From Notes to Novel: 5 Key Steps, with Savannah Gilbo

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Savannah Gilbo

Fiction Writing Made Easy

Free Training: 5 Steps to Writing a Novel Without Letting Perfectionism Get In the Way

Notes to Novel: 5 Key Steps, with Savannah Gilbo [Full Transcript]


Well, hey there, Writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas. And this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. 

Because let's face it, the writing life has its ups and downs, and we want to not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page. 

This podcast is for writers who love books and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who want to learn and grow in their craft and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them. 

Writers who want to spend more time in that flow state. Writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community. In this crazy roller coaster ride, we call the writing life. 

We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show. 


Well, hey there Writer, welcome back to another episode of the resilient writers radio show. I'm excited today: I have Savannah Gilbo in the house! Savannah, you probably know who she is, but just in case, she is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She's also the host of the top ranked Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast, where she delivers simple, actionable, step-by-step strategies that writers can implement in their work right away. Thanks for being here, Savannah. 


Thank you for having me, Rhonda. And hello, everybody listening. I'm so excited to be here and to chat with you all today. 


Yes. So we said we were going to talk about, we wanted to talk about today, basically, how to start a novel, right? So when you have that initial, ooh, I think I've got a really good idea. I can see something on fold, you know, that might unfold really well here. And you're all excited about it. 

How do you go from basically that very first idea to the process of starting a novel, which I think if you've never started a novel before, can be kind of intimidating. So you were saying you have five things that you think people should do just really before they even dive into the draft. Can we just dig right into those? Dig into those. 


And you're right. It's totally overwhelming, totally intimidating. Even if we're excited, those two emotions can kind of exist at the same time. So if you are out there and you're brand new to drafting a novel and you feel this way, it's totally normal. You're going to be fine. 

But there are five things that we can look at before we start drafting, just to say. Okay, what pieces of a story idea do I have? Which ones might I need to develop? And then kind of where can I go from there? So a lot of writers, Rhonda, you probably find this to be true for yourself. We either have a plot idea or a character idea or like some kind of theme or topic that really pulls on our heartstrings, like something we're really interested in. 

So. A lot of times we have, let's say, a protagonist. And we sit down and write, and we're like, OK, we have this great protagonist. We see them. We can hear their voice. But then we don't know what to do. And we start drafting, and we kind of just write ourselves off a cliff, basically, because sometimes we don't think about the other aspects. 

Or sometimes we grab something like Save the Cat, or the three-act structure, or whatever it is. And so we try to take what we know about our character and then filter it through this structure and sometimes that works, but other times it ends up, you come up with something that doesn't feel totally holistic or that matches kind of the vibe you feel for your story. 

So I like to think about these five questions in these five areas, just like doing a mind map or a brain dump or whatever it is, just to start seeing what ideas you have and what you have to work with. So we'll go through them one by one. And for anybody listening, this is exactly the process I would take my coaching clients through, my students in my Notes to Novel course. And it does work and help no matter what genre you're writing in. 

So question number one is just kind of like, it's really getting at what your theme is. So it's like, why do you want to write this book? What does this story speak to? What is it? What is it going to show the world? I like to think about it in terms of a prescription. 

So, you know, like there's a lot of people that want to write books about being nicer to people and don't judge others, right? Like you might feel very strongly about that. And so maybe you have that idea that this is some kind of theme or message I wanna explore. It's my prescription to make the world a better place. So that's where I like to start. And if you don't know, that's okay. Cause we're probably gonna get there from answering the other questions. 

Question number two is about genre. And there's two ways I like to look at this. So one of them is commercially, like where is your book gonna sit? in Amazon or on the bookshelf in a real life store. So it could be like young adult fantasy, right? It's the age range and it's the bookshelf your book would sit on. 

And then there's the content genre consideration, which is what kind of young adult fantasy are you writing? So is it primarily an action story with life or death stakes? Is it a mystery that's set in a fantasy world for young adults? Is it a romance? What kind of story is it? So I like to say, okay, do we have a... Oh, do we have knowledge about that answer yet? Or even if we can narrow it down to two or three, that's still really helpful. 

So sometimes, like let's say we're just gonna go with, you know, we're writing an action story, that's our content genre, and we're placing it in a fantasy world with a young adult protagonist. So maybe we know that. We can then kind of say, okay, these types of stories speak to survival or like, you know, what it takes to, or what it means to sacrifice, things like that. 

So, we can back out of that. Go back from there into step number one. Yes, into step number one. And even if you don't have the answer right away, that's OK, because it's still going to come to you. So you can just start thinking about these things and say, maybe I didn't realize I felt so strongly about being selfless and sacrificing for others. Maybe I do feel strongly about that. That's cool. So then once you've–


Sorry, I was just going to say, I sometimes tell students, think about if the book comes out, and you're on a radio show or a podcast or a, you know, like a writer's festival panel and someone says, you know, tell us what the book is about. You know, what is it you want to say?


Yeah. And there's different ways to answer that too. So it could be like, what is literally happening in the plot? It could be like who your character is, or it could be like, what is that core message? What is it really about? So I think we're all going to come to it with different answers and avenues for getting to the result of a full book, which is really cool. 

So then let's say you go through those two questions and you're like, okay, I have some ideas. Maybe you have zero ideas. That's okay too. 

Maybe you know question number three, which is who is your protagonist? You can even ask questions like what do they want and why? What are they lacking? What do they think will make them happy? What kind of lesson do they need to learn? You can just start brainstorming. who this person is and how they're gonna change and what kind of conflict they're gonna meet along the way. 

And then if let's say you don't know answers to question one and two, you might get some answers here. So let's say you're like, well, my character is someone who I just envisioned them at the end, they have to decide between saving the world and saving someone they love, right? So you might know this feeling and you can say, okay, well, what kind of genre does that sound like? It could be a young adult fantasy. It could be probably action if their life is at stake. Could be romance too, depending on how you set it up. And then again, you're- 


Or romance subplot. 


Exactly, and then you're kind of backing into that theme question too, because you're saying, okay, so I'm in this realm of like, I see the climactic moment, this person's sacrificing for this person or whatever. What comes up when I think about that moment? What am I saying with that? What am I saying about the power of love in that moment? So you can kind of just start organically building out some answers. 

Anything to add there? Because I talk a lot, so it's really free to start. 


No, but I love how you're talking about. Basically these answers build on one another, and you don't need to feel anxious about, well, I don't fully know all the ones to step number two yet. You can just keep going and it'll come. you know, out of the creative process as you start getting into it. Yeah, love that. 


Yes, and there's things you can dive into. So if we back up to number two, which was about genre, what kind of story are you writing? There's even more you can dig into there. So if you know I'm writing an action story and my character is gonna go through this, you know, again, I'm speaking in content genre language, they're gonna go through a worldview shift. So the way they look at the world or themselves in the world is gonna change. 

You can get information like what kinds of scenes does that mean you might have or what kinds of character roles or, you know, there's things you can dig into just by simply taking a moment to answer these questions. Um, that can also, sorry, go ahead. 


I was going to say that can also inform character, right? Cause if you know you're writing an action story or a love story, whatever, it tells you kind of, this is what the spine of your story will probably look like you color in the lines to make your story unique. 


Right. Exactly. So we have a theme, that's number one. Then we have genre and we look at it from the point of view of like commercial genre, where does this sit on the shelf, as well as content, like what type of story is it? And then three is protagonists, like who's your main character? What do they want? What's driving them? What kind of conflict are they gonna face? 


Okay, so what's number four? 


Number four is around the setting. And I think of setting as where and when. So it's like, what's, are we in a made up world? Are we in like, contemporary Denver, where this story is taking place? You might not know beyond just like, let's say contemporary Denver, whatever. Or you might say, it's gonna take place in Denver and I know that a lot of it's gonna be in this bakery. I'm probably gonna need to go to the protagonist's mom's house. Like you might have visions for these things already. 

Again, if not, that's totally okay. And then the second part is how long is the timeline? So is it gonna be a story that's three days, six months? just what do you envision? It doesn't have to be right or wrong. You're just kind of getting stuff down because again, this can help influence how you're going to answer the previous three questions. So that's number four. 

And then the fifth one is about plot. So like, what do you imagine happening in the beginning, middle, and end? And again, you might not have all the answers, but you might know, let's say I'm writing a romance and I know how the characters meet. Or you might say I'm writing an action story and I know what that final climactic sacrifice is going to look like. So you can just start putting things down in a container and then you can step away from it and say, okay, now given I've written down all this, what pieces might I still need to flesh out? 

Like, let's say you've done this, you might have everything answered, but question number three about your protagonist. So then, you know, that's where you can say, okay, I need some help developing this. Maybe I'm gonna look at books or I'm gonna listen to a podcast or take an online course, whatever it is, and drill down into this aspect to flesh out my idea. so that I can write a better draft. Right. 

So I love that because number five is really, you know, one of the places where you can start brainstorming the kind of scenes you need, right? I need a scene in which they meet. I need a scene at which they decide they hate each other and, you know, they never wanna talk again. And then I need a scene at which they come together and I need a scene at which, right? So you start to kind of say, okay, I need these kinds of scenes. And then you can use setting and theme  and who your character is and your genre to flesh all of these out. Right. 

And there's more decisions, of course, that go into writing a novel. Like at some point, you're gonna need to choose what point of view intends your writing and things like that. But for a lot of us, it's hard to say, like I'm writing in third-person past tense, because if we don't really know what type of effect we're trying to have, or it's hard to make informed decisions about other things if we don't have this groundwork done. 

And to your point, like if we know what our genre is, that already is gonna inform so much stuff, like our structure, like what kinds of scenes and settings and micro circumstances and things like that, that we can just play with. It's like we get this whole toolbox by just answering these five questions and identifying any holes. And that's before we really, I mean, obviously we're writing because we're answering these questions, but it's before we kind of open up chapter one, you know, and... 


Do you suggest that people write a draft in chronological order, or do you think that really matters?


I think this depends on process because I've seen a lot of people take this idea of like the discovery draft, right? So I'm discovering my story somehow for pantsers, maybe it's just working through these five questions and saying, I've got my foundation, now I'm gonna just write whatever scene I want today because I know where I'm going. 

Or they could write in chronological order, there's no right or wrong. Other people might take this and say, okay, I've got the groundwork, I'm gonna develop it into an outline. And an outline could look different. It could be a synopsis, it could be, you know, act by act, scene by scene, whatever we want. 

But I think, you know, you don't have to have all the perfect answers of these five questions, either if you're a plotter or a pantser. I think it's just worth thinking about and saying, what do I have to work with so that you're aware of what roadblocks you might hit, or that you can... work on now to prevent, because sometimes, a lot of times actually, I see writers, they're like, I'm 80,000 words in, and I just realized my protagonist doesn't even have a goal. And it's like, okay, that's kind of a big deal, right? 80,000 words in, and your protagonist doesn't have a goal. 

If we would have just thought about this and realized that upfront or during the outlining phase or whatever, would have saved a lot of time and frustration. 


Right. I talk about the Essential Book Outline, which is basically like, who's your protagonist? What do they want? What kind of obstacles are they gonna face? Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end? And we look at that both internally and externally.

And it gives you a chance to kind of, when you do all of that, it gives you a chance to brainstorm. Again, like sometimes just having a list of six or eight scenes, like kinds of scenes, you know, you're gonna write helps you from just feeling completely blocked. 


And I've never seen someone go through this process of at least thinking through these five questions and regretting the time they spent doing it. It's usually like, okay, I actually went from being totally overwhelmed to at least 50-50. Like I'm 50% overwhelmed, 50% confident, if not more confident. Because at least we get a starting point and it starts to narrow down. This is actually the most important part. 


It starts to narrow down the infinite number of options and choices we have to make into something that's a little more contained and then you can be creative within that container.


Yes, absolutely.


So the writers that you work with, right, whether in your notes to novel course or when you're working with them one-on-one, what do you think are like the biggest myths, misconceptions or mistakes that writers kind of trip over when they're going to start a novel? 


I think there are, so a couple come to mind, again, no matter if you're a plotter or a pantser, but the biggest one is thinking that whatever you write in your first draft needs to match the quality of the books you read. So, yeah. 

And the first draft, you cannot aim for like pretty prose or things that make total 100% sense because you just don't know everything about your story yet. So I think it's a mistake to believe that it's a myth that a first draft should equal the published quality. And we tend to get stuck there a lot because we're trying to, we have unrealistic expectations of what we're producing. 

And this is why on my podcast and in my course, I talk about what the discovery draft is like, literally that's what we're trying to do is just discover the story. Your editor can make it better and polish it and do all that stuff later. But if we don't have something on the page, we cannot do that. So that's definitely the biggest myth or mistake I see people make. 


The other one, which is kind of funny, I don't know if you can agree with this or not, but it's like layering all these methods out there on top of each other. So, uh, my God, it's like, okay, now I'm doing Story Grid and then Save the Cat and Story Genius. And yeah, and like, I don't know what I'm going, I don't know what I'm doing. So I've just gone and Googled how to, you know, how to structure a novel. And now I'm totally overwhelmed because I have too much information. 


Yes. And so I had a writer that's like the perfect example of this who did my notes novel course. And before he did that, he came to me for an evaluation and he's like, here's my draft. I know it needs work. I just don't know what to do. I've now, exactly like he said, layered Save the Cat with Story Grid, with Story Genius, with all these different methods, for plot. He had methods for character. He had methods for scenes and he had this giant spreadsheet that he attached with his draft. And he's like, so- I'm overwhelmed just hearing that. Yeah, and so he came into this evaluation believing that his draft really was broken fundamentally because he could not check all the boxes on all the different methods on all the checklists, right? 

So I told him, I said, okay, well, let me read it and let me see where we're at. But first of all, imagine that I build a house or buy a house or rent a house, whatever. And I go and I ask five of my neighbors, like, hey, can you give me a plan for furnishing my house and decorating it, right? They are all going to give me a plan because I'm assuming they're nice people. Those plans will have different styles, different budgets, different color choices, right? I could not implement all five of those plans in my house if I wanted it to be a cohesive visiting experience or living experience, right? 

It's the exact same thing with novels. Every method is an interpretation. Even the ones that I teach are my interpretation of what works, right? So this is why there's going to be listeners out there that's like, this Savannah person, she's not the vibe for me, and I like what Rhonda teaches, right? Or vice versa. And that's OK. There's so many methods. And you might be a Save the Cat person, you might be a Story Grid person, whatever. They're all going to get you to the same place. So the long-winded way of saying the second mistake I see is people layering these methods together. 

And then if I had to round it out with a third mistake, this one might surprise people. I think it's a. not having some kind of community or just doing everything alone because that's very, very tough. And it's easy to get stuck in your head. Yeah. And so much of it is getting stuck in our head, isn't it? 


Right? Like even when you're experienced, because every book has a new book, every story is a new story. And so we're always getting a little stuck in our head and community is kind of huge, for normalizing that. 


Yeah. Like there are times you're going to get stuck in your head and B, helping you get out of it. Absolutely. Yeah. And in my course, so what we do is twice a year, we run it live. So we have live group coaching and things like that.

And when we do it live, there are always so many writers in there. It just makes me smile because they'll be like, oh my God, so and so, I didn't realize you felt this way too. And then a third person's like, I feel this way too. That's normal. Like they're shocked. 

So for most of the listeners out there, probably these negative, squishy, weird feelings you're feeling are totally normal. And that's why, like Rhonda said, community helps normalize that. The other times that we don't run the program live, I'm always conscious of like, how do I convey that to people who aren't really going through with this group coaching experience? So I try to give examples like, yeah, I worked with this writer or like in our last live coaching session, here's what the vibe was at this point in time in the course. If you're feeling that way, you're probably on track. 

Like there are natural moments of self doubt. There are natural moments of imposter syndrome. Like when most writers finish a draft, they're super excited. And then the next day they're like, I think that whole thing really sucks. Like it's going to happen to most of us. So just absolutely. And it's okay. 


Yeah, absolutely. It's a total roller coaster. And you know, and you never know getting up and starting work on a day. You, you just, what kind of day is this? You don't know. 


Yeah. And so many things that aren't writing related factor into the days you have. So. 


Yeah, that's true too. So, Savannah, tell me a little bit about your Notes to Novel course. So, how's it structured and what's involved in that? 


Yeah, so my course, like I said, it runs live twice a year, but when it's not live there, you can take the self-study version and essentially what it does or what I did with it is I took the way that I coach writers one-on-one and I put it into a course format because I wish I could work with all the writers in the world, but there's just literally not enough time and it's hard. And there are other factors that go into that, like people's budgets and things like that. So I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. 

I know that my way of coaching people works because I've seen it work one-on-one and I just translated it to group coaching. So group coaching slash self-study, depending on when you sign up. 

But essentially there are six modules in it and it walks you through kind of building those five questions and building out your outline once we get to the end in a really organic way. So we don't follow any of the methods, we don't follow Save the Cat, although you can totally use that alongside what you're learning, but it's more like, let's take what you already have, let's build on things like your theme or things like the genre framework or whatever, and build it in an organic way that doesn't feel… it gives you enough structure but doesn't box you in, so it works for plotters and pantsers. 

And yeah, it just goes through like module one is getting our mindset right, it's discovering our theme. Module two is all about genre, so it's like a deep dive into commercial and content genres. I have genre cheat sheets in there. 


Oh, so important. Like what you have to do for each genre. You've got to have a little of this and a little of that. Yeah. 


Yes. And talking about like, okay, if you're going to have, you know, this is your external genre, it talks about your plot. This is your internal genre. That's more your character arc. You can also have a subplot genre. So like maybe you have a romance subplot and here's how to construct that. 

So it's not meant to be prescriptive. It's meant to be like, here are the bumpers, you know, use this to fuel your imagination and what you want. And so then in module three, we go into characters. We really build out the protagonist, the antagonist, and supporting characters. We talk about settings and point of view and timeline and all that. And basically in those first three modules, it's like, let's make these big decisions and flesh out that groundwork. 

Then in module four, we shift into structure. So it's like, okay, here's what it means to actually write a scene. Here are my top strategies, ways to think about scenes so that when you go into the next module, which is all about outlining, whatever outlining looks like for you, there are different options of suggestions of what I've seen work. But you know what a scene is, you have all that foundational work done. It's really designed to help you not waste your time and write things that are all exposition or whatever. And not waste your time, not waste your words. 

And then in module six, it's kind of like, okay, you have your outline, here's some emotions that are gonna come up, here are your next steps, here are some tips to get to the end of your draft. things like that. So it's really, it follows my one-on-one coaching process. And it's, it was really important to me to design something that builds on itself and that feels organic while you're doing it. 


Right. What I love about what you've described is that it gets you to a draft that basically works in its fundamentals, right? 


Yes. You know your story, you know your characters, you know, your structure, your point of view, you know, the purpose of your scenes, you know, and so. by the time you're well into writing out the draft, you already know that in its fundamentals, your story is working. So you're not having to rethink the whole thing when you get to revision, which is amazing. 

And that's what we see with the students that go through it is that they produce something that works in its fundamentals. They do know a lot more about their story and how they want things to come together. So it's almost like, okay, you have a draft that's good quality, like it works in the basics, right? Then we take that, instead of going from like draft two to three, we ended up going from like draft two to draft four or five. 

So we kind of skip over having to do extra work because we've already thought about the foundation and now we're just improving it and making it even better in the subsequent drafts. 


Right. And so you have a self-study version, you do it in a group twice a year, and then you also work one-on-one with people. So... What do you find is the difference? I mean, you mentioned budget and that's definitely a consideration, right? Not everyone can afford to work with a book coach one-on-one, but I often have people ask me like, do I need a book coach? Do I need a developmental editor? Should I join a group program? Like there's so many options. So what do you see as the difference between these? 


Yeah, we'll just take budget off the table because that's a very real consideration, but I'm not gonna touch on that. 

So it's real, I'm just gonna preface this by saying I'm a big introvert. So when I say what I'm about to say, just know that I'm a very quiet introverted person that doesn't love doing group things.

However, I love doing group courses because group programs, you get to see what other people are asking and what they're doing. And they're gonna ask questions that you don't even know to ask. And you don't even know that something that they're asking about is confusing you because in your thought process, you're not quite there yet. but the way they ask it is gonna unlock something in your brain. 

So imagine that at times, however many people are in the group, it's really gonna accelerate your learning if you participate. Even if you don't and you're kind of one of those people that's gonna be a fly on the wall and you watch the Q&A replays or whatever, you will still accelerate your learning. So I think that's a huge difference.

And I think that's, I'm doing less and less one-on-one work because I believe so much in the benefit of the group. experience. And even if you're, you know, if we're doing one on one, let's say we're doing a romance novel, the conversation is going to be really around romance and your specific story, which for some people is really great.

But imagine being in a group where people are also writing mysteries and they're writing women's fiction or whatever, right? There's going to be so many things that will give you ideas outside of your genre because you're just not used to looking there. You know, so I'm just, my opinion is there's so much more benefit from group coaching programs these days, but I know they're not for everybody. 

So you know, I, why I say this is about being an introvert is I don't, I used to be this person that said group programs are not for me because I'm an introvert. But remember you get to choose how you show up to those programs. Totally. And it's okay to be a fly on the wall if you want. But it's, to me, totally worth being a little uncomfortable if you're that introvert out there like I was. to get in and really accelerate your learning and write that book that you're dreaming about writing. 


Yeah, absolutely. I feel that way about group work too, both like doing them myself. I often will look for a group option just because of that sense of community, that sense of not being alone, of knowing, oh, that question I had is not so crazy or that feeling I have, everybody has it and here's how they got over it. I don't know. And just, you know, and it's always fun to make friends. 

And particularly, I think, in the book world, like we need other writers, we're going to need beta readers, we're going to want to, you know, have people share, oh, did you hear that publisher is now accepting short story collections or whatever, right? So yeah, no, groups are fabulous. So when are you running Notes to Novel again? Do you know? 


We are running it live in September. We don't have the full like specific dates yet, but sometime around September. Although right now you can get into the self-study version. So if anybody listening wants to learn more about that, I have a free training that at the end talks about the course. And the link to that is just 


Okay, great. And I'll put that link in the show notes so people can get it. And what's great about that is they can get a little taste of you in that initial training. So that's awesome. 


Yeah, and it actually goes into a little bit of what we talked about today. So kind of those five questions, but also mindset blocks around those five questions and how to push past those.

The other thing I'll quickly mention for listeners is that if you want to dive in now and join the self-study version, you'll see on the page there's details about how you get credit towards upgrading to the live version. So it's kind of cool. You're always welcome to come join the live, even if you participate in self study. 


That's fun. So you could start now with self-study and then see if, you know, if a group thing would feel better for you or would maybe help you go deeper at that time, right? Because you get a little, a little down the road and then kick in with a group. Yeah, I love that idea. 


Exactly. Cool. 


Well, thanks so much for being here, Savannah. It was so great to talk to you about this and hopefully we can chat again soon. 


Of course. Thank you so much for having me and good luck, everyone out there writing your books. 



Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. 

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