Writing in a notebook
Writing in a notebook

This article describes the methods I use and the steps I follow that have proven to be very effective at avoiding writer’s block and at meeting deadlines. This process is efficient, methodical, and productive. If you follow this approach, it is very reasonable to expect that you can write an 80,000-word fiction novel from concept to publication-ready in less than five months.

Prepare to be Creative

When the muse hits, be prepared. Keep a notebook or note-taking app handy (personal preference) at all times. Jot down even the smallest ideas that come to mind, whenever they happen — don’t rely on your memory alone.

I keep my notebook nearby when watching movies or listening to music. These activities give me ideas for character names or traits. I also find my muse when traveling. Seeing diverse scenery and meeting new people often provides inspiration for my biggest and best ideas.

Find your muse and keep your notebook handy for when creativity strikes.

Allow Creativity to Happen – Creative Place and Mindset

Find a place where you can focus on creativity without distractions. It’s not as important to find a particular day or time, as that is often out of your control. If you know that you only have an hour a day, or a few specific hours on a weekend, allocate that time and keep it sacred.

Get into your creative space and remove every distraction possible. Are you familiar with the way your brain says “Let’s talk!” as soon as you crawl into bed at night? That’s because your brain has your undivided attention. Use that technique to let your creativity be in charge. Simulate (metaphorically) that state of being under the covers, the lights off, comfortable — and free of distractions.

If you get your best ideas lying in bed, keep your notebook nearby. It’s not uncommon for nocturnal ideas to disappear by morning; don’t rely on being able to remember them.

Write down what comes to mind. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or anything formal. Just get your thoughts down on paper. Use position on the page to your advantage if the juxtaposition between ideas means something to you. Draw doodles if that helps. The whole point is to get a raw capture of what’s in your brain without imposing the distractions of formality.

Tip: I prefer a quiet room with a paper notebook rather than a computer, because it’s too tempting to check email or social media.

Give Shape To Your Ideas

The next step is to go back into your creative space but be ready to be slightly more organized. This will be a bit more of a problem-solving session rather than a purely creative time.

Read over your captured ideas and start to think about these things:

  • Characters — Who is your protagonist and who is your antagonist?
  • Events — What are the key, high-level events that will happen to your main characters?
  • Locations — Where will these events occur?

Spend a bit more care writing down your ideas. Don’t be afraid to use short sentences or even paragraphs if the mood strikes, but avoid being completely random or needlessly verbose. The point of this session is to give your raw ideas some initial shape and flow.

The whole purpose of this phase is to flesh out your raw ideas, with the end goal of turning it into a plot event list (an outline).

Define your Characters

This phase of the process is reiterative. I will often spend a few sessions focusing just on character development. I want to really get to know my characters and will write 1-2 page biographies about them. These bios will include physical descriptions, noteworthy events from their history, and personality traits. I’ll define their fears, ambitions, passions, aversions, likes and dislikes, enemies and friends, relatives, etc. Any detail about my character that might come up in the story ahead is noted, as well as anything that will inform how I write them — their mannerisms, way of speaking, etc. This character development is much like an actor getting into the head of the role they will portray. The only difference is you are creating that character from scratch, not mimicking an existing person.

Location, location, location!

Locations are like characters. I write descriptions of where they are located in my world and any pertinent or likely facts that may come up, such as population, elevation, climate, and prominent historical facts. I also like to define the location’s character. Is it lawless or does it have authoritarian policing? Does it have the smell of nearby swamps or industry? Are the residents matter-of-fact or carefree and joyous? Great writers let the environment their characters dwell within have a personality of its own, taking on its own character. It’s like the seasoning you add to a dish to make it taste that much better.

What Happens to Whom

Events are the things that happen to your characters as they move about in your environment. It also represents the order of things as they occur. Not every story is linear in how events are presented, so pay attention to the order of events as they actually happened. It’s okay to reveal events in a non-sequential order if you have a reason for it — does it serve the story? See the Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction” for an example of non-linear storytelling.

Continue to flesh out your characters, locations, and events until you have an adequate amount of detail for your story.

Plot Event List

The purpose of this phase is to create a plot event list. It is a series of statements that describe each scene of your book, listed in the order they will appear in your manuscript.

Review your notes from the previous phase, paying special attention to your events. Write each event as a single sentence with a brief supporting paragraph to provide a little extra detail.

These sentences and paragraphs will become your scenes. You will write your book one scene at a time, helping focus your mind on what is at hand without being distracted or intimidated by the overall scale of your story.

Each scene statement and supporting paragraph should contain enough information to get your brain focused on what needs to be written. The scenes you write can end up being as short as a few paragraphs or many pages. The point is to keep each scene self-contained and about a single event as much as possible. It is reasonable to have between three and eight scenes per chapter, but don’t sweat it too much if you intentionally go above or below that number if it makes sense to do so.

The primary purpose of scenes is to break the book into manageable chunks as an aid to writing.

The final step is to organize your scenes into chapters. Although you may not have a specific number of words or pages per scene, try to accomplish these two objectives:

  1. Keep chapters at roughly the same length.
  2. Phrase or arrange your scenes in the order that makes the most sense for the story.

Primary Composition

Once you have your plot event list completed and organized into chapters, it’s now time to start writing the book itself. You should already have bios written for each of your main characters, your locations are well laid out and adequately described, and you know all the key events that will occur and the order they will happen — and the order they will appear in your story.

Start with your first scene. Read your scene statement (single sentence) and supporting paragraph. Read the bios of the characters that will be acting in this scene and review them. Like an actor preparing for a scene, get into the mindset of the characters and understand their motivations.

Without trying to edit on the fly, begin writing the scene. Don’t worry too much about the overall story — you already have that figured out.

A great tip is to compose the first scene of the book to be something that is short, snappy, and catches the reader’s attention without being overly informative. Raise questions but provide no answers, only hints. Give the reader a reason to read the next scene.

Now that you’re started, you will discover how all the prep work and processes really help you become a productive writer.

Hone Your Process

Find specific days and times during the week when you can write. Be as consistent as possible. I personally write on weekend mornings before the rest of the household is awake. I am focused, not distracted or worried about things, the house is quiet, and I don’t run the risk of other events during the day ruining my schedule.

If you only have an hour to write every other Thursday evening, so be it. Do what works for you, but be consistent. Set that time aside and make sure everyone who might take you away from it knows that you are unavailable and not to be disturbed. Period. Non-negotiable.

Even though you are properly writing your book now, this phase is equal parts creativity and production. You’ve already done a great deal of the legwork on your story. You know what’s going to happen to whom and where it will take place. All you’re doing now is filling in the details.

Because you are only writing one scene at a time, you’ve taken a huge undertaking and broken it down into manageable, easy to chew tasks.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Avoid the urge to edit yourself as you go. It’s not uncommon for writers to spend a needless amount of time writing and rewriting their opening paragraphs over and over again, spending more time working the backspace key than any other. Don’t do that. It’s like driving with the emergency brake on.

Our brains work in different ways depending on the circumstance. You will learn — if you don’t already know — when you are most creative, when you are most productive (they aren’t always the same), and when you are the most critical. These can take place at completely different times of day or days of the week, or even in different locations. I like to take a notebook to pubs and jot down my brainstorming ideas, but would never take my laptop to the same place for primary composition or editing. It just wouldn’t work for me.

Write in one session, and set aside another session to go back and read what you’ve written and give it a brief edit. Make them separate efforts. I’ll usually spend Saturday morning writing, often 2,000-5,000 words, sometimes more. I’ll then spend Sunday morning reading over what I wrote the day before. Sometimes I’ll review and edit on weeknights, but not often and not usually for long periods of time, typically an hour or less.

The following writing session, skim over the previous scene or two just to get a sense for where you left off. Read your next scene’s statement and supporting paragraph, read your pertinent bios and location descriptions, and start writing.

This is a highly productive process and you’ll be amazed at how many words you can write per week. It can be easier to produce six scenes of 8,000 words total than a single chapter of the same length. It’s a psychological thing, where you get mini-rewards throughout your sessions rather than bigger but delayed gratification at some seemingly distant point on the future.

Editing and Post-production

You have an editor, right? You’re not editing your own work, are you? Sure, you’re reviewing your scenes as you go along and making changes, but that’s not what I mean by editing. An editor is another person who’s sole job is to help your writing be the best it can be. They don’t write for you, they refine you.

Editing is a different skill than writing. The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches, and the best coaches aren’t always the best athletes. Editors are similar to coaches in that regard. Writing the story is your job. Making sure your story is conveyed in the best way possible is your editor’s job.

There are different types of editors, and there are different ways to work with them.

I break down editors into two types, and yes, they can exist in the same person. I call them story editors and line editors. I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor that performs both functions remarkably well.

A story editor makes sure your character development maintains the best flow and pace, and they keep you from changing the rules without realizing it. For example, a good story editor might say something like, “In chapter 17, scene two, you have the main character wielding their sword in their left hand, yet back in chapter 3, they held it in their right. Are they right- or left-handed? Ambidextrous?” They keep you on track. (This may seem like a trivial detail, but readers pick up on little things like that and will ding you in reviews for it.)

Story editors will also let you know if you are being overly expository (you’re telling the reader what’s going on instead of showing them) or if you need to expand what’s happening in a scene. They have opinions about what’s lacking, what’s glaring, and areas that could use improvement, but they often leave it to you to figure out how to solve these problems. Remember, the story is your job, they’re just helping you make the expression of that story the best it can possibly be. You won’t always agree with your story editor, but never do or say anything that might discourage them from being able to be honest with you. You’re paying them for their honesty. Value it.

Quick note: Editors are people, too, and some people are jerks. There’s a difference between giving honest feedback and being an asshole. Make sure you get along with your editor and don’t compromise your emotional health over it, even if they’re technically good at what they do.

Line editors will review your grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and other mechanics of your words, but won’t get involved in story or plot or how things feel.

Now that I’ve described the two types of editors, and hoping that you can find both skillsets in the same person (it’s cheaper that way), how you work with your editor is important.

Writer+Editor Workflow

There are two main ways to work with your editor. You can work a few chapters at a time, or write the whole book before your editor sees a single word of it.

As I mentioned previously, I write on weekends. I compose on Saturday, then review and refine my work on Sunday. I then pass along to my story editor everything I’ve completed over that weekend. They have the week to review what I’ve written and give me feedback. They often will send me a Word document with annotations noted within either through Track Changes functionality, or color coding/highlighting. They don’t correct my spelling or grammar, unless I am using an odd spelling or capitalization for something, in which case they might ask if it’s deliberate.

I’ll either spend an evening late in the week making any changes based on their suggestions, or I’ll spend the first part of my Saturday morning on rewrites if their suggestion warrant it.

This often equates to one to three chapters being written, reviewed, edited, and revised per week.

There are some benefits to this stepped approach. If my story editor has strong feelings about where things are going with a character’s development, or a side character has a lot of unfulfilled promise, they’ll often point this out. It can make me stop and think about my original story idea, and based on their feedback, I may decide to alter the planned events or character development points. I’ve also dropped entire chapters before because, based on my story editor’s feedback, they either weren’t adding anything to the story, or they just didn’t make sense. Changing the order of events can come up, too.

It’s important to keep in mind that I don’t share my plot event list with my story editor ahead of time. I want to get their feedback as a reader of the story, with their opinion fresh and untainted by me spoiling the story ahead of time.

“I really look forward to seeing what happens between Jane and John in the next chapter,” is something you want to hear from your editor.

Remember, give your reader a reason to turn every page and see what happens next.

Final Editing

Congratulations! After repeating this process chapter by chapter, you have completed the first draft of your story. You should not anticipate any significant rewrites, only minor revisions that don’t affect the plot much, if at all.

Once I have iteratively worked with my story editor through all the chapters, I will often leave my book alone for a week or two and not look at it or touch it. This is to give myself a sense of fresh eyes. I will then begin reading through my completed draft from page one. If I see misspellings or weird grammar, I’ll fix it, but otherwise I’m trying to get a reader’s perspective of the story as a whole.

Pay attention to the song, not the notes. Does it make you tap your feet or want to dance?

I will make notes about character development and key events, and decide as I go along if I feel they are serving the overall story that I wanted to tell. Is the story eliciting the emotions I hoped to create in my reader? Is it boring me? During this read-through, you should get a sense for parts that drag or go too fast.

Sometimes removing something can be just as useful as adding something new.

Once I have read through the entire manuscript, and made any revisions that I felt were necessary, I’ll turn the book over to my story editor for their full read-through.

I’ll review their suggestions and make any changes I feel necessary, and will communicate any things I disagreed with and why. They often give suggestions or feedback that can help me find a better approach to further improve the story.

Once those changes are completed, I’ll hand the entire manuscript over to my line editor (or the same editor if it’s the same person). This is where they fix all the typos and grammar and make the story mechanically sound. They will not be giving advice about plot, character development, or anything like that. Unless you have a very specific and deliberate reason not to, accept their edits. It is their job to focus on the notes and make sure a B-flat sounds like a B-flat; they won’t be focusing on the overall song.

Publication

Converting your story into an eBook or formatting it for paperback publication is beyond the scope of this effort. But, I will remind you that once you’ve got your book into Kindle or Nook format, or get your first proof copy in paperback, give it another read. Pay the money to get your line editor to review it in those formats as well. Trust me, you’ll still find a typo or two, and you don’t want a stranger who paid to buy your book to let you know in their Goodreads or Amazon review.

Tip: Hire a cover designer. Unless you’re a graphic designer, don’t cheap out by designing your book cover yourself, even with those widgets offered by Amazon and the like. Cheap covers make readers think the book is unworthy of their time.

Summary

Using this process, I have written four novels between 65k and 105k words in four months, each. I spent roughly the same amount of time in the three phases of planning, composition, and editing/production. In one case, the primary composition phase was the shortest, taking only 30 days.

I want to point out that I am describing here the process that has worked best for me. Everyone is different and you should expect to find your own changes and tweaks to this process to make it work best for you. If you’re one of those people who write on a daily basis, you can expect to reach your goal of a completed manuscript in a shorter amount of time (depending on the availability of your editor, of course).

Be open to various ways of working, but ultimately do what works best for you. Find your own rhythm and path. Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is even harder, but that’s another topic for another day.

Good luck!