23 October 2020

Notes from Exile: A Pantser's Guide To Excel for Outlining

The tip of the Excel-burg
Right, so this past weekend I attended the Broadleaf Writers Association's 5th Writers Conference and, as usual, came away exhausted but full of new ideas and energy and a love for the craft of writing.

I also came away with a new appreciation for planning out a novel before just diving in willy-nilly. I can't promise I'm going to keep this up, but for now, I'm declaring my pantser days are...comin' to a middle, to badly paraphrase Firefly. 

I attended the Planning/Pantsing Workshop on Sunday, and one of the panelists, Abbot Kahler (a nonfiction writer) mentioned marking important things that will affect characters in outlines. Like if you plan that Event A will happen and know that Character B will have Reaction C to that event, mark it in your outline/prep work so that you will remember it.

Bells and whistles went off in my head as I thought about my new organizational scheme that involves the longest spreadsheets you've ever seen - one of which is in the photo above. I was sorting through my Google Drive one day, looking for something, and it occurred to me that all my story bible work was done in various google docs, some of them overlapping in material, and I needed to rearrange that biz so that I could use it. 

I would like to say that it didn't matter so much at first because all my dog books were basically stand-alones and there were only three Orana books to worry about, but then Orana took over my life and now there are five that are published with another four in various stages of draft just waiting in my Drive to see the light of day. Five books and so far about 80+ characters to keep up with is well more than can be handled in a simple Google doc.

Now there are loads and loads of templates for creating story bibles out there, and even specific software that will help like Scrivener. I wish that had worked for me. I wanted it to work. I neeeeeeded the corkboard page on my screen with the index cards. But it did not.

Before I continue, I must be honest and tell you that I HATE Excel. I have to use it for the DayJob™, and it brings me nothing but heartache and frustration. My poor office mate who is an Excel Guru must have some sort of pre-emptive warning that I've just opened Excel because my questions are greeted with a hearty, "but what were you TRYING to do this time?" So the mere fact that I am using it to catalog languages and homeworlds and eye color is amazing and horrifying in equal measure, I promise.

So here's what I have done: I have a tab in the spreadsheet for each novel set in the Orana story universe. So far there are three in the Nature Walker Trilogy, two in the Tales of the Forest War, a standalone, and three in the upcoming Guardians of Orana series. Then I just start listing what I think is important to remember for each character: Full name, title, nickname, hair color, skin color/tone, eye color, etc. all the way through to how the character died and who was involved.

This has already helped as I am working on editing one of the Guardians novels, and I've found inconsistencies - if Nel has blue eyes in the NWT she should not have green eyes in the one I'm editing. But there is another level: the plot outline. I decided to take some time and go through each novel that I've written and put the plot into a separate spreadsheet. Busy work? Maybe, but this way I can chart the important developments that may affect later scenes, just like Ms. Kahler was talking about in the panel on Sunday. I've even marked things like 'IMPORTANT: First time Character A calls Character B by important plot point nickname.' That sort of thing will, so my Excel gurus tell me, enable me to sort by important plot points, thus making it easier for me to plan future novels in advance.

Yep, you heard that right, I'm actually working now on planning my Nanowrimo 2020 project IN ADVANCE. WITH SPREADSHEETS. AND RESEARCH. WHO AM I?

I hope this is helpful, and if not, it is at least amusing. I would also love to know if you have ways to use tools such as Excel for noveling purposes. For now, though, I'm going to go figure out the sort function. What could possibly go wrong? :)

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