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

  • 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.
    Jan

  • 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.

    Andrea

  • 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.
    John

    • 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?

    -Mollie

    • 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!

        Heather
        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 🙂

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