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How to outline your novel by hand

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There are almost as many ways to plan and draft a novel as there are writers, and all of them are valid as long as they work for you. I’ve already written three novel outlines and first drafts by hand, and in this post I share my tips if you’d like to do the same. Something to use those notebooks for, right?

Reasons to write by hand

I’m writing this blog post with my laptop, so technically I could write anywhere I want. And yet, you need to sit upright and in an ergonomic position when you’re typing, unless you like having a bad back and shoulders. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to write in my notebooks (and believe me, I have many) as long as I can. Some pen and paper are also a lot easier to whip out on a whim than a laptop that you would need to set up somewhere and suffer through yet another Windows update.

You know what a notebook and a pen create? A virtually distraction-free environment. You can’t check Instagram with a pencil, you know. And that’s perfect when you’re trying to write a book and your life is full of distractions as it is.

Brainstorming by hand

When I start working on a novel, I start by brainstorming more ideas related to the (often very vague) initial idea that I have. I write bullet points, random snippets and ask myself questions. I admit, all of that would probably be easier to organise in Notion, but my novel-planning is an organic process and I don’t like to have too much structure.

Something that does help me stay a bit more organised are brainstorming printables. They help me keep track of where my ideas are while still letting me ramble in fairly free form.

(Related: More about my brainstorming process.)

Writing my outline by hand

Once I’ve got everything I need in place, I can start the outlining process. I like to start with filling in the blanks, meaning that I decide roughly how many scenes I want to include, I use story structure to place the most imortant plot events and then I fill in the blanks between those scenes while keeping cause and effect in mind.

Again, that would probably be easier to do on a computer or in a notes app, but I don’t mind scribbling in the margins and scratching off whatever mistakes I make. After I’ve filled in all the blanks and made sure that my story is balanced (I like using three acts as a rough guideline for how my scenes should be spread out) I can rewrite my scene list without all the mess and scribbles.

Outlining my scenes is the last step I do before writing the first draft. Some people like outlining their scenes more extensively, but I just use bullet points to describe in one sentence what the goal, conflict, disaster, reaction and decision are in the scene.

Writing the first draft by hand

I prefer to start the first draft in a fresh notebook. Not just because it feels like celebrating a new journey, but because it’s easier to write in one notebook and keep my scene list and scene outlines open in front of me in the other.

To stay on track of where I’m going, I write the page number on the bottom of each page. And because I’ve got my scenes numbered, I write the scene number on the top of each page. That helps me find things later on.

Keeping track of your word count is pretty difficult when you’re writing a novel by hand, but if you want, you can count the words on one page and then multiply it by the pages you’ve written to get a rough estimate.

What happens after I’ve hand-written my first draft

Unfortunately, my hand-writing journey ends when I finish the first draft. At this point, I open yWriter and type in everything I’ve written, scene by scene. I still keep my handwritten notes nearby for future reference, especially when I need to write new material because I tend to under-write my first drafts.

Do you want to learn more about outlining your novel?

Outlining by hand isn’t for everyone, but whatever method you want to use for writing your outline, I could show you how you can do it in just 30 days. Everyone knows writing a great novel takes time, but you can write a lot more efficiently with a good outline – and you don’t necessarily have to spend more than a month creating one.

This novel outline course gives you the steps and the schedule for creating an outline that keeps you on the right track when you’re writing your book. Can you imagine if you always knew exactly what to write when you sit down to work on your story? With a solid outline you can do exactly that.

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