NaNoWriMo: Spreadsheets As A Writing Tool

The November 30 deadline for the NaNoWriMo project is fast approaching. That means that I'm spending a little less time in front of a freshly-tweaked word processor, and a little more time in front of a spreadsheet. Why?

I've already written 55,313 words, so in a purely technical sense I've "won" NaNoWriMo. However, that doesn't mean I've finished. Quite aside from still needing to write a couple of major scenes, I need to get the chapters in their optimal order.

My novel doesn't involve a straightforward A then B then C storyline: there are flashbacks and flash-forwards and various other narrative devices that mess things around. (No time travel or alternative universes though, I promise.) I didn't know until two weeks in how the story was going to finish, and in the last week I've changed my mind about that.

So while I know how the book begins and ends, there's a lot of stuff in the middle which isn't necessarily placed for best effect. This is pretty much inevitable with any large project: after working through all the fine detail, you need to step back and look at the big picture

For me, the best way to start dealing with this was to list out each chapter and the word length in a spreadsheet, along with any crucial details (this needs to come before the bit where we're in Vegas, and so on). Even for a straightforward narrative, that can be a useful exercise, since it lets you know whether your chapters are varying widely in length. Not that novelists necessarily need to have every chapter at a similar length, but huge unplanned variations can be disconcerting for the reader.

For these purposes, I ended up using the spreadsheet option in Google Docs, simply because that way I didn't need to install additional software on my dedicated HP writing notebook. I don't need complicated calculation functions, but the big thing I sorely miss from Excel is a full range of keyboard shortcuts.

Having assembled this list, I immediately had several obvious tasks. Some chapters or fragments were way too short, so I "joined" them together. One chapter was ridiculously long, and I'll need to find a sensible point to divide it. And the spreadsheet makes it easy to shift around the other sections and consider the impact of that, without worrying that I'm accidentally going to misplace some copied and pasted text in the process.

There would be other ways of solving this problem. Had I been writing a more "structured" novel to begin with, I might have used the outlining features in Word to similar effect. As with most activities involving writing, I suspect the commitment to the process is more important than the exact technology that gets used.

I still need to actually move the text around to reflect this structure, which is going to be the big Saturday task. And I have to work through a list I've been building of facts to check, cross-references to confirm, and other bits and pieces to insert. But after three weeks of writing 2000 words or more a day, this is an invigorating and appealing prospect.

Throughout November, Angus Kidman will be blogging about his participation in NaNoWriMo to unearth lessons about writing, project management and creativity.


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