Organizing Your Writing: One Way to Use Excel to Break Your Story Down

home-office-desk-538070-mBeing 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:

  1. Why Your Most Productive Writing Time Might Not Be When You Think
  2. The Benefits of Writing Daily

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32 responses to “Organizing Your Writing: One Way to Use Excel to Break Your Story Down

  1. I use notebooks to do something similar. Basic plot explanations and character bios are the core of what I do. I’ll do a write up for organizations, central magic items, and important monsters too. When I want to write the book, I do a choppy sentence for each scene telling me the key points that I want to hit.

    I’m curious. How do you think people plot out subplots? I always thought they come after the characters are made, but I’ve run into one or two people who make the subplot first.

    • I generally write without an outline and the subplots usually come after character and my major story arc. Once I understand who my characters are and what they need to do, I am able to flesh things out a bit.

      I think it all depends on the author and the characters, though. Sometimes you just KNOW this person needs this situation/subplot. It just hits as part of the character formation. It might even be there are as part of the spur to start writing in the first place.

  2. Great tips, Victoria! When I critique or edit a novel, I’m always amazed when the author introduces a character and then drops him or her for the rest of the book, and your system would give a visual to alert the author of that problem. And using Excel means no expensive software to purchase, which is a plus for many writers.

    • That’s my thing, about the software. I don’t have Scrivener or anything like that and I’m in the process of starting over careerwise so big purchases are not the smartest thing right now. Luckily Excel is already on my computer and works great for this!

  3. I aspire to be organized in my writing 😉

    • hahaha! me too! 🙂 I’ve only just really turned the aspirations into attempts. I’ve never needed to worry that much about it before. The stories just fell into place for me. This one won’t do that.

  4. I love the columns you chose. I know I introduce a lot of characters right away in my novel and now I’m thinking of ways to reduce that. Another thing I’ve done that’s kind of similar is tracking my character progression in Excel. I list the character/relationship that’s going to change and list the steps it takes to get from beginning to end. If I’m feeling overly scholarly, I’ll put the chapter/page number where each part of the change takes place.

  5. Great article, Victoria. As you noted, I find that the more and more I gain experience with writing and editing, the more my process changes. Organization is a must, especially when it comes to dates. A timeline is invaluable to me.

    • I’m glad you mentioned timelines!!! I have never used one myself but I’m starting to think I should. What a easy but important reference and organization tool it is…. There’s no real excuse not to make one if your story gets at all complex or involves important backstory.

  6. Okay, you got me – I confess. As a former IT project manager, writing fiction was my escape from the formal organisational methods I used in planning and executing IT projects – but I couldn’t free myself entirely. If I am writing something (e.g. a novel) that unrolls over a significant period of time, I do use Excel to manage the timeline: to make sure that I know for each scene what day of the week it is, how much time has elapsed since the previous scene and also what the weather might be doing at that time of year and (if relevant) when sunrise and sundown are. Maybe this is micro-management to an absurd degree but with so much fiction going on in the air, I like to have a foundation of reality beneath my feet. 🙂

    • That’s awesome! I am like you: I was a grad student and I’ve always written fiction by the seat of my pants and avoided outlining just so writing fiction wouldn’t feel like my “work”

  7. I am not too familiar with Excel. I know it’s a great program and years ago I took a class, but I have forgotten it because I don’t use it. I can see how it could be helpful though. I write a lot of notes longhand, It helps me to remember when I write them down. I am quite a list maker. I never go shopping without a list. If I did, I am sure I would buy out the store.. 🙂 This does not mean I am an outliner though..quite the opposite in fact. I hate to outline. I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I have Evernote on my computer, but I haven’t used it yet. I also have One Note from Microsoft. I have used One Note, but I’m not too crazy about it..so I usually rely on longhand. I guess I am more old-fashioned than I thought!

    • I’m basically just using Excel to make a simple chart. I’m not using any crazy functions. I could literally do the same thing on pen and paper: just rows and columns with description. I’m pretty oldfashioned too!

  8. I’m not a pantser, so my use of Excel comes in at the planning stage rather than editing. I create columns for each plot, and list the key moments in each plot in separate cells. Then I space this out with blank cells so that all the events are in the order I want, but still in their separate plot columns, and build a chapter by chapter plan off that. It really works for me in planning pacing and putting stuff in order, though inevitably more gets added as I go along.

    • That’s a great example use of excel: break down the plots rather than scenes. Thanks for that insight, Andrew! That way isn’t my gut inclination so I’m glad you spoke about it and described it. That seems like a really simple yet workable way to get organized that will appeal to lots of people.

  9. Thanks for this post! For my current novel, I wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline. I also grabbed a three-month calendar and plotted the action on it. The calendar has the moon cycle, which helps me plot night scenes. I keep a file of notes with suggested scenes, ideas for character development, etc. I keep a list of the characters in my novel. It has hair and eye color and other details about that character. I also have maps that I drew to help me know where everything is in my world. The map are in flux. The basic landmarks like rivers and such don’t change. But I find that as I write, I keep adding more detailed landmarks like apple groves.

    • OOH, that is so cool!!! I write about a fantasy world, so I would never consider taking an actual calendar and corresponding action to real, genuine lunar cycles. The amount of light at night would definitely be affected. That is so cool!!!

      Characters lists are definitely great assets too. Sheets I mean, with all those little details I know I’m liable to forget (even though they are my characters! It’s weird, sometimes I feel I am much more focused on their personalities and their goals and desires than what they look like. But the appearance is vital. For sure! I overlook it too often.)

  10. I do more or less exactly the same! I’m a complete freak when it comes to Excel. Beside each character I note their main motivation for the duration of the scene, and in another column what changes, whether it’s emotion, motivation or how what they’ve learnt changes their following actions. And I have a column for tone beside time and setting. Probably rather clunkier than your organisation, I’ll admit, but it seems to work!

    • ooh, a category for TONE and MOTIVATION and WHAT CHANGES…. all fabulous, fabulous ideas!!! I just inserted a new second scene into the first chapter, to separate the two groups of characters a bit more like I mentioned above. I’m not sure that enough changes to make it interesting, though. That category would help me hone in on that. Brilliant! Thanks!!!

  11. Just saying the word ‘excel’ has me scared, but I do agree that to edit well you have to be organized. I just came to terms with that, actually. Anyway, I just bought Scrivener and am not sure how I wrote without it, to tell you the the truth.

    The timing was perfect because I used NaNo as a time to write all my backstory, and to write stories for individual smaller characters, so that when i went back and overhauled my main WIP, I had everything in my brain ironed out. Scrivener has it all organized for me now, so it’s great, and easy to refer around.

    • I am very, very basic with Excel 🙂 The way I’m using it, you could make a graph on paper and use it the same way. You could even edit it the same way (almost) if you wrote in pencil. I’m not too crazy techy (though I am trying to learn more about Excel for professional purposes).

  12. Pingback: Three Parts of the Writing Process That Get Authors Stuck: And How To Work Through the Halts | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. You are a life saver! Or rather…a novel saver!!
    I too am trying to edit my NaNo project, but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and often don’t know where to start. I sat down feeling lost and a tad unmotivated, and I thought, “I’m sure Victoria has some advice for this, and if not I know I can always ask her.” (I use your blog as productive procrastination ;). THANK YOU!!
    [Oh, and I’ll just share that on the opposite end, I like to use OneNote for brainstorming.]

    • oh, YEA!!!!!!!! Oh my gosh, I’m so glad this was helpful!!!!

      • Question- what exactly denotes a scene? I feel this is something basic I should know, but I don’t want to lump too much as “one” scene, nor divide every conversation as its own…unless it should be. Is it a change in setting? Characters? Topic/Mood/focus? I was just going with my gut, and splitting it up into changes in the focus/purpose/info that is being given.

        Thanks so much again!

        • That all depends on you, Joan!!! I judge a textual demarcation to end a scene… a chapter division or some other physical mark, like **** or empty lines to designate white space between two scenes. But you could break things down to whatever degree you wanted to 🙂

  14. Wow! This is useful idea! If you don’t mind, Please add your novel’s Excel sample sheet photograph here..

    • I’m afraid I’m not sure how to do that 😦 And I didn’t end up doing more than the first two or three chapters, because I got sidetracked from the project by life before I really got into working with that sheet. But I’m glad you like the idea! Maybe you can stick with it and adapt it to suit your personal needs.

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