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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217 comments

  • 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,

      Heather
      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.

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