Week 80

I spent the whole weekend writing - looking at nothing but a spreadsheet on my computer. That's right, a spreadsheet.

Writing a novel wasn't meant to be like this. It was supposed to be quill pens and garrets and inspiration, not editing column width and formatting cells so they word wrap.

First draft of Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

I've seen Dickens' first drafts - bar scribbles and crossed out lines and a few insertions, they look like one single continuous ream of inspiration.

Surely stories should pour out of you; they develop over time, with characters that "take over" and act almost independently. There's the frock-coated bastard, adding one line after the next.

There's something about working out a plot in a spreadsheet that seems wrong. How can any of that even remotely be called creative? Shouldn't that stuff come naturally and suddenly? It all seems very structured and mathematical, regimented like a database or a computer system. Surely creativity is more organic?

But that's what I've been doing. After a few weeks of synopsising (a word), I was left with a rough written synopsis, a few worksheets listing scenes, a physical story board that allows me to visualise the story larger than a 13" screen allows. Now I had to firm up and flesh out the outline. I needed more than a line summarising a potential chapter - "at the hotel" or "meets Nickie" - I needed details.

So I added a new worksheet to my spreadsheet of scenes and an overview of a few short story structures. I listed the scenes I had from the exercise I'd done a few weeks ago, and added more according to the new structure I had in mind, taking care to think of their corollary: if this is what is supposed to happen, what happens if it doesn't?

Putting ideas next to each other in columns suddenly (finally) gave me an idea for something that's been bugging me a lot: how to deal with the present narrative, when a past narrative holds the story's significance. So far my present-day narrative had been a bit limp. I hadn't got a handle on perspective, or the reason my narrator was telling the story. I think I came up with something, and not only does it revitalise the present-day narrative, but it brings it line with what happened in the past, too.

Drawing these strands together led me to outline the first four chapters in a short space of time. And not just outline with a single sentence, or a note, but fully fleshed out chapters, detailing when they begin, where each character is, what they say, and how it closes. Suddenly, seeing everything in little boxes and lines alongside one another in an order that would make an obsessive-compulsive glow with pride brought a clarity I'd been lacking for along time.

I got so into it, I started lining up plot summaries of my favourite books, to see if they developed in a similar way. Admiring the opening scene of one - involving a character differently motivated and in a totally different setting, but in the sort of situation I needed - gave me a further idea.

quick Google search shows me I'm not the only one - other writers use spreadsheets to track word count, time (important for fast-paced crime novels, I expect), or how much is given over to a particular setting or character. (This seems odd - I have never thought to myself, too much of this book is set in New York. Each to their own, I guess.)

I also came across this spreadsheet, inspired by a book called Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It's pretty close to how I've been working out my structure and outline, lining up chapter numbers and plot points (or "milestones"), with a few fancy formulas to keep track of word and page counts.

Rather brilliantly, the writer who put this together has also made it available as an Excel template you can download here.

And then I found this, the single sheet JK Rowling used to plot out the Harry Potter books.

Spreadsheet with which the author JK Rowling planned the Harry Potter novels

 

I'd love to see the ink-blown scraps of paper that old fraud Dickens *really* wrote on.

 

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661

Fiction and truth

"We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one."- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, as quoted by David Nicholls, One Day, p.105