Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Footsteps to a Novel

by Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2004, Margaret McGaffey Fisk

Do you have an idea for a story -- a character who won't let you rest, the perfect plot, or an interesting world, whether a cattle farm in Canada or a planet with no surface water?  All types of people have novel ideas, whether they are writers or not.  Most ideas never become completed works, and the reason may be found in the word "work."  Writing seems easy as you dash off a letter to Aunt Sally or complete your latest essay on the lifestyle of brown and black gerbils.  However, writing for publication, especially writing a novel, requires a commitment few are willing to make.

If you think you are ready to put in the effort, time, and focus, having some guidelines can greatly improve your chances of converting your idea into a finished piece of literature.  There are many ways to approach a novel and any of them that end in a finished work are valid.  The method I present below is one I've found effective and have used  to complete three novels so far.

First, a word about progress and the time it takes to write a novel.  I'm a strong advocate of completing a draft before editing.  Though this does not mean accepting each sentence as it pours from your fingers, it does mean no re-reading of the earlier words with the intent to modify them.  Discuss the idea with friends and family as much as you like, but hold your completed chapters close to the chest.  Nothing stops progress as easily as the "well, it would make more sense if..." from someone reading your uncompleted novel.  Almost anything can be fixed in the edit cycle, but if editing on chapters 1-10 starts before 11-32 are begun, the odds of the later chapters ever being written are severely reduced.

Writing a novel is all about dedication and perseverance.  As much as possible, avoid anything that threatens your objectives.  You should never invite a hazard into your path.  Honestly, writing a novel is complex enough without asking for trouble.

My process involves five steps.  These may seem simple on the surface but they encompass significant effort.

I'm going to borrow from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to take you through the process because the familiar story line will help everyone focus on the steps, rather than whether or not to borrow elements of the idea.

Step 1 - Idea

This is the easy step since most people already have at least one idea.

Evil stepmother jealous of princess

Step 2 - Start Looking at the Story Behind the Idea (Very Basic Plotting)

We have an idea above, but it's not a story yet.  To have a story, there must be a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning should introduce the main characters, Snow White (protagonist) and the wicked queen (antagonist).  The middle should be filled with the queen's efforts to kill Snow White and the end -- this is a fairy tale -- should be happily ever after.  Oops, that means we're missing at least one more character.  There has to be a prince.  Better tuck him into the beginning somewhere.

Step 3 - Creating Your Outline

A plot, no matter how simple, involves a lot of moving pieces: characters, scenery, motivations, foreshadowing, and many other elements.  An outline is a simple device to keep things straight.  It is your general guideline as you move forward to ensure you don't become bogged down trying to figure out what should happen next.

There are many people who believe an outline will kill their writing by stifling their creativity and destroying their interest in the story.  That may be true depending on the type of outline created and the person.  If you have never used an outline, I would suggest trying my approach before rejecting them altogether.  I am an organic writer.  As I go along, my characters reveal secrets and go off in different directions and even flesh out pieces I thought I could skim over by pointing out something critical that happened in that moment.  This does not in any way prevent me from using outlines.

Since I began outlining, my time to completion of a novel has dropped from seven years to two-to-four months and even down to one month for a 116,000-word novel during the National Novel Writing Month.  My speed has more to do with how many words I'm willing to commit to on a daily basis.  However, continual progress on each day is due to my outline.  I can focus on crafting words rather than figuring out what's going to happen next and how something fits within the existing plot.  This allows me to make steadier progress because I've done most of my thinking in advance.  My last purely organic book, Destiny's Path, ended up being a difficult edit because I had an end in mind but forgot to drive toward it in the text.  The events built up to the final success but not in a way clear to the reader.  If I'd used an outline, the notes should have been enough to remind me as I built each scene.

My outlines focus on scenes split by point of view (POV).  This allows me to track how often a given character owns a scene and to make sure I'm not straying away from characters for so long that the reader forgets them. 

My Excel template is available for download here:

Whatever form of outline you use, whether notecards, word processor or spreadsheet, just start out simply.  I'd recommend not using just a single sheet of paper because your outline can, and should, change as you go along.  The basic outline only requires three parts.


Write a sentence or two showing the beginning of your story.  This could describe the first chapter or first three; just get something down.  However you track POV, use it to categorize this piece.  If you are not planning to track POV or even if you believe your novel will end up in a single POV, I would recommend noting the viewpoint anyway.  It does not take a lot of effort and can make you more flexible later on.

Snow White dreams about her prince but when he stops by, she's scared and runs away.


Write a sentence or two indicating the middle part.  What's going to happen over the course of the story to build toward the conclusion?  Again, a general sentence describing most of the novel is fine.

Jealous stepmother tries to kill princess but she escapes, though the last attempt leaves her in a coma.


Write a sentence or two showing where you want to end up.  This will serve to keep you in line because everything coming before should drive to this end.  However, if as you build out the story, it makes more sense for Snow White to marry Dopey, you can always modify the end.  It's important to build toward something as you write.  Without a known endpoint, it's too easy for a story to become "and then, and then, and then."  This is a common cause for writers to lose interest because the story has no focus and no sense of approaching a resolution.

Prince finds princess and frees her with a kiss.  They live happily ever after.

You've finished your outline and you can jump into the book, right?  Well, it depends.  If you feel any more of an outline will constrain your creativity, even this much can assist in keeping the plot in order.  However, the more you build your plot, the less you have to figure out as you write and the easier you can tell when a new plot thread will blend in nicely or require an entirely different outline.

I usually don't start writing until I have about half the scenes in my outline listed as a short sentence or two each.  This gives me enough to get started while allowing character and plot growth along the way.  Often, extra scenes or threads come to me as I approach the place where they would fit.  Sometimes, I have to stop work altogether to rebuild a portion of the outline reflecting the changes.  This process helps me think the change through.

Now is the time to figure out if you have any elements requiring research.  For example, can you really put a person in death-like sleep and for how long before that glass enclosure holds a rotting corpse?  Oops, you tell me you are writing a fantasy?  Switch your research to clothing in medieval times.  The likelihood of needing to research at least one element is high.  Do you know enough about diamond mining to make the readers nod their heads when the dwarves go off to work, or will they throw the book away in disgust?  Here is where you identify what you might want to research, although you don't necessarily have to do the work in advance; some people do, some people don't.

Step 4 - The Actual Writing

A novel is anything from 80,000-125,000 words long depending on the genre and market.  (Young adult literature is lower and some specialty markets have different high ranges, but this spread covers a large portion of the novel markets.)  Estimating a word count of 100,000, just how long should this novel take to write?  Well, the real answer, as ambiguous as it may seem, is as long it needs to.  However, since reaching your precious -The End- marker is a terrific thrill, let's look at some goals to set you on your way.


Word Count Goal

Days of the Week

Total Days























As you can see from the chart, the more words per day and the more days you can commit, the sooner the novel will be completed.  Okay, it may seem too obvious to mention, but people don't really think about writing that way.  If you commit to 1000 words per day, you can complete 3 and 2/3rds novels each year.  This is excluding editing, world building and other elements necessary to bring a novel to market, but it is still an incredible factoid.

While 1000 words a day may seem unachievable, if you have at least two hours free, you could be amazed at how much consistent progress you can achieve.  A good outline, so you don't have to plot and write simultaneously, helps keep the words coming.  A warning though: setting high goals from the start is likely to frustrate and stall you.  To consistently achieve a daily word count goal is something to build toward until it becomes a standard part of your routine, whether you set a specific time or make completing your words a requirement before relaxing.

As you write, remember the outline is flexible.  Sometimes, the original concept is either limited or flawed in ways not immediately apparent.  While I recommend working from some sort of outline, don't let it trap you.  If your characters reveal a new twist or direction, take a pause in writing and work out how to integrate the change into your outline.  This serves a dual purpose.  You let your subconscious improve on the original idea and, by conceptualizing through your outline, you can identify pointless deviations from your plot before you are mired in a series of events with no purpose.

Step 5 - The End

Whatever your goal, if you remain determined, the day will come when you write or type -The End- at the bottom of your manuscript.  Take a deep breath.  You have now achieved what most would-be novelists never do.  At this point, I recommend taking some time away from the story before beginning your edit.  It's a grand opportunity to start on your next idea.