writing a novel with spreadsheets

I've successfully participated in three NaNoWriMos. The conventional wisdom is that after writing 50,000 words in a month, one should spend about three months editing those 50,000 words, but I've found that I've never got to that point. Why? Because I had 50,000 words of uneditable crap, that's why.

In conversation, this is the part where people usually give the "oh, editing is hard but you have to stick with it" speech. Nyuh-uh, in this case that's crap too. I edit all the time for work. I've done some rather icky, tedious, horrible editing slogs for work. When I say "uneditable crap", I'm speaking with a modicum of authority.

So what happened? I know NaNoWriMo has a book called No Plot, No Problem! I own a copy. It's a decent book. My problem was that at the end of 50,000 words, I still didn't have anything approaching a plot. Not even a semblance of a plot. Nada, zip, zero.

And that's a problem, especially when you wind up like that with three different stories.

In the last year I've been really working out why this was. The ever-openminded Cathy Cheshin pointed out there were some classic books out there that also had no plots, but my counter to that was that even something like Mrs. Dalloway has more things happening in it than my NaNo attempts. The ever-analytical J-A got closer to the crux when she pointed out that when I do NaNoWriMo, I just write a 50,000 word story — or, rather, it would be a story if I trimmed it down by about 47,000 words.

For the day job I know how to tackle the input file transmission section as a separate task from the data manipulation section. So I snagged a copy of The Plot Whisperer and tried to see if I could figure out how to block things out. I've been reading novels since I was eight years old — there had to be a way to latch onto how these things were put together.

The Plot Whisperer has helped a lot, although it weirdly skims over things I would think need explanations. For example, while the purpose of scenes is discussed at length, what a chapter actually is from a writer's point of view is never described. As the book defines things, apparently scenes are subsections of chapters. That's interesting, because in various literature classes I've heard chapters described as building scenes. It might depend on how micro or macro the author decides to go with their timeline. I'm still not sure.

It's rather disconcerting to discover one has a four-year English degree (Dean's Honour List for the last two years of it, no less), but still not a good grasp of how these things get put together. Then again, we always studied literature as if they were insects found embedded in amber.

Right now I'm working on a novel, a new one, one to draft while Tilly is fermenting in the cool room (think sauerkraut). I have part of the first chapter written out already, but since that initial burst I've been using spreadsheets.

First off, I made a spreadsheet breaking down typical full word counts into chapters. Debut novels are supposed to be in the 60,000-80,000 range, typically. I calculated 60,000-100,000, and then broke that down into sections using the 25%-50%-25% proportions from The Plot Whisperer. The chapter lengths come from some word counts authors I follow on Twitter have mentioned.

Once I had the chapter length matrix done, things started to make more sense. They also started to look more feasible, which was good. I made some Character Plot Profiles from the Plot Whisperer template, and made a scene tracker template, also found in the same book. Either there's something wonky about the scene tracker, or else I'm not using it right. Basically, I have a chapter on each spreadsheet page, and then several "movements" describing the different action bits going on. That means that I'm not using the entire top part of the template — just the column headings.

Oh well, it seems to be working. Today I got to the "end of the beginning" bit, and am starting to figure out how the middle is going to work. It's tempting to start turning these early outlines into chapters, but I think for now I'm better off pushing on to the middle section. Like a lot of reforming pantsers, I have a hard time with middles, and it seems more prudent to figure that out right now.

One surprising thing: this outlining stuff is kind of fun — like getting to tell the story without the work of showing everything or worrying about continuity issues.

There just might be a plot to this one after all.