Nine Stages of Writing a Novel (Plus Where You Might Get Stuck and How to Move On)

8 Jul 2023 | Fiction

Title image: 9 Stages of Writing a Novel (Plus Where You Might Get Stuck and How to Move On)

Whatever stage of the process you’re at, writing a novel can be a whole lot of fun. But it also takes a lot of time.

None of us have unlimited time to write (and chances are, your writing time has to fit in around everything else in life) – so how can you best move forward at all the different stages of writing a novel?

I’ve written several novels and novellas, some of which I’ve published, and some of which will never see the light of day. Each time I embark on a new novel, it feels a little daunting. And I remember that before I completed my first novel, the idea of writing something so long felt almost impossible.

A novel is a big project. It takes time (often years, particularly for first-time authors). Even if you do nothing else but write, you’re unlikely to be able to dash off a good novel in just a few weeks. That means there’ll almost certainly be points in the writing process where you end up feeling bogged down. Sometimes, that’s because life gets in the way – but it can also be because you’re struggling with a particular stage of writing a novel.

Let’s take a look at some key stages, along with tips for moving through each without getting stuck. Here are the nine stages, in case you want to jump straight to the point you’re currently at:

The Initial Idea Stage of Writing a Novel

All novels start here: with an idea. That could be almost anything. Some authors find that the initial seed of an idea already has everything they need to grow a novel: characters, plot, and setting. It all comes pretty much at once.

More often, though, your novel might begin as a little flash in the dark. Perhaps a particular lyric from a song resonates with you. Maybe you picture a scene – but you don’t yet know what comes before or after. You might find that a character marches fully formed into your mind. Or you might have a “what if…” idea that hasn’t yet got any characters to fit with it.

Where You Might Get Stuck

I’m often stuck at this stage, wondering if I’ll ever have a novel-length idea again. However many times I do have ideas (and write novels from them), there’s part of me that just doesn’t believe the magic will keep working. Maybe you’re in the same position: waiting for an idea.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to force an idea. Sure, you could pick something to write a novel about, just for the sake of it, but it’s going to be very hard to write tens of thousands of words if that idea doesn’t truly grab you.

How to Move Forward

Annoyingly, I find that my novel ideas don’t come in any kind of predictable way. They often spring up when I’m supposed to be writing something else! Sometimes they come when I’m washing dishes or taking a shower.

If you don’t yet have a novel idea, be patient. But don’t stop writing. Look for shorter things you can write – stories or poems, perhaps – and keep reading, too. Give yourself space to do whatever you enjoy doing. Write down any little scraps of ideas that bubble to the surface: a character name, an interesting word, a strange new fact you learnt when idly browsing the web. That novel idea will come.

The Development Stage of Writing a Novel

Once you’ve got an idea in your grasp, then it’s time to develop it. This is one of my favourite stages of writing. You can go about developing that idea however you want. I used to start a new paper notebook for each novel project: these days, I tend to use a fresh Google doc (I have a bad habit of putting notebooks down and forgetting where I left them, but I’ve never lost my laptop…)

As you develop your idea, anything goes! You can explore possibilities for characters, setting, plot events, and conflicts. Some writers scribble down snatches of dialogue or draw mindmaps. There are methods you can use, like the snowflake method, but you may well find that what suits you best is to just grab a pen or sit at the keyboard and have fun exploring your idea.

Where You Might Get Stuck

One big danger here is that you might find yourself thinking about your novel quite a bit without writing anything down. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, of course – but your ideas may not truly develop until you get them out of your head and onto the page. You need to keep freeing up mental space for more things to come to you.

Another problem is that you might rush past this stage to get into the actual writing. It takes time to develop an idea – both hands-on time when you’re jotting down notes and hands-off time too, when you’re immersing yourself in great books or you’re reading writing advice and a new piece of the puzzle slots into place for your story.

How to Move Forward

Give yourself some deliberate time for developing your ideas. It can feel like this stage isn’t truly “writing” … but it is! You can set aside time for it by planning writing sessions where your goal isn’t to write a certain number of words – it’s to spend some time exploring your ideas.

If you’re struggling to flesh out your story idea, shake things up! Perhaps brainstorming on paper would suit you better than typing on a keyboard, or maybe you could draw a map of your story world, or take a research trip to the real-world location you’re using for your story.

The Outlining Stage of Writing a Novel

I think it’s helpful to separate developing your idea from outlining your novel. The development stage is creative and messy: the outlining stage is more about shaping that idea into a coherent structure that hits key plot points along the way.

Not all authors outline. (I’m not much of an outliner myself.) They might roll this stage into development, perhaps having a rough idea of the first few chapters plus a handful of key points along the way. Or they might write a short, fast draft (10,000 words or so) that essentially functions as a very detailed outline for the first full draft – paranormal romance author Steffanie Holmes calls this a “skeleton draft”.

Where You Might Get Stuck

One issue with outlining is that you might end up trying to create something to serve as both an outline and a synopsis. I think it’s helpful to separate those: an outline is for you, the author; a synopsis is for a potential agent or publisher.

If you’re stuck on outlining because it feels artificial – you don’t know what should happen next so you just make things up – then it may be that you’re a writer who prefers to let their plot unfold more organically. There’s nothing wrong with that (so long as you’re prepared to do more work at the editing stage).

How to Move Forward

It’s fine to just move forward into drafting, if you’re feeling stuck. You don’t have to have a complete 30-page outline – you don’t even need to have every plot point worked out. If you feel ready to jump in and write, go ahead!

You can always come back to the outlining stage after a few chapters, once you’re starting to get a better sense of the shape of your story and of who all your characters are.

The First Chapter(s) Stage of Writing a Novel

Once you’ve got some kind of outline or idea about what’s going to happen in your novel, it’s time to begin the actual draft. That means writing your first few chapters, where you introduce the story world, your characters, their status quo – and the inciting event that shakes up that status quo and kicks off the story.

Where You Might Get Stuck

This stage can be harder to start on than you might imagine. Writing the first few sentences of a brand new novel feels a little like stepping out into freshly fallen snow and making those first footprints … it’ll never be quite as perfect as it was before you made your mark!

While your novel exists only as notes about ideas, you might still have a sense that it could be perfect. But once you begin writing, or even before you begin writing, you may find yourself holding back. You know that your first draft won’t be perfect. No one’s ever is.

Another place where authors get stuck is at this stage of a novel. I’ve known several writers over the years who’d write somewhere between 2–5 chapters of a new novel every few months … and never get any further.

How to Move Forward

The best thing to do at this stage is to keep moving. If you’re struggling to begin, set a date and time for your writing session, and jump in. Once you start putting words on the page, it’ll get easier. Remember, you’re likely to come back and revise your opening scene plenty of times anyway.

If you find yourself getting bored with your novel idea after a few chapters, that can be a tricky issue to get over. It could be that you need to spend longer in the development stage, perhaps exploring several different possible novel ideas before deciding what to commit to. Or it may be that you run out of steam when life gets busy, eventually abandoning your idea: if so, look for a way to build regular writing sessions into your life.

The Long, Messy Middle Stage of Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is a messy process … and the middle of your novel is likely to be the messiest part. Chances are, you’ll get new ideas along the way, you’ll find different connections to make, you might explore an alternative way to tell your story (perhaps shifting from first to third person, or vice versa), or you may find that you cut or add whole characters and subplots.

You might find yourself jumping back to the development stage, or figuring out something that needs to change in the first few chapters. You may end up writing scrappy little pieces that aren’t yet joined up, as you explore new ideas or leave space to come back. Hopefully, you’ll always be making some kind of progress – even if it seems slow at times.

Where You Might Get Stuck

When you’re right in the thick of a novel, it can sometimes feel like you’re not really getting anywhere. Perhaps you worked hard on a chapter last week that you’ve now realised just isn’t going to fit your plot. Or maybe you’ve decided that your opening scene is going to have to completely change.

One danger here is that you’ll end up continually going back and editing … without really making any forward progress. You might also find yourself meandering, adding new material that pads out your novel without actually making your plot richer and more complex. (I find this is one of the dangers of writing without an outline: I end up doing a lot of cutting in the middle.)

How to Move Forward

Don’t be tempted to go back and revise while you’re in the messy middle. Not only does it kill your forward momentum, it also often means wasting your time when you figure out another change you want to make. Instead, write notes about what needs to change (“remove cousin Ollie from the plot” or “make Jane into an estranged sister, not ex-girlfriend”).

If you’re meandering, writing scenes where not a lot happens, stop! Raise the stakes for your main character. What would give them a greater sense of urgency? What would make their life harder? How could they suffer?

The Final Chapters Stage of Writing a Novel

Eventually, you’ll make it out of the messy middle and into the homeward stretch: your final chapters. I love the energy and momentum of this stage, when my plot is reaching its climax and the pace of the story is fast and unrelenting! It’s a fun point of drafting to be at: everything else has led up to this.

Where You Might Get Stuck

There’s often a lot to pull together in the final chapters of a novel – and that can make it tricky to craft a climax to your plot. Perhaps one character or plot thread ends up sidelined, or you’re struggling to really push your characters as much as you could, or your pacing has ended up a bit rushed.

Another problem is if you end up dragging out the story too much after the climax. There are always loose ends to tie up and readers will want a sense of the new status quo after the events of the climax … but it’s easy (at least for me!) to linger in the story a little too long.

How to Move Forward

At this stage, I find it’s best to just get the ending down – even if you know it’s far from perfect. You can revise it as much as you like in the next draft. You might want to explore different possibilities or really push your characters to the limits. (You can always rewrite if it doesn’t work out.)

If you tend to let the story spin out too long after the climax of the plot, that’s fine too: again, you can fix it all in the next draft. It might be helpful to get everything down on the page so you can decide what’s worth keeping and what can be implied or left unstated.

The Redrafting Stage of Writing a Novel

Once you’ve finished the first draft, it’s a good idea to take a break from your novel before jumping back in to redraft it. Whatever type of novel you’re working on and however experienced you are, you’ll almost certainly need to do some redrafting. Perhaps an early scene would fit better later on, two minor characters could be neatly merged into one, a subplot you’d started working in needs to go, or you need to cut lots of material to make your novel the right length.

Redrafting is likely to take longer if this is your first novel, or you’re writing in a new genre for the first time. Writers who, like me, only plot loosely also end up spending longer on redrafting than writers who plan out their chapters carefully. And novels with complex plots and large casts of characters will generally take more redrafting than novels that tell a straightforward story with a small number of characters.

Where You Might Get Stuck

Redrafting is one of my favourite stages of the writing process: it’s when my often-scrappy first draft material starts to come together into something that fairly closely resembles a finished novel. But this can also be a challenging stage in a few different ways.

One way writers get stuck is by not even starting on redrafting. Perhaps they put so much energy into writing the first draft, they end up taking a long break … and never getting back into their novel.

Another common sticking point is combining redrafting with line editing (which I firmly believe needs to be a separate stage). Redrafting is about big-picture rewrites: if you get bogged down trying to perfect every line, you’re going to find it’s very slow going.

How to Move Forward

I like to redraft by starting over with a blank document, literally rewriting every single line. Some lines stay exactly the same (particularly dialogue); some scenes change dramatically. Whole chunks are added and removed.

You might have a different method that’s a good fit for you. However you redraft, I’d recommend seeing this as a major stage of the process – personally, I usually spend as long on the redraft as on writing the first draft, though you may find it’s quicker for you (especially if you outline more than I do). Give yourself enough time for the redrafting stage and take planned writing breaks to help keep up your energy.

The Line Editing Stage of Writing a Novel

Line editing is the nitty gritty editing when you think hard about word choices, check for inconsistencies, and refine all the little details. It’s important to get through the redrafting stage first: there’s no point spending ages tweaking the sentences in a scene that you’re later going to cut completely.

Line editing is one of the easiest stages to get help with: almost all novel editors will offer line editing (and many do developmental editing, too, which addresses the types of things you might work on in a redraft – like characters arcs, pacing, and so on). I think it’s a good idea to do your own line editing, though, even if your novel’s going for a developmental edit: you want to deliver your best work to your editor.

Where You Might Get Stuck

When you’re line editing, you’re laser-focused on the little details – and you might find yourself obsessing over tiny changes. I know that when I line-edit, I sometimes find myself changing a sentence one way then later going back and rewriting it the previous way.

My personal biggest challenge when line editing is that I’m not always very good at thinking through the details of time and place when drafting and redrafting. When I line edit, I have to pin down all the little things that didn’t seem to matter too much before – like when exactly in the day or week the scene takes place, whether my characters can really get from A to B in that span of time, and so on.

How to Move Forward

It might be helpful to set a time limit for your line editing, perhaps by giving yourself a deadline to finish and seek feedback (see the next stage). You could line up beta readers or an editor to help you stick to this, promising them that you’ll send your finished novel at a certain date. You

If, like me, you find it all too easy to end up procrastinating at this stage, using timers on a small scale can help, too. Fifteen or thirty minutes of really focused line editing is going to give you better results than an hour when you edit a sentence or two then check social media.

The Feedback Stage of Writing a Novel

At some stage, you’ll want to seek feedback on your novel. Most writers don’t do this straight after the first draft – instead, they spend time redrafting and editing before sharing their work with others.

Feedback can come in lots of different forms. You might simply want to share your work with a loved one and get a sense of whether they enjoyed it. You might have a critique group where you all share segments of your work-in-progress. You might find a beta reader to give feedback on your full novel. Or you might pay a professional editor for a more thorough and rigorous process, potentially down to line editing.

Where You Might Get Stuck

It can be really scary to put your work out there in the world – even for just one other person to read. You might worry about whether your writing is good enough, whether your novel is boring, or whether you’ve managed to achieve what you were aiming for. And it’s very easy to let your “finished” novel sit there, unread, because asking for feedback is too daunting.

If you do seek feedback, one issue some writers face is knowing what feedback to take on board. In critique groups, you might find that members disagree in their advice to you. It can be tricky to know which voices to listen to.

How to Move Forward

If you’re new to seeking feedback, find someone you trust and ask them to read a small section of your novel – perhaps the opening chapter, or the part that you feel confident about. You can tell beta readers that you’re looking for reassurance about what you’re doing well, too.

Once you’ve got some feedback, it’s important to remember that you’re the author and you get the final say. Maybe someone in your critique group suggested adding a romantic relationship between your protagonist and another character, but that doesn’t feel right to you. That’s okay! People giving you feedback will inevitably be working from their own preferences as readers.

Once you’ve got feedback, you’ll likely go through more stages of redrafting and line editing, before you’re finally done with writing your novel. It’s an incredible journey to take, and even if you have moments when it seems like you’ll never finish your novel, you really will if you just keep on going.

After that, the next step is getting your novel ready for publication. For help with that, Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn has a great set of articles on self-publishing, traditional publishing, and more here.

Writing a novel can absolutely be hard work but it can also be hugely fulfilling. Whatever stage you’re at with your novel – whether you’re just starting to play around with ideas or you’re deep into redrafting – I hope you have fun with it.

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About

I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.

1 Comment

  1. Sean

    Thanks for sharing your novel writing experience. I was thinking about writing a novel about my experience as a house painter to provide tips for beginners in paint houses, so this is all very good to know. Cheers.

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