One Mistake Never to Repeat

Frustrated WriterDo you know what I did today?

I wrote a hundred lines on little pieces of paper and cut them all out so I can tape them back in a new order. Why did I do this, you ask?

Because I wrote a novel without planning it.

I have scenes that have no bearing on the plotlines. I have characters who only made one appearance or were mentioned and never appeared. I even had a character change age, demeanor and goals halfway through the novel.

So now, I have to go back and do a ton of work to make it all fit together and rewrite the weak parts, whilst cutting erroneous scenes. Not smart. So how to avoid doing this ever again?

Easy, plan a little.

Planning a novel isn’t as easy as brainstorming a bunch of ideas. Every action characters take have consequences and every plotline started needs to lead to something in the end (or along the way).

So what kind of planning does a writer need to do?  What kinds of tools can you use to get a good start?

Spider Graphs

I love spider graphs. It’s a neat, easy way to link characters, political factions, and plotlines together so you can visualize how they fit together. I recommend them as a first step. But then, my novel is a twisty network of spy games and subterfuge that’s hard to keep straight without visual notes.

If you’re planning a complex magic system or interconnected subplots, this might be a really useful tool to use.


An outline is a sort of step-by-step of the work, from beginning to end. Of course, most of the time I outline, I start with one line, something like:

1. Scene 1: Introduce main character’s failed assassination attempt and her befriending secondary character.

And it usually ends with something like:

2. Scene 36: Yvette and Thorne sneak out of town to meet with Zanchi.

a. Black arrow.

b. Twelve guards.

c. Talk in the woods.

1. “I was hoping when you invited me for a walk in the woods, you really meant just that.”

2. “Thorne, I didn’t realize you fostered such feelings for me. I’m flattered.”

3. “I just didn’t realize we were going to be risking our necks.”

4. “I take it back, then. I’m not flattered.”

Yeah, I just get too interested in writing to keep my outlines succinct.

An outline is a great way to flesh out a whole novel, bearing in mind that some of the ideas will come to you or change as you write the actual story. They allow you to be more detailed for the scenes you’ve given a lot of thought and gloss over ones that aren’t completely plotted. Also, once you have your outline written, it’s easy to refer back to it and make sure you’re still on track.


Summaries can either be the summary of a scene, like: “Yvette goes to find Thorne before her partner does. She finds him at the local pub, three sheets to the wind. He’s not interested in talking, but after she breaks his friend’s arm, he’s more receptive…”

Or it can be a play-by-play of everything that happens.

I’m a fan of both for different reasons and I think each has its merits for organizing thoughts. For me, if a scene has more importance or there are things that just have to happen in them, I tend to be wordier. Scenes I haven’t nailed down tend to be lighter in description like: “Overhear something relevant to plot, but NOT about Yvette’s motivations.”

Maps, Character Drawings and Doodles

These are one of my weaknesses.

I’m a creative, artistic person and sometimes I have to fight the urge to derail on other creative endeavors. While a map is helpful and a character sketch or doodle of someone’s house is nice, it can be tempting to spend too much time on these.

First, you need a plot and gripping characters. It doesn’t matter whether they’re hunting bandits in a forest or desert because those small details can be changed with minor work later. Much worse is writing pages and pages about characters you realize later you’re not that into. And let’s not forget, the whole point of planning is to make editing easier later.


While I’m a full supporter of research, it can be a distraction.

I recommend attacking research with a goal in mind and accumulating multi-purpose sites. I have an iPod app from the military called “Survival Guide”. It not only covers field medicine, but also how to construct shelters, how to purify water based on available materials, and how to combat psychological complications like fatigue, fear, anxiety, etc. Those sites that answer multiple questions save time, and bookmarking them in a folder for the novel to which they pertain is easier than looking up every fact one at a time.

Finding the Right Fit

Planning is a critical step in the process for some writers and something others do for twenty minutes in a hot shower. While one writer will swear by detailed, hand-drawn maps and a binder full of cultural history, another will call it good with a hastily-scrawled plot on a note card and a list of potential character names.

Finding the right fit and keeping on track is the most important goal. Whatever type of planning you do, it has to work for you, inspire you to finish the project, and motivate you to push through when you get stuck.

What are some of your planning tricks?  Have you ever pantsed an entire novel?  And if you dare to share, what’s your worst planning mistake?

A. Howitt is a fantasy author and a member of the Mythic Scribes article team. When she isn't writing, she enjoys history, fencing and designing period costumes.

26 Responses to One Mistake Never to Repeat

  1. I planned in major, obsessive detail – only for the plot to change completely halfway through drafting. I’m now staggering on with what I’ve seen called “headlights” planning – so I have the rough shape of the overall story, but only a proper plan for the chapter I’m currently working on. And even that sometimes changes partway through. But I’ve got to admit, I think I’d have been lost long ago with out some sort of plan.

    Change of subject – I wouldn’t mind a link to that survival app?

    • Glad to hear you’re pushing through. I don’t have the link, but it’s an Army Survival Handbook. You might try googling it to see if it still exists? This was about 4-5 years ago that I had it on our old iPod.

  2. efpierce a spider graph is a center bubble with lines sticking out from it with more bubbles.  Basically a collection of bubbles that helps you connect things (in my case, the city’s factions).

  3. Could you explain spider graphs a bit more for me? Or maybe send me a link to go to so I can learn more?

  4. Sometimes you just need to write scenes that won’t be in the book and be okay with getting rid of scenes that do not work. I just axed nearly 40 pages of writing, but because of that writing I found a snippet that could be used elsewhere in way that would be far more poignant. So it was worth all that time spent writing those 40 pages. (Still have them in another file.)I just see all the bad writing and the massive reworkings as more practice, and a path to building a better story.

    • R_R_Davidson  too true.  I actually have decided to enjoy the editing process.  Now that I have a process and a plan, it goes much easier.  This novel is now fr more interesting to me than it’s first draft, just because of the reworking I’ve done.

  5. Anita, thanks, I really enjoyed the article.  Bummer about how many rewrites you have to go through for this.
    I love the spider graph and never knew it was called that before.  It’s definitely a favorite for brainstorming.

  6. Tht’s true, one thing I failed to mention in the article is I keep a calendar so I can keep things time-appropriate.  Ever notice in some movies how in every night scene , the moon is full?  HA!  My calendar helps me keep things like that in perspective.

  7. This is just the article I needed today, thank you! Some excellent tips and more resources to go and check out.

  8. 1. Have a story to tell. Seriously, this gets missed in some writing “advice”. I’m with Atkins in that I create a world and characters who have a history and the story flows from there. Plotting the novel of the story, that’s where the outline comes in. I also use timelines to keep a handle on continuity.

  9. Perhaps the 60 hours I am into re-planning is the time I should have spent at the beginning, but in truth, I didn’t have a story when I began writing.  I just let it take form as I went.  While it worked for this nano project and was a good learning experience, I wouldn’t recommend it.  I’m not a strong enough writer to have two pages of notes and names and turn it into a book.  Glad the article has helped some folks!

  10. So, it is BAD to have that guy walk through my novel, and never been seen again? Interesting idea – Kind of like starting with a character or two, and a general direction, and just letting them go. – Hopefully the time I use up rewriting is about the same as the time I would have spent outlining and planning, – And some of the time planning would be thrown away because Lady Amber joins the wrong side in the war. (Tainted Souls – available from Barnes and Noble as an eBook.)

    • I think it depends on the context. We go through seeing and talking to people we will never see again all the time.

  11. I wallpaper an entire room with outlines, alternate histories, abandoned plot-points, pencil sketches, pedigree charts, and mostly-asleep scrawls that I’m still unable to translate.

  12. I don’t plan. I chreate characters, give them plausible background, something happens and then I see what happens. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to ever find my way to an end that seems like an end.

  13. For those like me who can’t plan to save their lives, it’s okay.  The most important part that I took away from this post was to keep track of what you’re doing.  You don’t have to do all the planning before hand but you do have to keep track of what you’ve done already.  That way you can go back and get the color of the character’s eyes (which trust me is hard to find after the fact…).  Organization is key.

    • theternalscribe 🙂  I’m not a huge fan of planning either, as the post shows.  i like to start with a rough idea of a character and a situation.  Then, I just see where it takes me.  Unfortunately, in this case, it took me far off the beaten path into a completely different concept than the one I began with.  I think every writer has different methods and each novel a person writes perhaps does too.  It’s the wonderful thing about art, isn’t it?  Some days you can be inspired by nothing and come up with something grand and other days you plan and inspiration hits while you’re doing technical developments.  It’s wonderful, thanks for commenting.

  14. I tend to do a fair amount of framework planning, and some detail some key scenes along the way and then, well, anything can happen! The worst planning “mistake” was when I written 5 chapters before I realized that my main character wasn’t the main character at all! One of the secondary characters was far more interesting, and more importantly, significant. Major re-write needed. Enjoyed the article, thanks.

  15. GREAT article! I’ve always been an advocate of planning and sometimes take quite a bit of heat for it. But if you don’t want to end up redoing tons of work … it sure is worth it to plan a little. Bravo!

  16. Great article! I’m an obsessive planner … so I tend to have the opposite problem: overdoing the planning and not leaving enough room for spontaneity. (I recognize I’m probably in the minority on that!) 
    Overall, I do Excel spreadsheets a lot and have also used strips of paper to cut up and rearrange subplots within the main plot for a more tactile, visual approach. For my current WIP, I’m blogging a well-plotted draft of the novel … but I’ve already used another Excel Spreadsheet to plan the revision (yep, filling in all the holes I discovered in that solid foundational plan!). That revision will ultimately become the digital edition of the novel. 
    So “plan, execute, revise plan, execute, revise plan again,” etc. is becoming my new cyclical norm. As long as “execute” is part of every step, I’m OK. If I let myself plan forever, it becomes an avoidance tactic to doing the actual writing.

    • RiseOfTheTiger  Hmm… I’d like to say I could learn a lot from your methods… but I’d have to learn how to work Excel first!  I’m a paper and pen kind of gal, really.  I do my best planning on lined paper.  The novel I was talking about in the article was actually the first book I’ve written solely on the computer.  Believe it or not, all the others are on lined paper in manilla envelopes on a bookshelf.  I’m glad you enjoyed the article.  Thanks for commenting.


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