Excel for Writing

All right!

I tried to explain a friend of mine, a very dashing young writer, how I work. She was telling me of all the wonderful programs out there and what she could do with them and how it is keeping her back in her creativity that she isn’t able to buy the program. So I asked of her, what did she have?

“Nothing but Office,” she said.

I smiled and said that’s all I’ve ever worked with. And paper and pen, naturally.

“But Word doesn’t have the card system or the character sheets or…”

But you say you have an office, I reminded her. Office is adorable little thing, really. It also has Excel and Powerpoint, Publisher and Access (which, unfortunately was too complicated for me). On the other hand, Excel is not so hard to manage (take a booklet they are selling and it gives you all the basics you need) and Powerpoint is just as simple if you take few evening to toy around with it.

I only use Word and Excel.

“And how does it work then?”

As she already knows the basics, I’ll skip that, but here’s few ideas how to take most of what you’ve got. All pictures will pop up big if you click on them.

This is how my normal workbooks looks like. Lots of sheets, color coded (like character related – blue, places – green, background – yellow) and named. Too neat? If you are in the middle of the writing, you do not have time to search through everything. So, neatness first. Or more like little organized mess. I tend to put all the information in one work book per story. This way I can always go between information without messing it up with another.

Character sheet.  Two things to remember. 1. put the things you need the most first. I know it’s lovely to know all the eye colors and star signs, but unless it comes up in the story, leave it to the end of the list. There is more important information.

2. Color code your character groups. Here I have a group of people, who attend a regular meeting and another, which is two people, who make up a family. Don’t be shy to use colors. Just as long as you remember, what they are. The lists is reversible, too. Like if you have many characters, put them in the first line and all their fact list in the first row. Depends on your own need. I like to do it this way.

Dictionary! Especially if you write fantasy of any sort. You’ll have tons of races, animals, plants… you name it. Make one page purely for dictionary. It should have at least three things: name you use for it in you story, if it has exact synonym and how you describe that thing. Everything else is extra. But you’ll need it while editing – you can then check back if the person reading it would understand it the same way if you used your description.

Story itself. Only if you can work by an outline. I like using Excel for this especially, because mine tend to get down to 600-700 lines and in Excel it’s easier to organize it or to add lines in between your work. Number 1 here shows that I like crunching the rows together.  Number 2 is Date. You can add it in front without any problem and manage it while you write or after. No problems like “I changed one date and the whole story is smashed potatoes now with added cabbage”. And number 3 shows exactly how it works. The skeleton is simple. The first is the scene you write, the second is developing it further, the third is the ide you wish to give and the next notes you need to check out in order to bring the idea through or just a note you need to consider. I like writing there the questions that rise up. Like if he had a ring to toss at her or not.

Number 4 was already explained.

I would like to say though that this works well as notecards, too. Leave a line between each group and when you print it out (prepare to be amazed –  this can get very long), they are neatly grouped and easy to access. Plus you have room for extra notes (which you can type in later and print the clean work out). I like writing so that I have the outline on paper, but having it in this kind of file means I can access it easily at any computer thus it isn’t really so important to print it.

Dating your lovely story.

I know how hard can be finding the right calendar for your story and constantly reminding yourself, where it is. Why not create one for the whole time the story takes place? Is the timezone around 2 weeks? Make one for two weeks.
Number 1 here stands for the data information. 2. Color code weeks so they are easier to recognize. 3. Date of that day. 4. The red X shows what had been written in the story at that point of work. It works like a check list – this way you see, what you are still missing, too.

Same kind of table with variation. Sometimes your story takes place in longer time period or you just need to know what came before, during and after and what background is like. Researching newspapers about particular days, etc. It’s nice if you have a table formed for this, where you can write down the time and event taking place both in the story and in real time. Gives an interesting level to what you already have.

Who is related to who? Heaven knows! Oh, wait – you are that god. 

This is what it looked like when I was writing about a small village with about 200 vacant. Relationships in a small village are cramped and hard to follow, so make yourself a map. Again, color code the families and customize your lines according to your needs. But it’s easy to make. It only took me an hour to make this one and the rest of the groups not shown here. If printed it’s actually about 6 pages.

The same thing works fantastically for building family trees. And looks pretty much the same.

Again related to the issue of knowing what took place when. The same problem rises also with characters. This page is from a story, where is important the connections the people have throughout the years. I tried working the problem out with simple math and failed miserably, couldn’t be sure exactly if I was right. So I created something like this. A simple collection of characters and how old they were on which year table. I’m a visual note taker. The zero here shows the year of birth.

This table also gives you control over knowing how old your character was when they did one thing or another. Like if your character mentions that he was 6 when he saw the criminal, who was around 20s at that time, you can immediately check if the fact holds up. Or the man was lying and was actually 16 and the man he’s blaming was younger than he was during that particular year. You don’t think on these things during your writing, but it’s easier to edit if you already know it ahead.

 You need room’s plan? Crunch some rows together and you get the lovely paper you can draw on with simple function like Draw a line and Fill in the Color. I tend to write a room descriptions in my notebooks first and see how they sound. After that I make a simple plan for it. Nothing fancy.

Works also for house plans with separated apartments, landscapes, measuring stuff…

And the last, but not the least. Statistics. If you make yourself a plan that you need to write some exact number of words per day to finish in time (like during NaNoWriMo), then statistics are great. This here took some effort and errors though and is slightly higher knowledge, but nothing one can’t do if doesn’t put their mind on it.

Forgot to mention that charts are fantastic and definitely worth learning. I use them to check if the story seems balanced in age groups (if not, the one that isn’t pops right out) or if the heights are random enough (or they all look like 1.8 m models), etc.

Something like on this chart here. Odd world that consists only one 64-year-old character and punch of youngsters.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what program you use as long as you take most of it. Excel is often overlooked by writers, because it’s really meant for works that deal with statistics, accounting, etc. I’ve found it to be just as useful as those special programs that have sprouted like mushrooms after rain. All you need is your imagination and need. If there’s need, there will be a way.

Thank you for reading and good writing!

This article did appear in my other blog before this one.


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