How to Write a Novel: A Simple Process for Beating Writer’s Block

How to Write a Novel: A Simple Process for Beating Writer’s Block

GIVEAWAY: Monica is giving away 10 copies of her latest book, Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day, which explains the process of outlines, beats, sketches and drafts with specific behind-the-scene examples from one of her published fiction books.

To enter, leave a comment on this post by March 19, 2015. Winners will receive digital copies of the book, so this contest is open to readers anywhere in the world. (Update: All winners have been contacted.)

It’s not easy to write a fiction book, especially if you’re trying for the first or second time.

When I first started writing fiction, even with years of blogging, copywriting and more under my belt, I still struggled to get the story that was in my head to look good in words on the screen. There were so many moving parts — plot, setting, story, theme, character, description, grammar — it was hard to keep track of everything needed to create a solid, readable story.

Sometimes I could read something I’d written and tell it wasn’t communicating what I needed it to, but I had no idea what was wrong. Other times, I read it and knew what was wrong, but didn’t know how to fix it.

This led to frustration, which led to procrastination, which led to writer’s block. It was a vicious cycle that often resulted in months of zero fiction writing. Not good!

Over the years, I’ve honed on a simple process that has helped me combat all those fears, worries and blocks while writing the first draft: Start with something very, very easy (a sentence or two about your chapter) and build on that little by little.

I originally wrote about this process as a side note in my article about writing 3,500+ words per hour on a consistent basis, but some writers wanted to dig deeper into the concept. So here it is: my foolproof way to get rid of writer’s block forever (and have a ton of fun writing your novel in the process!).

Step 1: Outline your chapters

Most authors outline already in some way or another. Everyone has their own process and any process will work well with these steps.

The way I outline is simple: I make a list of my chapters and their basic conflicts. It looks like this:

Chapter 1: Harry Potter (sort of) defeats He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as a baby. In order to protect him, Dumbledore must take him to his muggle relatives, where he’ll be raised outside the magical world.

Chapter 2: Harry’s muggle relatives treat him terribly and he is an outcast in the non-magical world. He accidentally sends a boa constrictor after them. They think he’s a freak!

… and so on.

I tend to have a scene per chapter, but I know many authors who write multiple scenes in a single chapter. In that case, I recommend writing a sentence or two about the conflict in each scene.

That’s all you have to do to complete your outline!

Step 2: Create your beats

The beats step is the one I see most authors skip. This unfortunately often leads to major head-banging down the line. I do not recommend skipping beats.

Your beats are essentially more detail about each chapter. You’re going to turn two sentences into a few paragraphs. This seems like a lot of work, but it is very, very worthwhile and saves you dozens of hours later.

What do you write in your paragraphs? Basically, explain what happens in each scene, as if you’re describing your book to a friend. (You could actually describe each scene to your friend if it helps you complete this section.) As you describe your scene, your friend (or you, if you’re doing this alone) is going to ask questions.

You: Harry Potter (sort of) defeats He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as a baby.

Friend: Wait, who are these people?

You: Harry Potter is a baby born to these two wizards, and HWMNBN is this all-powerful, but psycho wizard who wants all the other wizards to fear him.

Friend: Sort of defeats him? Intriguing. How? How exactly does a baby defeat an all-powerful wizard? (Wait a minute…)

You: Well, it’s a secret for now, but there’s this weird scar on his forehead as a result. MAJOR HINT. Also, “defeated” is a strong word. HWMNBN isn’t quite dead, I wouldn’t say…

Friend: So how do we know he defeated him?

You: Well, Dumbledore, this other amazing wizard, is telling several of his wizard friends, this huge one named Hagrid, and Professor Mcgonagall, who appears as a cat at first —

Friend: Umm…

You: It’s all explained in Book 4! Anyway…

You get the picture. Each sentence in your outline can be expanded to 1-2 paragraphs of explanation. You need to decide what specific information/action is going to go in your scene and also how this information is dispensed, how much the reader knows, what the reader and/or the characters actually see and experience, and so on. Those are your beats.

Your beats save you time in several ways. First, you’re going to tell a better story from the get-go. Your friend is going to give you feedback about what does and doesn’t make sense in real-time, which means that you can fix it before you even start your draft. This means fewer rewrites, less editing, not having to toss huge chunks of work and so on. I call this Nailing Your Outline.

You’re also not going to suffer from blank page syndrome. Have you ever written a chapter outline that looks like:

“Harry Potter and Voldemort battle each other and one of them wins.”


Yes, that’s technically what happens, but it’s an extremely unhelpful sentence when you finally go to draft. You are going to spend many hours (and plenty of head-banging) trying to write that scene with just that information.

When you beat this out, though, you’re going to come up with all the little details about why it happens, how it happens, what specifically happens to each character and more. Harry has X weapons and Y friends who help him in the following ways. Voldemort is weak from A, B and C, but he has secret weapon D in his back pocket.” And so on.

The bad thing about beats is if you do them right, they will be completely unusable as text in your draft. You are writing narrative summary — the “tell” of “show vs. tell.”

But the great thing about beats, and the reason I recommend them, is because you will create a useful blueprint for your novel that touches on characters, plot, theme, setting and more. This will help your drafting go smoothly, which will save you a ton of time in the long run. Power on!

Step 3: Get to work on your sketches

Surely it’s time to draft now, right? Hmm, not so much. Here’s what I’ve learned about aspiring writers, especially ones with day jobs — they don’t exactly have a ton of time to sit down and crank out those words.

What they have instead is little pockets of time — 25 minutes here, an hour there — where they can write a small bit of their book, if only they could focus. Instead of tackling The Draft, I recommend trying sketches. A sketch is basically a bite-sized draft at half-mast.

When I beat my scenes, I focus on three “types” of content:

  • Dialogue: a conversation between two or more people
  • Monologue: an internal conversation one is having with their thoughts
  • Action: something that is happening

Each beat more or less ends up being one of these three types. During the sketch, I write the bare bones or the skeleton of each of these types.

So if I had a section that was a conversation between two people, I would write:

“Hi, Ginny,” Harry said.

“Why are you talking to her?” Ron asked.

Harry shrugged. “She looked like she wanted to talk to us. Do you want to play, Ginny?”

Ginny stared at them blankly.

“Ginny?” Hermione said. “Are you okay? Your cheeks are turning red!”

Ron sighed. “Well, now you’ve done it. Ginny’s run off and all she left was this very odd looking notebook with the name ‘Ginny Potter’ scrawled about a hundred –” Ron looked up at Harry. “Hey, wait a minute!”

“Give me that!” Hermione said, snatching the notebook from Ron. She put it behind her back. “This is private. You shouldn’t be touching your sister’s belongings.”

Ron glared at Harry. “What are you doing in her diary? Are you snogging my sister?!”

Harry grinned. “Your sister is just one of my groupies. Remember? I’m the boy who lived, which is the magical equivalent of being Harry Styles. She can’t help but fall for this hella-good hair.”

Basic dialogue sketch, right? No information about where they are or what they’re doing. I’ll add in all of that later, if the sketch makes it into the scene to begin with (it might fit better in another scene, or not at all). But for now, I’m just sketching.

Think of sketching as drawing a very light line on the page for where you think you might want to go with the scene. You aren’t writing in ink. You aren’t adding any color. Don’t over-think this part. Don’t second-guess yourself. Just have fun and let the words flow.

The most important thing about a sketch is it’s flexible. I could add in details to this scene and put them at the Weasley bungalow, or I could put them in Potions class, or I could put them on the Hogwarts Express with just a few simple tweaks to the dialogue. This flexibility makes it easy for me to “see” my story being told, but still move it around, reorder it and make it work as needed.

The other great thing? This little section of dialogue took me less than five minutes to create and jot down. I was lightning fast not because I’m a genius writer, but because I removed a ton of decisions from the sketch. The fewer decisions you have to make while writing, the better your flow will be. Simple!

That is sketching. It may or may not work for you, depending on the type of writer you are, but if you are a big-picture type like me, this is a simple way to finish your draft quickly in the in-between moments of your daily life.

Do a few sketches per day and soon you will have a ton of chapters ready to go into draft mode. Finally!

Step 4: Start writing a draft

At this point, I can’t imagine you will have much trouble writing your draft. You’ve done a lot of the work already!

During the draft, I add in the following “types” of content:

  • Description: the scene setting, what the characters are wearing and even description of what they are doing within a conversation — Ginny is tilting her head, Ron is tapping his foot, etc.
  • Narrative Transitions: characters move around and sometimes you have to show that they were in the Great Hall eating dinner, and now they are in the Gryffindor Common room playing chess. Movement that doesn’t have a direct impact on the story is quite boring, so this usually only needs a sentence or two; however, leave it out and your readers will be seriously confused as their minds magically transport through time and space (though, to be fair, this is Harry Potter).
  • Color: I smooth out the wrinkles in the writing and add a bit of personality to styling  the sentences themselves. Mostly, this means making the draft funnier or more clever. Sometimes, it means describing different types of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour jellybeans. You know that extra pizazz you need to add to your story to bring out its magic — now’s the time.

When I was studying computer programming, my professors always had a rule that the first step of writing any program was to get it to compile. That meant that the computer could actually read the code it was receiving. It didn’t mean that the code did what it was supposed to do, or that it was efficient or stylish — it just meant that the computer could comprehend it.

To me, the draft is the “compile” step. You want to take all the fragments of content you have and string them together into something that a human can actually read. It doesn’t mean the writing does what it’s supposed to do, or that it’s efficient or stylish — it just means that a human can understand it.

Once you’re done with your first draft, you can go on to revising, editing, and so on — but I hope you’ll be pleased with how much faster these processes go. Using these four steps isn’t only going to make you a stronger storyteller and better writer in the long run; it’s also going to help you tell this story well the first time. Which means you’ll be able to write the first draft faster and spend less time editing (and head-banging) later on!

Follow these four steps and I’m confident that you will not only finish your first draft quickly, but you will never have that awful, debilitating writer’s block on your novel again — and you might even learn a lot more about how you like to tell a story. Good luck!

What’s your writing process like — do you use outlines, beats and sketches to help you draft?

Don’t forget to comment to be in the running to win one of 10 copies of Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day(Update: All winners have been contacted.)

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  • Thanks for the in-depth description of adding beats to your process. I keep reading the term, but most of the descriptions I’ve seen don’t show the value. Yours does. Thanks and good luck with your book launch.

    • Hi Stephen!

      I think the reason beats aren’t often defined clearly is because so many writers do them differently. I’m not sure that other writers do them the same way as me, but I *do* think the idea of the beats being the “tell” of the “show vs. tell” is really useful. It clarifies that you are essentially writing out a detailed blueprint for what you’re going to write. Glad the idea of beats is useful to you and I hope you get the chance to use them in an upcoming project! Let us know how it goes.

  • Jane Steen says:

    I’m not good at outlining in the way you describe as I tend to think up ideas while writing so my outline is soon irrelevant. I do use a rough guide (distilled from a few books I’ve read) to remind me my story needs a beginning, middle, end, crisis, falling action, denouement and all of that good stuff.

    I’m very intrigued by the premise of your book. Hope I win a copy!

    • Jane, I wonder if sketches are a useful idea to you? I’m always intrigued by writers who prefer not to do a ton of outlining (very common). I know another writer who essentially sees scenes and then has to go back and string them all together once she has them in front of her. To me, that’s really similar to sketching.

      • I forgot to say also, the book is primarily about writing faster—one of the things that has helped me write significantly faster is the process above! Also known as Step 1: Knowledge.

        • Jane Steen says:

          Oh, outlining definitely helps you go faster! But for some reason (and I’m on the fourth novel, so I know myself by now) detailed outlining doesn’t work for me. Perhaps I AM a sketcher–for the latest novel (which kept buzzing around my head while I was working on something else) I started writing key scenes and also scenes I knew I probably wouldn’t use but that were valuable to the story process, all out of order. Then when the time came, I started from the beginning, re-writing and incorporating some of those scenes as I got to them.

          I think I should describe myself as a partial pantser!

          • Jane, thanks for the follow-up! Hmm… this is definitely making me think we’re on to something for pantsers (or partial pantsers). My friend has the exact same process as you and doesn’t seem to get nearly as much use out of outlines as me. Perhaps for some writers they’re better off doing:

            Step 1: Sketches
            Step 2: Outline (to add story structure)
            Step 3: First draft (to tie the story together with transitions, etc.)

          • Jane Steen says:

            That sounds closer to what I do.

  • Ibrahim says:

    Here I am thinking “this could actually work for my lazy head”. LOL. Great piece, however I feel using “sketches” could create more work for me when I start writing and editing.

    • Hi Ibrahim!

      I’ve found that “sketches” is the step that doesn’t work for a lot of writers, so I’m not surprised! It works mainly for big-picture types. If you are a more detailed writer (the opposite of me), then sketching is more likely to trip you up.

      Sketches work primarily for big-picture and under-writers (writers who tend to add to their drafts in editing).

      I hope you’ll try the beats step to see if it works for you! It really changed my life and made it so much easier to get into a regular writing habit.

  • I have written quite a few responses to writing prompts (a lot with morals), and am contemplating writing something longer, like a novella to start.

    Your information in this post has made me realize there is a lot of prep work involved.

    Your giveaway book looks like it will be very helpful.

    • Steve,

      Congrats on taking the first step toward a novella! I 100% think it’s doable for you. There is a lot of prep work, but it’s fun to do and it helps you ease into the process of writing longer-form fiction so much easier than the typical strategy authors use, which is to stare at a blank screen 🙂

      Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to do all the steps. Beats, however, IS a game changer for almost every writer I’ve met and shared this process with. That is the one I’d prioritize if you’re short on pre-production time!

  • Michelle says:

    I loved the part about the beats, I am definitely one to skip them but it sounds like something I can definitely do and enjoy. I am starting a writing class soon and can’t wait to apply these great tips to the novella I’m working on.

    • Hi Michelle!

      Yes, beats are pretty fun to do—maybe because they are so low-key? I like them because there is zero pressure to “write well” while doing them. You can truly just focus on solidifying your story.

      I used to not use beats and it’s like trying to juggle a dozen balls at once… trying to have pretty sentences, fill in descriptions, paint the characters, tell a great story… it overwhelmed me.

      I’m a true believer that most of writer’s block is from being bombarded with too many decisions at once. Using this process helps you focus on one decision at a time.

      Good luck in your writing class and with your new novella project!

  • k72 says:

    This is a very interesting concept! Do you think it would work for short stories? I’m stuck on mine.

    • Yes, it works on short stories (I have used it on short stories). The content is a little abbreviated, of course, and you can probably skip the sketches step, but otherwise the process is the same.

      When I talk to writers the step they are usually missing is beats. The beats truly do bridge the gap between an outline and a draft. It’s really like I said in the post—you may have an outline but it’s something that is completely impossible to write as-is. The in-between step helps you work out key decisions… once you have those decisions made, the writing starts flowing again.

  • Hi everyone! Thanks for all the comments so far on the post. I’ll be answering everyone individually today, so please share any questions or comments you have about the process above or about the book, which is all about tripling your writing speed.

    I’m really grateful to The Write Life for hosting a contest for me today on the launch of my book. I wanted to let you know two additional things:

    1) If you want to grab the book now while it’s $0.99, but you also want to wait until March 19th to see if you win it in the contest, have no fear! I will happily substitute a second book I’m working on called Nail Your Outline: Add Tension, Build Emotion, and Keep Your Readers Addicted as a prize. It launches in early April, so you’d have to wait a teensy bit. I’d also be happy to gift you the price of Write Better, Faster via Amazon if you prefer!

    2) If you’re excited about these concepts and want more fiction-based content, I have a lot more that I talk about in this new book and also the series. You can sign up to get notified at my website—just click on my name above for the link.

    Thanks again to The Write Life and I’m excited to get to know everyone in the comments!

    • Thanks for sharing your advice with our readers, Monica!

      Being able to boost our speed as writers can open so many doors — from making better use of those small pockets of time to finishing a manuscript in just a couple of month. Applying these concepts to other types of writing could help freelance writers increase their hourly rates or bloggers write articles much more quickly.

      Looking forward to seeing who wins the books!

      Thanks again for sharing your experience and advice,

      TWL Assistant Editor

      • Definitely. The main reason I embarked on trying to write faster was because I was freelancing and needed to hit tons of words per day to do the important things, like paying my rent 🙂 Later on, I applied it to fiction to help me overcome some of my fears and mental blocks against telling stories.

        Time truly is money as a writer. I was able to triple my writing speed, but even just doubling it or going 50% faster can make a big difference for hitting deadlines and landing clients.

    • Senta says:

      I just bought your book. I am writing for the first time and ideas just came so fast for me that I started without researching methods. I wrote what you’re describing as a sketch but on the page… in the margins, between paragraphs, along the side turning the notebook to write I have all these comments that are not in the actual story just a detail about the character or a note to introduce another background character or explain why I put something there at that part of the story. I handwrote all of this.

      I was sketching with beats added around from your description. I had the idea for a series with this book as the first. I wrote a description of each other book not a sketch but something shorter. I guess tgat could be a sketch and what I was referring to above which is over 300 handwriirn pages with dialogue and narrative is a rough draft?

      What is a pantster?

      I have so much to learn. Thanks for sharing your process.

      • Lexi says:

        A pantser is someone who just starts writing without an outline first, coming up with the story as they write.

        • Senta says:

          Thank you. I guess I’m a sort of pantser. I write from the middle, then go back and write from the beginning to the middle and the middle to the end. I like the middle of most books the most and want my books to have a good middle where a shift occurs or a climax in the tension builds, etc.

      • Hi Senta! 300 pages of handwritten notes is impressive!

        I think it will be hard to know exactly what you have until you can get the content a little more organized. I would suggest notecards because you can reorder them and move the around. If you are moving to digital (which I strongly suggest, since you don’t want to lose your work!) then you might want to give Scrivener a try. It has a notecard feature where you can create notecards and move them around to see what you have.

        Good luck!

        • Senta says:

          Thank you. I have looked at alternatives for Scrivener because it looked too complicated but I keep reading recommendations for it on line. I decided that now that I am at the point were I need to get this book typed up to use Dragon Natural Speech to type it for me. I will read my handwritten notes. I have Dragon and have been using it but it has been driving me a bit crazy to try to organize what gets typed. I decided today to by Scrivener. I haven’t done anything but down load it and I’m a bit afraid Dragon won’t work with it but I am going to give it a try. It looks complicated so I invested in a guide book too. I appreciate your advice.

          I really like the “beats” idea and even went back and added “beats” to previously handwritten notes. It helps me to remember where to address a certain issue even if I can’t really add that issue in a written version. I also added character notes to address to myself that a character was acting too helpless and unlikeable in a scene and I need to balance that scene soon with something that shows more strength.

          Thanks again.

  • Staci Troilo says:

    I admit it. I’m a beat-skipper. (Wonder if there’s a 12-Step Program for that?) Interesting method, one I’m considering trying on my next project. Thanks for including descriptions and examples; made the process really clear.

    • Staci, I’m glad it helped! LOL on the 12-steps. Beats can be a game-changer, so definitely try them out to see if they are for you. I pretty much doubled my writing speed from ~700-900 words per hour to ~1400-1600 words per hour just by using beats. They work! And they are fun, too. Good luck!

  • Elaine Milner says:

    Thanks for the useful tips.

    I’ve heard of beats but didn’t have a very good idea of what they were. Yours are relaxed enough to write without freezing up. I think they would help me.

    I also like your use of sketches. I tend to write almost in sketches when I’m trying to do a first draft and then think I have a really lousy first draft that needs to be revised before it is even called first draft. I work full time and have other obligations, so using beats and informal sketches during the brief times I have for writing would be much easier for me than writing “the real thing.” Lately I’ve been setting reasonable writing goals but find myself doing everything else first and end up too tired to write.

    • Hi Elaine!

      I also write my first drafts in a mixture of sketches and notes—takes the pressure off.

      Once you get used to beats you’ll find that a paragraph of beats can be expanded to, say, 500 words. Your number will be different, probably. But once you get to that point, you’ll be able to write anywhere, using any device, even your phone. Because you know, “it’s just 500 words.” It will be small progress but that adds up to something big.

      Good luck!

  • Tr Jonsson says:

    Turning draft 1 into completed novel is hardest thing for me.
    Thanks for an answer

    • Well, I think part of the editing process is getting a good first draft. So if you’re struggling to turn your draft into a finished novel, it might be smart to rip it apart and put it back together again. There could be underlying structure issues that can be solved using the process above.

  • This is a great idea! My first drafts are often very messy, but I think this method would make things a whole lot easier. I’ll have to try it out.

    • Hi Ann!

      Mine used to be the same! Now they are all organized, haha. I use Scrivener, which helps me predict the size of my book and how much long it will take to write. It is a lot easier for me and a lot more fun—it helps me overcome my fears of getting started!

  • Alta says:

    So, I adopt following steps

    – Write plots
    – Characters
    – story arc
    – chapter outline
    – beats for each chapter
    – Flow chart
    – First draft
    – Revviiiiiiiiiiiiisions

    sonds good

  • Tony Sullivan says:

    Step 2 “Create your beats”–THANK YOU!!!

  • Anne-Lynn says:

    Thank you for posting this!
    Usually when I’d start writing something, I’d just write and worry about chapters and things like that later.
    Also, thank you for using Harry Potter as the example, it really helped me understand it better.

  • Hi Anne-Lynn!

    Harry Potter is one of my favorite series—luckily the plot works perfectly as an example of this! 🙂

  • Lew Stowe says:

    This article is the sort of inadvertent gift that one stumbles on the internet like finding a diamond in a vast landfill. There are some that offer free wisdom as an act of kindness and ladies and gentlemen, here’s an example of selfless, enthusiastic, good will for those who aspire to prattle off their own little bits of literary brilliance. I arrive an article such as this with characters, scenes and events in a huge bucket of paint wanting to put it onto the canvas but when you’re starting, it’s great to have someone say, “relax, take a deep breath and start painting and the entire canvass is yours”. So what do I want to paint? I have scenes, how to sew them together? How can I convey, really tell my story where the words, the images are compelling enough to hold the reader attention. These are the footprint dance-steps that you get at the dance-studio in the 1960’s and before then. Put your left foot here, then back, forward and left. Cha-cha-cha. Thank you so much for this! Absolutely outstanding.

  • Loraine N. says:

    Thanks for the helpful article. I have been having trouble lately getting myself focused on my fiction writing. Trying to balance the outlining with giving the characters some latitude to write themselves is tough to do sometimes. Thanks for the giveaway as well.

    • Hi Loraine!

      Not sure your schedule or what specifically is holding you back, but have you tried writing for just 15 minutes in the morning? That’s always a great way to get back into the routine of daily fiction writing. Good luck!

      • Loraine N. says:

        Thanks for the advice Monica. It really helped. I read your post and thought, “I can do 15 minutes.” So I have been doing that and I’ve managed to keep on task these last few days. It is not as much as I want but I am encouraged that I am actually getting something down. I just wanted to let you know that your advice motivated and helped me.

  • Sandra M. says:

    Congratulations on your two new books! AND a series!!! You’re not just TELLING us how to get it done….you’re SHOWING us!!! I can’t wait to read them both! Great article! It’s the clearest piece of writing I’ve read in quite a while, stuffed full of specific detailed how-to steps, beautifully organized, totally accessible, and off the screen usable. You provided other writers with an instantly available workable system for streamlining multiple lines of information into a manageable packet of workable gold we can replicate at will. Any writer is struggling to find the best way to maximize available writing time and effort. For you to share such a great system is the epitome of “Be kind always….no exceptions!” I can’t wait to order your book when I get done writing this post. I need it to take to our writing group!! Then I’ll be waiting for your next book in April! But I’ll be busy writing while I’m waiting!!!

    • Sandra, thank you!

      Yes, this month has been crazy—aside from Write Better, Faster, I’ve also put out two novellas and a bundle of previously and newly published novellas. I have a few more things I’d love to get out this month, but we’ll see. I’m working on Nail Your Outline right now and I’m very excited to get it published, too!

      Thank you for sharing this article with your writing group!

  • Maria Karamitsos says:

    For me, process is dependent on what I’m writing. When I was writing about my health issues, I used a very specific outline to make sure I captured chronologically, all the thoughts, feelings & events of my story, then went on to the advice/things to expect sort of thing — outline helped me to consider all the bases, and make sure I didn’t leave out any essential parts of the journey. I also had a very detailed journal to work from, which was amazing, since months/years later, perspective changes. I was still able to capture the raw feelings of getting the diagnosis, struggling through treatment, what I felt at critical moments. Because it was so emotional for me, after the first draft, I permanently put that one on the shelf, but it was important to know I could get all the way through. Now, writing my first novel, which is a story based on the life of someone very close to me– and it’s a story that’s been waiting to be told for a long time, and it’s actually still unfolding. There are a lot of blanks in her story (too traumatic for her to reveal), of which I’m using creative license to fill. With this, I find I have the whole thing in my head – I just have to brain dump. I don’t get to it regularly (working on that!) but I find once I sit down and start writing, it flows. I just know this story so well, and in my head, I know that I have to cover several different time periods, illustrating what happened to this woman, and then tell how, since she never worked through it, how it affected the remainder of her life, her relationships, her children and grandchildren, and led to her inability to ever feel happiness or gratitude. For the last 10 years, I’ve been published in newspapers, magazines, and online. For these assignments, I’d use an outline depending on the subject matter and length. I’ve contributed to 3 books (non-fiction), and I absolutely outlined, and filled in the blanks through research and interviews. For my blog, I jot down a few basic ideas and then I write from there. So for me it all depends. And I guess it also depends on how much of the story is in your head and how desperately it’s trying to get out. Then the “force” seems to overcome you, and the muse spills it all on the page. Happy Writing all!

    • Maria,

      Makes sense! It is hard to make time for writing, but a regular habit of sitting down helps. I did a two-month experiment to get myself into the habit. It was a huge challenge!

      Non-fiction and blog posts are different, IMO, and I don’t use the process above. It’s a lot easier for me to get into flow with just an outline—but then, non-fiction is less complicated. Fewer balls in the air.

  • Heather says:

    I would LOVE a copy of your book 🙂

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Really good advice.

    “Step 2: Create your beats – The beats step is the one I see most authors skip. This unfortunately often leads to major head-banging down the line. I do not recommend skipping beats.”

    That’s something that has never really occurred to me and will be totally useful when I start working on my next project.

    One problem I run into with a detailed outline before hand (with both novels and short stories) is that if an outline exists, I feel like I lose creative control over the story. It’s like I’m no longer writing, but instead trying to come up with the words to fill in the outline? For me, it works better to come up with a detailed outline after the first draft, and then use it for cross-checking continuity and plot holes.

    • Hi Jason!

      Several people have said this works better for them as well. A great alternative to this method is to do the steps in a different order:

      Step 1: Sketches
      Step 2: Outline (to string the sketches together)
      Step 3: Draft

      In this case, you don’t even need beats because the outline to draft step isn’t troubling for you. Instead, you need to get your ideas out and then string them together coherently. Very cool!

  • Becky says:

    Hey, thank you very much for posting this step by step guide. I am very much looking forward to using it to attempt to create my own stories.

    I don’t have a great deal of experience writing fiction, outside of random chunks of random stories that I have written down and strewn throughout my apartment. I am much more experienced with non-fiction, but honestly the steps mentioned here are quite similar to those I use when writing my papers!

  • Tim says:

    I’ve had a ideas writing themselves in my mind for years and have struggled to find a starting point to get them onto the page. After reading your article, I am motivated to take the first steps in the writing process. Thank you.

  • Susie G. says:

    I have been struggling to write some new scenes for my book and now I know why – I have been skipping the beats stage of the process and I didn’t even know it! Thanks for providing all this information, I think using this approach should really benefit my writing.

  • Chase says:

    This is the solution to the problem I often have at the beginning of a story. I always feel like I’ve got a Ferris wheel of ideas spinning around in my head – I’ve got loads of ideas, some of them hop off, new ones hop on, but the spinning never stops. It’s tough to keep it all straight because it’s round. This description of beats and sketches is exactly what I need to iron out my Ferris wheel into a roller coaster. Thanks!

    • Awesome! I’m glad this was of use to you, Chase.

      I am also an idea person and find it hard to concentrate when there are too many ideas (and spinoffs), so I feel your pain and love your roller coaster analogy.

      Please report back and let us know how it goes.

  • This is a great step-by-step guide to writing draft one. I especially love the idea of beats. I’ve heard other writers talk about it, but your explanation is the best I’ve read. I particularly like that you do all the telling, instead of showing, in the beats. I like to think that if you get all that telling off your chest, it will lend to much better showing, and you’ll have a nice reference sheet of what not to put in the actual manuscript. Great ideas here…thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Kaitlin! Yes, it’s smart to not put the “telling” into the draft in most cases 🙂

      The beats are also useful when you’re working with your editor later, because you can provide them and ask, “does this convey what it’s supposed to convey?” It helps the developmental editor stay on the lookout for tell vs. show too!

  • Oliver T. says:

    I think, if you start with characters, you prefer a bottom-up approach, if you start with the plot, you prefer the top-down approach. For the letter this is a way to help you making the step from telling to showing. The practical problem is that you start with both, characters and plot. Thus having a guideline of your story enables you to write faster, even if you mess it up during writing. Anyway, I’d love to win a copy.

    • Hi Oliver! Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know if I completely agree with you; I have heard this argument before but I think plot and characters are quite a bit more entwined than that. The plot is based on the characters; each character has his or her own plot. It’s all quite complicated to tease out and generalize.

      I hope you do win! Good luck!

  • Gregory Lynn says:

    Sometimes you hear of an idea that is so obviously true, you wonder why you never thought it before.

    The idea that beating something out really amounts to breaking things down into smaller pieces is an idea I should have thought of before.

    In all aspects of my life, I have trouble starting things because the job is just so big you don’t know where to start. It’s easy to pick a place to start writing–the beginning–but it’s still a huge job even if what you’re writing is a novella.

    Currently my outlines are about a sentence per scene which works because by the time I’m writing that scene, I’ve thought about it a ton.

    I’m trying to do two things. 1) Transition to novels for multiple reasons, and 2) Get outlines done well beforehand so I’m never faced with not having the next project lined up.

    I think beats are going to be a big part of this transition.

    • Hi Gregory!

      I love, love, love your comment—and it was the same conclusion I came to awhile back. Beats were a huge “a-ha!” moment for me for the reason you described. It was really all about breaking a huge project into smaller, more manageable tasks.

      I spend an hour or so a day on beats and find that gives me plenty of projects “in the queue.” Beats are my favorite part of the writing process. They are so, so fun and don’t feel like “work” in the slightest.

      Good luck with your transition! I think you have a good plan in place.

  • Hi Monica,
    Thanks for your helpful advice. I already do some of what you suggest but have been missing the beats step, and literally missing a beat. The result is that some chapters are full and others thin. I anticipate that spending more time thinking about the beats will help. In the end, working at it always improves the end product, but I need to be smarter about the kind of work I do. Would love to win a copy of your book! xZ

    • Hi MZ—I definitely had the same problem as you with “thin” chapters before I started beats! The nice thing about beats is they help you identify *before* you start drafting where your book is thin. You can then respace and restructure *before* you do all the drafting work… which saves a ton of time on rewrites. Actually, with beats, I never seem to have huge sections of rewrites anymore.

      I hope you win a copy too! Good luck!

  • Mackenzie says:

    Thanks for listing out these steps. It’s definitely great to see how other people beat writer’s block, and in turn it helps people from having to go through it as much.

    Great process from the sounds of it and I’m eager to try it. I hope it works for me!

  • Janet Kerr says:

    Hi Monica,
    This will help me organize my book & time better.
    Thank you for the information.

  • Heather says:

    I’ve been writing tid bits here and there, but I’ve been trying to put them together into a story line.

    I started step 1 the other day and I am getting a good outline started. I’m taking my tid bits and seeing if they make sense into an outline.

    I am excited to take step 2 and see if anything I’ve written makes sense in a time frame and put all together. I know what I want the basis of my book to be, but I’m having issues putting in the details. I think this will help 🙂

    • Hi Heather!

      It’s fantastic that you are inspired and making progress already! It sounds like you have a few sketches that you are stringing together now. Don’t be afraid to mix the sketches and beats step—I often have chapters partially sketched, partially beat at any given time. It helps me stay organized about what is left on the chapter before it’s a first draft. Oddly enough 😉

  • I am in the thicket of outlining a novella and I have lost count of how many outlines I flung into the wastebasket. This novella is going to be the first under my name and the pressure to produce something exceptional is so overwhelming it sometimes denies me of sleep.

    Stumbling on your article is like stumbling on an oasis in the middle of a desert. I have to say I have never heard of beats before and I am enthusiastic that this is just what I need to breakthrough the writer’s block that has been crippling my creativity.

    And I love how you describe the process and show how I can have fun while creating my first draft. I couldn’t resist clicking to your website to find out more about you and your writing style. Was quite inspired by what I saw and trust your ebook will be packed with actionable material. I really hope I win the ebook 🙂

    • Chioma—this is so fantastic to hear! I really hope that beats help you break through and get your novella progressing. It is *really* difficult to fight the gremlins when you are first starting out. Just know that you ARE good enough and that your story DOES matter. You are sharing your gift with the world!

      Good luck with the contest—I hope you win! Keep writing and never lose faith in your ideas and dreams.

      • Thanks for the encouragement Monica. Finished outlining my chapters, working on the beats now. Think the hardest part has been silencing my inner critic because I am not really acquainted with the method you outlined.

        But I am really optimistic and that helped stop me from discarding the outline this time around. Once I can finish the beat for the chapters I will show it to a few writer friends I know, to get feedback. Thanks again Monica.

  • Julie Holmes says:

    Love how you lay the process out. I’ve been using a large portion of Katherine Wiesner’s “First Draft in 30 Days” process, which includes the scene layouts and timelines, but just recently I’ve started writing out what I now know are beats. I think writing a novel is a process that authors refine by trying out different methods and combining what works. Thanks for the list–there are a few things I think I’ll try to help me tweak my process.

    • Hi Julie! Absolutely—I agree that writers need to read about others’ processes and then steal tidbits here and there to find their own styles. I’m glad you found something of use in mine! Happy tweaking 🙂

  • Andrea says:

    Hi Monica,

    This was very informative. My process is complete chaos (or rather, I should say I have NO process). But suggesting turning it into steps – and then breaking THOSE steps into littler steps is extremely helpful for me. Not doing “beats” has stopped me from getting my writing done. I get overwhelmed and your information has given me a lot of clarity to my process. THANK YOU!

    I WILL DEFINITELY be using this from now on.


  • Cheryl says:

    This is a very in depth article. Thanks for the tips.

  • Hi Monica,

    Bought your book and looking forward to reading it. I have always been a ‘plotter’ using outlining (bullet point) software, and transferring this to my scene cards in Scrivener. So each scene card has a heading and perhaps three action points describing the scene. Perhaps this is not as detailed as your beats, but it’s not far off. I find outlining is a planning process that is constantly being fine tuned, rather than an intervening step that is completed before drafting. For me, finding the story is an iterative process and the Scrivener cards are the tools for developing it. Congratulations on great blog.

    • Hi John, I absolutely love Scrivener’s scene cards feature—it’s probably my very favorite feature in Scrivener, besides the compilation which makes it really easy to publish!

      I am currently bulking up my outlining process as well—learning a lot! I’m starting to think of the outline as the family calendar, and all the different types of outlines as puzzle pieces to fit together on the family calendar. Outlines need to serve multiple masters.

      Thank you for grabbing the book! Hope you enjoy it and find it useful.

  • Monica,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have the WORST time staying focused and writing quickly at times, and I am excited to try this advice! Do you also have some tips on how to find a writing niche?


    • Hi Mollie,

      The Pomodoro method will probably work wonders for you! If you don’t know it, you can Google it. It’s basically 25 minutes of writing, then 5 minutes of break, then 25 minutes of writing, 5 minutes of break… etc. It’s a GREAT way to focus.

      To find a writing niche, what are you interested in? I believe you should always try to write what you are interested in. It’s very obvious to the reader when you are writing about something that you aren’t excited about.

      Good luck!

  • Carten Cordell says:

    Great information, thanks for posting this.

  • Carten Cordell says:

    Great information, thanks for posting this article. Can’t wait to checkout the book.

  • N J Ray says:

    I love this idea! I’m currently at work on my first novel after fits and starts, and want to make the most what little time I have to write. I’ve tried outlining, but because it’s a non-linear book, I’ve only managed half of it, and then I find myself stuck when I’ve finished the (half) outline. I find myself squeezing in writing time wherever I can (at work, waiting for appointments, etc.), but I think I’ll be bringing a notebook to work on beats and sketches. Easier to manage out and about, and will definitely help make the most of my sit-down-and-write time. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Helen B says:

    I work 32 hours a week, in a cubicle, in an unfulfilling job.

    I have at least two novels inside me, begging to be written.

    I’ve also just moved house! Time — or lack thereof — is definitely holding me back from achieving my dreams.

    Thank you for such an informative, practical article! To have a copy of your book would be amazing and oh so timely!

  • Tracie Rankin says:

    I would absolutely love a copy of your book! I started a novel a couple of years ago and have not been able to finish due to lack of “inspiration ” and direction. I am a passionate writer and desire it as a career. It sounds like your book would be most helpful to me. Thank you.

  • Ben Gibson says:

    With a full time job, a wife in nursing school, and a 20-month old running amok, I am on the verge of begging to be chosen! 🙂 If not though, I’ll almost certainly buy it!

    • Ben Gibson says:

      Update: I couldn’t wait until the 19th so I just wen’t ahead and bought it. I’m very excited to delve into this… just the short intro above seems to validate a lot of unorganized thoughts and concepts I’ve long held about writing but have been afraid to try because they aren’t really taught or mentioned anywhere else I’ve seen. So thanks for giving me “permission” to try some great new ways to get a story built and I can’t wait to see how it works out!

      • That’s fantastic, Ben — good luck with your writing project!

        TWL Assistant Editor

      • Ben, amazing! Thanks for picking it up.

        There are so many ways to write a novel and you have to find what works for you. If you can steal from others on the way and cobble together your own system, even better! Good luck with everything—sounds like you’re very busy. Never forget that 20 minutes of progress a day becomes ~122 hours by the end of the year!

  • Shirley says:

    i need the writing tips book because as a working mother of a young son, my writing is the only thing that can help me emotionally and financially.

  • Vernest G says:

    This is brilliant stuff. A tactic I’ve never considered valid, but have often employed in bite-size chunks. As an unpublished novelist, perhaps pounding out my book in beats and sketches will get me to the draft point sooner. Thanks!

    • Hi Vernest,

      Yes, beats and sketches can help you work out your novel quite a bit without the pressure of a full first draft—plus save you time in the editing stages. Good luck with everything!

  • Katherine says:

    Thank you for this most timely post. I have incredible writers block AND angst write now. Beautiful! the path has just become easier :).

  • Katherine says:

    How can this apply to writing for a blog or a non-fiction instructional book?

    • Katherine, I think the key takeaway here is to know as much as possible about what you are writing before you tackle the first draft. For non-fiction, I like to ask myself what the top 10 questions the reader would have about my topic. And then, I try to answer those! Good luck 🙂

  • Shana says:

    How interesting! I think I’m going to try this. Planning is always the part I’m worst at.

    • Shana, good luck! Planning makes a world of difference and produces a much stronger first draft, which means less editing down the line! Very worth the time and effort to come up with your process. Glad you were able to get some ideas from the article!

  • Bob Simpson says:

    I am starting a novel based on the characters in my weekly newspaper column.

    This article is of great help in inspiring me to keep going. Thank you

  • Lori Thompson says:

    I love this approach, especially the “beats” and “sketches”. I’ve always hated doing outlines, but I think this will really help the process. Thank you!

    • Lori, glad to be of help! I’m digging into outlines a bit more now and (surprisingly) loving it. I do hope that beats and sketches end up being fun for you! Writing is not worth doing if you can’t make it fun, in my opinion.

  • Chris Bailey says:

    Thanks for this outline for outlining. I love the idea of sketches! Curious, since I often hear about a failure to convey emotion: at what point in the process do you check your character’s emotional arc?

    • Hi Chris,

      That’s actually a topic I’m digging into more for my next book about outlines. I think the emotional arc is something you put in the outline, and then it gets carried into the beats, the sketches, etc. For this particular article I didn’t get deep into outlining because, well, I wanted to create a simple process that writers can use. And I do truly believe beats and sketches can work for any style of outlining. But, yes, I would put any character arcs directly into the outline and trace it through the book at that level before moving onto the beats.

      • Chris Bailey says:

        Thanks, Monica! That helps with the perspective on the work as a whole. It’s a big ol’ mass of writhing snakes.

  • Nancy Hall says:

    This has been extremely helpful! Thank you! I’ve been calling myself a writer (with a “day job”) for years, but in actuality I have written very little because I have committed very little to the process. I’m trying to gather ideas and strategies to figure out exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it. I’m not sure what my topic or format is even going to be, but your article certainly helps me figure out how I can experiment with some ideas and FINALLY begin penning something truly worthwhile! Thanks again! I feel inspired now. 🙂

    • Hi Nancy, so glad to hear you’re re-inspired! A process for writing is what helps it actually *happen*. I learned that a few years ago and it was a game-changer for me. 17 books later, I’m really seeing my original vision come to fruition.

      Good luck with everything! It’s fun to be moving forward with a longtime dream.

  • S.J. Stephens says:

    Hi Monica,

    Thank you for this blog post. I have been struggling for months to get real work done on my first novella. Even outlining has been difficult, but this has been so helpful in giving me a process to follow! I appreciate you sharing your trade secrets with the rest of us novices out here.

    S.J. Stephens

  • Jee Ann says:

    And I didn’t know what I was missing till I read your post, Monica. I’ve been doing sketches (didn’t really know they were called that) because sometimes scenes and dialogues just come to me when at random times of the day.

    I always have a problem finishing a novel, and for so long I thought maybe I wasn’t meant to write them out, but when I started fiction writing with outlines, I realized I could finish an actual novel.

    Blueprints and outlines are very useful because we know that inspiration isn’t something we wait for. We have to force and motivate ourselves to write and the outline does the job (for me, anyway).

    What I need to remember now is to write everyday and to hit that quota before Mr. Procrastination hits me with a sledgehammer!

    • Hi Jee Ann, glad you enjoyed the article! Try writing for only 25 minutes a day and use an egg timer (could be an online one at You don’t even have to write every time—you can do outlining, beats, or sketches then! Good luck!

  • Deloma Sherwood says:

    Thank you for sharing your process! I feel like every bit of information learned is like adding water to a fount from which a writer may drink. With little time to write, I’ve been compiling scenes for over 3 years. I find myself squeezing in writing time wherever I can–at work, before work, and after midnight. Your information on ‘Beats’ and ‘Sketches’ will definitely help make the most of my sit-down-and-write time. Thanks so much for willing to share!

    • Hi Deloma! Yes, beats are a great way to spend 20 minutes of writing time, and an easy way to stay inspired when you don’t have a ton of time each day. They help you continue to make progress. Good luck!

  • I’m a very “loose” outliner at best, but i can definitely see where this would help with the total writing process. I’m definitely going to try it with the middle grade novel I’m working on.

  • Miranda says:

    Love this article! Extremely helpful! Definitely putting this one in my favorites folder!

  • Tamika Spruill says:

    I have been suffering from writer’s block this week. Reading your strategies and tips has lit another fire inside of me. Thanks for the advice. I can’t believe it was free 🙂

    • Hi Tamika,

      The advice is always worth as much as you do with it, not as much as you paid for it! 😉 Good luck, I hope the article helps you with your projects and I’m happy to get you re-inspired!

  • I’m definitely a pantser. When I draft a story, I have no idea what the story is about until I’m done with the draft. I reread it, and ah ha! I see the nugget of what I really want to say. Once I have that, I can create an outline.

    My first draft always comes quickly, but I could see this advice helping me shorten my revision time considerably. The beats and sketches will be very helpful.

    • Hi Nadine, some other “pantsers” have talked about doing sketches, then outlining, then drafting—could save you some time as well and still work with your drafting style. Good luck with everything!

  • Looks like a great book, can’t wait to read it!!

    Thanks for the article — very helpful!


  • Ishmael Brown says:

    Thanks for the advice! I sorta do this already but it is not nearly as streamlined (and reasoned) as yours. I’m definitely doing this (ASAP)! And I’ll be starting today. Just reading your notes have given me a burst of creative energy (that’s been seriously lacking in regards to my novel).

    Now I’m off to read your article on wiriting 3500-4000 words per our…

    Thanks again,

    • Ishmael,

      Glad I helped re-inspire you to get back to writing! That’s wonderful. Congratulations. The article about writing faster is another gem that could be a huge mindset shift for you! It was for me. Good luck with everything!

  • Sketching sounds sort of like what many successful Nanowrimo people do (myself included). Get the bare bones of the story out and then flesh out the details later. Often, If I’m stuck on a particular part, I’ll use {} to write a note to myself like {need a scene where x does y} and then come back to it later. I’m trying to use an outline for the first time on my latest WIP, but don’t know yet how successful that will be. The beats idea is interesting, but I’m not sure it would work for me.

    • Hi Evergreen!

      Whatever works for you is fantastic! I agree that a lot of Nanowrimo participants have good systems that help them finish the daunting 50,000 words in a month. The unfortunate part of Nanowrimo in my eyes is that so many participants don’t care if they write a novel they can actually sell later on. I think that’s where more planning and pre-production up front could truly help many of those writers. Good luck with your outlining and new WIP!

  • Claire says:

    hi Monica,
    I am not a writer with a particular writing process, which inevitably throws me (and not just my head) against the wall. I have read your post and will probably read it again until I see myself followibg the steps that you describe… I have so many stories both started on paper and in my mind, that I wish I could get them in order so I can finally write. I am looking forward to apply these technics when I am off work (full time job barely rhyme with writing… and yet you make it sound possible). Thanks!

    • Hi Claire!

      Just try to do 20 minutes a day—you’ll be surprised by how much you get done in a month, a year. Good luck with everything—you sound busy but I can tell that it will be a huge breakthrough for you when you get that first story done! Maybe also start with a small story so you finish it. I think that’s the key and your first small success will carry you through to a bigger project.

  • Rachel says:

    Interesting process! I’ve thought about writing a book for far too long now and need to take the next step…getting words on the screen. As a corporate freelancer, I’m used to getting bits into my documents that I already know to wipe away the “blank page” issue. Then I fill in the rest once I realize how much space I have left and what I still need to research. This process sounds a little like that, but taking it further to flesh out what I know and figure out what I still need to figure out. Ha! I particularly like the “beats” info, as that background info is something I always wondered about. “How do they know in chapter one (or book one) to lay the ground work for something that happens in chapter 22 (or book three)?” This makes more sense.

    • Hi Rachel,

      It’s very similar to non-fiction because I started as a freelancer and had to do a lot of outlining and quick writing to make it there. If you’re open to recommendations for switching to fiction, I suggest Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Fantastic introduction into plotting a story. Good luck with the transition! You’re probably a leg up already, having sold content for a living first!

  • JackieP says:

    I am so happy I decided to take the time to read this! I love the beats part of it and am going to incorporate in my outline. I have just started using a rough outline as before I was a complete pantser. But, with my new WIP I find that being a pantser is not working for me anymore and I needed an outline. This article helped me so much in understanding outlining. Thank you!!

    I have bookmarked this to come back to again and again till I get this outlining business down.

    • Hi Jackie, awesome! Congratulations for switching to plotting, even if it just ends up being for this project. I started as a pantser but I would never go back to it, so inefficient IMO once you learn the beauty of planning and pre-production.

  • Brenda Colbath says:

    Hi Monica,
    This is a great idea, I have been writing mostly by the seat of my pants, I guess that is a pantsa! I have done a story line for my current book in progress and a Character study or sketch. I bravely submitted the storyline and first 50 pages to Tinderpress. Trying to get started writing after putting it on the back burner for many years is like getting back up on a bicycle after a fall. Since I don’t like to read pages and pages of description I don’t also like to write a lot of it. Speeding up my writing process would be wonderful, and look forward to trying it on one or two of my other works in process.
    Whether I win it or not thanks for the above information.

  • Kathy Wheeler says:

    Very helpful. I’ve done non-fiction (architectural history), but somehow as much as I want to write fiction, I fall back on that process and can’t seem to break free of it. The thing with writing history is that rarely is there dialogue and that intimidates me somehow. Your tips help! Thank you!

  • Holly says:

    I think this article will help me immensely! I have 6 NaNoWriMo books on my shelf but they all need work.

    • Hi Holly,

      Take those books back to the outlining stage and see what you can salvage—you could be sitting on a treasure trove! That’s a lot of books, imagine if you got all six of them out 🙂 Good luck!

  • SB says:

    I like the concept of ‘beats’. Hadn’t really thought of that one before. My problem is that I’ve written the first chapter ten different ways (well…that’s an exaggeration but you get the idea) and, as the rest is to flow from it, am having trouble getting very far.

    • Hi! Definitely go back to the outline and see what you can map out without rewriting chapter one. It could be a loop with no exit, especially since most writers cut their chapter one anyway. Good luck with everything!

  • Jenny says:

    I just finished my first book that was completely discovery written and it was hard! I tried the outline but every chapter took on a mind of it’s own and soon I was so far off my outline, that it was a completely different story. So, I’m super excited about this book! It sounds like the exact style that might work for me.

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks so much! Just FYI, the book is about writing faster, not outlining. Though, the outlining book is the one I’m working on now—such exciting stuff, I am LOVING digging into it.

      Good luck with your current projects!

  • Stephanie Gonzales says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this approach.

    I’ve been stuck on a grand idea for a novel. I know the overarching themes but haven’t been able to get them down into action.

    I’m going to try the sketch idea to get a few scenes down. Perhaps starting with a few scenes will give me more action points to explore.


  • Andrew says:

    Hi Monica.
    Thanks for your insight and experiential knowledge. The process of 1. outline, 2. beats, 3. sketches and 4. draft will be on a Post-It over my monitor from now on. I’m a new and aspiring writer who needs all the help and advice he can get.
    Thanks & all the best,

    • Hi Andrew, so glad to hear this makes your post-its! 🙂 Good luck with everything. There is a lot to learn in writing, but build your knowledge little by little and before you know it, you’ll be done with your first story.

  • Sarah Hegerhorst says:

    Thanks so much for your tips! I usually struggle with outlining and my instinct says to wing it, but your suggestions sound really helpful!

  • Rob Schwinn says:

    Thank you for these great tips! For me, when I think of sitting in front of a blank screen, it makes me not even want to start. With your methods, writing can actually be fun again!
    I can’t wait to try them!
    Rob Schwinn

  • Karon says:

    As a first time writer, I am totally unfamiliar with any of the terms, but found I had been following the process rather naturally anyway. Attempting historical fiction made an outline necessary, although some of it has changed as the characters evolved, and made different decisions than I thought they might at first. However, the quick sketches has turned out to be, in my opinion, some of my best writing, as I wasn’t tying myself down with too much detail. The “beats” idea though, might prove very useful to get over some of the humps. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Karon, so glad it helped you! I could see how with historical fiction sketches might be essential so you can write and get in flow without having to fact check every few minutes. Good luck with everything!

  • Abdul Cholik says:

    Dear Monica,
    Writing a novel looks like facing a ghost for me. This makes me so scare so that I never being able to finish my draft.
    Having read your tips I will start to write a fiction again. Hope I could a novel with my name on it.
    Thank you for your kindness.
    Best regards from Indonesia

  • I have friends who pen fiction and will find this immensely useful – thank you, Monica #HUGS

  • Jess says:

    Wow, great advice here! I’ve done all of these techniques at some point, though I must admit to being so amateur that I had no idea they were actual concepts of drafting. Using all three – outline, beats, and sketches – together in this order is such a different approach compared to what I’ve been trying at so far, and I look forward to experimenting!

    • Hi Jess, sounds good and welcome to the writing game! I don’t actually know if these are official concepts, they are just concepts that I use and have attempted to name appropriately. Good luck with your experiments!

  • Katrina says:

    Thanks for the post. I am attempting to write my first novel. In the past, I’ve always been an intuitive writer that finishes in one sitting. I have always written my short stories in one sitting. I know that with a novel that is not possible, and I’ve been looking for a way to become a structured writer. I think this process could definitely be it. Thanks so much for the help!

  • ron tollin says:

    Great ideas, sweet and simple. As a senior I have many tales to share and now the time. No writers class here in Baja, so quiet, peaceful. Too far and expensive for seminars. Will use your advice,FREE helps. Watching for more tips. Will reexamine my words on paper.Really enjoy writing now to share,

  • John Granger says:

    I skipped the beats after outlining my first attempt at a novel and I’ve paid the price in an anguished still-born first draft. Thank you for the clarity of what beats will do to take me from outline to chapter writing without the heart ache and head scratching!



    • John, thank you so much for your comment! It is wonderful to hear that this article helped you, especially because you’ve done the work and seen in hindsight that there’s a better way. I *really* hope this gets you back on track with your novel, and that it maybe even re-inspires you! I feel your pain and have gone through the same thing with a first draft. The most unfortunately thing you could do is give up on it, so I hope you don’t! Stay the course and your novel will be the reward after all the pain 🙂

  • I loved this article. I’m not great at outlining in general, I’ve always kind of done the stories by the seat of the pants, but this method sounds like something I’d definitely like to try, and hopefully the story will flow better, resulting in more efficient use of time. Thanks! Grace

  • Kathleen Evans says:

    Awesomely helpful. I am here is Costa Rica ready to write….and yet just not quite ready. Thanks for your insight and direction!

  • Rowan Wadu says:

    Thanks Monica – this is so useful in so many ways. I do carry a small notebook around and pen ideas as they punch me, and later some of these ideas are stretched into larger / longer sentences. For me writing freely initially is a way out. Often I find that I am like many scared to commit anything to paper as if the world is waiting to judge me – now I am getting free of that mental thing.
    Wishing you the best in your launch

  • marilyn says:

    I had not heard of ‘beats’ in fiction. Great tool to use. Thanks.

  • Fred Thaller says:

    A very informative post. Thanks. It should have been titled “How to Write a Novel Faster!” I never suffer from writer’s block, rather, I can’t seem to turn my “Idea Spigot” off! I can’t sleep sometimes because my brain is always churning out ideas… That can also slow a writer down, because there are so many possibilities to choose from that I get into the paralysis of analysis…

    • Hi Fred, you sound like an ENTP if I’ve ever heard one! I’m an ENTP too. Outlining and beats *really* helps me with my ideas, because I can jot them down quickly and come back later. Planning is so fun and easy and simple to do on the go as a result. Good luck with everything!

  • Maria Kourneta says:

    Excellent piece of advice! thank you so much!

    Wish you thr best with your book!

  • Kevin Bingaman says:

    Hi Monica!

    I am currently working on the research and development stage of my first novel (potentially part of a trilogy); and I am beginning to investigate and test various processes of organizing and distilling my voluminous notes into a simple outline.

    At the moment, what seems to work for me is to write a scene description using the “Writer” app on Google Chrome. This app eliminates a lot of the distraction which impede the free flow of words (and the typewriter sound effects helps me to focus and motivates/challenges me to keep the words flowing). I then cut and paste from the “Writer” app to Evernote+Card desk virtual storyboard (w/virtual color-coded index-cards!). I love that storyboard. It’s visually appealing, and look/works just like an actual corkboard on a wall. Once my scene descriptions are placed on the storyboard, I can then move them around at will. Once I have all my scene descriptions down and reorganized, I will have the foundation for my outline.

    It appears that my “scene descriptions” (which TELL what happens in each scene) is the same idea as the “beat” concept you describe. COOL!

    The concept of “Show & Tell” and how it relates to this process was enlightening for me. What a great illustration–and easy to remember as well! I believe that the process you describe will work quite well for me!

    Thank you!

  • Vince says:

    Sounds too easy!

  • Hi Monica!

    Oddly enough, the process I go through when writing fiction is 1, 2 then 4. So I basically do everything you’ve said but miss out number 3!

    I have no real idea how I fell into that pattern of writing, but it’s interesting to see that you write in a similar way. And you may well have just convinced me to start ‘sketching’ for my next book to see how it goes…!


  • e martini says:

    I’ve been trying to get my novel out of my head and on to the page for a while now – breaking it down into simple steps suddenly makes it seem doable at last! Many thanks!

  • Micki says:

    Thank you for the awesome tips and being willing to help aspiring authors ‘put feet to their dreams’. I hope I win! I will make good use of your resources! Micki

  • Amanda says:

    Great advice! I seem to approach writing nonfiction and fiction in totally different ways. I’ve been trying to go for more structured and outlined lately, and I hope I can put your tips to good use!

  • Renee Jones says:

    Thanks for all this great information! I have been creating stories in my head for years and its time to put them on paper. I am always worried about writer’s block so I feel better about starting a book with these tips. 🙂

  • Carol Edwin says:

    Your article is brilliant! I’ve only just started writing, and your step-by-step guide is just the thing I’ve been looking for. Time to outline my chapters! Thanks 🙂

  • Suzi Susilo says:

    Thanks Monica. That’s simplest, easiest to read article on writing a novel I’ve ever seen. Most importantly, it’s easy to understand. I’m writing my first novel using a screenplay I wrote, which can’t be made for political reasons, the antagonist in my story is now the leader of opposition in Government. I’m using the screenplay as an outline for my novel. I didn’t realize, until I read your blog, that my screenplay is almost word for word, the advise you’ve given above.

  • Laura Martone says:

    Very helpful article – thanks, Monica. As for me, I definitely believe in outlines and beat sheets – they always make the first draft go smoother.

  • Cali Fever says:

    Inspiration comes in different ways, at different times, with different energies. It’s not a technical thing. Every writer gets inpiration experiencing various feelings through events, music, something they heard or something they saw. It isn’t rushed it comes in waves . At least it is with me…

  • Julia says:

    It’s always great to read about your writing process, and somehow I managed to take something new out of it AGAIN. I need to read Write Better Faster again, it is so motivating!
    Keep up the good work, you’re a huge inspiration! And thanks for sharing your process with us. 🙂

  • I have found Scrivener to be a valuable tool in helping me to outline and write beats (even though I didn’t know that I was writing beats). Thanks for explaining this so well. I would love to win a copy of the book.

  • I just realized I’ve been using beats without realizing it. I have a friend who I call my “Alpha Reader” that I run a lot of my beginning scenes by (she’s also who I go to when I’m stuck). She asks all the questions I wouldn’t think to ask and helps me get an idea if I’m going in the right direction. I definitely recommend writing buddies!!
    My steps are completely backwards to your’s. I do what you call sketches first and then I go to beats and then to the outline and then to the first draft. I wouldn’t say I’m a pantser though. I make really detailed outlines, I just make my them last.

  • Mary Jaksch says:

    Monica, I bought (nearly) every one of your ‘how to write’ books and they are excellent. I like your idea of beats and sketches and am about to put them into practice.

    I’ve got a practical question for you..

    I’m using Scrivener to write my novel and I’m wondering how and where to put the beats and drafts. I’ve already created the outline (more or less).

    Let’s think chapter 1 for a moment…

    I’ve got the couple of sentences for the outline, and now I’m going to turn them into beats. Then, I’m going to sketch them out.

    This would mean that I have 4 bits of text, all to do with the chapter 1: the outline, the beats and the sketches. And then there’s going to be the draft.

    Do you keep all four separate? In your manuscript, do you have 4 versions of chapter 1, ranging from the few sentences of the outline to the full noise of the draft?

  • Brenda Smith says:

    What a wonderful topic of discussion because this surely is something most bloggers go through – writers block 🙂

    I liked the ways you shared here, and while I do follow most of them when I get blank sometimes, I really believe that if you enjoy blogging and it becomes your passion with time, you have less of these blocks. I guess those who put up daily posts or every alternate days might be facing this problem.

    The key according to me lies in the fact that you should write when you are focused in your work. I don’t think your mind would turn blank then, or you wouldn’t know what to write. But I guess it differs from person to person too.

    Speaking of myself, I guess being a professional freelance writer and blogger – my work is to write! And I write a lot, whether it’s my blog posts, project work, or even replying to the comments on my blog (which are mini posts in themselves!) – all of that is writing. I never really get into such blocks, or perhaps my mind is always floating around with creative ideas that are just waiting to be penned down. However, when these is work pressure and pending projects etc., and when there’s stress all around – I do experience writers block, though it’s rare.

    Thanks for sharing these ways with us.

  • Ellen Guarisco says:

    Hey Monica

    I am enjoying reading your articles, especially this one! How can I get a copy of just
    the article? Can I download it from another site?

  • marissa says:

    Im confused, are beats and sketches written under each conflict of the scene in the outline? I wrote a 113K draft and I am unable to salvage the story because the new plot I want is different and I did not outline the draft

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