Student Spotlight: 5 Lessons Learned from Notes to Novel (Season 3)

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Student Spotlight: 5 Lessons Learned from Notes to Novel (Season 3)

Do you ever wish you could take a peek behind the scenes of other people's writing process? If so, you’re in for a treat! 

I reached out to some of my Notes to Novel Season 3 students and asked them to share the number one thing they learned about outlining and writing a first draft, while actually working on their first drafts. 

You’ll get to hear from real writers who are in the trenches, actively working on their novels—and in many cases, these writers have recently hit a big milestone like finishing their outline or completing a first draft.

So, I think it will be very fun for you to hear how they did it, plus some of their biggest takeaways from the actual drafting experience, and how the Notes to Novel course helped them get to the end. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in!  


5 Lessons Learned From Notes to Novel (Season 3) Students

The first writer we're going to hear from is Lindsay Sfara, and here’s what she had to say about writing her first draft in Notes to Novel:

LINDSAY: Hey, everyone! I'm Lindsay Sfara, and I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. My book is a superhero fantasy with the genres of action and worldview. 

My writing journey started with an outline I thought had enough details, but surprise, surprise, it totally didn't. It lacked the details that mattered, and thus I had no direction on how to write the story. 

So, I was forced to constantly stop and think about what would happen next, and that just kept me from writing in the end. This was a massive struggle that I had for about six months of trying to draft on my own, and at the end of those six months when I decided to sign up for Notes to Novel, that was just a massive, massive game changer.

I cannot rave enough about how amazing the coaching calls and community are. But, what really struck me in the course was the work behind discovering the WHY behind your writing and book, as well as the focus on your antagonist's development and their goals. So, starting with the why… 

Going through that work and discovering the “why” behind my book was the biggest a-ha moment in discovering not just the theme for that book, but the themes for my dual protagonists, too. And that already was a huge boost in adding depth to my writing—and to the scenes on a smaller scale.

On top of that, developing my antagonist and their goals was what helped push the story forward. If I didn't know what kind of event should happen next in the story, or how my characters would want to move forward, I reminded myself of their goals—but especially what my antagonist wanted and what their goals were. 

What they wanted and their actions toward getting what they wanted were what pushed my protagonists to react, and then what pushed the story on their end. So, in the end, there was this really cool cause–and—effect cycle created by… They did this, so now they react this way, et cetera, et cetera. 

And that just creates flow for your story, versus dumping story events in an outline that don't relate to each other. You want the flow, and that the antagonist really helped me get to that.  

So with those key things—the why and antagonist—they made it so much easier to add more detail and direction to my outline as I revamped it throughout the course. I used those two things to help fill out my key scenes and character arcs, as well as, on a smaller scale, the five commandments for each scene. And everything was just starting to fall into place after that. 

If I had questions, the weekly coaching calls were perfect. And if I had new ideas to add for parts that I already drafted, the revision tracker was such a lifesaver, so that I didn't have to go back and edit, and could just keep writing forward.

So, as I said, I tried to write a draft on my own for six months, and that process was difficult, to say an understatement. I only hit about 25,000 words during those first six months, and I also “failed” that year's NaNoWriMo since it fell in that timeframe. 

But six months after that, when I signed up for Notes to Novel, not only did I go through the next six months with the course content and revamping my outline, but my draft also reached 100,000 words. And, since NaNoWriMo came back around that time, I was able to knock it out of the park. That's more than doubling my original writing pace but in the same time frame! So from 25,000 words in the first six months, to 100,000 words in the second set of six months. 

I also feel way more confident and excited about my story. I'm way more organized with my details despite all of the moving parts I have from world-building to subplots—and I now have a drafting routine that produces an alive and organic flow for developing a story. And that's all from Notes to Novel.

So, for anyone who has the desire to become a published author, Notes to Novel is just a must-have investment, in my opinion, as the best way to get you started from zero to finishing your draft. I recommend this now to anyone who wants to write a novel because everyone's story is worth telling and deserves to be published out there to the world—that includes your story.

So, thank you, Savannah and Notes to Novel, for everything and for helping my desire and dream to start becoming a reality. And for you listening, here's to your story also getting out there!

SAVANNAH: Lindsay, I love this so much! Thank you for sharing all of your amazing insights. I feel like listeners are going to take away some really good nuggets from everything you just said and they’ll be able to implement it in their writing right away—which is super cool! 

The thing I want to highlight about what Lindsay just said is that in the beginning, she said that she was working on her story with no real direction. And she found herself constantly stopping to think about what would happen next or where the big picture story was going. Can you relate to this?

It’s super common. And it’s kind of like going on a drive where… You might know where you're going, but you have no plans for how you're going to get there, why you’re going there in the first place, where you’re going to stay along the way, or who you’re going to visit. And that would be super difficult, right? You’d have to pull over every hundred miles or so to look at the map, figure out where you are, and then what to do next.

So, I love that Lindsay highlighted a few things that really changed the game for her. First, it was finding her deeper motivation for why she wanted to write this book in particular. Second, It was getting to the heart of who her antagonist is and what they want and why. And then third, it was her willingness to keep moving forward, even though she knew the scenes that she already had written would need some editing. So, I think that's really awesome, Lindsay, and I'm so thankful to you for sharing your experience with us today!

Want to follow Lindsay’s writing journey? You can find her on Instagram!

The next author we’re going to hear from is Liya Grey, and here’s what she had to say about writing her first draft:

LIYA: Hey there, fellow writers! I am an aspiring author, Taliya Michelle, pen name Liya Grey. I live in New Jersey. I’m a wedding photographer and soon-to-be wedding planner. I love young adult fiction, especially action in the sci-fi/fantasy commercial genre. 

And let me just say that I have been writing a young adult series since 2015. I always got a few chapters in and then just stopped. I couldn't figure out what wasn't working. 

But in the earlier part of 2023, I discovered Savannah's podcast, which led me to her Notes to Novel course. And this course unlocked a whole new side of my story.

I had not realized that scenes and chapters were different things. But understanding that piece of story structure was one of the biggest reasons why what I had been writing before didn't work. 

After going through the course—and digging deeper into my whys, character development, and plot—I discovered that I can tell the story I want, and I can make it make sense. 

You should have seen what I plotted out before I took the course. It was a train wreck! There was action just for action's sake, and it didn't distinguish between the external and internal genres. I had a beginning and an end, but no middle. After Notes to Novel, I have finally bridged the gap to tell the most important parts of the story. 

Seriously, what I had before was not great, and I say that with confidence. For example, I had six main characters right out of the gate in the first chapter. It was a lot, and the characters didn't really have their own goals. I wasn't thinking about that. 

Now, instead of having six main characters, I have my one main character, her group of close friends, and some others spread out across the journey of the first book. There is flow and pacing that really changed the shape of my story, too.

Another amazing thing about this course is the community! I have these new friends who are in the same place that I am in, and we all share the same passion. We all want to write stories that work. There are some people that I talk to on a regular basis across the globe that I can depend on for feedback, ideas, and support. Savannah has built a really safe and wonderful virtual world for us all, and it's so great to have those connections.  

I am currently plotting my novel, or should I say, re-plotting… I veered from the course to try my very first NaNoWriMo. It wasn't successful for me in the way that I thought, but I did learn a lot about my story. My plot wasn't finished before I started, so now I am reworking and finishing that so I can get my messy draft done. 

Speaking of a messy draft, there was one very, very important thing that any perfectionist just like me needs to know. My writing is the most vulnerable part of me, and something that always held me back from finishing my novel was the fear of a bad first draft. And while that won't go away 100%, the Notes to Novel course taught me how to write a messy draft that isn't so messy. 

I know that my first official draft will be miles better than it would have been without the course. Savannah walks you through key pieces of storytelling that make you feel more confident and less anxious about finally getting that discovery draft done.

It's okay to have an okay or even a bad first draft. Having that idea reinforced was crucial to me. I used to be scared to tell people I was writing a book and what it was about, but Notes to Novel changed everything for me. I've told my friends and family, and there are people cheering me on now. I don't feel like such an imposter anymore.

I know that I can take my passion for storytelling and writing and make it something worth reading. I owe that all to Savannah.

SAVANNAH: First of all, Liya, thank you so much for those kind words! And I'm so glad that you highlighted what it was like to work through the course as a perfectionist. 

Liya and I talked about that a lot because I, too, am a perfectionist. And it's super, super hard to take that first step into messy draft territory. It's actually something that prevents a lot of people from even starting to write their books. So I'm glad Liya was able to push past that and make progress. 

I also love that she highlighted the community aspect because I think that's something that makes Notes to Novel special. From the get-go, we talk about the messiness of writing a novel, and my team and I work really hard to make sure the space inside of our Facebook group remains safe for everybody. We have all kinds of writers in Notes to Novel, and I love seeing people like Liya open up and share their messy ideas because that's when the magic and the creativity happen. 

Plus, it also inspires other people to raise their hands and ask questions as well. It's actually really funny because sometimes writers will ask questions during our live Q&A sessions, and just the act of them asking the question out loud will sometimes give them an idea or tell them how to solve their problems. So, it’s really fun to see.

But anyway, Liya, thank you so much for sharing your experience and your insights. And if you're a perfectionist listening to this episode, hopefully, Liya has helped unlock something in you or at least given you a smidge of courage to take messy action—however, big or small. 

Want to follow Liya’s writing journey? You can find her on Instagram and Facebook, or you can visit her website here.

The next author we’re going to hear from is Ami Bradford (aka Ami Bee!). Here’s what Ami had to say about writing her first draft:

AMI: Hello, fellow writers! My name is Ami Blackford, aka Ami Bee. I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and write young adult science fiction and fantasy. 

When I started to outline novel number eight, I had this intuitive feeling there were still some missing pieces to the novel puzzle, and before being published, I really wanted to know the nuts and bolts of how to write a solid novel that didn't take eight years to edit before finally giving up and moving on to the next one. I'm sure some of you can relate!

When I came across Notes to Novel, I knew this was the course for me. And I wish I had more than five minutes to talk about this, but believe me when I say, Savannah Gilbo gives you the keys to the novel kingdom. And I want to give you just a taste of some of my biggest takeaways.

Number one: theme. Did you know there are 10 universal themes for stories? Before Notes to Novel, I didn't. I've never even heard anyone discuss this before. And figuring your theme out is the basis for everything that will follow. So it's the most essential question you need to ask yourself before writing a book.

Why am I writing this book? And what am I trying to say? 

Your novel's theme is what dictates your protagonist's main character arc. So whatever your theme is at the beginning of your novel, your protagonist should believe the opposite of what your overall message is. And through the plot and interaction with other characters, come into alignment with the theme by the end of the book.

Number two: content genre versus commercial genre. The commercial genre is where your book sits on a shelf, while the content genre determines the emotional journey your reader expects when they pick up your book. So you may be writing a YA fantasy, but that doesn't tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a thriller? A romance? Action or a mystery?

Every content genre has key scenes that must be included within your story for your reader to truly feel satisfied. So being able to know what those key scenes are (once you've decided your content genre) allows you to make certain they're present, which meets your reader's expectations. Our job as writers is to do this and, of course, do it in a new and unique way.  

Number three: how to write a well-structured scene. There should be some sort of a mini-arc of change leading back to your protagonist. So you need to understand your protagonist's goal for that scene. 

Every scene should be around 1,500 to 2,500 words, and each one has to have what Savannah calls the five commandments. You should have an inciting incident, a turning point, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution. And the end of every chapter, it should be set up that “because this happened, now this is what comes next…” 

Number four: fast first draft and magical edits. Oh, this one really is a doozer, and believe you me, I see now why it takes so long to write a novel!

I love to edit every chapter, sometimes for weeks before moving on to the next. With magical editing tricks, Savannah explains why it's so important to allow that first draft to be messy and get the words on the page. Don't go backward, always move forward. 

It makes no sense to paint and decorate a house if you haven't built a solid frame. Let that sink in for a minute!  

Before taking this course, I understood character arcs, but still had a hard time understanding the difference between showing versus telling, when to add backstory, and how important interiority is. Having that balance between external dialogue. and internal thoughts that give readers the emotional journey they're looking for when they pick up a book.

I feel confident after taking this course. 

I'm going to write many novels of all genres—and before I draft that first line, I’m going feel like I’m already in the power seat because I'll know what I want to say and why. And that will give me the ability to provide my readers with the emotional satisfaction and entertainment they want when they pick up one of my books.

So, if you've been hacking away, getting conflicting feedback and critique groups, and want to know how to craft a powerful story in any genre of your choosing with precision, I highly suggest you take the Notes to Novel course. It's truly the best gift you can give yourself as a writer!

SAVANNAH: Ami, I couldn't have said any of this better myself! Thank you so much for sharing your takeaways from the Notes to Novel course—you really pulled out some good ones there! 

And oh, how I wish I could take credit for some of these tools, like the five commandments or those five elements that each scene needs to have, but they are not my own creations! If you've been listening to this podcast for a while now, you've probably heard me talk about Robert McKee's work. Those five key elements were first identified by him, as far as I know, and then I believe they were adapted into The Story Grid methodology that comes from Shawn Coyne, after that. So, have to give credit where credit is due!

But I do want to highlight something that Ami said towards the end there. She said,  “Before I draft the first line of any book, I know I'm in the power seat. I know what I want to say and why. And that gives me the ability to provide my readers with the emotional satisfaction and entertainment they want when they pick up one of my books.” And if you're listening right now, can you imagine how good that must feel?! When I heard AmI say that, I was thinking, YES! GO AMI! 

The confidence that comes from having a high-level understanding of what you need to do to write a novel—and then from having the tools to actually write it—that is HUGE! So, thanks again for sharing that with us, Ami. 

Want to follow Ami’s writing journey? You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, and you can visit her website here.

The next author we’re going to hear from is Tanja Fabsits, and here’s what she had to say about writing her first draft:

TANJA: Hi, I'm Tanja. I'm a medical writer and I'm based in Austria. I write in German, and my first novel has been published a few years ago. It's a funny story about depression for all ages, though it has been marketed as middle-grade. 

My biggest aha moment during Savannah's Notes to Novel course was probably related to scene structure, but my favorite takeaway is definitely the overall feeling of relaxing into the process of outlining. 

I've always been struggling with working out “perfect” outlines, and having completed the Notes to Novel course, I now see that outlining is more of an organic process.  It contains certain steps, and most importantly, it doesn't have to take forever. 

So this means that now I feel much more comfortable outlining and I can even imagine enjoying it one day. Thank you very much, Savannah!

SAVANNAH: I love that Tanja differentiated between her biggest aha moment and her favorite takeaway—that’s such a fun way of looking at it! 

I agree with what she said about how good it can feel to relax into an outline and to trust the process, for sure. I do understand that some people are pantsers by nature, and that is totally fine. It's important to do what works for you. 

But if you're listening to this as someone who identifies as a pantser, but maybe hasn't finished a draft yet. I want to encourage you to give outlining a try. 

And, more importantly, to find some kind of outlining process that works for you because the real point of an outline is twofold. Yes, it's to provide you with a roadmap to write from, but it's also to help you get your story out of your head and onto the page so that you can organize your ideas. And it can be a really fun and organic process if you go into it with that mindset. 

So, I'm glad that Tanya highlighted that as one of her favorite parts of the course because it's one of my favorite parts of the course as well. 

Tanja is not currently on social media, but you can check out her published book here.

The next author we’re going to hear from is Morgan Shrock, and here’s what she had to say about writing her first draft:

MORGAN: Hi, everyone. My name is Morgan. I'm a 39-year-old wife and mother of two. I live in Central Ohio. I work as a veterinarian at a shelter here. I also did academic research for 10 years, so I came to this desire to write a fiction book with 10 years of experience writing scientific publications for journals and grants. And those things aren’t that helpful in writing a novel.

So, about a year ago, I decided I wanted to write this book. The commercial genre is probably women's fiction, and then the content genre is worldview with a splash of crime and love. And I have been listening to the podcast for a year. I've listened to every single one. And I found them very actionable and helpful. So that's why I decided to kind of spring for the Notes to Novel course. 

And I say that because it's It is a chunk of money. I considered it an investment. My daughters are 7 and 10, so they're little, and my time is valuable. Like all of your time is valuable. So, it wasn’t just an investment in my writing. It was an investment in my time. 

I feel that over the past year, I've learned a lot. I’m probably 80% done with the first draft of the book, but I know that I'm kind of taking a circuitous route because I could be doing things more efficiently. And that's kind of what I wanted to come to the course for is kind of what is the “right way” to do this. 

My biggest aha moment was… I knew that my problem was that my story was kind of boring in the middle. And I knew the feelings that I wanted to elicit, and I knew what my theme was. You know, my main character is a new vet, and she essentially needs to learn to have a healthy work-life balance. So I knew I needed to get there, but everything in the middle was just kind of boring. 

And what I found was that as I went through the course, I identified the problem. So the issue was that my character didn't have enough agency. I think I identified that in maybe module 3 or 4, but I didn't figure out how to fix it until module 5. And that's because Savannah went over the outlining technique of every scene should have—a goal, a conflict, a decision, and a feeling. 

So, you know, for instance, my main character has to have a goal that begins the scene, a conflict arises where she makes a decision or has a decisive moment where she kind of shows her character and if she's learning her lesson or she's not. And then what is she feeling after that?

And I mean, maybe you guys are already doing that. No one else in the course seemed to think that that was really mind-blowing but for me… It just was really where my story needed help. Because once I figured that out, it automatically gave my character agency, and so we could kind of very clearly see in a lot of the scenes where she was figuring out the work-life balance…. Is she still making the same mistakes or not?

The other thing that it did for me is it created a really nice cause-and-effect flow in the middle saggy part of my story. Because the decision that was made, you know, let's say, in scene 10. The decision that's made in scene 10 kind of creates an effect that is the springboard for scene 11. And so that kind of just kept the story a lot more interesting. 

That was my biggest aha moment, but another a ha moment I had was in creating a realistic writing plan. And this is why the course is good because different things pinged for different people. A lot of the authors would say, you know, I'm having a hard time finding time to write, and that actually, I am the opposite of that.

I will make sure I get my writing time in, even if I'm staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning. And I think that's probably a holdover of doing academic research with my intense deadlines. But I actually found that what she says is… And she kind of breaks everything down for you of… This is how you come up with your plan, etc. 

But she says, you know, the plan is a plan and you should be going back to it and constantly kind of revising it and reassessing it and fixing it. And that was also mind-blowing to me because it meant that I could erase the deadlines like they were a line in the sand that I could move because it's not like I have an agent or a publisher. These aren’t really firm deadlines. So, those are two really big takeaways for me.

I think that it's really wonderful that the class is broken up into lessons you can do on your own time, plus the live interactive portion. I loved hearing everybody else's questions, and I know that the takeaways that I've learned from my aha moment have made writing the rest of my outline easier. I'm 80% done, so I've finished outlining the rest of the 20%, and it has just made such a difference. I think that you can very dramatically see the difference between when I started taking the course and had my aha moment before and after. That's how much my writing has improved. 

But not just the writing, it's the ease with which, you know… It's not a struggle when I sit down in front of the laptop to write this stuff. Everything just seems a lot easier. 

SAVANNAH: So good, right? I love that Morgan's takeaway was both similar and different to what everybody else shared—and she's spot on with what she said about each writer taking something different from the course. You can definitely see that in this episode! 

But there is a clear theme to the experiences that the writers have shared here today. And it’s that learning how to write a well-structured scene is HUGE in terms of one’s ability to write a solid first draft.

And it made me smile when Morgan was like, “Am I the only one who didn't know a scene needed to have a goal conflict and a decision?!” And I'll tell you from experience Morgan, you are not the only one. This is definitely a big aha moment for a lot of people. And it's something that I recommend ALL writers study—even if you don't resonate with the scene structure that I teach on this podcast, I do encourage you to find one that works for you because it will make a huge difference. 

I also like how Morgan shared that, although she was able to make time to write, she still reached a sticking point where she didn't know why the middle of her story wasn't working. Which, kudos to you for recognizing that, Morgan! I know that's not easy to realize, but I love that she didn’t give up.  Instead, she went out and found the tools to help her make the dream of writing a novel possible. And I think that is really cool. So, thank you so much, Morgan, for sharing your experience!

Want to follow Morgan’s writing journey? You can find her on X and Instagram.

Final Thoughts

Thank you so much to Ami, Lindsay, Taliya, Morgan, and Tanja for coming on this episode and sharing your biggest lessons learned while writing your first drafts and from going through the Notes to Novel course. I truly appreciate you.

If you enjoyed this episode, go check out the social media or the websites of all the different authors we had on the show today. Say hello and give them a high five for sharing their stories (and their struggles) with us! 

If you’re interested in learning more about my Notes to Novel course, click here to sign up for the FREE masterclass—The Confident Writer’s Roadmap: 5 Steps To Writing A Novel Without Letting Perfectionism or Procrastination Get In The Way

The training is about an hour long, and it’s totally free. At the very end of the masterclass, you’ll hear all about the Notes to Novel course and how you can enroll.

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →