While finding a word processing tool you are comfortable with is crucial to writing, there are other types of book writing software that are just as important. Before I wrote my first novel, if you’d told me that an important part of my book writing software arsenal would be a good spreadsheet, I would have said you were crazy. I had never thought of how to plan a novel using spreadsheets, whether in Excel, Google Sheets, or any other software program.
Now that I’ve published three novels, I realize my plots and worlds would never make sense without them.
For more unexpected (and powerful!) tools to include in your book writing software arsenal, check out our Top 10 Pieces of Software for Writers.
Writing Without Spreadsheets
I sketched out the idea for my first book on the whiteboard in my office. To share it with other writers, I’d have to take a picture of it and then write a complicated email explaining all the chicken scratch that I call my handwriting. Amending it was nonsense as well. Often I would want to change something in the plot, so I’d try to erase it with my fingers, only to remove another note by accident.
I tried transferring everything from my whiteboard to a Word document, but formatting became frustrating. I found myself scrolling and scrolling to find small notes I’d left myself.
After finally completing my first novel, I began working on an urban fantasy series with a friend. In our spare minutes at work, we would jump online and email each other ideas about the world we were building and the stories we wanted to write. As I had done with my first novel, these thoughts were transferred to a Word document that we shared through Dropbox.
It didn’t take long before this Word document became an unruly mess. Trying to decide where in the document information went was painful and finding information was worse. Soon, after a week of swapping ideas, we were spending as much time formatting the Word document as we were writing the actual story.
Making the transition to a spreadsheet system saved me from going crazy and increased my writing speed exponentially.
How to Plan a Novel Using Spreadsheets
I’m still a “new” writer. I’ve been at this for only four years and I’m finishing my fourth novel, so I’m sure this system will look different when I’m publishing book fifty. Right now, here are the ways I use spreadsheets to help plot novels.
Keeping Track of Character Information
I have a terrible memory when it comes to my own characters. Often, I forget basic details of their own lives—things like like where they are from, or how they move, or background details I’ve decided to give them on a whim as I write. My wife would tell you this isn’t surprising at all as I routinely forget my own birthday.
For the current series I’m writing, it’s been helpful to have a spreadsheet to help me remember character details. On the vertical axis of the sheet, I have character names listed. On the horizontal axis, I have important details like: birthdate, basic appearance, biggest weakness, greatest strength, quirky details, and fatal flaw. Then I’ll have multiple columns for “backstory.”
When I go to use a character I haven’t used in awhile, I’ll do a quick check of the sheet to make sure I have the character in my mind.
Charting Multi-Book Character Change
Even though only two of my three novels are in the same series, all three (and the 50+ short stories I’ve published) all live in the same world. At first, this was an accident. Pulling characters and locations from one story to another was just a game I played with myself. Sometime around story thirty, it became a personal challenge.
Doing this made me realize that I needed a long term plan for my main characters. Without one, they would become flat caricatures who never really developed. Somewhere in the middle of my second novel, I took a day to dream about the life I wanted for my five main protagonists.
The result was a spreadsheet that has a row for each character. Across the top are dates. Each cell is filled with a sentence or two describing what is happening in the character’s life at that time.
The result of creating this spreadsheet was a deep understanding of the series I’m writing. Although the narrative is flux, I can tell you how my protagonists will grow and change over the next seven books I plan to write.
Collaborating With Another Author
While I’m building out my plots and characters, my writing partner is building his. Because we are sharing a series, our ideas need to connect.
Making a spreadsheet that held the larger narrative was key, especially at the beginning of our work together. Sharing the character spread sheet I mentioned above allowed us to chart how our individual stories intertwined.
Plotting the Beats of Individual Stories
When it comes time to work on an individual book or short story, I create a different kind of spreadsheet. This sheet helps me brainstorm the plot of the story.
Across the top, I will have the beats of the story. (I like the beat system defined by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat.)
In the rows below I write the scenes I need for each beat. Each cell of the spreadsheet gets a sentence or two describing the main plot points that I need to happen. If a beat is going to take more than one scene, then I stack the cells below the column heading.
As I write the book or story, I often find the scenes changing. After I’ve finished a scene, I will go back to the sheet and edit what is there.
This sheet is also incredibly helpful for my final edit. Once the rough draft is done, I pull open the spreadsheet and read all the scenes through in order. Thus far, with every book and short story I’ve done this for, I’ve found plot holes I’ve needed to fill by taking this 10,000-foot look at my narrative.
The final type of sheet I use is a scene checklist. After my beat spreadsheet is made, I will make a simple spreadsheet that lists vertically all the scenes I need to write. Next to each scene I have a column for “Date Rough Draft Is Complete” and another for “Date Second Edit Is Complete.” This sheet allows me to build out my production schedule.
Right now, I know I will likely finish the rough draft of my fourth novel by the end of April because I know how many scenes are left to write and how long it is taking me to complete each one.
Some Tips for Using a Spreadsheet
If you're thinking of using spreadsheets for your writing, fantastic! Here are few quick tricks I’ve learned to make the process smoother and less overwhelming.
- Learn how to “wrap text.” This is crucial.
- Only use a couple of sentences per cell and become comfortable with a shorthand system. Spreadsheets are for skimming, not for paragraph writing.
- If you are planning on sharing the sheet with a collaborator, use Google Sheets. It's free and easy to share. Additionally, you can both work on it at the same time.
- Microsoft Excel is great, but it is a little like bringing a bazooka to a knife fight. You will need only a small fraction of its capability.
Now that I’ve laid out for you how I use spreadsheets, tell me what you do. Are you an obsessive planner like I am? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
How do you use spreadsheets for your writing? Let me know in the comments.
Try planning out a story's beats before you write it. Take ten minutes to write four sentences that describe in general what will happen in the story. Then spend your next ten minutes writing the story. You can write a story about anything you like, or use this prompt: a character has lost something important.
When you're done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."