Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Outlining & Spreadsheets for Novels (Or, Ways to Stop Your Writer's Brain from Imploding)

Currently Listening: "Lead Me Home"- Jamie N Commons (The Walking Dead OST Vol. 1)

For those who don't know: Since 2007, I have been co-writing Three of Swords, a Victorian fantasy novel series, with my sister Melissa, who is an artist and does all the covers and illustrations for the books. You can take a look at it here--new site will be going up next week though, so check back to see the update. As of this post we have released online the first four volumes and are currently in the midst of writing the fifth.

I confess--this post is a bit of a cheat. I'm writing it because of all the questions I've gotten when I post screenshots of when I'm starting a new chapter in my latest novel and am using our beloved spreadsheet. It's hard to explain it briefly and comprehensively, so I decided to explain it it all here with pictures and such and allow people to comment. I will answer questions in either edits or later posts (I mean to blog more about writing!). But to be honest, the original idea was inspired by the writing process of YA fantasy author Justine Larbalestier who blogs a lot of really genius stuff about writing that I recommend giving a look-see. Like all writing advice, some of her ideas may work for you and some won't (she's a different human being than you--and Aussie after all ;) ), but it's been useful to me. You can adapt suggestions and make them your own, like I (and my sister/co-writer, Melissa) have done with the novel spreadsheet. Justine's original post on the spreadsheet was from her post "How to Write A Novel", which is a fantastic summary of novel-writing advice. She published this in 2006 and I likely first read it around then, but didn't utilize it till 2007, when we first started writing Three of Swords.

I would love at some point to write a post about how we came up with Three of Swords (3ofS) using a game I made up, but that's for another time (if you want to hear about it, let me know!). Suffice to say, before 3ofS I'd never finished anything in the 10+ years I'd been writing and was troubled with a lot of writer's block in my other stories, so focusing on a massive project like 3ofS was a bit new for me. Melissa had finished a few books with a friend before as a kid, but nothing that compared to the complexity that 3ofS was--and unlike the books she'd done, 3ofS required co-operation on a very intense level--alternating first-person narrators (and writers) chapter-by-chapter while still keeping the overarching story flowing and consistent. My days of writing-by-the-seat-of-my-pants were over and we had to establish official agreement on plot structure or else nothing would hold together.

But before we get down into it:


Note: This method can work with standalone novels, as well as lengthy series. I believe it could easily be adapted to graphic novels also, and may help with that kind of plotting by chapters/issues, though you would also need to outline panels.

How It Begins: Nothing as Neat as a Spreadsheet

3ofS is thirteen volumes long and each volume has no less than thirteen chapters usually. We alternate narrators partly because of convenience (it gives us each a break) but also because it keeps the story interesting for readers and shows both Lucien and Tom (or the secondary narrators, Anabelle and Helene) equally. There have been exceptions to this rule at times when the story needs to be told in such a way that we have to stick with a character two chapters in a row, but more on that later. Here is a sample of what the 3ofS spreadsheet looks like (showing Vol. 1-3):

Spoilers if you haven't read the first three volumes.
The annotations should've explained this, but CC stands for Chapter Contents. That row goes off-screen here, but it's not usually terribly specific, just enough to help us both remember what happens there. This is important prior to writing of course, but even afterwards because it's easy to forget what happened where when you're going through older chapters for fact-checks.

As I said before, I got the idea from Justine Larbalestier. She does it all a bit differently. This is a screenshot she posted of the spreadsheet she made for her novel Magic or Madness:

I don't really know what all the red numbers are for either, so don't ask.

Justine's explanation and further suggestions: 
"At a glance I can see which pov was telling what chapter, what day it was, where they were, and who was getting the lion share of the novel. You can also have a content column that lets you know whether it’s a sitting-around-talking chapter (“) or a sitting-around-and-thinking (‘) or an action-packed chapter (!) or somewhere in between (^) or one with sex (*).If your content column (cc) looks like this







then you might decide that after all that running/shooting/jumping/giving birth, it may be time for a wee spot of (“) or (‘) or (*) or (@), so as not to exhaust your reader. Mix ‘em up. See what happens."
I prefer to be more specific in my own CC, but I do think basic annotations like Justine's can help, especially if your novel is more of a drama (like hers) than an action-adventure (like 3ofS), and you need a reminder to vary the mood.

Spreads with Benefits

When imagining your story, your brain may take delight in that beginning scene that sets the stage for the whole plot--your hero falls out of the saloon and into the water trough (because bar-fights are sexy in fiction), or you are one of those writers who like to begin at the end and you begin with the girl about to die in, I dunno, a ballet studio at the hands of a crazed vampire or whatever. Then you skip along through some other fun bits, the action, the romance, the comedy, the tragedy, and then OH YEAH the end, where you kill everyone and your heroine stands on the hill covered in blood. It's a pretty sweet story. But how exactly she got from the beginning where she fished our soaked and sexy hero out of the water trough doubtless has some big ol' holes. Not plotholes necessarily, but just ughhh-that's-a-pain-to-think-about-so-let's-move-on-to-a-fun-thought-holes. Gaps, blanks, sections where your characters get from Point A to Point B somehow.

The spreadsheet forces you to think about those tough things, or at least construct some kind of thought as a placeholder while you figure it out. Sometimes you're simply filling in blanks--e.g. Tom is doing this, next time we see Tom, time should've passed, so filler chapter of Lucien. Don't fuss too much over the CC. Put what you know and what makes some small amount of sense, even if it's not explicit.

Serious spoilers blurred out, but 3ofS readers might enjoy the preview nonetheless. As I said, Melissa and I are only now in the midst of Vol. V (the screenshot below is actually up-to-date), and I'm about halfway done with Chapter 6, so haven't put in the page numbers or title yet. Most unwritten chapters don't have titles--Vol. VI, Ch. 13 is an exception.
You can see that some of the CC are more general: "Tom talks [to *****]"or extremely practical: "Arrival; Meeting Emile". Others only make sense to us the writers--your spreadsheet isn't a script or a lesson plan. It's not the kind of thing you can hand off to someone else to do the actual work (unless they have a lot of creative wiggle room). "Helene goes to the bathroom" is shorthand for what occurs and reading that I am reminded of what important stuff actually occurs. Much of it is also completely facetious or ironic--the CC that reads "The Most Important Part in [the Series]" is an inside joke and we know what it entails.

Timing is also pretty important, no matter how long a stretch of time your story takes. If your story takes place in 24 hours, you can plan out the hour slot in the "Date" column. As you can see further above, Justine Larbalestier's novel takes place in a week's span, so she put each day of the week. 3ofS's 13 volumes begin in September 1888 and end (SPOILER??) in December 1889, so that's a lot more time to plan, but it does allow for some flexibility of dates. Since we have a fixed historical time period, we use the calendar on to find out what days of the week certain dates, holidays, and phases of the moon fell on.

If your story takes place over years, I highly recommend also making a timeline spreadsheet--whole other topic, but I'm giving out all the secret workings of my own story planning, so might as well.

View from the top of the timeline--you may notice it starts at 1800, 80 years before the story begins. Don't mind how crazy we also ends at 1921.
Not sure if the column titles are legible, but they are: YEAR, BORN, DEATHS, EVENTS, ENGAGEMENTS & MARRIAGE (some singular/plural and verb/noun inconsistency there--sorry.) This has been a huge help in knowing when things in the past happened (and what happens in the future... ;) ). Might do a post on timelines and character profiles someday if there's as much interest in characterization as there has been in plotting. So I'll leave that for now.

As I said in the Disclaimer above, I don't recommend starting a spreadsheet when you haven't written a word. Melissa and I didn't start the spreadsheet till some time after Chapters 5-6 when the two main protagonists meet and we had this storyline growing in our heads. The spreadsheet is to fence all that in and organize it in rows. For every other volume we never started writing till we had outlined it on the spreadsheet--it helps to know what's ahead and not to waste time. At the moment we have no more than the first two chapters of Vol. X outlined, as seen below:

FYI: The POVs & locations of Vol. X are not official beyond Chapter 2--they were copy-pasted from the previous volume. The timing for Vol XI: The Devil is actually relatively official; also jsyk that is my favorite volume title.
We're thinking pretty far ahead, as you can see....and hopefully we can finish outlining Vol. X this summer; it'd be great to have the whole series outlined by the end of the year. This might seem a bit of a scary thing to do--planning so very far ahead--if we're at Vol. V, what if things change, of the story starts going in another direction, or we discover some legit plotholes (it took far shorter a time to sail to NY from the UK in 1888 than I thought apparently), or some other plotting disaster befalls us?

The Flexibility of the Spreadsheet

It's important to remember that this is an edit-enabled document you're making, not this:
It's also hopefully a bit more organized. [Source]
The backspace key is there for a reason, as are options like inserting or deleting rows. The spreadsheet should be flexible. I'm not going to get too much into mental processes of story planning here (because it's too different for people), but your mental plan should be flexible also. Sometimes things need to be changed because they don't fit. When Melissa and I first started the 3ofS spreadsheet, we had a lot of crap ideas. Not gonna lie. As you write, you come to a better understanding of the characters themselves and of what kind of story you're telling.

Some future plans are completely out-of-character. In Volume II, in the chapter where the beautiful Duchess of Everington seduces Lucien, she and Lucien originally had sex (spoiler: what actually happens is she gives him a sleeping potion while they're making out, because as far as the Duchess is concerned: sex? ain't nobody got time fo' that.). Pretty early on we realized that the Duchess wouldn't and didn't need to waste time, so we cut that. I've been accused of talking about fictional characters like they're real people, but it's sometimes the best way to understand them--you're going to get to know them better the more you think and write about them. You'll learn things about their childhood and realize that what you thought they would do in that pivotal scene, they would actually never do. So don't be afraid to change your outline.

Some events are pointless in the larger scheme of things and will make you miserable to write. 3ofS Volume V (seen above) originally featured a crazy magician named Mr. Mortini and his hot Russian ballerina assistant as a main conflict for Lucien's narratives. As we thought more about Vol. V, we hated that plot point more and more. So we cut it and gave Lucien a new and better conflict, that actually addresses some of his past and will play into the future. Also, remember how I said that sometimes the CC can be a filler chapter so you can keep on putting in the important stuff? Later on, a CC that says a character simply goes to the store may be pretty stupid, since it will only result in a two-page scene of the character picking up groceries and clipping coupons. Re-plan and think of something better when you get closer to it, combine it with another chapter, or just cut it. That's how we ended up with two Anabelle chapters in a row in Vol. IV. The Helene chapter was pointless to read or write.

I would be shocked if you never had to change sections of your outline. If a story is going well then it should be complex enough to have evolved and require some adjustments.

In Conclusion: That's All I Got for Now, Folks.

That's basically the key to how we plan a novel series without going entirely out of our minds. Now you know the truth.
Just replace that machine with my Macbook.

As always, questions much encouraged.


  1. Great post, Brittany. This was really interesting. I can see how this would be really helpful when co-writing a novel.

    I've never co-written any piece of fiction (only nonfiction), and I'm curious how you and Melissa brainstorm the plot. Do you usually pretty much agree on how you think the plot should turn out? Are there ever any disagreements and how do you work those out? Does the outline & spreadsheet help with this? How do you handle characterization? Do you each have your own characters in the story and only one person's allowed to write from that character's point of view?

    Hope that makes sense. I guess I'd just like to hear more about your creative collaboration. :)

  2. I really like the idea of spreadsheets. I don't do spreadsheets, but I do keep a very detailed "daytimer" and a chapter by chapter breakdown. For some of the scenes in FDM, I actually had to sit down and write up a moment by moment "blocking" plan. If I need someone to bounce stuff off of, it's always my husband, who is a brilliant storyteller.

    Back when rocks were soft, a friend and I co wrote a novel. Looking back, this had some problems stemming from the fact that my friend and I have different writing styles. I am betting that you and Melissa are at least reasonably matched in styles? How does that work out?

    Also, do you mean to say that each of you write the different POV'S? Are some of the characters "yours" and some "hers?" And do you write for each other's characters, if that's the case?

  3. Love this! Wondering: Does your spreadsheet end after the CC column?

    1. Thank you! And yes, it does end after the CC column.