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riting a novel is one of the biggest accomplishments of a writer’s life. Every novelist has her own way of writing a novel. From outlining to sticky notes to just writing the darn thing, novel writing is a process that can differ for each writer. If you have never written a novel but you have a brilliant idea for one, then maybe you can find a process here that might work for you. For those novelists out there struggling with their current methods, look these over and try something new.


The very word, outlining, causes some writers to break out in hives. Others can’t live without their outlines, and they refer to them every time they work on their novels. Outlining a novel may not look the same for every writer, and very few use what we all learned in high school with Roman numerals, capital letters, numbers, and lowercase letters.

Lynn Viehl, who has written 42 novels in 5 genres under different pseudonyms, writes about outlining novels on her blog, Paperback Writer. She gives several examples of outlining a book by chapters and then outlining a chapter with scenes.

Most writers, who use outlining, swear by it, and they usually write an outline that looks something like this:

  1. Chapter ONE: The Confrontation
    1. Character A will confront Character B about an affair, which Character A will deny.
    2. During the confrontation and denial, both characters wind up dead.
  2. Chapter TWO: The Discovery
    1. Main Character Detective Dreamy enters the scene and declares that there is no way these two could have been involved in a murder-suicide. This is a double homicide.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter summaries take outlining one step further with more details about what will happen in each chapter. They are usually written in paragraph form and highlight the main action in each chapter. These summaries are often less rigid than an outline, and they can be especially useful for people who like to free write about their plans for each chapter.

Sometimes with outlining, people get hung up on the format. These writers may benefit from using chapter summaries. Chapter descriptions can easily be used to write the novel synopsis when the book is finished, and the author is shopping around for an agent or editor.

Here is an example of the chapter summaries method from my current young adult novel-in-progress, The Curses That Tried to Ruin My Life:

Prologue: Newspaper report of Julie’s parents and her in the car accident.  She survived and went to live with her aunt. A quote from Grandmother so everyone knows she exists, but she is strange.

Chapter One: Julie is in the kitchen with Aunt Lizzie and little cousin Stevie.  She gets a phone call from Debbie Winters, The Mona Show producer.  They want to interview her for an update show and plan to send a satellite crew to her house in a few days.  Julie doesn’t want to do it for a variety of reasons such as hates her teeth and she sweats too much, and she just wants to stay out of the limelight and live her life. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, Gus, after two years because she wouldn’t sleep with him. She loves Katherine Hepburn, as her mother did.

“Put the two stacks together in the order you think the events, clues, and red herrings will appear in your mystery novel.”

Note cards/Sticky Notes

Tactile learners learn best when they can manipulate items and experience activities and events. Tactile writers are similar—they need to physically manipulate their stories. Sticky notes and note cards work for some novelists because they can flip through their ideas, change their order, or even throw them away while they work on their novels. 

For example, let’s say you are writing a mystery novel. You have figured out the crime, clues, red herrings, and how the case is solved. You can write each of these ideas on index cards or sticky notes, so you can change the order of events with a flip of a card or a new arrangement of sticky notes. Once these note cards are filled out, you can create cards for transitional events. Then put the two stacks together in the order you think the events, clues, and red herrings will appear in your mystery novel. The index cards become like an outline, guiding you through your story.

The photo above shows a sticky note system for my young adult novel. Each main character has sticky notes listing features, hobbies, names, and relationships. Events in each of the chapters are also listed on sticky notes to easily find information for later references and to keep track of what has already happened in the story.

Barri L. Bumgarner, author of Dregs and Slipping, used a sticky-note method when she wrote her first novel. “Back in the good old days when I wrote 8 Days, I had post-its all over my desk out in my sun room, and it looked like a strange game of concentration!” she said. “If I lost one, I was doomed!”

Now she uses notes and character sketches in a file folder for each novel and mostly uses her computer for writing. Her process has changed over time, and she has learned what works best for her to write a successful novel.

“For the most part, writing on my laptop, comfortable with my puppies snuggled up next to me, even out on my deck by the pool, seems to work best,” Bumgarner said. “For my Danna Scanlon thrillers, I even like to have music playing for inspiration and to keep me grounded in the present.”

“When these novelists put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, they know their characters better than they know themselves.”

Character Sketches and Setting Descriptions

Some novelists start with their characters and setting. Ellen Hopkins, popular young adult author of books written in verse such as Crank and Identical, believes character is everything for her and her stories. In her pre-novel phase, she spends as long as two months, thinking about her characters. “My process probably seems inefficient,” she said. “Many top novelists write in a similar way, including Stephen King, Richard Peck, and others.”

Some writers will fill out pages and pages of questions on their main character’s background, likes and dislikes, romantic relationships since the third grade, and fashion sense. When these novelists put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, they know their characters better than they know themselves. 

Hopkins has a similar process. “Mostly, it’s in my head rather than on paper... I do not know what they eat (unless they have an obsession or eating disorder) or what they watch on TV,” she said. “I do know how they view their little piece of the world and why. What in their past created their present?”

Some writers will start with a setting, a place they really want to write about, and research as much as they can about that city, state, or country until a story pops out. They may have pages and pages of notes about their setting to work into the novel’s plot. In these books, the setting becomes another character—the story couldn’t happen anywhere else.

If you want to try character sketches before you start your novel, here’s a place to start:

Character’s Full Name and Age:  
Birthplace and Cities Where He/She Grew Up:  
Immediate Family Members (as a child):  
What does he/she hate?  

You can continue this chart for your character study, or you can also write a character description in paragraph form. The bottom line is you have to find the method that works for you, like Ellen Hopkins did with her character, Kristina Snow, in the novels Crank and Glass. Kristina is a meth-addicted teenager who readers know like she was their best friend. She has a dead-beat dad, a druggie boyfriend, and makes many wrong decisions. But readers care about her and what happens to her because Hopkins took the time to make a three-dimensional, realistic character before she started writing her novels.

“Before NaNo starts, I create a spreadsheet and determine how many days I can write.”

NaNoWriMo or Just Write the Darn Thing

MSome novelists make just a few notes before they start writing. Then they write the whole novel, leaving blank spots if they need to do research or get stuck on a plot point. They forge through to the novel’s end like a hungry mole tunneling through the ground. Just finishing the novel is important for the writer, and then they go back, revise, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Tricia Sanders, freelance writer and host of the blog “A Novel Approach,” has participated in NaNoWriMo, which is held in November, for the past two years. NaNoWriMo is for writers who want to dedicate a month to starting and finishing a novel. The finished piece is not perfect on November 30th; but at least, they’ve gotten started. Sanders has finished two novels with this method, and a partial of novel number one is currently in the hands of an agent.

“Before NaNo starts, I create a spreadsheet and determine how many days I can write,” she said. “My goal is usually 2000 words per day. But I really try to get in extra words at the beginning of the month.  Each day, I look at the spreadsheet and see where I'm at in relation to where I want to be.”

Sanders equates this process of novel writing—forging through to the end—with housecleaning. When she cleans house, she might stop to organize a closet and lose sight of the fact that she wanted to clean her house. Hours later, she has one closet organized and a dirty house. When writing a novel if she goes back to fix scenes, then she doesn’t finish her novel. She may have a perfect scene, but she can’t send that one scene into an agent. She needs a complete manuscript. 

“I do have to say that NaNoWriMo provides me with the motivation I need to keep writing,” Sanders said. “Because I don't go back and edit [during NaNoWriMo], I don't get stuck nearly as often.” She doesn’t fix spelling or grammar even—she just keeps on trucking to the end.

She does do some planning ahead of time with an outline and character sketches, which she tries to have finished in August. This process of novel writing is obviously working for her because she’s ready to tackle novel number three this November.

If you think NaNoWriMo could motivate you to write your next novel, then it is easy to sign up. According to Sanders, you just go to the NaNoWriMo website and click the “sign up now” link. You select a username, provide your email address, and agree to their terms if you are over 13 years old. Sanders said the website is full of supportive information for writers who want to give NaNoWriMo a try, including “write-ins” in local communities for writers who do not like to write alone.

Two Useful Novel Writing Books

There seem to be almost as many how-to-write-a-novel guides as there are novels on the bookshelves. Here are two that are popular and helpful:

The Weekend Novelist—Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris write an interesting book about how to write a novel on the weekends. They claim that if you follow their process, you will have a complete novel after 52-weekends. This is a great idea for people who work full-time jobs, and have a few hours on the weekends to work on their writing. It also touches on symbolism and plotting in a novel.

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing—Evan Marshall presents a 16-step writing program for any writer to complete and fulfill her goal of writing and finishing a novel. Marshall has experience as an editor and a literary agent.

So, what are you waiting for? You’ve got your idea, you’ve completed your research, and now, it’s time to pick a method and get started writing your novel! Remember, the best writing process for you is the one that makes you actually write your novel.


Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. She is a columnist, instructor, and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is the memoir and children’s/YA novel editor at High Hill Press and the assistant editor for the Sunday Books page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, was published by White Mane Kids. Her children’s picture book, Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies, was published by Guardian Angel Publishing. Caught Between Two Curses, her young adult novel, was published by Rocking Horse Publishing. High Hill Press will publish her children’s picture book, Lucy and the Red Ribbon Week Adventure. She blogs on Tuesdays at The Lit Ladies, and is a regular blogger at The Muffin. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911, and is an instructor for the WOW! Women On Writing Classroom. She loves speaking to writing groups, teachers, and young writers and has presented several workshops to all ages. When she’s not writing or speaking, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and dog—Chester, a boxer.


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