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