Writing The Novel


Well, as I close down on the Scrivener help file, I have also (finally) started using Scrivener myself, to plan and write The Novel. While doing so, I would be very interested to hear how others hereabouts approach writing novels - that is, do you plan obsessively, write outlines, just plunge in on your first draft without a clue where you are going, and so forth?

I have been re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing and Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel recently, but then I decided that this was just more procrastination and have plunged into finding a rough direction amongst my notes. So, I’m interested in what others are up to, and how those who have successfully drafted a novel (or not) do (especially start) things.

I look forward to hearing about your working lives,


Keith!!! Congrats!!! I’m so glad to hear you are ready to dive into your own work.

I myself cannot use outlines, either for fiction or non-fiction. I tried it with both a novel and a non-fiction work, writing a rather detailed outline, and I found once I did that, I had expended my creativity on the outline and had nothing left for the actual writing of the piece! Very painful lesssons for me.

So I don’t do that any more. :slight_smile: I start with an idea–definitely an idea, and then I have at it. It’s a rather messy way to write, but also very organic and the only way that works for me. Maybe I like wrestling it all out. Well, like is maybe not the write word, since it’s often incredibly frustrating. But maybe I NEED it. Whatever it is, I personally read a lot of writing books, especially about novel writing, and then threw out a lot of what they suggested regarding getting started, writing detailed outlines, etc. because all that did was kill off any chance I had at actually writing.

I do use outlines to rough out an idea if it’s forming quickly and I need to get it down on (virtual) paper. Or there are moments where I get a grasp on the whole and need to outline it. But they are rough draft outlines and they most often change and things get moved around or disappear and new things emerge. As long as I don’t let things get too rigid and hemmed in, the writing process continues and things move along well.

Maria said it well about not over planning. I do find that not only characters are alive, but the stories themselves are alive, or even the subject matter of a non-fiction work. I often feel it’s more that I need to step aside and let the subject matter speak–let it breath and have life, rather than it being about me making it happen.

Unlike Maria, I’ve experienced terrible writer’s block. But that was when I tried to overthink it and was too scared and unsure of my ability to just let it happen. I’ve learned to trust my self this way. So now the writing flows freely, even on the days when I sit down and think “oh, I won’t be able to think of anything today.” I find that as long as I don’t over ‘think’ about it and just write and let it happen–paying attention to what arises, and allowing myself to be surprised–I write.

I know a LOT of writers who write by outlines, so it will differ from writer to writer. Some writers may find this a crazy way to write. But it works for me and has served me well. I have completed one novel, many shorter works (of fiction), and numerous non-fiction works of varying lengths. I’ve had things published, but not the novel (it was a good learning experience, but would need more work than I want to give it at this time to try to go farther with it).


I kind of do something in between outlining and not-outlining. I keep a general goal and/or theme in mind and let the characters get there how they will, with occasional herding on my part to keep them going in the right direction.

My outlines are fairly loose, when they exist, and consist more of “hey, this scene would work right about here” or “I think this should happen to the character” than anything. Last NaNo I threw out about half the index cards I created that way, and wrote many more scenes thought up on the spot as I came to them.

Depends on the novel. Some stories requiere much planning in advance, others fall perfectly into place. Or not. :wink:

Myself, I like to know where I’m headed, but tend to improvise on the way. But I don’t tend to change the direction. My outline consists of notes that describe the general mood, the attitude of the characters and not much more.

Dear Keith,
Welcome to the joy of using Scrivener! :smiley:

How to write:

  1. Kids in bed.
  2. Spouse out.
  3. Pink Floyd.
  4. Large glass of scotch.
  5. Scrivener.
    Then you’re ready!

For what it’s worth, I’m an outliner. My first novel was written without a plan; by the end of it, the ‘cut bits’ amounted to over 30,000 words (and they were only the big chunks I’d saved). I haven’t got the luxury of time to waste like that, and I now find it better to produce a fairly detailed plan (along the lines of stasis, trigger, etc.) which stops me going off on unnecessary tangents.

Once I have my plan, I plunge in to the first draft, and write all the way through until I look like this: :open_mouth:. I write every day if at all possible.

Unless I change something vital (or get a block - see below), I don’t go back over the first draft until it is finished. Writing and editing are quite different activities, and mixing them prevents me doing either effectively.

So, then comes the editing. :imp:

Writer’s block is a curse but, for me, it usually doesn’t last more than a couple of weeks. During that time I force myself to work – if only to look for typos and other minor errors - in order to catch the words when they start flowing again.

But then there are the times of plenty, when ideas and dialogue are bursting to get out and I have to get up in the middle of lunch to go and write things down. I am at my most unbearable when this happens :unamused:, but I see it as the antithesis to writer’s block and try to make the most of it! I’m sure it all balances out in the end.

There is only one book I would recommend: Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King (Harper 1993, 2nd Ed. 2004). But read it before you write!

I wish you good luck and perseverance 8).
Regards, Leigh

For what it’s worth:

Once you’re decided what you want to say and why, spend a good while playing with form. If you aspire to writing something fresh, take into account how the world, how even the conception of the human has changed radically in the last twenty years. Then experiment with form until you find an appproach that matches your subject. The remainders bins are full of third rate novels written by talented people who have twisted what they really wanted to say so that it fills someone else’s form.



Congratulations, Keith, I’m sure you will find you own program as helpful as we already do ;.-)

I meant to write a piece for the “Zen of Scrivener” forum but I procrastinated it so many times that I might as well put down my insights here.

Mind you, I am by no means a professional novel writer. So far I have only published a short story collection and I am about to publish a novella later this year. But I feel that the way I’m writing The Novel right now is the one that suits me best (and has proven to be good enough when writing the novella).

Before I start working I have to have the basic idea about where the story is headed to. I found out that I don’t have much use for an exposé or a detailed outline. What’s more important to me are the characters. So in Scrivener I create a folder outside of the draft named “characters”. There I keep a document for each character I write about.

For the draft itself I keep every section in a separate document, and each chapter in separate folder. Each section rarely exeeds 1,500 words, in fact most of them are about 500 words. My Novel has two storylines, and I label each document with the storyline they belong to. The titles of the sections don’t appear in the export so I use them to provide a one sentence summary, such as “gun is found in trash outside of XY’s house”. The synopsis itself I rarely use.

While the story evolves I sometimes notice that I should add something to earlier sections or change something therein. Because I have labeled each section and because I have provided each section with a meaningful title I can very quickly locate the document I’m looking for.

Sometimes when writing a section I know that in a later section I need to come back to a specific topic. I then create an empty section and provide it with a title and leave it so be filled later. To distinguish future sections from sections I have finished or sections I’m working on I introduced statuses: “In progress”, “Done”, “To be done”. I have created some saved searches to quickly find my sections with specific labels/statuses.

For future ideas that are more vague and that I don’t know yet where they belong to, I just keep two documents, one for each storyline. There you’ll find stuff like: “Character X will be killed by Charater Y in Z”.

Also I constantly try to fill the documents for each character. So when at one point I decide that Character X ist fat and ugly I jot that down in the document for character X.

To me this approach is the most organic and keeps myself interested in my own work. If I had outlined everything there wouldn’t be anything for me to discover. The downside of this approach is that the story itself is somewhat a moving target. Therefore it is essential to me to keep the draft very well organized so that I can quickly go back and change stuff. And that’s why I love Scrivener so much because with its outline and corkboard view it very much helps me in this regard.

Good luck,


I told my wise old uncle that I was going to spend the next two years writing a novel. He said, “You’re crazy, you can buy one for few dollars.”

Part of the problem is that there is no recipe. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. (Well, not really, but that sounded good.) If you read authors like King, he’ll suggest just jumping into your story; a friend who’s a suspense writer just starts with “a character and a body”, and another friend who is a best-selling author of police procedurals just starts with a body (because he’s already got a series character).

But John Irving has to know the end before he can start the beginning. I interviewed Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, about how he uses software (he used Inspiration), and he had a few hundred pages of notes before starting. Other authors outline, or don’t; use index cards, or don’t; crank out a very rough draft, or don’t.

In the end, I find that all of us who are trying to get fiction written but haven’t published (I’ve written tons of computer books, but that’s not real writing…) worry too much about these questions. I think the best bet is just to do what comes natural. In my case, I’m writing something that is set in the 19th century, so I’m spending a fair amount of time nailing down my style before going very far.

However, I’ll share these words from the suspense-author-friend:

“You know how to get words onto the paper. Do it. Just keep the pencil or the fingers moving. Perfection is your enemy right now. If you’re frantically worried about rewriting, know that you can do a better job of rewriting with a completed first draft in hand than with a draft you keep rewriting and rewriting, never making true headaway in telling the story.”

It doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s a good idea.



your friend is probably right, but I also agree with John Irving. Before starting I have to have an idea about how the story ends, because otherwise my writing wouldn’t have any direction. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t change my mind during the course of the story and let it end in a totally different way, though. But there has to be some kind of target I can aim at to keep the prose flowing.


I think it differs according to the type of story. Seasoned crime fiction authors can start without knowing the end, because the discovery of the end is part of the process. However, other types of fiction, in my opinion, require knowledge of at least the beginning and the end. I, too, need to know where I’m going.


When I start actually writing a story (as opposed to excreting whole crowds of random notes about a story) I know the beginning and the end, and who’s in it and where and how they live. What I don’t know is what happens to them en route from beginning to end. If I knew beforehand, it wouldn’t be any fun to write–and likely no fun to read.

Lol! This is brilliant… The sort of thing you’d find in a Vonnegut novel. I praise your uncle. He really hits the nail on the head of the vanity of writing.

Thank you all for your advice. I have to say that one of the benefits of writing Scrivener is that I’ve also been able to beg a few well-known published authors who have recently embraced Scrivener for advice, and it has been amazing how friendly and willing to give advice to a nobody they have been.

Leigh - Self-Editing for Fiction Writers just arrived through my postbox today. To the rest of you: all of your advice has been inspirational. I have realised that I definitely need to bang together a rough outline of a couple of pages (nearly done). After that, I am just going to hammer out the words and accept Hemingway’s comment that “All first drafts are [excrement]”.

Please keep up the excellent contributions to this thread; I am very much enjoying reading them.

All the best,

“All first drafts are [excrement]”.

Amen!!! And until I realized that, I was unable to get anything written! Knowing all first drafts are crap is very freeing. :slight_smile:

Hahaha! Really funny.

Quite a few people say (and I think that Hemingway was one of them) that what distinguishes a real writer from a wannabe is that the former will revise his work until it’s done, but the latter won’t.

(On the other hand a friend of mine quoted: “You don’t finish a text, you give it up.”)


(On the other hand a friend of mine quoted: “You don’t finish a text, you give it up.”)

I think your friend talked about “Text abgeben”. That’s not the same as “giving up” but “delivering” it (to the editor).


Greetings from Hohenschäftlarn.


Sorry, I was a bit too fast:

(On the other hand a friend of mine quoted: “You don’t finish a text, you give it up.”)

I think your friend talked about “Text abgeben”. That’s not the same as “giving up” but “delivering” it (to the editor) and “giving it away”.



that’s what my friend said in German: “Man stellt einen Text nicht fertig, man gibt ihn auf.”

So I think you’ll agree that my translation is correct.

That’s what my friend said in German: “Man stellt einen Text nicht fertig, man gibt ihn auf.”

So I think you’ll agree that my translation is correct.

You’re correct, then.

Nixfürunguat :slight_smile: