How a spreadsheet becomes a manuscript

In the past few weeks, I’ve been refining my workflows. That’s Nerd for “figuring out to do stuff.” And one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been outlining the wrong way for years.

In a discussion about writing methods, Chuck Wendig mentioned that while he tends to pants his first drafts, or use a sparse “bullet points” kind of outline, his second draft outline is done in Excel. This gives him the ability to tag scenes and see at a glance how the story moves. I thought this was brilliant. I’d never thought about outlining in a spreadsheet before.

For my current project, Homeworld, I have the entire novel outlined in Numbers. Each discrete scene gets a line in a table on a tab called “Step Sheet” with the following columns:

  • Done: Checkbox column letting me know which scenes are actually written

  • POV: Which character’s point of view is the scene written in

  • Scene: One line description of what happens

  • Words: Wordcount for that scene

Glancing at this table, I can see if I need to move scenes around to balance the POV narration, how much work I’ve done and what’s left to do. Moving lines is a drag and drop affair in Numbers, a bit easier than in Excel.

On a separate tab I have another table called Dashboard. This tells me my total words for the book (the sum of the Words column in the Step Sheet table), target word count, how much is left to go and percent completed. This is in big type so I can read it even in the thumbnail view when I have the folder open in Numbers.

So when it’s time to do my writing for the day, I don’t use a word count quota. I’m trying to just write one scene a day. If I’ve got a full schedule, I’ll pick a short scene. If it’s a lazy Sunday, I’ll go with a bigger, meatier scene. I go through my step sheet and find a scene that feels right for that day, copy the scene description to the clipboard and then I open WriteUp.

WriteUp is a text processor that syncs with Dropbox. I go to the folder for the project I’m working on, create a new file and paste in the scene description as the filename. Then I start typing. When I’m done, I note the word count, go back to my step sheet and write that in the Words column and check off the scene as done. The overall word count and percent done on my dashboard update automatically, keeping me motivated.

When I’m done with all the scenes, I’ll go back to the step sheet one more time and go over the sequence with my editor. Once we get that locked in, I’ll start copy and pasting the contents of each text file from WriteUp into a new document in Pages with page breaks between each scene. Then I’ll turn over that document to my editor for markup.

Pages now supports Word’s Track Changes feature, so when I get the manuscript back I’ll have all her notes and suggestions for when I go through and make revisions. From this point on the manuscript lives in a single word processing document, and the step sheet and text files are just historical reference. But when my editor and I are satisfied with the revisions, I have a Word file ready to convert to Kindle and CreateSpace formats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *