will lose a lot of time searching for your research or material. (Believe me, I know.)
You can create your TOC in a variety of ways. To create a TOC for nonfiction, which usually has about 10-15 chapters, for example, you can:
- Create a list of 10-15 topics you know you want to cover in the order you want to cover them. Write a compelling title for each topic; you can refine it later, but this becomes the chapter title.
- Think of 10-15 common questions you want to answer for your readers. Then write creative chapter titles for each one of those questions; you could leave the titles as questions as well.
- Think of 10-15 most-pressing problems you want to solve for your readers. Then write creative chapter titles for each one of those questions; these could be “how-to” titles.
- List 10-15 benefits you want to offer readers. Write titles that entice readers into those chapters by telling them WIIFM? factor—the added value that speaks to their interests.
- Research until a structure presents itself or until you find the core idea for your book. Then repeat Steps #1-4.
To create a TOC for a memoir, try these methods:
- Create a timeline. Draw a line with the start date and end date of you’re the period about which you plan to write; begin placing dates on the line that indicate major events you want to include in your story. Then organize these into chapters.
- Plot vignettes you plan to write on a story board. Once you have organized them in chronological order, identified themes, and considered the narrative arc, write your TOC.
- Create an outline. List the events you plan to include, and then organize them logically with lesser events “under” more important events. (In all these cases, add in flashbacks in appropriate places.)
- Organize your memories into topics of interest.
- Make a list of 10-15 significant moments of meaning, turning points, in your life, and relate them to your themes; locate them on a timeline. Write each turning point in a scene, creating chapters from these core stories.
To create a TOC for fiction, try these methods:
- Profile your characters. Give them back stories and motivations, so you get to know them before you set them within the dramatic or comedic arc of your creation. Then outline your story line. Place the scenes you plan to include on that story line (like a time line) with your characters. Consider how the themes of your novel play out on that story line and where the dramatic arcs occur. Then break this down into chapters and create a TOC.
- Create a story board. Break this down into chapters and then a TOC.
- Number the lines of a sheet of notebook paper and put a word by each one that best represents what you want to happen in each chapter. That becomes the chapter title. Then make notes about specific events that will occur in that chapter a well.
- Use an Excel spreadsheet to block out chapters and the scenes within them. Move events around as necessary. (You can also write biographies of characters as part of this exercise.) Then create a TOC.
Do you use another method to create a TOC? If so, leave tell me about it in a comment.
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