Sugar, like many men, can fix almost anything that breaks with a roll of duct tape. It has uses far beyond those originally envisioned by its designer–as does MS Excel.
Not so long ago, in another life, I was a project manager. This is one of those job descriptions like “consultant,” that can mean many things depending on the context, and while I once toured the Adam & Eve warehouse in North Carolina (purely professional–they had distribution needs, I had distribution software–though they did offer me a free sample of my choice) most of my days were spent staring at Excel spreadsheets.
So, when Sugar gave me the green light to make things up and write them down full time, (thus securing his position as a patron of the, ahem…arts) at first I was adrift without my lines and columns. I tried story boards, which in my case were foam boards with elaborate charts and pictures of my characters cut out of catalogs and magazines. But large foam boards were difficult to transport, which was a problem since my life most resembles that of a gypsy. I tried making notes about each chapter on index cards, but since I can’t read my own handwriting, this didn’t work out either.
At this, my larval stage as a writer, I had not yet considered the profound question of whether I was a plotter or a pantser. I had no clue that I needed to be one or the other, as I had not yet read the hundred books on writing that now have their own shelf in my bookcase, nor had I attended the slew of conferences and workshops that would come over the next few years. I was winging it. Hey, I’d READ a lot of books. Surely I could write one… Yes, in fact, I was that ignorant.
After a few months of experimenting and suffering from depression as a result of spreadsheet withdrawal, I figured out that Excel worked great as a writing tool. I’ve learned so much in the last few years, and as with any craft, I know I need to continue learning. But the one thing I’ve hung onto from those early days is the use of spreadsheets for plotting. (I now know that–big surprise here–I’m schizophrenic. I’m a plotter who turns into a pantser at the drop of a hat. (Okay, if you’re not a writer, and you’ve read this far, a pantser is one who writes by the seat of his/her pants–organically. Her characters tell her what happened and she transcribes their story.)
I have one Excel workbook per project. Within that workbook, I have one tab with a spreadsheet for characters. This tab typically has columns for not only biographical info and physical description, but quirks that define the character. Another spreadsheet has a plot outline. This starts simple, with a beginning, middle, and end, and expands as I add lines for each chapter as the story comes together. When my characters take over and tear off on a tangent–and I love those days; those days are magic–I simply open the spreadsheet and document where they’ve taken me when we get back.
There is one danger in using Excel as a plotting tool for a novel: a reader cannot keep in his/her head everything that you can keep track of in a spreadsheet. I learned this the hard way, and had to rip out my first novel at the seams and remove an entire subplot and several characters.
On the plus side, Excel is highly portable, and I can read what I type into my lines and columns. Excel helps me maintain order in my virtual universe. If only reality were so easily organized…
Many plotters and half-breeds like me struggle with how best to organize their work. Check out Julie Weathers’ blog post from yesterday. She has a copy of J. K. Rowling’s solution posted.