What I've learned so far about how to write a novel.

blue crystals

I'm not finished writing this novel yet. I'm almost at... the middle? Hard to say. I'm on strict, personally enforced orders to not talk about the story until it's finished. That's because I don't know what this story really is, yet. Such is the mystery of writing it. I'll know more in six months or so.

Until then, I thought I'd share what I've learned so far about how to write a novel.


1. Can't work with an outline; can't work without an outline. I spent four months studying story structure and plotting out everything about my story on a detailed timeline. I outlined my whole book before I wrote it. By the end of all of that hard work and plotting, I was bored by my own story. There was no reason to write it anymore, because when I outlined it I'd already decided on all the twists and turns, and I wasn't curious anymore.

I felt deflated for a little bit. Then I went back to the drawing board. I spent more than a year writing freely this time, starting at the beginning and building the story as I went. Got to about 50 pages this way (twice) — and burnt out both times. I see now that I was approaching the novel as a short story: I was attempting to run a marathon by sprinting the whole way. Exhausting.

Finally, I discovered the elegance of a loose outline.

I chose a few milestones to hit throughout the story — scenes that had some energy that I liked turning over and over in my head. I invited these scenes to come at the beginning, middle and end. I didn't force them this time — I just wrote a lot of boring notes and questions in my notebooks until something interesting happened on the page. I saved the interesting bits, highlighted them, and wrote them in general terms on Post-It notes and called them "milestones." I'm writing to these milestones now, a little at a time. And still, things change! And when they do, I simply adjust the outline as I go. It's an approach that mixes the joy of freewriting with the comfort of an outline. Nabokov's index cards


2. Use index cards instead of tiny notebooks. If I ever do this again, (i.e. write another novel), I might start by writing down those first salient images and scenes on index cards instead of using highlighters and Post-It notes in all of my little notebooks.

The thing is, I love writing in my little books. But once the images are written down in there, it's harder to work with them. The highlighters and sticky notes are okay, but I confuse myself with my own colour codes. The process of writing a first draft is inherently messy, and honestly, I no longer remember what I meant by pink vs. yellow. I am resisting the urge to rip out the pages and arrange them on the floor to get a picture of where they all fit in the story. And besides, I wrote on both sides of the paper, so that might not even work. I guess I haven't figured this part out yet. I might still have to rip my books apart — this stage of the process is still TBA.

Next time, I'm using index cards, and keeping them in a neat little box like Liz Gilbert does.


3. Some days, track by word count. I aim for 1000 words a day. Some days I only get to 600 words, and some days I hit 2000. It averages out in a satisfying way, and you know what? The pages add up! It feels incredible to have all of those pages behind me. It's a confidence booster. It helps me feel like less of a fraud. So what if I don't reread them? Onward!


4. Some days, track by insights. (Jill Margo taught me this, via Susan Swan.) On those days that a word count doesn't happen, I write down my insights each day in my notebook instead. Lo and behold, I really am writing, even when I'm not writing! Thinking about my characters is important, not to be overlooked. So what if I don't have a word count? Onward!


5. We're all on the hero's journey. We all live in story. This has been a powerful revelation. Probably annoying for my family and friends, who are all now aware of where they are on the hero's journey, because I can't stop pointing it out. Ditto for episodes of Nashville and The Good Wife, etc. Also, myself. But once I saw how we all hear the call to action, feel resistance, experience false victory, suffering, surrender, I can't un-see it! Joseph Campbell was so right.


6. Your story is smarter than you are. My job is to be curious. Images and scenes come up and I have to trust that they're there for a reason, otherwise the act of writing feels hostile.

There's so much faith and trust involved in this process.

It's humbling and beautiful. I have to honour and respect my subconscious every day, like it's a wise elder, even though I might not understand what it's doing.


7. Write the story from the beginning to the end. I'm keeping it in order, writing from scene to scene, lily pad to lily pad, as things happen in the book I am writing. My story wants to be told in a linear fashion. So even if I have a flashback, I wait until I get to the place it appears in the story before I write it. That's been helpful. Any time I've tried writing a scene out of order, it has confused me later.


8. Let yourself write it badly. Giving yourself permission to write crappy stuff really does make it possible to write something interesting. I learn this every single day as if for the first time.


9. Nothing is ever wasted. Who's to say that spending three years on false starts wasn't utterly necessary for what I'm working on, now? Who's to say that writing in the little notebooks — not index cards — hasn't been essential to this story as it develops? Creation is not tidy and efficient. It's exploratory and random. It only feels inefficient when you compare it to washing and drying dishes, or packing bags of produce. There are no rules for this.


10. Everybody is different. Please take all of the above with a big crystal of salt. These are just my thoughts on how I'm writing my first novel. I'm learning as I go. I feel like a little baby beginner. I'm definitely not an expert! Everybody will have a different process. What's more, my own process changes, depending on the day! My best advice: listen to yourself, be curious, and be open — try whatever works, and pay attention to how you feel.    


How to train for your writing marathon.
What does "show, don't tell"; really mean? Part 2 of 2.

31 comments

Emily Bertholf

Oh, Sarah, this was delightful to hear! I, too, am working on my first novel, for about the fourth time through the "first draft." On bad days I feel depressed about all the false starts, loopy strategies, messy notes and my inability to power through. But on good days I'm able to catch the glimmer of a new insight or idea and let myself dare to follow it again. It is a roller coaster of an adventure. You've expressed the experience well and given some valuable tips. (I think you and Liz are on to something with those cards.) Thank you.
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Victor Hendricken

Dear Sarah: This is the best advice on writing ever given to me. Thank you.
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Diane Ferguson

I really loved this right now as I approach my second novel. I think you just gave me permission to start without every scene figured out. I do have the major ones in my head. Something I've just discovered is Scrivener! Very exciting because it allows you to have all your notes, your character notes and index cards all in the computer. You can also move your scenes around.
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Thank you, Sarah. These are such great tips and insights! And, as usual, I love the way you present them - with clarity, humour and humility. I always feel more hopeful after reading your posts : ). Thanks.
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Suzannah Windsor

Sarah, you nailed the point about outlines. Plotting is not my strong point, so with longer pieces I need a loose outline to avoid writing myself into a corner. I agree that a detailed outline interferes with the joy of discovery. When I leave myself that bit of freedom, my story and characters often surprise me with insights I couldn't have come up with on my own. You can't plan those little gems ahead of time, and those insights—in my opinion—are what separates a mediocre story from a great story.
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Alex Bednar

Thank you for this Sarah… It's so thoughtful and mirrors my own experience of trying to write a first novel. I began by writing scenes all over the place in random order and then found them almost impossible to incorporate later. Also I had written them from many different POV's before making the decision to write in only from the main character's POV. Ooops. I also learned the hard way that figuring too much out before doing the actual writing makes for a boring experience and less exciting writing.
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I love this post! So many of the novel writing pitfalls and processes are things that I have experienced too...especially the desire to use an outline and the resulting story deflation! I'm worki g on a novel right now and have been feeling a bit discouraged, but this post is just what I needed to get back at it!
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Point no. 1 made me laugh--and reminded me of my experience of woodenly drafting a crappy novel a couple of years ago. Useful and funny advice: thanks!
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This rings absolutely true! Thank you for posting what you've learned! I have found the same. I follow a loose outline and now I'm even finding that my second draft is quite loose, as well. It makes the whole process so much more fun in terms of finding out who or what lies around the corner. It would also be tough for me to stick to working on a novel for an extended time if I were to follow a rigid outline. I do feel it is good to have an ending in mind. With my current novel, though, I may experiment with changing my ending. I agree about writing the story chronologically. I was hooked on book writing right away when I started, because I was really spooked by the fact that it feels like someone is speaking it into your ear. It's such a strange, fun phenomenon. Happy writing!
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Heather Adams

I love these thoughts! I have completed one novel and am working on my 2nd; the interesting thing is that my process has been slightly different with the 2nd one. I think it's b/c this story is more plot-driven whereas the first one was more character-driven. Thank you for sharing your journey and insights with us!
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Love these - very inspiring, and captures so much of the mysterious mish-mash of writing into some concrete, reassuring thoughts. I'm off to create!
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LOVE this. Thank you so much for sharing. Going to try the loose outline because the other way, definitely makes me not want to write.
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"It only feels inefficient when you compare it to washing and drying dishes, or packing bags of produce." I never really considered this. Of course I'm comparing my writing process to things I've been doing for a long time, over and over, enough to develop efficient and effective processes for them. Why? Because I've technically been "writing" all my life. I feel like I should have developed a similarly effective process by now. I haven't tried yet. This makes sense now. Thanks. Again.
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Hahaha, numbers 1 and 8 really ring true for me. I keep having to tell myself that it doesn't matter if a certain sentence is phrased poorly considering that scene might not even make it out of the next draft alive. And, yeah, outlining never works for me but I get lost without one. I've ended up with something similar to your milestones; I have a vague idea where I'm going, but my characters can still surprise me (which is both a blessing and a curse!).
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Thanks, Sarah, I loved your ideas, especially thinking that your story is smarter than you. It's all about trusting the process, isn't it?
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Sarah, I love this post, which is (as per usual) funny, insightful, helpful, and deeply human. Thank you for sharing bits of your "hero's journey" with us, in ways that uplift, inspire, and, well, help -- you are an absolute gift, and gem!
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Don't forget: ENJOY IT! Most of us aren't forced to write a novel. When I meet resistance I remember why I started, smile, and run with the opportunity like a theft in broad daylight.
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Hey, Sarah! Just read this... and I wanted to share what I think about my stories. I think that you don't make up what your characters are doing... instead, you play it noir and follow them around, monitoring their every move. Of course, in your story you can tweak their actions a bit... but make sure you're not being a bully to your characters by forcing them to do things. Go with the flow! See what comes out of it!
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I was helped in getting a first draft down by the nature of my story, in that my protagonist had 2 months to achieve his objective. So I set up a timeline with milestones indicating where he was likely to be at different stages of his journey. This gave me a solid framework, but with the flexibility to accommodate the unexpected.
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Kristin Offiler

Oh so much of this rings true for me, Sarah! I've been working on a novel since late August, but I didn't know at first that I was working on a longer story. I was actually doing SSM again and a scene from one of the exercises (in Plot & Drift, surprise, surprise) stayed with me so intensely that I started freewriting on those characters every day for weeks afterwards. That turned into months of writing scene after scene, and doing exercise after exercise with these two people as I tried to figure them out. Eventually I realized all the scenes I was writing were adding up and that the story stretched out in both directions farther than I could see at the time. I tried outlining; it failed (and felt very constricting and tight in my body, physically). I tried not outlining; that worked ok for a while as I just let myself freewrite. But ultimately, something in the middle worked best for me. I would write where the energy was and through the writing, figured out what the storyline was. I'd sit down every few weeks and take a scene inventory and figure out where the holes were, and work from there. I actually have been writing this thing from the center outwards, if that makes sense. In my head it's all in order (and in Scrivener it is too, thank GOD for Scrivener) but if I had stuck to an outline, I never would have realized some of the huge plot points that came out naturally just from writing. My biggest lesson so far (also to be taken with a grain of salt) is that thinking through the story on a "logical" level never works. Feeling through the story as I actually write scenes works every single time. It's only through actually writing that I can see the story clearly. Thank you for sharing this list, Sarah. We really should catch up sometime soon!!!! xo
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Thank you for sharing your challenges and triumphs with us. Your belief in the work is a great example to us aspiring novelists, to have faith in our own work and to persevere through the challenges that we will inevitably encounter.
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Thanks so much Sarah for sharing so openly with us. I really appreciate you. All that you share with us helps me to keep going and this has really helped me to allow myself to think differently about how I approach writing my novel (first one). It is so different to writing a spiritual memoir which I did, and published in November - and that took me a few years!! I really look forward to meeting you in Tuscany :o).
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Stephen D. Forman

Hi Sarah, Isn't it funny how, no matter what subject you post about, such a varied group of readers inevitably springs forth to commend you for your "timeliness"? ("Your timing couldn't be better!") You're always right on time. Count me among them. I'd been meaning to pose you a question (I thought it might make a good blog topic). To wit, does writing take place in the brain, or on the page? In my case, I spend an inordinate amount of time "writing" away from the keyboard. If someone were to look at me and ask, "Hey, watcha doin'?" I'd say [points to head], "Writing." I never formally presented the question because...what does it matter? To whom do I owe an answer? It changes nothing. But lucky me! You've addressed this in your blog above: you spend time on both. PS. I just enjoyably wasted an hour reviewing the Hero's Journey on Google Image Search. You're right... it IS everywhere : )
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David Allen Kimmel

Sarah - congrats on your continuing progress on your novel. Having recently completed my first draft and first full round of edits, I understand exactly where you're coming from - and I think you're right on in your processes. If there's one piece of advice I'd offer, or reinforce, it's the comment you made in #3 about not always re-reading what you wrote that day. I would, in fact, encourage you not to - or at the very least, to spend very little time or energy on it. As you note, "ever forward" should always be your motto as you work through your first draft. Again, as you note, your story will continue to evolve and change as you complete it, and so waiting until the first draft is complete to begin any type of editing is the best way to proceed. If you're interested, I have a 5-part blog series on my writing process on my website at www.davidallenkimmel.com. Cheers - and I wish you all the best as you complete the rest of your novel!
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you so much for your comments, everyone. (I stepped away from the Internet for a while - just catching up and reading these now!) I was quite moved when I came to this page and read all of the thoughts, advice, stories, and encouragement here. Wow. It means so much to me that you thought to respond, and to share your experiences with me. I'm taking some time off in February to work on the next chunk of the book, and reading this page of comments has made my heart feel very full and even more ready to dive in. MANY THANKS. xo Sarah
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David Allen Kimmel

Best of all things to you, Sarah. May you find as much joy in the process as I have!
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K.D. Blankenship

I appreciate this article on many levels, thank you so much for it! It really hit home for me as someone that's been playing with the idea of writing a novel after so many years of not writing. I have a tendency to think in scenes and I've often found myself at the same mercy of confusion of plot/where the story is heading. The first point nailed it on the head. Whenever I work with an outline that's way too much, I end up getting bored of the story after a certain amount of chapters into it. If I do too little of an outline, I end up with a great idea from the start and then get stuck at story holes or character boredom. The index card idea might be a great place to start, considering the way I think in images and feeling. Great advice Sarah, I'll remember to take it one day at a time and not overwhelm myself!
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Just signed up for a novel building course w Grub Street...want to work on a piece that I realized last year was going to be too cumbersome to be a short story. I love your fresh view on novel writing Sarah- will keep this advice handy!
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Manne Fagerlind

I agree with almost everything you say, and it makes me wonder whether I should go back to pen and paper. It'd likely be exhausting since I have been using word processors for 20 years, but still ... there's nothing quite like writing something out by hand. Using Scrivener (a recent discovery for me) comes close however: it lets me grow my text organically.
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This post is so important to me, it has reaffirmed everything that I've learned about writing so far... I definitely share some of my writing process with yourself and it feels so good to know that I'm not the only one out there. Thanks Sarah!
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Mamie Pound

Thank you. You've given us permission and reason to hopscotch rather than plan every step. I honestly believe I was avoiding writing a novel because I didn't want to outline, yet feared getting lost, or "losing the taut story line" without a specific road map. This makes perfect sense and it's probably the most intuitive, productive way to write.
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