How to Overcome Writer’s Block and Write Your Novel

Outline first, but keep it loose and flexible

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

I wrote and self-published my first novel during quarantine. I’m not here to give you some foolproof guide to writing novels. I’m here to help you write your first novel, even if don’t know where to start. That’s a process I just went through successfully: Here’s what I learned.

First off, do you have an idea?

If not, write down all the little ideas you have that interest you. Possible plot points, premises, titles, things you care about, hypotheticals, dreams, genres, moral questions, whatever bugs you. Eventually, you’ll think of some ideas.

Now try to think about a story that could happen with some of them. Thinking about an idea, do you start playing out possible plot points in your head, or do you get writer’s block? A good premise should be easy to turn into a story.

Take the premise of Harry Potter: an orphan boy learns he’s a wizard and goes to wizard school. Even if you know nothing about Harry Potter, it’s easy to start imagining how the story goes. Your first thoughts might be too cliche, but you know you can make the plot work.

On the other hand, you might think of a cool idea, like a boy with a lightning scar, but you have no idea what else happens in the story. It’s a good idea, and you should save it for later, but it’s not the premise.

Eventually, you’ll find a story in one of your ideas, or you’ll think of a story by combining a few of them together. You can always bounce ideas off a friend if you get frustrated.

Now you have an idea.

Spend an hour thinking about it in your head, a few possible approaches and random scenes or characters. Now write — but don’t immediately write the novel.

Write down information about the novel.

This is how you get the first words on a page. Write down what’s going to happen, who the characters will be, what the themes will be. This doesn’t need to be extensive. You can have big gaps. But make sure you get at least a page or two.

Every writer’s different, but I’d recommend figuring out these details in particular:

1) The names of all the most important characters, because saying “main character guy” gets tedious. If you get stuck, remember that Word and its equivalents will let you easily find and replace the name, so you can change it at any point in the writing process.

2) A one-line description of the premise, so you know exactly what you’re writing about. You can have other, longer descriptions, but it’s clearer to be concise.

You don’t have to include every subplot and detail, just the overall elevator pitch. You’ll need to think of that later, anyway.

3) The beginning, middle, and ending of your story, so you know the general structure of the plot. Also, make sure particularly interesting things happen around all three points.

4) Each of the main characters’ single greatest desire, single greatest belief, single greatest flaw, and single greatest need. I’m making up my own versions of these terms based on what makes sense for me, and I’m sure you’ll do the same. You’ll find the gist of this step in a ton of fiction 101 books. The details change but the point is to understand your characters at a deep level.

My definitions:

Desire: the specific thing they want (to catch the killer, to become a movie star, the Iron Throne…)

Belief: Their innermost value system (At his core, s/he’s a wo/man who believes in truth/honor/justice/love…)

Flaw: their single greatest weakness, which they will either overcome or be destroyed by (Cowardice, arrogance, greed, toxic love, naivete, cynicism…)

Need: What they need to become to overcome their flaw, and either get the thing they desire or realize that it was never worth getting all along (Bravery, humility, generosity, the ability to let go, realism, hope…)

These are all connected. They must make sense together, but once you figure out one, the rest usually follow. This isn’t a checklist, just make sure you understand your characters on the inside.

Lastly…

5) The general arcs of the main characters, with some moral choices along the way.

These need to be consistent. If, in the novel’s first half, the detective is so obsessed with solving a woman’s murder that he forgets to love his wife, it will be hard to make the story’s second half be about the detective running for public office but having to overcome his racism. Those are two different stories, two different character arcs. You’d be better off making that the sequel.

Your characters can change drastically or end up in different circumstances, but make sure there’s a thread between everything.

Try and think of a few related moral choices that your character will face and make sure there’s some variety in what s/he chooses. By moral choice, I basically mean any time a character picks between two or more options, and what they choose tells us about them. Major characters will ideally make many choices, but you only need two or three main ones to build your story around.

In Casablanca, Rick used to be an idealist who helped people, now he’s refusing to help Ilsa, then he decides to help her but only to be with her, then he selflessly lets her go and embraces idealism once again. He makes contrasting, related moral choices, and those define his arc, and, ultimately, who he is as a person.

Remember…

That sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can rewrite this all later, just get stuff on the page as quickly as possible.

And you don’t have to do all of this, just do what you need to understand the story you want to tell. Some people want to write long backstories for their characters, or samples of their dialogue. Personally, I don’t find that necessary, just do what makes you feel comfortable.

But no matter what you do: If this is your first time writing a novel, write quickly.

Like in tech, move fast and break things.

I know a lot of aspiring writers. I have a degree in screenwriting. The whole class was invested in this. Most of them still haven’t written any kind of long-form story outside the program. They all know the theory by heart, and they all outline, but they never stop outlining.

You can’t get stuck coming up with ideas, constantly telling yourself you need to do more work on them.

That’s not planning, that’s fear.

My advice: Give yourself three days for this step. Then move on. If it’s not perfect, you can still go back to it.

And I don’t mean three eight-hour shifts. Eight hours total should be fine.

Now write an outline.

You might want to write a one-page outline, a five-page outline, etcetera. I did that for some unpublished screenplays. It was fine, but redundant. Also, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to make your story too large or small.

For me, a scene-by-scene outline is more useful. A few lines’ summary of every scene in your novel. Maybe even one line per scene.

Go to a new scene every time your story moves to a new place or time, or changes the characters involved. A montage is also one scene.

For reference, my novel had about five pages per outline scene. My scenes were fairly short, though.

Scene length varies, but they average out remarkably well. After you write a scene-by-scene outline, it’s easy to see the journey you’ll be taking the reader on.

This is the best time to make changes to your story. You can make big changes pain-free.

While you’re doing this, keep an eye on all the notes you wrote down. You want to make sure you stay on the story you want to tell, but also change it if you like a different idea more.

Outline, but be flexible.

And again, move fast and break things. Don’t take more than a week to write an outline, two if you’re busy. Then review the outline and make changes.

You might want to show it to a friend for more objective feedback. Remember, your friends aren’t God. They might just have different tastes than you. Don’t toss out anything you really believe in… but take their words seriously and don’t take offense.

Write new drafts of the outline, but only to fix your story’s flaws, not just because. I’d cap these revisions at a month.

Once you like your story and don’t know what else to change, start writing. Even if you’re still figuring out minor details, you can start writing. If you’re not sure or not, also start writing.

Seriously, start writing.

Keep writing down ideas. Outline with increasing detail. But also, write the story.

Starting to write is a lot harder than writing. Once you’ve done that, you’re ahead of the game.

You’ll change your outline a lot. That’s healthy. Stay flexible.

I wrote my last page first, I knew where my story was going. Then I wrote from beginning to end, following my outline, for maximum flexibility. I changed my last page a little when I got there, but having that goal kept the story focused.

One caution about changing your story: Every time you introduce an element into your story, make sure you know its resolution.

I improvise a lot. But after improvising, before you keep writing, revise your outline, at least mentally. If you can’t make the idea work, paste the improvised text somewhere for safekeeping and move on without it. This way, you don’t run into dead ends, or introduce concepts or characters you can’t pay off later.

If you get stuck, consult your outline.

If that doesn’t help, keep writing more notes and details about the scenes you’re heading into, until you know what must happen next.

If a scene seems a little awkward after you write it, keep writing and revise it later. This keeps you moving, and lets you review the scene later when you’re feeling less emotional about it. It might work and you were just being defeatist. It also might need changes you wouldn’t have thought about at the time.

One exception: If you think the characters or worldbuilding isn’t making sense, stop and figure that out. Awkward writing is isolated. Structural flaws will affect other scenes.

If you get stuck on the little details, write out an increasingly detailed outline of the scene you’re stuck on. (“Joe says he hates the bug army because of his dad’s death. The recruitment officer says he came to the right place. Joe signs up to fight.”)

If a scene feels overwhelming, just write the dialogue and outlines of important actions. Then do another pass where you fit it into prose. That way, you can focus on element, then the other.

Another bonus of writing dialogue and action before competing your prose: It forces your conflict into your characters’ words and actions, not just your exposition. That makes it easier to show instead of tell.

Keep writing whenever you can.

I wouldn’t make an exact commitment: If you say you’ll write five pages every day, eventually you’ll write four and become dispirited. But make sure you keep writing.

It’s more important to write often than to write a lot at once. If you can write ten pages a day, that’s great. But if you only write a page a day, you’ll still finish a 365-page novel in a year.

Every paragraph is progress and will pay off eventually. Even when you change that paragraph later, writing it in the first place is still progress. You couldn’t revise it if you’d never wrote.

Just make sure you write consistently, and make sure writing is a priority. Even if that seems a little selfish or irrational, it will never get done if it isn’t a priority. It doesn’t have to be your #1 priority all the time, but it does have to be your #1 priority for a few hours a week.

After you’ve reached the end of the book, save it for the millionth time in multiple places. Then go back through the book and fix up typos and clarify anything that’s really unclear.

For your first revision, only fix the typos.

Don’t make substantial changes. You will be emotional and might change something that’s better than you think, or which becomes important later and you’re forgetting right now. Take this time to think about your story and how it reads.

Then beg your friends to read it. This is the single most dispiriting part of writing a novel. Not the feedback, just trying to get it.

You only need two or three people to give you honest, considerate advice, but you’ll probably need to ask a dozen or more people to get this. It might not be the people you think, either. It might be that random friend from college. If your closest friends aren’t getting around to it, keep widening the net.

If possible, it’s helpful to get feedback from people you don’t know well. They won’t be biased by years of friendship. Your final reader won’t know your life, so it’s helpful if your first readers don’t, either.

After you get feedback, think about it for a week, then make revisions.

See if you can change small stuff before you change big stuff. Sometimes, one line completely changes how a scene feels to the reader.

If a character is confusing, first try seeing if you can clarify the character a bit. If they’re unlikable, try giving her/him another sympathetic moment. Yes, it’s shameless, but it’s worth trying little fixes first.

Major revisions take time. You don’t want to invest that time needlessly.

If you wrote a strong outline, you probably won’t need major structural changes. If you knew your characters inside and out, you won’t need to rewrite them too much. That’s why both those elements are so important to plan ahead of time, because plot and character are the hardest elements of your story to revise. They’re too fundamental on every page.

You may need a lot of revisions. Save every change.

You don’t need to move fast you’re your book will probably be emotional to you. You might easily underestimate or overestimate your work’s quality.

I don’t know how long this will take for you. But you need to stop eventually. If people start reacting to your novel like it’s a finished work, that’s a good sign it’s finished.

Your readers will probably still suggest ideas. That’s what you asked them to do. But the suggestions will become smaller, something they add after thinking about it.

Throughout the entire writing process, take notes every time you think of an idea related to the novel, no matter how minor. A line, a concern, a character name that seems cool even though you don’t know who it’s for. Make sure these notes are immediately accessible on both your phone and whatever computer you use to write.

So far, I’ve made an email chain with myself for all my stories, because it’s really quick to pull up from anywhere. There’s probably a notes app that makes more sense.

Also, at any time: if you come up with a scene in extended detail, just write the scene. Even if you don’t know the rest of the story, just write it. At least write down whatever you came up with. You’ll probably have to change it, and it might not fit at all, but you’ll thank yourself later for writing it down, because you’ll forget the details later.

On that note, save everything. If you make major changes to the text you’ve already written, be it your notes, outline, or manuscript, save it as a new draft or otherwise make sure the older copy is still accessible. (I just write “D1,” “D2,” etc. for each successive draft.) Eventually, you’ll change your mind and need something you’d otherwise have deleted.

If you still feel unprepared, there’s a lot of good books out there on story structure and character development by people like John Truby, Laurie Hutzler, and Dara Marks. None of them are gospel. Everyone expresses stories their own way.

I hope this article helped. If you’re curious, my debut novel is And One Day My Stars Will Burn. Lonely, listless, desperate: Isaac Flinch, a young New Yorker who survives on the fantasies in his dreams. Unfortunately for Isaac, those fantasies are becoming self-aware — and have their own plans for his mind. It’s a blackly comic tragedy in modern America. Please do check it out.

In the meantime, just outline and write.

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A traveling poet discussing culture, usually seriously. Screenwriter/Marketer/Author, “And One Day My Stars Will Burn.” Open to opportunities. IG: wayfaringwit

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