Being organized as an author–whether you are writing or editing, but especially when you’re editing–is vital to crafting a cohesive novel. One that flows in a manner that feels effortless (despite the tremendous effort thrown behind creating that effect).
This post is about using Microsoft Excel (or other spreadsheet software) to break your story down, scene by scene.
Now, “organized” means different things to different writers. Some like to have lots of files, including character sheets that are pages long for each character involved. That helps them feel secure. In control. And that’s fine.
Other writers would cry and/or walk away if you told them they had to organize themselves that particular way.
I’m not saying writers NEED to organize themselves in any particular way. Just that we should all seek out an organization model that works for us as individuals.
I just adapted my organizational system (or rather, created it, I confess) and I wanted to share it, in case it might spur some ideas or help someone else.
You see, I’ve been struggling to edit my NaNoWriMo novel from 2012 for a full year now. And I feel like I’ve made very, very little progress. (Yes, that adverbial emphasis is there to point out just how much of a pickle I feel I’m in.)
I could just give up and walk away, but I don’t want to. I know in my heart this story has potential and should be told. I really, really love the heart of it all. I want, if at all possible, to find a way to salvage it.
SO, crazy ole “panster” me is getting organized!
ORGANIZING BY SCENE
I am developing a model of organizing my editing based on scene. This is a model that might help other pantsers like me. When you don’t outline too much, or you move stuff around or drift away from your outline, you might feel that juggling a full novel in your head is difficult.
So, I’m organizing my novel in Excel. Each scene will be a column, with corresponding rows that I use to break each scene down into its essentials:
- SCENE: a quick summary of what happens in the scene. Usually just a sentence. Enough to help me remember what scene I’m talking about.
- SETTING: location, mainly, for me. So I can keep track of which locations have been introduced and described, and which haven’t. Time, of course, is also part of setting, so if you wanted you could also include that information in a setting column or even its own column (if you’re using lots of flashbacks, if you’re experimenting with temporal arrangement in some way, or if you simply want to keep track of the days and months.)
- CHARACTERS INTRODUCED: One big thing I’m worried about is throwing too many characters into the mix at once. You see, this novel is the start of a new series that follows up my previous series. I want people who don’t know the first set of books to be able to read this one no problem. That makes things difficult.
- CHARACTERS MENTIONED: When a character who hasn’t appeared yet in the story is mentioned in dialogue or narration, I list that character in this column. This will help me realize how quickly people and facts are being thrown at my readers.
- BACKSTORY: any backstory mentioned or developed in a given scene goes in this column for info dump awareness. Also, this column will help me keep track while editing of what has already been told to the reader and what hasn’t. That’s useful in knowing how much detail to add or cut in description.
- THINGS TO ADD: When going through my novel, if I see that some bit of information needs to be added, or something needs more development, I can mark that here and then take care of business.
- THINGS TO DELETE: Or at least, things to consider cutting or cutting back on. Because we should always be thinking about that.
Then, separate from the scene specific data, I have a list of information that I know appears nowhere in the novel yet and that I need to insert. (Most of this info is based on things I want to occur later on in the series, or it’s world-building stuff.)
I’m hoping that, as I read through my novel and fill out the spreadsheet, I can move information from the “I know I need to add this but I don’t know where” category to the “Things to add” category attached to a specific scene.
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR NEW, NOT NECESSARILY DESPERATE, MEASURES
Basically, my hope is that organizing myself this way and looking at my novel in grid form–I’ve never done that before!–might help me realize specific tweaks and changes I can make so that I finally feel happy enough with the thing to send it off to beta readers.
I have already realized that I introduce too many characters in the first two scenes, because they follow two completely different groups of people. If I can alter that, I definitely want to. I think it would make things much easier on readers, if they could have at least two scenes to get to know group one before they meet group two.
This is the fifth novel I’ve written, and somehow no other novel has frustrated me this much when I tried to get a grip on it after a first draft and initial, obvious edits.
GROWING AS A WRITER
I think all writers reach a point where they have grown enough that they need to update their organization methods to accommodate their increased insights and further developed understanding of novel writing.
I don’t think anyone who writes a first novel, for instance, has a clear an idea of everything that goes into making a novel readable. Of everything that we need to balance and keep in balance. I know I didn’t!
Once we’ve written a bit and start getting experience, and read up on the craft, we are aware of more things we need to control. And so we adjust how we organize ourselves to keep track of all these aspects that make up fiction.
So, do you have an organizational system similar to this one? One very different? Do you keep detailed notes or do you do most organizing in your head when you write?
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You might also enjoy these related posts about organizing your writing: