Completing A Novel: A Look At Various Writing Methods

completing a novel

From outlining to sticky notes to just writing the darn thing, the writing methods and process of completing a novel will differ from writer to writer.

Completing a novel is a major accomplishment for any writer, and every novelist has his or her own writing method. From outlining to sticky notes to just writing the darn thing, the process of completing a novel will differ from writer to writer. For novelists out there struggling with their current writing method, or those embarking on their first book, look these over – you might find a process that works for you.


Outlining: the very word causes some writers to break out in hives. Others can’t live without them and they refer to their outlines every time they write. Outlining a novel does not look the same for every writer: it’s the rare few who use Roman numerals, capital letters, numbers, and lowercase letters as we all learned in high school with

Lynn Viehl, who has written 42 novels in five genres, writes about outlining novels in “Novel Outlining 101” 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, adding 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 creating the outline and being rigid about the format, which can gum up the writing process. If this describes you, you may benefit from using chapter summaries, instead. As an added benefit, these summaries can be adapted to become chapter descriptions for your novel synopsis, which you might need if you’re pitching to an agent or editor when the book is finished.

Here is an example of chapter summaries from the beginning stages of my young adult novel, Caught Between Two Curses (Rocking Horse Publishing, 2014):

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.

Sticky notes and note cards

Tactile learners learn best when they can manipulate items and experience activities and events. Tactile writers are similar in that they need to physically manipulate their stories. Sticky notes and note cards work for these writers because they can physically flip through their ideas, change their order, and literally throw them away while they work on completing a novel.

completing a novel - sticky notesFor example, let’s say you are writing a mystery novel. You’ve determined 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 a living outline, guiding you through your story.

This photo shows my 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.

Character sketches and setting descriptions

Some novelists begin 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, history of romantic relationships, 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 says. “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)
  • Pets?
  • Hobbies?
  • What does he/she hate?

You can continue this chart for your character study, and you can also write a character description in paragraph form. The bottom line is you have to find the method that works for you.

Just write the darn thing

Some 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 who blogs on “The Literary Ladies,” has participated in NaNoWriMo for several years. NaNoWriMo is for writers who want to challenge themselves and dedicate a month to starting and finishing a novel.

“Before NaNo starts, I create a spreadsheet and determine how many days I can write,” she said. “My goal is usually 2,000 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.

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.


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  1. Very helpful post! As a visual learner I think the sticky notes would work for me. I’ve been just writing the darn thing and that hasn’t proved successful. Thank you for the great advice!

  2. Thank you so much, I have been sitting on book ideas since I was 15 and finally decided to write one of my ideas but somehow, I got discouraged. I like your advice to just “Write the darn thing” I’m goin to do that this week.

    • Please don’t get discouraged by anyone or any THING!…It will stack up inside your soul, like a stack of pancakes in a container, and one day, you get so full, your soul BURSTS into flying saucers…grab each one and call it a chapter in your new book!…JUST DO IT! I always liked the Nike sayings! lol…

      I am stuck on, “got to start today” symbolic saying. The problem is I have about three more books in my head. Writing for long periods of time is just like being back in school…I can’t see the teachers telling me to stay on task, but I certainly “hear” them and I didn’t like to do it 65 years ago, and I don’t like to do that now. Bad girl writer, is what I hear! Not really, but after my first book, I am just plain exhausted from “fans” and “people” with questions and requests. I often read or hear, “I can’t wait until that second book, what will it be about, when will it be out, etc”.
      In my mind, it will be out when I finish it and it will be about something I mentioned in my first book. Is that elusive enough?

      My point to you is coming…we writers like to gab, gab, gab first…My spirits, souls if you will, tell me to write when I feel like it. This is a period to jot down special messages that I get from souls, then any miracles, and I jot down a lot. If only I could be wealthy, and just hire someone to sit here for days and do the writing, I would be finished. You take your time and just start jotting down notes and don’t end up like me, I have three offices now going on in my house! But, if I get the call to start typing, I know where every chapter is…I would much rather just draw a map and list the chapters for someone else to pick it up and go with it, while I perhaps lay out on my sofa, eating bon bons?

      So, miss writer…after you have thought about your story for all of these years, you need to just pray for a sign to get to that word processor. I’m waiting too. But, I am hoping I have a few more holidays before I have to start. I am too waiting for a BIG sign, you will know it when your heart starts beating faster and an idea is even better today than it was two years ago…go for it…put the first chapter on the screen…worry about editing much later…and be prepared to read/edit hundreds of times. YOU CAN DO IT! Go! Type! CREATE!….sorry so long…self motivation is a sin, so trying to give you some of it! lol

    • Don’t get discouraged!! I sat on my book idea my whole life and just recently bumped into info on getting published. I did more research, and more, and now I am loaded down with how-to and self-help writing info. I decided to stop and just start writing. What works for me is a big spiral notebook with pocket dividers to hold notes if I jot something down for later. I have crossouts and blanks (for research) and scribbles, but its getting done. I may write a few days, between home and my real job, then may be digesting thought while I transpose that onto my laptop in manuscript form. I like to draw a big blue highlighter line across the spiral page when I’ve transferred it onto the manuscript. This is like a second read because I will make many edits as I type it out. Key is it is working and I am writing!! No one else may do it this way but I understand it so try to find what works specifically for you.
      I looked at the stickynotes and felt somewhat anxious thinking the wind might blow them off after getting them in order, just kidding.
      Best of luck to you.
      Victoria Spencer

  3. I prefer to just have a couple of themes, which I write scenes around using my regular characters (I write ‘series’ crime novels) then let the characters lead me through. I have no idea what the outcome will be at first. I then write several threads, but obviously with a mind to the other characters. At some point I’ll decide on an ending and write it, or at least the precursor to the ending. Then I steer the threads towards each other. The tensions built up in the threads are all released once they join at the climax, then I try to add a twist in the tail. Naturally I have to go back all the time to ensure continuity, or to lay clues for the later happenings, but I find that if I need to keep turning pages to find out what’s going to happen. So will my readers. Sometimes a new ending will present itself, other than the one I expected. Or even a character will change ‘sides’, as in a ‘goodie’ turning out bad. That’s great ‘cos it keeps me on my toes. It make writing fiction such fun.

  4. I’ve published one novel and am working on my second, which is close to completion. Each story started out as a mish-mash of scenes that were not tied together very firmly. Once I got about half-way into each, I found the need to organize the material so that I could see how the relationships were developing.

    On Novel #1, I prepared a summary of each scene, then cut-&-pasted these scenes to see what was going to work and where my characters were going (and growing). This worked after a fashion, but I wasn’t terribly well organized about it.

    On Novel #2, when I got to this half-way point, I developed an MS Excel spreadsheet, which I am finding much more useful. It has five columns. The rows are for the individual chapters. I’m not sure if I will engage an outline early on in my next story or not, but it will be an historical novel, so I will need to organize factual details better and with more discipline.
    Column 1 is the chapter numbers. There is a row for each chapter. (There are a few rows without chapters as needed.)
    Column 2 is for identifying the year, month, often the week, and (as the action builds) the day of the week in which the chapter’s action takes place, and sometimes the time of that day.
    Column 3 has a summary of the chapter, specifically what I have already written. I color the cell if I need to add work to this chapter or scene.
    Column 4 has a summary of things that I still need to develop and write for that chapter or scene. When I complete the task, I slide the information into the “done” column, Column 3.
    Column 5 has background information and character details which I need to know but which I do not have to write about, such as when nephew turns 13 or when the grandfather dies.

    This table gives me an idea in an instant of what still needs to be done, merely by looking at the colored cells. When I get an idea for details to add to any given scene or chapter, I can look down through the summaries to see where the detail will fit best. I included my characters’ backstories in this table, too, inserting their information chronologically at the top of the table.

    Maybe others will find this method useful in organizing their stories.

  5. OMG…I think I would kill myself if I had to spend all that time outlining! Ha ha….I write until the end and then rewrite, revise, rewrite and revise. It works for me! Thanks for the varied styles. Makes me feel “normal.”

    • I agree with you!! All that outlining and coloring and stuff sounds worse than writing the novel! I’m pretty good at the 1st 2000 words of a novel, then I add on to that a little at a time, revising and editing as I go. I never know where the next chapter will take me and depend on the characters to lead me to the next “thing” that happens. I try to treat each chapter as a short story in itself but that’s not always possible so I adapt as I go. I am working on my 1st novel and it’s probably about 1/2 done and I found many of the ideas here very helpful. Good luck to you all!

  6. I’ve been a hand’s on type of person all my life. When going through school, I always had trouble trying to follow the rigid rules of writing taught in English classes–especially the outlining. While it made perfect sense, my mind simply isn’t organized in that manner and I would spend far more time outlining than doing the actual writing. This carried through into my career in the military as an instructor and later when taking programming courses in trade school. Essentially, I could write a program in BASIC faster than I could create the algorithm. I’d end up using the finished product as the ‘outline’ of the Outline.

    I already have one novel completely written (though that one became a terrible mashup of two separate novels when my co-writer took our work to a writing review class). So now, years later, I’m stuck with re-writing the original two novels as I no longer have access to the floppy disks they were stored on. Additionally, that series has at least two more novels in various stages while I also have a separate story that’s been sitting dormant for far too long. But that’s beside the point.

    This article helped me because it suggests working ‘out of the box’ and I believe I’ll end up using a combination of these methods, using the separate pieces to construct a more coherent (for me) whole. Thank you.

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve heard “outline, outline, outline” so much, I was starting to worry about whether or not I should be doing it as opposed to just diving in and writing. :)

    I’ve been hearing a lot about this writing software called Scrivener ( I’m wondering what your thoughts might be on it, if you’ve tried it, what you think, etc.

  8. What has always worked best for me is carrying a notebook with me at all times. I often get inspired by events or things going on around me and have to write them down so I can remember them for later. I will use sticky notes, notebook paper, napkins, just about anything I can write something down on. I’ll eventually organize things the way I want them and then put them together into a story. I’ve had some pretty nice short stories come out of things like this. As they say, inspiration can come from anything and it has for me!

  9. In my view, most wannabes intellectualize themselves out of writing their novel. The bottom line is that one can study methology, writing courses, hints and tips etc – something I did in the beginning, but woke up when I realized that unless I actually use a pen or clunk away at a keyboard, I would never write that book! One can never learn enough but the best way to write is to write! Believe it or not – before you know it, you would have finished your dream book (before editing, which I hate with a passion – but at least I finish my novels first, then bother editing later) Just do it!

  10. Comment: your opinions about outlines are correct. An outline is important if one wants to author a fantasy or epic trilogy, amadi’s “ikwerre trilogy” and cornwell’s “warlord chronicles trilogy” seem well outlined. Each book in those trilogies is structured. U.ANAEKWE


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