Clay’s Writing Tips: Landmarks and Signposts

I’m a pantser. There’s just no escaping it.

The last two novels I’ve attempted to write, I tried to change my game and planned them out, in an attempt to make things slicker and smoother and, hopefully, require less drafts to bring me to the stage when I could start to edit. Both of them failed almost totally.

So, I’m a pantser, and I should just live with it. I’m not going to try planning again. When I wrote my first poetry editing post, I defined the first draft of a poem to be like mining for ore. The first draft of a novel is exactly the same. Only, when you’re pantsing, you’re going mining without a map.

One question I’m asked a lot by planners is: “Are you mad?”

I usually laugh and say something about horses for courses. But then they tend to ask a more pertinent question which often applies to them, even though they do plan.

See, the thing is, even when you plan you can run into problems. Something occurs to you halfway in the novel which is a much better idea than the one you had at the outset. And why wouldn’t it be? You’ve actually brought your characters and world to life. They may not like the plans you had in mind. As your initial plan grows into reality, you may see a lot of possibilities you like a lot better.

So back to that question. They ask: “What do you do when you can’t see a way forward?”

That is a good question and I have two possible solutions for everyone.


So you might be a planner. You’ve veered off your initial course and can’t see the way forward. Or, like me, you might be a pantser and just don’t know where to go anymore.

Landmarks are clearly visible locations you want your character to end up. If you have planned, look through the rest of your plot. Is there a place you know you want the character to end up?

I don’t mean in a specific location in your world, though that is a possibility. It could be anywhere the character needs to be, physically, mentally or emotionally:

I need Mr Hicks to realise he’s made a mistake by firing his servant.

The cowboy has to get to the dry springs so he can meet the cartographer.

Tim from Ruislip has to see that his relentless body odour is holding him back in his relationships.

Planner or pantser, all you need do is a little forward thinking to work out where your protagonist has to be. From there, you just need to work out the incremental steps to get them there, or, even one step, just moving them forward will do. So long as you keep your landmark in mind when finding the next step, you’ll get them there eventually.

Mr Hicks feels unwell and realises he’s not taken his medication because his servant wasn’t there to remind him.

The cowboy is captured by his enemies. They leave him stranded in the desert. His only chance for survival is to get to the springs.

Tim tries to go swimming but is turned away by the pool receptionist and shamed publicly.


Signposts are the opposite of landmarks, though they also present us with another way forward.

Signposts are those little, extremely forgettable, things we write that have no use or meaning beyond that initial inclusion:

She said she might go to Skegness. What did he care about that place? Wasn’t that where working class drinkers went to get sunburnt on the beach and glass a few locals? He’d been there once in his childhood at the home of some distant relation. He’d never been so bored in his life.

So right there, we’re using that verisimilitude to give his view of Skegness some weight. We had no intention of pursuing the path of his distant relative.

But what if we did? What if that relative is the key to further resolution in the story?

So signposts are another great way forward. Read back through your manuscript and write them all down. You’ll more than likely find the one which points forward.

Now. Go write!



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