Planning your novel

We’re going to do another sequence of posts. I haven’t been real lucky with sequences, but I’m a glutton for punishment. I have a few disclaimers to make before we start:

First, I don’t want to come across like a pretentious douche. I’ve benefitted from everyone else’s methods, and I simply want to share mine.

Second, the best method is the one that works for you. I’m not saying I have the secret to anything.

Third, I don’t always follow my own advice. I try new things too. I used “bookend” outlines when I wrote Panama. One to get me started, and another one to help me tie up loose ends in the final parts.

Third, I called it “planning” on purpose. I want seat of the pants writers to read along too, but it’s secretly an outlining series. I wrote my first few novels by the seat of my pants. If I can open my mind to something new, so can you. You can croak the entire idea after you’ve given it some consideration. I won’t be offended.

I use a cork board app called Corkulous Pro. They haven’t updated it in years, and it’s getting a little strange on iOS8. I heard there is something similar in Scrivner. I’m open to other suggestions for apps. I’d kind of like some pushpins and strings to help with plants and payoffs.

When we talk about outlining, most people think of the formal outlining method they tried to teach us in high school. This is unhelpful, and even detrimental to the creative process.

Kill this with fire!

My method is a storyboard style, using a three act structure. This can be as detailed as you like, but mine aren’t. Some people like all the detail, but I still like to leave my characters a bit of control. What I’m looking for are more like mile markers.

In the USA, highways have mile markers along all the route. The idea is that you can’t go from one to three without passing two. They are also helpful in the event of an emergency. You can tell the dispatcher you’re in trouble at mile marker 141 so someone can find you faster. Bear with me folks, not all my readers are in the USA.

My outline markers serve the same purposes. They keep me moving in the right direction, and give me help if I crash. With the big exception that I can move them around if I want. Sometimes an event you planned out simply works better in another location. That’s one of the big tricks, don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan. Look at the storyboard and make sure you really want to change things before you write through it.

Let’s look at a blank board to get started. I’m going to be outlining several stories in the near future, and this is how I’ll start.

Notice the open drawer at the bottom of the app. This holds index cards, sticky notes, and quite a few other goodies.

Today, we’re going to talk about the blue card, and the two cards on the left side of the board. I can use any color, and made the one blue just so it would stand out.

Kristen Lamb had a great post today about a one sentence pitch for your novel. Her suggestion was to create it before you start writing. This is a great idea, and one I believe in. I’m just a little less formal about it.

I usually just include a blank card, so here’s one I used when I wrote Arson. I’m not afraid to use two or three lines.

I’m also not afraid to rewrite it part way through my draft. Remember, I said this wasn’t a rigid process. You know how it goes, characters develop and things change along the way. Change things if you want to.

Think of this like a set of tools, and not a rigid chemical formula that you absolutely must duplicate.

I’m going to stop after Act one today so I don’t swamp you with information.


In case you can’t read the photo, Act One is all about introducing the characters, the situations (genre), and the stakes.

I always type over this card with my individual introduction. There isn’t much on the first card.

We’re only detailing the major cards in this series. Think of them like mile markers for the outline. They will help you place the other mile markers.

I’ll go ahead and show you one I used in The Cock of the South.



That’s all it says. This is Cobby’s introduction to the reader, and will show a little bit of genre. There’s a lot of prejudice in this story, so I introduced a bunch of it right away. Now let’s move to the end of Act One. You kind of have my format down by now so here are the screen shots.

It’s simply a question. Are all of the stakes, characters, and themes present? All of them have to have made a choice from which there is no return.

At this point in Will O’ the Wisp there have been a couple of deaths that all seem to tie together. Patty has a plan to sneak off for some research. The story changed slightly by this point, and the card isn’t a perfect match for the final story. Because you can change things up, that’s why.

You can add even more detail at this point if you’re of a mind. You can write a target word count on this card. 25-30K seems like a good target. I stopped doing that.

You can also plan out chapters if you want. What I do is add cards between the beginning and end of Act One. I like one of the traditional story structures, and I’ll even mix and match them. Maybe you need a herald character, or a mentor. Maybe you want some scenes for your villain. Make a card and describe what you want to happen.

Do you have a cool scene you like. Make a card for it. Move them around, maybe they work better in a different order. You can have as many or few as you like.

I’m not in love with outlining chapters. I usually make a new chapter after ten pages. That seems about right for a 21st century attention span. When I write the story, I use my cards like mile markers. If something isn’t working, I go back to my storyboard.

This works for me, because I’m a very lineal writer. I actually write my stories from Once Upon a Time all the way to Happily Ever After. If you like to bounce around, knock yourself out. I still think a storyboard is helpful.

We’ll dive into Act Two next time. I figure another post for Act Three, then one about all the bells and whistles that make a storyboard so handy. Stick with me folks, the bells and whistles are pretty cool, and really bring your board to life.

So what do you think? Is anyone out there willing to try this out? Does anyone have a better app to suggest? Am I out of my mind for quashing your creative process?

Read Part Two here.


Filed under Writing

62 responses to “Planning your novel

  1. Definitely reminds me of Scrivener, but that’s only from stories. I still do the handwritten planning stuff. So no quashing over here. My past has made me nervous about putting the planning stuff on anything electronic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing. You’re very well organized. I do use Scrivener and set up a fish bones skeleton on electronic index cards that later gets fleshed out, but that’s not how I started. Everything I did initially was linear, seat-of-the-pants. Scrivener automatically writes my outline for me. šŸ™‚

    Anyone who is a panster should at least consider a one sentence pitch and a fishbones outline. It sure has helped me with flow and organization of ideas. I don’t always stick to it. I have whole chapters that never appeared on the initial outline, which tends to happen when stories are character driven.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ali Isaac

    That is way too much of a faff for me! I have a brief handwritten outline/ flow chart for each strand of the story which fits on one A4 page. I scribble and rewrite as elements change. Book3 is perhaps the most organised I’ve been… it has 4 strands sharing 2… yes 2… A4 pages! Each strand, some might prefer sub-plot, is outlined from beginning to end. First time I’ve ever gone that far! šŸ˜Š Been reading a lot about how organised other writers are Lately. Its got me wondering, have I missed something???

    Liked by 3 people

    • I keep test driving things. If something doesn’t work I’m not obligated to keep doing it. This time, I may create partial outlines that allow me to add a card with ideas as they occur. When one shapes up, it could become my next story. I’ve never done this before. It’s kind of like Survivor for outlines.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ali Isaac

        Well good luck with that! Trialling new stuff is definitely a good idea, in walks of life. I’m not that great with technology, havent got the patience for playing around with it. Couldnt do with Scrivenor or Ywriter (I thnk its called) too many fancy gadgets for me that would never get used!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I suggested to another commenter that a real storyboard, and some paper index cards still works too. I don’t like complicated programs either. The little corkboard app is pretty simple.

        I’m sure as I get into outlining, I’ll be telling some of them they are the weakest link and booting them off the island. (That might make an interesting blog post later on.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ali Isaac

        Lol! Look forward to that one!


  4. Very interesting and well organized. Since I mostly write nonfiction, I have to have some idea about organization and chapters, but I tend to do very brief outlines, often scribbled on a legal pad, and then I write and rewrite on the computer. Sometimes I’m researching and writing at the same time. šŸ™‚ For a new project that I’m planning with someone else, we will be much more organized. All of our chapters will have to be outlined.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing your process–I look forward to the rest. I do something similar, milestone-wise. Still refining; just tried beatsheets with my current WIP, even though I use Scrivener and technically I could use the corkboard function instead. There’s something creative and organic about writing things out on paper. I even had an A-HA moment I don’t think I would’ve hit until a few revisions down the road. Looking forward to Act 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lots for me to think about here. My Intention is to some day publish at least one book, which will contain what is on Petals. I am only in the backing up process, putting the posts in categories according to month. You have given me a lot of ideas in this post, and I really thank you. Love, Amy ā¤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I prefer a notebook.
    I mean, a tangible paper spiral notebook.
    I needed a timeline, but also a way to keep track of details. I’d rather turn pages than click.
    Still, I like seeing this post, seeing how you do it, and how others have done theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have been thinking about Scrivner, but I am a complete technophobe. At this point, I use a snowflake outline on a yellow legal pad and work from that. I just finished the first draft of book 2 of my Soiled Dove Sagas. I follow the basic outline I come up with to move the story in the right direction, but write seat of the pants to get there. I don’t plot out specific scenes in adv ance and it can take the story in different directions, but it is fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t necessarily plot out scenes either. My cards are more like dominoes that I need to have fall in order. I write between the “dominoes” in a pretty free format. They help me keep the story on track, but there is often a lot of room between two events.


  9. Quite the contrary, I think you’re doing some writers a favor by introducing them to story structure. I’m a huge advocate for structuring novels. Only I believe without structure stories are doomed. That’s a bold statement, I know. But that’s how strongly I believe in it. *ducks to avoid flying pens* Looking forward to seeing more of your process. Mine’s very similar, only with this WIP I started planning the mission for each scene too. One line, that’s all, just to stay on track.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I appreciate the advice. If I were writing a novel I would test your method. šŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Planning Act Two | Entertaining Stories

  12. Oooh, so very cool! I’m late to the party but I love this post. I use a similar app called Index Card that uses a cork board. I like yours better (I have Scrivner but haven’t played with it yet). I’m going to see if I can grab your cork board app (I like the ability of sticky notes).. I use my index app mostly for storing ideas, rather than outlining my novels or making notes. I may have to rethink the uses for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve always wanted to write a novel but have successful put it of for too long. This just makes my brain buzz with promise.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I read this series earlier today, though I admit, I read the last one first and the first one last. You have some really great tips! I love your cork board app, though personally, I think I’d do better with a real one than a virtual one.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m going to give this a try. I think I’m going to do it on paper though. šŸ˜‰ That way I can draw coffins and spiderwebs on it. šŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

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