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

by | Mar 5, 2015

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!).

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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?

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