Not gonna lie, I like Excel. I plan Christmas baking in Excel. I work all day in Excel, punching numbers and relying on my trusty vlookups and pivot tables. Excel is awesome. (And I’m not at all boring. Lots of people like spreadsheets… right? RIGHT?)
Lots of authors rely on software for a contained environment to keep their notes. Scrivener comes to mind, and it’s really very good. I just honestly love Excel, and the functional genius it offers in my writing. Needless to say, spreadsheets play a very important part in my novel planning.
From my experience, there are two types or writers out there—the seat of your pantsers and the planners. There’s a certain amount of crossover, but generally people lean one way or the other.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a planner. I don’t plan my whole novel on the onset, as things can change as the writing comes to life, but I’ll plan at least six or seven chapters ahead. And by planning, I mean a scene by scene breakdown of how the action will flow.
Not only does an outline make writing a first draft easier, because I know the points I need to capture to correctly move the story, but it’s a huge help in editing. If I didn’t have a scene / chapter list, it would be so much harder to track down individual changes I wanted to make.
Whether you’re a planner looking for a few ideas to streamline your efforts, or a seat of the pantser who is wondering if a tighter outline might help, here are some of the things I track when I storyboard. Hopefully they can help you too.
Chapter name: Seems obvious I guess. But my first column organizes the names of the chapters, so I can easily distinguish where the heck I am in my work.
Location: I keep track of where my story moves. I can watch trends and see at a glance which locations are important (and thus maybe need a little extra love in the description department). It also lets me not lose track of where things are happening, so I don’t end up with plot holes or location jumps later.
POV: I usually write with a couple points of view, because I like the varied voices and the freedom to be in two places at once. But doing this demands some tricky maneuvering to keep my voices clean and non-repetitive. By tracking POV in an easy to see list, I can watch the flow between my voices at a glance, and see where I might need to shift voices to even out the story and avoid head hopping.
Date: Sometimes I start with ‘day 1’ and go from there. Depends on how set my date is. But either way, I’ve found that keeping track of my date, sometimes to the day, is really important. That way I know exactly when and where things are happening around each other, and I don’t end up accidentally crossing streams. (On a side note, I also keep a separate timeline tab, where I track each character’s timeline side by side, so I know where they are at all times. Makes it way easier to map things out).
Description: You guessed it. The basic description of what’s happening. Not much else to tell.
Goal: I like to keep track of the goal of my scenes. Whether it’s to move plot or for world explanation or character development. By making a clear note of what that goal is, I can notice unnecessary scenes that just end up bogging down the whole. Also, if I see too many ‘character development’ scenes in a row, I know I might need to shift it up and add some action, or my flow is going to slow down too much and stall.
Word Count: Yes, I keep immaculate record of each scene’s word count. Maybe it’s the accountant in me. Either way, it gives me solid data that I can manipulate into other useful stats. Where’s the midpoint of my book (and thus the pivotal moment of plot shift)? What’s my average chapter length? My average scene length? Is that chapter too long or too short? Do I have a good mix of shorter and longer scenes to make a more dynamic read? All these things can be determined with a few numbers. And Excel excels (hehehe) at turning numbers into lovely, usable packets of information.
Some other neat tricks I use for my planning, though not part of my scene list itself, are a master list of characters (and their relationships and purpose), a cache of cool names I’ve stumbled across (and can then grab from when I need to name a new character and don’t want to interrupt my creative flow), plot idea worksheets, and so on.
Writing a novel is a massive, spanning project involving a lot of moving parts that like to curl in on themselves or run off in random directions. Maintaining a scene list is a powerful way to keep your thoughts organized and your story tight. If nothing else, even as a seat of your pantser, if you keep track of details as you go, it’s that much easier to go back and revise later.
So give it a try! Just don’t be surprised when your Christmas baking list ends up in Excel with lovingly summarized formulas telling you how much flour to buy. (They laughed at me. But oh was that shopping trip efficient. I’ll make spreadsheets cool yet. One day…)
On a personal note, things have been getting busy here between the various facets of my demands. For a while, I will be moving to weekly posting, rather than bi-weekly. Once things settle again, I’ll pick up bi-weekly posting. (Who knew working full time as a single mom while writing a novel was so time consuming… oh wait.)