How to Write a Novel – The Lewis Method

How to write a Novel The Lewis MethodWelcome back to our final post in our series describing how you can write your next novel. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series so far and have learned several ways to write a novel and maybe a few ways not to!

If you missed the previous posts, here are the links.

Today, I’m describing what is currently my favorite method of planning stories.

The Lewis Method

I’m definitely more of a pre-planner than Danielle. While I do spend a lot of time thinking  about characters and the story, I like to start taking notes and writing plans immediately.

While the more intense portion of planning unfolds in a certain way, the early stages are pretty flexible. If, for example, a story starts with an idea for a character, I write down everything I know about the character from the first encounter with them. That can include age, background, family or professional status, or may involve a specific event. It may be as little as “A history professor who’s afraid of heights is researching a mountain railroad for his next book on American history” to a full page of narrative.

Other stories begin with a Big Picture idea or with a specific scene or event. I start wherever the idea appears and work from there in pretty much all directions.

I follow these ideas in thought and in writing until the story reaches a point of “critical mass.” At that point, there’s enough information available to begin more organized planning.

Development by Summary

One of the first organized things I try to do is write a single-sentence summary of the idea. Most of the time, the single-sentence summary is pretty vague (see above) because I don’t always know who the main character is, what their goal is, or what obstacles they face (all important parts of the single-sentence summary). I work with the sentence throughout the early developmental stages because it’s helpful in discovering what the story is about.

The next step is fleshing that sentence out into a paragraph summary. The paragraph summary is made up of five sentences as follows:

  • Sentence 1 sets up the story.
  • Sentence 2 covers the first act and ends with the first major turning point.
  • Sentence 3 covers the first half of the second act and ends with the second major turning point.
  • Sentence 4 covers the second half of the second act and ends with the third major turning point.
  • Sentence 5 covers the climax and end of the story.

Next comes a one-page summary in which each sentence is expanded into a paragraph.

For these first three steps, I’m focusing on the main character and his or her story journey. There simply isn’t room for developing other story or character threads in a one-page summary unless the font is very small. Since I have to read it, I don’t like fine print!

I continue developing the summary into a four-page summary by beginning to pull in other characters and subplots. The focus is still on the main character, but I’m beginning to see how other characters affect the main character either by helping or hindering.

After the four-page summary, I continue expanding the summary, fleshing out details and making adjustments to the story and the characters as the story grows.

When the story starts feeling complete, I expand the narrative into a chapter outline, with scene descriptions for each chapter. If a snippet of dialog or a scene come to mind at this point, I include that in the scene description.

By the time the chapter outline is complete, the story is also as complete as I can make it and all I have to do is write the scenes.

In the Background

While all this summarizing is going on, I’m also developing character histories and backstory, working on story world (if necessary), and writing charts, lists, and spreadsheets like a good pre-planner.

By the time I’m ready to write the novel, I have a solid of idea of where it’s headed and how I’m going to get there. In many cases, I can write the novel itself in 30 to 60 days.

Room for Detours

I enjoy writing with this method because it allows me to work out a lot of the details without worrying about writing the story itself. It’s like painting an under painting in half tones before glazing color over the completed painting (which is how I paint).

But it still allows for unexpected twists and turns. Most of the stories I’ve developed this way have stayed pretty true to the chapter outline, but none of them have followed it exactly.

The Major Disadvantage

Sometimes, I end up with a complete, five- or six-page (or longer) summary that goes no further. I’ve put weeks or maybe a month or two into an idea that has enough spark for a narrative summary, but not enough to ignite a novel. I have to start over with something new.

That also happens to be one of the benefits of this method—for me, anyway. I’ve just spent six to eight weeks on an idea that went nowhere. That’s a lot better than working on the story for several months, only to reach the same conclusion.

The bonus is that I have those completed summaries in the queue. The next time I’m ready to start a new story, I look at those complete summaries first. Maybe a new plot thread or a change in character is all that’s needed to make the idea viable. The work isn’t wasted.

No time spent writing is ever wasted.

That concludes our series on how to write a novel. As I said at the beginning, we’ve only skimmed the surface on this discussion. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers or novels.

Try any of these methods that look helpful to you. Discard what doesn’t work for you. Keep what does work and find ways to make it work better for you.

Then go ahead and get that next—or first!—novel started.

Thank you for your attendance! This is our final series for 2015. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and all the other courses, as well.

What topic do you most want to see in a future story clinic? Let us know in the comments below. We may just use YOUR idea! 

How to Write a Novel – The Lincoln Hanna Method

How to write a Novel Lincoln Hanna MethodWelcome back to week four of our discussion on how to write your next novel.

All this month, we’re talking about various ways to write a novel. If you’ve missed previous posts, here are the links.


There are as many different ways to write novels as there are people who want to write novels. The plain truth is that there is no Right Way that works for everybody all the time. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can save yourself a lot of time and stop looking.

But there are a few basic methods that encompass most writing methods. They are pantsing (no planning at all) and extensive pre-planning.

Most writers are somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. This week, our own Danielle Lincoln Hanna’s hybrid method is the topic for discussion.

The Lincoln Hanna Method

Danielle’s method is both simple and complex. As with every other story writing method, she begins with a story idea.

She spends as much as a few years thinking about the idea. Trying out different things for plot and character arcs, getting to know the characters, and discovering the main events. She wanders her way through this process first by slipping into her characters’ skins, acting out their stories, letting them take her wherever they will; then through writing what seem to be some of the most critical scenes and turning points.

She learns character names, mannerisms, backstory, and arc.

She discovers what they want and what keeps them from getting it; how they interact, and what they’ll need to learn or do in order to achieve their goals by the end of the story.

This part of the process is highly intuitive and can be meandering. There may be—and often is—brainstorming involved, but the process of discovery is more like walking through fog. Characters and plot lines gradually take shape day by day, week by week.

Writing Begins

By the time she’s ready to write the novel, she’s lived with the characters and their story for so long that she has a good idea of how the story unfolds. She also has several major scenes already written, providing a sort of loose outline of where the story needs to go. For reference, she may draft a one-page outline of the story. 

When serious writing begins, she writes her novels thread by thread. She selects a thread to write and writes either until she’s written through to the end or until she doesn’t know what happens next.

In her upcoming book Mailboat, for instance, Tommy and Bailey’s struggle over whether or not to accept each other as family is a major subplot. Danielle developed that thread as completely as possible, beginning to end, before moving to the next thread.

A lot of these first threads include scenes she knows well, because she’s played them through her mind so many times. At the very least, she knows what she has to write to bridge the gaps between scenes.

Murky Waters

Writing the initial threads can be smooth sailing, especially if the scenes are familiar and the character reactions are clear and understood.

But there are usually threads that get ignored during the early parts of the process and when it comes to writing those threads, the waters can get murky.

With Mailboat, for example, Danielle didn’t spend much time thinking about the story threads for the villains, so when it came to writing them, she had to write by the seat of her pants, trusting her instincts to fill in the gaps where there was little or no pre-planning.

“When I sit down to write, I may have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few pages until I’ve written it,” she says. “But since I have the framework of all the material I’ve already written, I at least have a little bit of direction.”

Weaving It All Together

Lastly, she goes through the novel again to make sure all the threads mesh correctly. This includes ordering scenes and making sure all the necessary transitions are in place.

After that, it’s all about fine-tuning, revising, and editing. But that’s a story for another day!

That’s how Danielle writes a novel.

Next week I’ll conclude the How To Write A Novel clinic by describing my method of novel writing. Like Danielle, I use a hybrid blend of pantsing and pre-planning. That’s all I’ll say about it now other than a hint.

It starts small and expands!

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How to Write a Novel – The Strict Pre-Planner

How to write a Novel Strict Pre-PlannerLast week, we talked about writing by the seat of your pants and how intuitive this method of writing is. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts, here are the links.

This week, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum: Pre-planning.

What Pre-Planning Looks Like

Pre-planning has many faces. For the sake of this week’s discussion, I’m focusing on the writer who does absolutely no writing until they’ve answered every question they can think of.

A strict pre-planner may spend weeks or months mapping out their story. They may have story boards and charts and lists and summaries enough to make NASA envious. They know enough about their main characters to write a biography and they often know their secondary characters inside out, as well.

Plot points major and minor have been identified and made as strong as possible.

They’re even likely to have written a complete chapter outline with scene descriptions for the novel from beginning to end.

In short, they’ve written thousands of words before they ever write the first line of the novel.

Pre-Planning Methods

A lot of pre-planners use a method first described by Randy Ingermanson and known as the snowflake method. This was my first introduction to pre-planning and although I now use a hybrid method (which I’ll talk about in lesson four), this is still the most familiar.

The snowflake method is ten steps.

  1. Sentence summary
  2. Paragraph summary
  3. Character storylines
  4. Page summary
  5. One-page description for each main character
  6. Four-page summary
  7. Expand character descriptions
  8. Scene Worksheet
  9. Write a narrative of the entire novel
  10. Write the novel

Characters and plot are developed side-by-side.

Outlining is another way to pre-plan, although it’s usually just one tool among many.

With an outline, you begin with a list of major points. They could be plot points (aka turning points or squeeze points) or they might be scenes.

That outline is then expanded step by step until as many of the questions have been answered as can be.

Outlines may be a series of short, sketchy sentences. They may also be so well fleshed out that they turn into narrative summaries.

The reason outlining is usually just a tool in the pre-planner’s toolbox is that it’s difficult to develop characters with an outline.

Another way to pre-plan is to use specially designed software. I’m not talking about CAD packages, but about writing software such as Scrivener, Write It Now, and others, that allow the writer to pre-plan and organize plans.

Advantages to Pre-Planning Your Novel

Pre-planning gives the writer an opportunity to try different things with characterization, plotline, story arc, and all the other thousands of things that go into writing a successful novel. It’s a way to get an idea for what works and what doesn’t without wrestling with the finer points of novel writing at the same time.

Pre-planning can also happen in the background while the writer is working on another story. If the writer does a lot of mental work before putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, it needn’t interfere with whatever writing is taking place in the foreground.

Sometimes, spending a week pre-planning is all that’s needed to reveal the weakness of a story idea. If so, it’s a week well spent and the writer can move on to another idea.

Disadvantages to Pre-Planning Your Novel

For a lot of writers, taking time to pre-plan wrings all the energy out of an idea.

There is also the risk of developing a narrative-summary-and-done mindset. I confess to having this problem. There have been times when I’ve felt like there’s nothing more to do with the story by the time the narrative summary has been written. It’s “good to go” and I move on. Of course the work is only just beginning, but if you’re this type of writer, you might want to steer clear of excessive pre-planning.

Another major disadvantage is that no story happens in a vacuum. You might spend weeks rounding out characters, developing story lines, and writing a chapter outline only to discover halfway through novel writing that your characters have a different idea. There goes all that planning! Out the window!

Although no writing time is ever wasted, that can be frustrating when it happens.

You don’t have to pre-plan extensively to make pre-planning work for you. The trick is finding the right combination of pantsing and pre-planning to work with the story you want to tell and your personality as a writer.

For the last two lessons, we’ll take a look at a couple of ways to write a novel hybrid-style. Next week, I’ll talk about Danielle’s method, then we’ll close the series with a description of my writing method.

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How to Write a Novel – The Strict Pantser

How to write a Novel Strict PantserWelcome to the first lesson in our How To Write Your Novel series. If you missed the previous post, you can read the course introduction here.

In the introduction, I defined pantsers as writers who do no pre-planning before beginning to write. This week, let’s take a closer look at what it means to be a writer who writes strictly by the seat of your pants.

A Pantser Is….

The term seat-of-the-pants comes from the world of machines. People who drive or fly or sail or routinely operate heavy equipment learn the feel of their vehicle. They may have dials, gauges, tachometers, and all sorts of fancy stuff but they know by the feel to the seat of their pants whether or not their machine is operating properly.

In fact, if you happen to be a NASCAR fan (as I am) and have listened to the chatter between drivers and crew chiefs, you’ve no doubt heard a driver say, “the car doesn’t feel right.” He’s talking about the way it feels to the seat of his pants.

The really good drivers know by the vibrations they feel through the seat whether the tires are going bad, the engine is starting to fail, or there’s some other problem.

The same is true of the writer who writes by the seat-of-the-pants. Write enough stories and he or she learns to feel intuitively whether or not a scene is working or if a plot is starting to fail. That “vibration” in the story world alerts them to possible problems.

Sometimes, the vibration may be the approach of a cool, new plot twist, too.

Types of Pantser

Beginning to End

This writer begins at the beginning and writes straight through to the end of the story. There are very few deviations from forward progress.

I’ve written at least one novel this way and often found myself at a complete stop when I couldn’t figure out what the next chapter should be.

The first draft is finished when the last chapter is finished. It’s not a bad way to write; it just didn’t work for me.

Breach Birth

With this form of intuitive writing, writing begins with the first scene idea. A pivotal event, maybe. Or a conflict between two or more characters. The writer may write individual scenes and piece them together later or may write the pivotal scene, then continue writing that plot line until he or she runs out of ideas. Sometimes, they may go back and write the follow up scenes.

The first draft is finished when all the transitions and gaps have been filled.

This is how most of my unplanned novels came to be. It’s a fun way to write so long as you know what happens next.

One benefit to this type of writing is that the scenes or plot threads give rise to related or new ideas. I had this experience quite often. That’s about the most thrilling thing that can happen for a pantser.

Another advantage is that the writer doesn’t have to worry about writing the perfect opening line at the beginning. You can do that after everything else is finished if you want to.

Whatever Works

For other pantsers, every story is different. Some unfold in a linear manner, from beginning to end.

Other stories follow a more winding path.

My observation of writing by the seat of my pants is that it’s more about getting words on paper than how the words are put on paper. For many of the novels I wrote intuitively, I often wrote linearly—one chapter after another—until a related idea presented itself. At that point, I opened a new document and wrote out as much of that idea or plot thread as possible, then figured out how it fit into the story.

Or if it fit!

My first NaNoWriMo novel, Saving Grace happened this way.

The Biggest Disadvantage

The biggest disadvantage to writing by the seat of the pants is that the first draft is often so messed up, major rewrites are needed to straighten it out. That can be a time-consuming proposition. It can also be very frustrating.

Two of my favorite manuscripts have suffered through multiple rewrites. I’m up to Draft 17 on one of them and approaching 20 years since the first words were written. Granted, writing on those stories has been sporadic. They’ve been hobbies more than anything.

But I can’t help but wonder how much more quickly I’d have been able to get a marketable manuscript had I spent some of those years deliberately planning instead of writing multiple drafts.

That, alas, is something I may never know for sure.

If you want a thrill ride of a writing experience, try pantsing with your next novel. When it’s going well, there’s nothing like it.

But beware! Every thrill ride has both ups and downs!

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Strict Pre-Planning way of writing a novel. I hope you’ll join me.

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