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Written by Philip Neale, edited by Nathan Weaver.
My name is Philip Neale and I am a UK author. The main focus of my writing, under the pseudonym ‘Neal James’, is crime fiction. I am an accountant by trade, and use spreadsheets constantly in that line of business. It was therefore quite a small step to transpose that skill into the structuring of my writing.
I usually begin with a fairly basic plan of writing forty chapters of a novel containing 1,500 words each. This, I find, provides me with a fairly easy template with which to plan a story. I never get fixated on the fact that 40 x 1,500 = 60,000 words, and the novel plan rarely ends up in so simplistic a form.
Let me give you an example. Here is the basic layout of my latest novel, ‘Three Little Maids’, when I commenced the planning stage of the book.
You can see that the ‘Wordcount’ and ‘Pages’ columns are blank in Figure 1. I will populate these with actual data, and can therefore see how the novel is progressing towards its total as I write it.
Now look at the same spreadsheet when the novel is complete (Figure 2):
Now completed, the Target columns have changed to match the progress made on that particular part of the writing. By comparing it to the Wordcount column, I can express a shortfall or overage figure for the chapter. Now, by applying an estimate of 300 words per page, I can get some feel, in the Pages column, of the likely length of the book, in this case 247 pages. This is only a basic guide, but the actual number of pages in the finished novel was 266 so I wasn’t too far out.
Another feature of the use of Excel is the ability it gives me to keep a check on the accuracy of some of my writing. Consider the sheet below (Figure 3):
I needed to know, for the purposes of eliminating all but possible perpetrators of a murder, all those not on school premises at the time that the music teacher met his death. This analysis, along with other data, ensured that all of my numbers tied out, and that no loose ends were left lying around.
With simple tools such as these, I can monitor the progress and sense of the book as it nears its conclusion. I can also, by reviewing the spreadsheets, change the focus of the book as it is written to come to any one of a number of conclusions. ‘Three Little Maids’ had a number of possible killers in its pages, and I didn’t decide until very late in the writing which of those individuals were to become responsible for the death of the teacher. Then it was a simple case of a little rewriting to give me the finish I desired.
As an example of something really complex, Figure 4 is a small section of the plot plan for ‘Two Little Dicky Birds:
The colour coding was designed to ensure that I kept track of who was doing what, where, and with whom. The novel has multiple plot lines, and it would have been impossible, without such a schematic, to keep it in a logical sequence.
Here is another section from the same sheet (Figure 5):
The novel concerned a number of murder in the UK over the period 1975 – 2002, and it was important to keep the names of the victims and their locations at the forefront of mind at all times. The gaps mentioned in the sequence provided vital gaps in the novel for police activity to be focused.
This ‘wordcount’ concept goes to the root of all of my writing as a means of keeping a tight control over what I write. Simply revisiting it each time I start a new session of a book allows me to slip seamlessly back into the plot and carry on from where I left off.
However, merely using a spreadsheet to write a book is not enough. This is just the bare bones of the structure. For a more detailed ‘plan’ of what I intend to do, I expand on the Excel tool with a Word document which goes into much more detail chapter by chapter. I can then decide, in a block of about 500 words, what I am going to write about in a particular scene much in the same way a TV script writer will draft out a drama series.
Using ‘Three Little Maids’ as an example again, consider the following rough outline (in gold) which I drafted at the start of the book:
DCI Dennis Marks
DI Peter Spencer
Clive Battersby: Music Teacher
Ralph Stodwell: Headmaster
Rachel Walters: Chemistry Teacher
Phil Pacey: Games Master
Three Little Maids:
Kurt Fuhrmann: German Master
Amanda Fuhrmann: Classics Teacher
Marie Redway (Alice Clarke): Lab Assistant
Sylvia Cottershaw: School Secretary
Harry Robertson: Shaw’s Hitman
Alice Clarke Jeanette: Clarke’s Mother
Jeanette Clarke: (Emotional Issues/Psychiatrist)? Pupil at Causton School
Chapter 4 - (Day 2)
I begin with a list of characters, and this could be expanded or contracted as the book develops. Names may or may not change as I write the book – real readers actually ask to be included – so some of the final names will not be as they are here.
Now I develop a chapter-by-chapter plan and will allocate a number of words to each bullet point (they are not listed here) to give me a rough guide as to how I am progressing. This keeps me in a logical sequence of events and prevents me straying from the main story line.
Inevitably, some of these guide notes will not make it into the final manuscript, but may resurface at the editing stage where my editor feels that extra text should be developed. I then have my original notes to fall back on.
In conclusion, I find Excel and Word essential tools for a structured novel. There is other software available which claims to fit the needs of aspiring authors, but my accountant’s training has always steered me in the direction of the simplest solution. I remain to be convinced that there are better options out there.
What about you, dear writer? Do you use Microsoft Excel or Word to outline your novel? Do you use something else to structure and organize your novel? Still a noob and not sure how you want to outline a novel? Are you a rebel who doesn't believe in outlines? Whatever the case, sound off in the comments and let us know about your process (or lack thereof).