I’ve started my novel – is it too late to write a plan?

stuckwithoutplanI’ve had this very good question from Alison Strachan, who tweets as @Writingmytruth

What happens when you realise half way through writing that you needed to plan more?

There’s a story I tell in Nail Your Novel about how I learned the value of planning. Years ago, I embarked on a novel, ever so excited, wanting to explore a disturbing incident and see where I’d go. The first chapters galloped along nicely. I read it out to my writing group, who loved it. On I went, flinging ideas down. And soon I realised I didn’t know where the hell I was going. After 60,000 words I gave up. And I’m not a person who does that. It annoyed me intensely.

But I knew the characters were running in pointless circles. I simply couldn’t see a way out of the rut.

60,000 words. What do you do with all that?

I didn’t know then, but I do now. Here’s the cure.

1 Deep breath

It’s okay. You haven’t proved you’re unfit to write a novel. You haven’t ruined your idea.

2 It’s never too late to make a plan

Some novices feel they must write it all perfectly in one go. But seasoned writers might stop, start and re-start many times before the book is finally ready.

Once the manuscript is finished and handed to an editor or an agent, it’s likely that their critique will suggest extensive changes – especially if you’re learning the ropes. Some of these mean you have to re-plan on a fundamental scale, including character arcs, plot, structure and pacing. Welcome to rewriting.

So that means … even if you’re a chunk of the way into the book, it’s not too late to make drastic changes. Heck, it’s not even unusual.

3 You haven’t even wasted your time

All that stuff you wrote isn’t junk. It’s browsing. Some of the scenes you’ll be able to use as they are. Others will need to be rewritten, deleted or replaced. Relabel the file as ‘development notes’ and you’ll feel more comfortable about changing it.

4 Take control

Now you need to understand the material you’ve already got. My favourite tool is the beat sheet – a summary of the purpose of each scene as it is at the moment. Don’t judge whether they’re good or bad; that comes later. For the time being, you’re making a map of what you’ve already written. Another way to do this is by summarising each plot event on cards or a spreadsheet. Once you can see the book at a glance, you can figure out how to use this material or whether to delete it. You can also plan more events and scenes to the end of the book.

5 Restore your faith

The chances are you’re not as keen on the idea as you used to be. To rescue a book, you need to reconnect with the initial spark, see its potential once more. You might have some early notes you made right at the start – see if these rekindle your excitement to make a story. If you haven’t got any, start a new file and write yourself a note about the qualities of the idea that first inspired you.

Perhaps you’ve moved on from the original idea. If you’ve learned there are different depths to mine, that’s good. Write a new mission statement.

Or is it time to move on?

I never actually returned to that 60k draft, and sometimes our early attempts are not fit to be developed further. What they teach us is more important than the content. I still think there’s mileage in those characters and their situation, but they need a bigger spark to get them working properly. I’m not taking them on again until I’ve found it.

That’s creativity

When I think about it, a good half of writing is rescue and salvage. Sorting out muddles and solving problems. If you’re writing and you suspect you should have made a plan, your instinct has just told you something important. Do whatever helps you get control of your material. There’s no wrong time to realise this. Except when you’ve hit ‘publish’…

nyn1 reboot ebook biggerYou can, as you’ve probably guessed, find plenty of tips like this in Nail Your Novel, original flavour.

Thanks for a great question, Alison. Guys, what would you tell her? Share in the comments!


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  1. #1 by amdobritt on August 4, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    It’s never to late to write out a plan. After all, if this is the first draft of the novel, changes will occur and having a plan written out will help when it comes to revising. 🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 4, 2013 - 5:26 pm

      Absolutely, Britt (I’m hoping I’ve addressed you correctly!) Much will change as we find out how the characters live and breathe, and what we want the book to be. But plans help us keep it all in control.
      I see you write RPGs – nice to get the perspective of another branch of storytelling!

      • #3 by amdobritt on August 4, 2013 - 7:55 pm

        When writing an RPG you have to have a plan of some sort. Things start here in an inn and end up in some dungeon. In between you have your various encounters with NPCs, monsters, traps, and possible items that lead to the next adventure.

        • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 4, 2013 - 11:09 pm

          Britt, I know this problem well. My husband – and many of his friends – also write RPGs. They need whole arcs prepared – that may or may not come to pass.

  2. #5 by S Earl on August 4, 2013 - 5:37 pm

    Superb advice! As a new novelist I’m busily making all the classic mistakes one at a time. Regardless of whether my first novel ever sees the light of day, I will finish it and it will be a valuable learning tool. Advice from folks like you will certainly get me where I want to go much faster.

    • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 4, 2013 - 7:21 pm

      Thanks! I hope your determination gets you there – certainly your blog name (The next great novelist) speaks oodles for a positive attitude.

      • #7 by S Earl on August 4, 2013 - 8:03 pm

        Attitude I got plenty of!

  3. #8 by Daniel R. Marvello on August 4, 2013 - 7:52 pm

    I like, “Relabel the file as ‘development notes’ and you’ll feel more comfortable about changing it.” That made me smile.

    In fact, “development notes” are how I’m currently planning the third novel of my trilogy. Sometimes the vision for a scene comes across so powerfully that I must stop and write it down, but mostly I’m working toward a complete outline with scene descriptions before I start drafting. This third book has a lot of moving parts and loose ends to tie up, so I’m doing more planning than ever before. The cool thing about starting with “development notes” is that I have no qualms about being ruthless with them.

    For my first fiction novel, I had a similar experience to your 60K project. I wrote what would eventually become most of Act 1, and then had no idea of what to write next. I took a break and spent time learning more about story structure. Armed with an outline, I returned to the story and finished it. (This was when I discovered that I’m a planner, not a pantser.)

    BTW, my first two books are doing well right now. I released Book Two on July 23rd, and it took off, resurrecting Book One’s sales in the process. Both are in the top 100 of the Swords & Sorcery category (a category with over 18,000 titles). I only wish I could tell you why it is doing so well! I’ve done little promotion.

    I’d like to add that I’m grateful to you for your wonderful advice here and in “Nail Your Novel.” I have no doubt that you have helped me improve my writing.

    • #9 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 4, 2013 - 11:21 pm

      Hey, Daniel! It’s always nice to see you here. I’m glad my method struck a chord.

      I think the crucial point is to be flexible. Your end-stage Book 3 has a lot of promises to deliver. First, you have to finish the story. Second, you need to keep the momentum of surprises within those parameters. Third: you’ve got the pressure of loose ends and machinations from all the other books that need to be tied up. At this point, we really discover what it means to have a rough draft that might change!

      And darn good show that you got so high in the charts. Readers are obviously liking what you’re doing. (Whether Nail Your Novel helped you or not…)

    • #10 by Daniel R. Marvello on August 5, 2013 - 12:48 pm

      BTW, I found the ultimate organized writing tool. It’s Snowflake Pro from Randy Ingermanson. If you are familiar with his Snowflake Method, you have a basic understanding of how it works. It guides you through plot and character development until you have a detailed story proposal. It is not a tool for the faint of heart. Pantsers would take one look at it and either throw up or go catatonic.

      I’m trying it out on my third novel. My plan is to develop the story in Snowflake Pro and write the manuscript in Scrivener. That way I can refer to my development notes without having to bounce around in Scrivener.

      I still have a long way to go, but so far I’m liking it.

  4. #11 by bridget whelan on August 4, 2013 - 8:30 pm

    Endorse your advice all the way – especially that none of this has been wasted effort: even the times when the author has written herself into a corner or gone off on tangent which turns out to be a cul de sac. It’s part of learning the craft. She’s paying her dues as a writer
    I think it might help if she thought about the ending. Can she get to it from where her story is at the moment? Why not? What does she have to change to make the ending possible? Questions like this help me see where a story has derailed (and they often do in the first draft) – they might be useful here/

    • #12 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 4, 2013 - 11:28 pm

      Hi Bridget – what a good suggestion. If this author is anything like me in my mad wandering years she won’t have thought about the ending at all. I remember when I was writing by grope I was hoping the right answer might suggest itself. That works for some people, but not for many of us.
      And as you say, stories often derail in the first draft. That’s fine; it’s not a problem. if it helps us understand what we have to write, all the better. We then need to assess whether that swivel off tracks is helpful or not. So I’d distil your very good point as: ‘if you suddenly had an idea for what the end should be, is it right at a gut level? And what would you have to do to get your story there?’
      Thanks for a great contribution to the discussion, Bridget.

  5. #13 by Alison Strachan (@Writingmytruth) on August 5, 2013 - 3:17 am

    Thanks for writing this post Roz! Writing my fantasy novel so far has come quite easily for me and I’ve recently succeeded in breaking the 65000 word mark – which at first was like “Great! I’m getting there!” but then ” Great – but hang on – where am I going?” I knew what I wanted to overall 3 book story to look like but I hadn’t spent enough time breaking each book into pieces so that each book had it’s own climax and story/character arc. So I had to sit back a little and think about how my plot/subplot/characters and most importantly for me the antagonist is working to create tension etc in my story.
    I must admit – one of the best things I ever did was invest in scrivener. The corkboard feature is brilliant – I am constantly referring to it to get a better feel for my scenes and chapters and I love that my document is broken up into smaller chunks/scenes – making moving the pieces around and deleting/changing things easier… and my Muse doesn’t resist this so much. I’m going to finish this book if it kills me and I am going to use the feedback I get from it to be a better writer – even if I never publish it.
    I appreciate the time you’ve taken to post on this subject and I definitely feel better about where I am headed. Thank you again!

    • #14 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 5, 2013 - 8:07 am

      Hi Alison! Thanks for kicking off a great discussion. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener. Dave keeps hinting that I should try it as I’m so fond of analysing bits of my book on cards, moving stuff around and so on. I also write with a synopsis document open, which keeps me on plan for my scenes – although they’re just as apt to change when the muse intervenes. Good luck with your mammoth undertaking!

  6. #15 by Laurie Evans on August 5, 2013 - 3:42 am

    Try 119,000 words! Taking some time to sit back, learn, and do some extensive planning. I will NOT pants the next one.

  7. #17 by sharonhughson on August 5, 2013 - 1:58 pm

    Thanks for this encouraging post. I’m getting ready to start the rewriting process on the novel I finished two weeks ago. There are some gaps that need to be filled and a major problem with my antagonist. I have so much work to do to make this a story that I wasn’t looking forward to it – until I read this post. Thanks. Now…time to write.

  8. #19 by Dennis Langley on August 5, 2013 - 2:11 pm

    I’m 10K into mine and decided to back up and do some lanning. This was based on the fact that up to this point everything had been written as a series a flash pieces based on an image which included the same group of characters. Basically, i’m trying to tie the existing scenes together so I can move on in a more traditional manner. So far, it appears all of the scenes can be used, with some tweaking.

    I am familiar with Snyder’s beat. I recently read NYN and have a question about how you use the beat sheet. Do you write your own beat sheet as you read through the existing MS or are you using a template similar to Snyder’s? It seems that using cards, (or similar tool), would make it easier to see the structure and move scenes around.

    • #20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 5, 2013 - 8:51 pm

      Hi Dennis! I actually developed my beat sheet before I read Snyder’s book. Dave (my husband, who is actually the bod in the picture) reads a lot of screenwriting books and when I described my process to him, he told me it was roughly a beat sheet. I don’t use templates. I start with a blank sheet and read through the manuscript, listing the purpose of each scene as I go.
      You make a good point about the cards. I find the cards are more use for playing with the order of events in a story. The beat sheet is more condensed and I find it better for analysing structure and pace – even though I do end up shuffling the order of events quite drastically sometimes. But each to their own. If you prefer to make a revision plan with cards, you’ve discovered something useful about the way you like to work.

      • #21 by Dennis Langley on August 5, 2013 - 9:06 pm

        Am I correct in assuming that the different colored pens indicate different character arcs?

        • #22 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 6, 2013 - 8:13 am

          Whatever you find helpful. Different character arcs, different story threads, different timelines. It depends what your novel contains. And it’s important to keep one distinct colour aside to mark changes.

  9. #24 by Camilla Kyndesen on August 5, 2013 - 2:48 pm

    Great tips! I’ve found that it’s very helpful to get it into my head that nothing is perfect – nor does it have to be – and nothing is finished until I say so. Keep thinking of your writing as a work in progress 🙂

  10. #26 by Katie Cross on August 5, 2013 - 7:30 pm

    Great thoughts! I’ll have to keep this list in mind next time I’m really frustrated 🙂

  11. #28 by Carol Riggs on August 6, 2013 - 2:48 pm

    Wow, 60K in and still winging it. That must’ve been fun to de-tangle. LOL I usually have a rough idea where I’m going; I like to leave a little leeway for those “happy accidents” that I would never be able to think of when I’m planning an outline. 🙂

    • #29 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 6, 2013 - 8:09 pm

      I’ve never untangled it, Carol! But at some point those characters will come in handy!
      I agree it’s important to leave room for the happy discoveries. I’m constantly tweaking my plan as I go, but I never abandon it altogether. That way muddle lies…

  12. #30 by Charles Bond on August 7, 2013 - 1:47 am

    That is a great question and the advice is brilliant. So far I haven’t had the problem of not knowing where I’m going with my novels, but what I wanted to say is that whatever any of us write, nothing is wasted. With my first novel attempt, I wrote 90,000 words and thought I was done, but there was a major problem with the story and I realised that 30% of it just didn’t suit the story. Instead of shipping it to the recycle bin, I saved all those parts of the story into a separate file and carried on with the second draft of the original story, forgetting all about what I’d taken away. Half way through though, I had a vision and now that 30% will become a whole new story and all of the material within will be used for that.

    What I’d suggest to the writer is not to worry, re-read everything, detailing what is already on paper/on screen and then do nothing. Take a break, go for a walk, do anything apart from writing that piece. That way you will let your subconscious mind tell you where the story should go. Write down notes of whatever comes to mind, but don’t go back to it until you have everything you need. If it takes a month of writing down whatever notes your mind throws up then allow it that time, but I near guarantee that when you get to the end of the month, or however long it takes, you will be raring to get stuck in again knowing where everything will meet and fall into place.

    • #31 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 7, 2013 - 7:51 pm

      Charles, that’s an excellent point. Nothing is wasted, Wrong turnings close off an avenue and tell you something. I might spend many days on a sequence, thinking I’ve got it, but the next day return and realise I need to work it through again. But I wouldn’t have got there without the work I did the previous day.
      And I’m all for keeping the previous versions. I always make a file of outtakes. For one thing, they give me the freedom to try new versions because I have the old one to return to. For another, they can be useful later on when I realise a fragment contained something that might rescue a scene. And much later when the book is published, they can be useful as deleted scenes – if they illuminate more of the characters and their situation.
      And great suggestions for getting unstuck. I’m in a first draft at the moment and I know I need a significant event for the next bit I’m writing. So I’m brainstorming until I find it.

  13. #32 by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough on August 7, 2013 - 7:44 am

    Oh, well, when you put it THAT way, that’s how I always do it. I thought by all of this planning and organizing and outlining stuff, you meant one was supposed to say “This is what it will do, then this, then this.” Because that’s the point where it says, “Hell no, I won’t go.” But blundering around in the dark then turning on the flashlight to see where the devil you are–that’s SOP. I have trouble when I have the plot before I have an idea who the people are. That’s what the 60 K worth of blundering around is. I threw away the first 500 words of my second book but it turned out better and went faster the second time (well, maybe the 5th) than it did before because I could see further down the road at that point and had some idea who the characters were and what they were trying to achieve.

    • #33 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 7, 2013 - 7:55 pm

      Hi Elizabeth! It’s one of those hotly debated points, isn’t it? Do we call this planning or not? Once you’ve found the method that works for you, call it whatever you wish. 🙂
      As for the 60k of blundering, you’re quite right. Nowadays, I write a lot of exploratory notes before I start. It’s easily a good 30k; possibly even longer.

  14. #34 by LM Milford on August 8, 2013 - 3:01 pm

    Hi Ros,
    Great article. When I last got stuck, I went back to the place where I went off track and started again from there. On another occasion, I wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t work out how to get out, so I just interrupted the conversation with ‘And then the phone rang’. It gave me a chance to introduce a new character and took the book off on a really good exciting direction. It’s amazing what works!
    Having a plan is great because it keeps you writing, but there’s no rule that says you have to stick entirely to it!

    • #35 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 8, 2013 - 7:30 pm

      Two great tips there, LM. Especially the phone call! Today I was fretting over a scene because I wanted something to advance the plot but had no ideas. I have stacks of notebooks where I write little oddities that come to mind but have no obvious use, or odd dreams that are too good to waste. I dipped into one of them and soon found an idea that got me running smoothly again. What’s more, it felt like the solution I’d been looking for all along.
      As you say, it’s amazing what works.

  15. #36 by Mary Gottschalk on August 8, 2013 - 5:37 pm

    I agree .. it’s never to late to do a plan. In fact, I’ve done several “plans,” I first put pen to paper on A Fitting Place. A detailed chronology. Floor plans for the living spaces. Plans for the individual subplots and themes. While I knew my basic story arc from page, I could never have done all of this until I knew my characters well enough to “know” what they would do.

    • #37 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 8, 2013 - 7:38 pm

      Hi Mary – what a good way to ground yourself in the world of the book and get warmed up for what will happen. Did you design the locations from the characters – ie, from the kinds of places they would go to, or feel uncomfortable in? I do a lot of essays about my themes, starting from the characters’ problems. I tend to change my mind a lot about them, but the more I explore, the more I find I’m returning to a few strong ideas.

  16. #38 by . on August 9, 2013 - 5:16 am


    So excited to learn you’ve begun another novel.

    I so enjoyed Carol’s story, My Memories of a Future Life. I was drawn in from the get go by Carol’s untenable situation, but also by her friendship with her quirky artist roomie, Jerry, and their encounter with the paranormal via Anthony Morrish.

    Yet I hadn’t anticipated the trajectory of Carol’s experiences with Gene and then Chapter 61, Tape 7, wobbled me right off balance into a completely different dimension.

    I find myself in just this very situation now. A novel I’ve written almost…almost to its amazing and satisfying ending, hopefully (whatever that may be), though I didn’t write it in sequence; instead, just as the scenes in the overall came to me. My problem now is to sequence in a way that draws in the reader from the first page as My Memories of My Future Life did and compels readers forward into the story until it’s conclusion.

    What should be the tantalizing opening scene…the Hook as it were? How to arrive at that decision?

    Then, how to integrate all the rest symmetrically in a progression which propels the story forward, but also integrates necessary backstory without dragging the story down?

    Having listed all my problems, I love my story and its characters though I’ve set it aside because of my problems as layed out above.

    In the meantime, I’ve begun a Black Widow meets Body Heat meets Arsenic and Old Lace story.

    I’ve also begun a personal essay series because my daughter asked me to write my life in memoir. That’s not happenin, but I may feel comfortable with essays written about specific experiences throughout my life beginning with my being born in Brisbane, Australia…then my life in the U.S.

    In the meantime, I’ve finally become a published writer, albeit an essay in an anthology, Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs, which includes the successful American fiction writer, Wally Lamb (two of his early books having been chosen by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club), and David Geffen notable for his philanthropy and for creating Asylum Records, Geffen Records, DGC Records and for being one of the three founders of Dreamworks SKG along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994.

    Certainly a minuscule, but gratifying beginning for me. At the very least, I can say truthfully that I am a published writer. Last year, I did also win an essay contest in which my work was published online. Beginnings nonetheless…

    I realize you have a lot going on, so if you can’t find the time to respond, I truly understand.

    Patricia Wilson Columbia, CT

    • #39 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on August 9, 2013 - 9:15 am

      Patricia, what a lovely comment – especially as I’m in the early exploration stages of my draft! You’ve reminded me that a book does eventually come together 🙂
      As for how you should hook the reader, there are many ways, of course, but you’ve almost outlined it yourself in your appraisal of Future Life. A sense of disturbance (Carol’s plight), significance (ditto), a warm heart (her friendship with Jerry) and something intriguing that is bound to go wrong (the apparent occult dabbling). I didn’t write it by formula, but when I look on it like that I see why it satisfied me.
      After that, shuffle in the back story on a need-to-know basis. I cut quite a bit from Carol’s and moved the rest much further on in the novel, which helped build the momentum from the start. You usually don’t need as much back story as you think you do. Make sure every scene changes something, makes the journey that bit more irrevocable (and see my recent post about pacing). I swapped a lot of scenes around before I was happy with the final order. In the end, I was editing purely to keep the pace urgent. Part of that was done with the language too – which is how I made every moment matter.
      Your new book sounds intriguing – what a heady mix. And you didn’t describe the one you’re finishing – or are you in foggy difficulties seeing what it is? A common problem.
      And congratulations on the essays! You’re in great company and that’s bound to get widely read. And dare I say you’re veering towards Undercover Soundtrack territory…
      Thanks for a lovely comment, and keep polishing.

    • #40 by Mary Gottschalk on August 9, 2013 - 6:50 pm

      Roz … interesting question about locations. Initially, I started out with defined spaces so I wouldn’t have my characters walking into a room that didn’t exist, etc., but then modified them to reflect the taste and ideas of their inhabitants. And I wrote lots and lots of stuff about my characters which turned out to be backstory, but it was very helpful in understanding how they would react in new situations.

  17. #41 by thedwaparayuga on August 18, 2013 - 8:58 am

    @Rozmorris: The thought of writing a book stumbled upon on April 8th 2010. I wasn’t confused at all whether it is too late to start or worried about redoing all the work if i didn’t plan ahead. The only question that had daunted me on that day was, I love reading nonfictional prose but my idea was a contradictory to my choice of reading which is fiction. When I was in confusion I came across a book called “Black Swan”. It is described as a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. I applied the same Black Swan in my life, to know how i applied in my real life, refer to the post below


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