Yes, I’m a nerd, what’s it to you?
I love Star Trek, and Sudoku, and Stephen Hawking documentaries (admittedly, the latter may have something to do with Benedict Cumberbatch’s narration.)
I also love spreadsheets. If you’re a writer, even a very cool one who reads Leonard Cohen poetry and listens to Hozier, you should love them too.
Spreadsheets are the nerds’ gift to mankind. At least, that’s what my pal Jim, the IT guy, told me once. I wasn’t convinced at the time, but you know what, I’ve come around.
On the face of it, spreadsheets seem anathema to all things creative. If you’re a writer, you’re probably shrinking from the very notion of using them, the way the Wicked Witch shrank from water. But you know what, if you’re creative you can turn anything into a useful tool. You don’t have to shell out a lot of cash for Excel either; a basic version is available via GoogleDocs.
Here are some of the ways I use spreadsheets for my writing. This isn’t including obvious stuff like tracking expenses and handling invoices. You know, the sort of thing the programme was actually designed for. Here are some of the other uses I’ve found:
Spreadsheets help you track your characters and your scenes. They show you at a glance what happens on what page, in what chapter. When I wrote my first two novels (ahem!), I had a column for the date, one for historical events, one for the Sherlock Holmes canon, one for events in my book, and, finally, a column for sources in case I needed further information.
On separate pages, I tracked everything I knew about my characters, their names, relationships to one another, historical notes if they were based on real people. I listed where the scenes occurred so I always knew the addresses of everyone in the book. Where possible, I’d include a link to a map or other helpful source of information about that district.
I also made ‘what if’ notes on the spreadsheet. What if this event came before that one? What if this character is related to someone else? What if…
Using the spreadsheet in this way can help you see the structure right before your eyes and that, in turn, can help you spot the weaknesses. For instance, if you colour code an event, say when your villain does something, you can see how often he shows up. Is it too much, or not enough?
The spreadsheet segment above is a snapshot of an early draft of the opening of A Biased Judgement. I changed the chronology a few times which is why you see ‘new date’ on the far left. Next, I have the scene. This is primarily for the structure and is colour-coded. I tend to use a W-structure for my novels and the green indicates the first complication.
You’ll notice some sections are crossed out in blue. These were scenes I had written but realised they added nothing to the story and so had to be deleted.
In the next column, I have the page number so I could return to that specific scene instantly and make any necessary changes. Since deletions changed the page number, I used a different spreadsheet page for each rewrite.
Then I have ‘history’. Since I was writing a novel that takes place in the ‘real’ world, I wanted to know what was happening while Holmes was working his case. As you can see, the assassination of the Spanish premiere directly impacts the plot, as Mycroft asks Sherlock to investigate.
Which brings us to Holmes, himself. Here, I’ve listed what he’s doing. I can tell at a glance what action occurs and on what page. I can see the historical events that might be impacting him. And in the next column, I can see what was happening in the canon. If you’ve read A Biased Judgement, you’ll remember that The Devil’s Foot is retold from Holmes’s perspective. Also, his injuries and meeting with Dr Moore Agar (who Watson tells us was the Harley Street physician who ordered Holmes to Cornwall for his health) all tie in with the canon.
I can’t imagine how I’d have been able to track all these elements without my trusty, not-so-rusty spreadsheet to help.
In the final column, I have my notes. Here is where I identify elements that need work for the next draft. I can see at a glance what needs to be deleted, what needs to be added, or changed. I’m sure you can understand what an asset this tool is for your rewriting.
If you write, you probably have a lot of these already. Sure, you can use a notepad (I still do for some things), but there are times when having everything available on your spreadsheet can be invaluable. Here are a few of mine:
Completed work. This is where I track the title, the date I submitted the piece, where it went and when I expect it back. If you use Excel, you can have a page for each type of writing, one for short stories, one for non-fiction, one for poetry, etc. You can also have a master front page that functions as a calendar so you can track when items are due to return so you can follow up.
Sold work. What category is it – short story, non-fiction, etc. – length, market, date sold, date published, rights, etc. This list also serves as your list of credits so it’s important your information is as accurate and detailed as possible. I know you think you’ll remember what stories you’ve sold but, trust me, the time will come (I hope!) when you have too many to keep track of.
Contacts. These can be specific to a project you’re working on, such as an historian or a specialist. Or they can be agents, publishers, people who’ve expressed interest in your work, booksellers and librarians, media people.
Above is my old market list. I don’t update it as often as I should, but it’s ready for me as soon as I need it. This is just a segment of a pretty large list. My headers include the name of the market, the category (for instance, literary fiction, mystery stories, etc.), what their pay scales are like, do they offer a kill fee (not usual for fiction markets, but this list includes non-fiction in the category section too), how long it takes them to respond, what rights they purchase, a link to their website, and notes.
I have a newer version that includes things like the publisher’s willingness to accept electronic submissions, the country in which they’re based, and if they have a period when they don’t accept manuscripts. (Usual for college-based literary journals.) The newer version is also colour coded, with literary journals highlighted in blue, contemporary magazine in green, and so forth.
My new list also has a separate page just for Irish markets, and my wish-list page of my top ten favourite markets.
Using a spreadsheet for this sort of list means I can sort any of the headers with just a click of the mouse. I can also delete an entry if they go out of business, for instance. Yes, you can do a lot of this stuff with pen and paper, but it gets very messy very quickly. Plus, the sort option saves you hours of searching for a specific market. You just filter based on your priorities: Irish journal, accepts stories year-round, will accept electronic submissions: click your mouse and voila!
3. PLAN EVENTS: I’m planning my book launch for Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman right now, so that’s my current focus. I’ve included things like possible venues, my invitation list, expenses, supplies, and links to helpful articles about book marketing.
You might find a spreadsheet helps you to plan things like:
- Book signings, readings, or launches
- Research events for your book. These could include trips to the scene of your story, people you need to speak to, pictures to look at, books to read, etc.
- The publication of your book.
- Organising your media presence with things like radio or TV appearances, guest-blogging, and so on.
4. TO DO: I’m completely disloyal when it comes to TO DO lists. I’m always looking for one that matches my personality. I’ve tried designing my own, but I’m never quite satisfied. Of course, a TO DO list doesn’t have to be fancy in order to get the job done. It’s just a list of items with a due date. I recently discovered one in Excel’s templates (I love playing with templates! Yes, I do know how sad that sounds) that was designed for students. It has three connecting pages.
1. ‘Assignments’ (I’ve changed it to Events) which is the actual item that you cannot forget. Of course, you could include things like doctor’s appointments, but I tend to focus on things like deadlines.
2. Calendar where you can post your due dates for articles or your book launch, or whatever else is helpful. This helps you see at a glance what’s happening and make sure you don’t double-book important events.
3. The weekly To Do list. I use this to track the individual tasks for each major event. For instance, I’m applying for a literature bursary. The To Do list reminds me I need to write my proposal and mission statements.
- FORWARD PLANNING: Planning for stories that you want to work on, blog posts, and so on. I’m not talking about just ideas, of course, your journal is perfect for that. I’m talking about something a bit more streamlined. For instance, say you notice an important historical event will happen this year (Gallipoli, say, or the signing of the Magna Carta) and you have a specific interest in these events. This is where you make a note of the event with relevant dates, what slant you might take with your article, potential markets, and when you need to submit the piece(s). You can tie all of this into your To Do list, once you have decided what to work on.
Now, obviously, you can just use your notebook for a lot of these items, but I think you can see there are benefits to going ‘techy’ for at least some of them. Spreadsheets allow you to organise your thoughts, to see at a glance where you are and where you want to be, and can help you identify when you go off track.
Nerdy? Maybe. But I can live with that.