Pre-planning Your Novel with Pinterest and Excel

Hey friends! I’m sorry I’ve been MIA for a so long (*hangs head in shame*). After the eternal length of spring, summer has been a whirlwind. My family took a socially-distanced three week camping trip out west in July and visited seven national parks. The hiking was glorious–we could almost pretend life was normal! I’ll be sure to share some pictures once I download them from the camera.

But now that it’s August and school is looming, it’s time to buckle down and get cracking on my next project. I’ve got a YA fantasy out on submission right now, but with today’s publishing market, my agent suggested I try writing a YA suspense/ thriller. Even though I have an adult romantic suspense already published (mandatory self-promotion: find it here on Amazon), I confess I feel in over my head writing a YA.

The dynamics are totally different from a romantic suspense, and I have to figure out how to craft a situation that’s both appealing to teen readers AND plausible. Then there are the characters–my story premise starts with a group of teens on an airplane traveling to Europe for a scholarship competition. There are SIXTEEN students. Cue panic over how to think up that many characters.

You guys, I’m a total pantser at heart. Too much pre-planning feels like a waste of time, like I’m not accomplishing anything unless I’m actually drafting. And yet I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t just open up a blank Word document and hope a decent story falls out onto the screen. Especially for a suspense, some level of pre-writing is a must. But how could I overcome my feeling of being utterly overwhelmed and get started?

Initially I pulled out one of my trusty 50-cent spiral notebooks from Target and wrote notes about my main character, her love interest, her classmates, and her competitors. After a couple of hastily scrawled pages, I realized I needed a better way to organize all this information, along with a better method to keep all these people straight.

Enter two digital friends who I generally eschew as a waste of time: Pinterest and Excel. With so many characters, I needed a way to keep all of their information handy and organized. After all, we don’t want someone’s eye color to miraculously change halfway through the book. While a table in Word might also work, I opted for creating a spreadsheet in Excel.

Here are the headings I used, but of course you could swap these out for whatever your story requires:

  • Name
  • School (because of course they’re not all from the same school–that would be too easy)
  • Location
  • Physical description
  • Positive attributes
  • Negative attributes
  • Secrets (it is a thriller, after all)
  • Motives
  • Wound/ Lie
  • Lesson to learn
  • Team (plot-specific)

Not all of these categories are filled in for each character–some of them are minor characters and won’t be undergoing a full character change arc in the story. And, of course, since this is pre-planning, some of the details will surely change as I write and get to know the characters better.

When it came to thinking up their physical descriptions, I felt rather stuck. Beyond making up hair, skin, and eye color, how could I imagine so many completely different people? Pinterest!

I’ve used Pinterest before to create mood boards and aesthetics for my other books (see my blog post about aesthetics here), but never to help with my planning. Honestly, using Pinterest can feel a bit like tumbling down the rabbit hole. You just wanted to find a couple of good images and suddenly two hours are gone.

This time though, I turned to Pinterest knowing exactly what I wanted. Sixteen different pictures of teenagers to represent my characters. After picking my main character, I created a new board. Then it was a matter of searching variations of “character inspiration teenager” until I found what I was looking for.

Thanks to Pinterest’s updated features, you can now shift the images around on a board to put them in the order you want. You can also add notes, so for each character I added their name, their school, and their team. Now, as I’m writing, I can pull up my Pinterest board and actually see my different characters. Here’s a screenshot from my board:

Characters to torture…mwa ha ha ha

Since most of this story takes place on a privately-owned jet, I found myself in need of help imagining the setting. After a crash-course in transportation for the wealthy thanks to YouTube, I dove back into Pinterest to search for pictures from some different airplane models. Here’s another screenshot:

So much luxury…too bad there’s going to be blood on the carpet

Between the right images and a rough sketch of my plane’s layout in a notebook, I now have a setting. Most stories have multiple settings, and it might be too cumbersome to search for pictures of each one. But you could consider finding an image or two for each of your most important settings.

There you have it, a quick glimpse into my pre-planning for this novel. Right now this Pinterest board is secret instead of public, since I might decide to change everything once I’m revising. I’m about 7000 words into the story so far, and I’ve referred to both my Pinterest board and my Excel sheet nearly every writing session.

I’ve heard of other writers who use Pinterest to help with outlining. They’ll find images to mark key scenes or turning points in the story and draw on those pictures as inspiration while they write. Sometimes writers will use Spotify the same way, finding a song for each scene or character or event.

How about you? Do you use any apps or computer programs in an unconventional way to help with your writing process?

Header image credit:, CC0 license.

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