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 ed.)

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 ed.)

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218 comments

  • 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!

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      Hi Sarah, you can still wing it if you start with the sketches step, then go back and do the outline based on it. Good luck!

  • Rob Schwinn says:

    Hello!
    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.

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      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

  • Krithika Rangarajan says:

    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!

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      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,

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      Hi Ron,

      Never look at the price tag, look at the value you’re going to get out of it, which only happens when you apply the information! Good luck with your writing.

  • 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!

    Gratefully,

    John

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      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 🙂

  • Grace Brannigan says:

    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

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      Grace, sounds great! Good luck moving from a pantser to a bit more of a plotter. It’s worth the transition, IMO.

  • 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

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      Hi Rowan, I gotcha and love pen and paper as well! The world is never waiting to judge you on a first draft, so let your words run free 🙂 Good luck!

  • 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…

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      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!

  • Angelo Marcos says:

    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.

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