Brand Gamblin: Writer’s Spreadsheets

Brand Gamblin wants to give you writers some sheet. Spreadsheet, that is: “Writing for money is work…just as much about planning as it is about creativity…I’m going to give you a very important tool in planning.”

The Writer’s Spreadsheet

Writing for a hobby is fun, exciting, and self-affirming. It’s hard work, but you can spread it out over years, give up on projects if you get bored, and let any subplot take over, if it grabs your interest.

Writing for money is work. Hard work. It takes discipline, patience, and the ability to remain joyous through the work. Writing for money involves deadlines (whether internally created or externally driven). It involves killing your darlings, endless editing passes (with strict adverb control), and continuity rewrites. Writing a story is just as much about planning as it is about creativity. If you give a professional writer a story idea, you’ll see them break it down in their head, figure out how many words would be needed on average for each section, and plan out the schedule for writing it before they ever get into the intricacies of the story. They can tell you which parts need to be moved or cut in order to make the story flow and highlight the best parts of all the characters.

I tell you this because I’m going to give you a very important tool in planning. This tool will help you clarify the story, schedule your productivity, and keep the story moving in the direction you want it to go. Some people get spooked when they hear about this tool, so let me give you a word of reassurance. Before you get nervous, just trust me when I say “There is no math here.”

You can build a story with a spreadsheet.

Some of you are wondering what a spreadsheet is. Some of you know what one is, and are already cringing. Trust me, there are no formulas, and no math. This is just going to be a way of taking your story, and putting it into a grid format that tracks your subplots and characters so that you can organize the story more effectively.

Here is a basic table that shows what the spreadsheet looks like (based loosely on one of my favorite movies):

Now, this is a vastly oversimplified version of the story. But it lists, for two different plotlines, what would happen in the three acts. Now, were I the writer, I could add more rows between them, giving a more detailed explanation for all the things going on. I could have one section for each individual scene. For a more developed version of the spreadsheet, take a look at what J.K. Rowling used on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

(click to embiggen)

Now, there’s a couple of things to notice about the way Ms. Rowling built her spreadsheet.

1) It’s handwritten on paper. Don’t let the computer dissuade you from this tool. Professional writers do this all the time.
2) Chapters. Ms. Rowling breaks her spreadsheet into chapters, listing everything she wants to happen in each. You might break it up by chapters, subchapters, scenes. This is a tool made to help you work, and as such, it should change as fits your needs.
3) Time. You can see that she has estimated how long it will take to do each chapter. By doing that, she was able to determine how long it should take to write the entire book. Organization leads you to better workflow and productivity estimations.
4) Characters. Ms. Rowling doesn’t just list the subplots, she lists character relationships as columns, knowing that the changes between people are subplots just as much as the fulfilling of the prophecy is.

Now, by tracking all these things, we can see if (for instance) you ignore a subplot for several chapters. You can see what’s happening to each of the characters in each of the sections. No plot gets left behind or spun off unnecessarily.

And remember, like all writing tools, this is not set in stone. You can pick up sections and move them as needed to fit your story needs. You can change what happens in each as your development brings up new twists and wrinkles.

Writing is creativity and creativity is chaos. . . but no one said you couldn’t plan your chaos a bit.

Brand Gamblin is a writer, podcaster, and smartmouth. In a good way. No, really. Learn more about Brand here.

In his current novel, The Hidden Institute, Cliffy is a child born on the streets of a Neo-Victorian world learning to pose as a gentleman at the Malcolm Rutherford Holden Institute of Regentrification. But that type of fraud is punishable by death, and when Cliffy uncovers a plot to assassinate a head of state, he’s hunted by more than just the aristocracy.

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