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FAQ: Using A Spreadsheet for Outlining and Brainstorming

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badducky

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[Moderator's Note: The following posts are the work of badducky, also known as novelist J. M. McDermott.


Hey guys and dolls of the speculative end of the bookstore, I got a bit of advice for ya:

Don't brainstorm into the messageboard. It's a bad idea. It won't help you.

Do it into an excel spreadsheet, a notepad, a word document, an rtf document, a coloring book, or any other form of personal notationalism that you can reference alone, and edit and tweak and all that jibber jabber.

Brainstorming into a message board is not useful. In fact, it can give you an easy affirmation that can steal your thunder when you're writing.

So, don't spill it here. Spill it where you can write it and fill it out with characters.

Thank you, and good night.
 
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badducky

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Not a problem, Medievalist.

I use Excel spreadsheets for outlining and for brainstorming.

For brainstorming, one merely fills out a series of cells with one's ideas. Since each individual cell can contain a very large amount of information, I can squeeze lots of ideas into a very small spot. I also - in cases of scientific trickery - already have an excellent calculation tool looking back at me. I can check the numbers even as I am reviewing my brainstorming notes.

After a good brainstorming session, one can usually find the ideas boiled down to what one is going to use by crossing off the things one is not going to use.

Now, you're ready to start outlining and filling in details.

Go to the bottom left, and notice that you have three pages open, and the ability to immediately make lots more pages of spreadsheet with mere clicks of your mouse. Go to the next spreadsheet, and choose the detail data that you need to think about next.,

The way an Excel spreadheet works, you get a long list of cells that extend down and across. Also, you get to write as much as you would like in each individual cell.

So, in cell A1, on page 1, I'll write something outline-y-data-ey like "Magic System". Then, on B2, I'll write out a spell that would be really cool, like "Spleen Explosion". In B3, the explanation of the spell "The magician uses a nifty poking object to deliver a magical insect into the enemy spleen, causing an explosion."

Notice, how the cells stay way close together, so I can pack a lot of information into a very small visual space.

I can fill this spreadsheet out as far as I would like to the right, and to the down.

Now, say I want to brainstorm a bit about different cosmologies that could interact with this cool magical system I wrote out. I go to the bottom left-hand corner, and open a new spreadsheet page. I can reference directly to the first spreadsheet cells as I fill things out. I can cut and paste cells, and manipulate things all over the place. I can fill up whole books of data, referencing - always - specific spots and corners.

I can put together a book of data that I can use as a "book of the novel" that is flexible and easy to click around and manipulate and play with.

In this method, I can also always extend new notes and discoveries off to the right indefinitely in any particular spot in my brainstorming/outliney/spreadsheet.

This kind of thing can also be used to set up my reference materials for certain sections. For example, in my second novel, I have a magical system based on Zen Koans and Taoism. I can put a direct link to the particular corner of the Gateless Gate, or the Book of Changes (Tao Te Ching...), where I am ganking spell materials. Then, as I'm working, and need to double-check something, I am one click of my mouse away from any website I need.

With this simple, and effective system, I am able to corral lots and lots of world-building and magic and plot and character into a small zone.

Also, I tend not to write linear narratives, and do not write linear scene-by-scene as I write a book. With my chapter outlines, I will often use the spreadsheet to mark off the plot points (each one in a single cell, extending off to the right on the page) by finding the cell next to the plot point and placing an asterisk. Thus, I have not lost any of my outline, but I am not visually distracted by information from a spot I've already written.

I have many more tricks and tips up my sleeve, but this is a tool I've put to much use and recommend highly to others.

And, most importantly, you will never, ever get to see my spreadsheets. They are only for my eyes. My editor doesn't get them. My agent doesn't get them. My mother doesn't even know they exist. If I have a specific problem I need to work out, I might take that here. However, I will not be expelling the contents of my spreadsheet to the wires. I will merely take one small spot and seek out advice/experts.

For instance, if I was having difficulty creating the best possible werewolf I could create - after much research on the subject, mind you - I might pop on here and say, "Hey, I am having difficulty choosing between an upright werewolf or a four-footed werewolf. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages of either wolf might be?" I will not reveal story information, nor will I weigh all opinions equally.

I hope this data is useful to anyone who has both Microsoft Office and a penchant for speculative fiction.

Excel is a very powerful tool, with many features that you will discover that can make your brainstorming and outlining a seamless, interesting process.
 

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:Jaw:

I'm considered a Word guru and am only just recently gathering experience in Excel. This post causes me to ponder the possibilities of information organization....I do believe I shall begin straightaway--{realizes self is at work}--damn it....
 

sassandgroove

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Hey Badducky...
how do you handle time lines. I need to have events that happen to different characters entertwine. I went crazy trying to make time lines for each character then weave them together. I tried 3x5 cards with events, diff color for each charater, but I don't have a wall/room big enough to lay it all out.
 

Prawn

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Great idea! It sounds like making your own wiki!
 

sommemi

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Hey Badducky...
how do you handle time lines. I need to have events that happen to different characters entertwine. I went crazy trying to make time lines for each character then weave them together. I tried 3x5 cards with events, diff color for each charater, but I don't have a wall/room big enough to lay it all out.

Hmm. I'm thinking maybe using a calendar program? For example, there is a calendar in outlook, or a google calendar... any number of online sites have free calendars that you can use and you enter information and date ranges in it. However, if you are doing this over the course of years, decades, eras... then these calendars are much too focused on weekly events to make that feasible.

I would think creating your own calendar in an excel spreadsheet might work just as easy... Dates in columns/headers at the top of the spreadsheet, and then making each row a different character so that you can visually see where things overlap?
 

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Agree: Excel is outstanding for Brainstorming

I started using excel on my book a couple of weeks ago. It started out tracking names because I realized I had a lot of 'J' names, sure enough, out of the 22 names I had, 7 were 'J', but what surprised me, I had 5 'C' and 4 'D's. So 22 names, 16 were with three different letters...yikes!! So I created a list of 70 or so names, with different letters, doubling up on many, and now I keep track to make sure no letter is used more than 4 times. Next to the names, I list occupation.

I also setup a tab with each major character; born date, important life milestones, death date if necessary.

Another tab with a 'Timeline' so I can track the day, time of day, and weather (if necessary) for each scene, this way I know I have a flow going.
I was doing the chapters and realized chapter 3 'happened' the day before chapter 2 by doing this, so now I'm in chronological order.

Another tab for Chapter Order which I do list the chapter name, notes about it and additional notes to reference/use for the future. (Great way to brainstorm!) One of the columns tracks the # of words per chapter, which I setup several simple formulas which tracks the average words/chapter, the total words, and how many words I need on average to reach 60k, 65k and 70k.

Love using excel! And with Word giving you total number of words it's easy to track together.
 

Matera the Mad

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I use Excel for timelines. Character columns, year (or month or other time increment) rows. One sheet for comparing life events on a large scale, another for some tight coordination of activity on a certain day, etc.. Color helps. I'd have fried a brain cell without it.
 

Parametric

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I've often thought about using Excel to outline. I currently use Microsoft Word, but I end up with pages and pages of sprawling outlines, where it would be more efficient just to have headings and tables. The one thing that bugs me hugely about Excel is that the text in a single cell forms one long unbroken line, forcing you to scroll back and forth just to read one cell. Is there any way I can make the text wrap?
 

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I've often thought about using Excel to outline. I currently use Microsoft Word, but I end up with pages and pages of sprawling outlines, where it would be more efficient just to have headings and tables. The one thing that bugs me hugely about Excel is that the text in a single cell forms one long unbroken line, forcing you to scroll back and forth just to read one cell. Is there any way I can make the text wrap?

Yes, if it's 2007 on the HOME tag, you'll see "Wrap Text" if you click on the cell first, then click on WRAP TEXT and it'll wrap it into one cell.

2003, been a while since I used it, but with 2003 and 2007, you can RIGHT click in the cell, click on FORMAT CELL, then click on ALIGNMENT TAB and check the 'WRAP TEXT' box.

If you want to do every column, click on the letter to the top, which will highlight the entire row for that column, then do the same as above with either WRAP TEXT button or right click and follow the above to the box to 'check'.

Bob
 

Parametric

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Yes, if it's 2007 on the HOME tag, you'll see "Wrap Text" if you click on the cell first, then click on WRAP TEXT and it'll wrap it into one cell.

2003, been a while since I used it, but with 2003 and 2007, you can RIGHT click in the cell, click on FORMAT CELL, then click on ALIGNMENT TAB and check the 'WRAP TEXT' box.

If you want to do every column, click on the letter to the top, which will highlight the entire row for that column, then do the same as above with either WRAP TEXT button or right click and follow the above to the box to 'check'.

You have just solved one of the defining mysteries of life. I feel like I just discovered the question to which the answer is 42. :tongue Thank you very much!
 

Matera the Mad

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LOL -- it does discourage verbosity though.

Another thing you may want to do is format ALL cells for "text" to make sure that the occasional dash (hyphen) isn't seen as a minus sign, making Excel do strange things or complain about your screwed-up formulas.
 

Maryn

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I don't have OneNote and don't see it arriving any time soon, but I tried using a spreadsheet for the novel I have out to betas now.

Up-front, let me say this was my first-ever use of a spreadsheet. It was pretty easy, although I had a few 'mysteries' easily solved by googling.

I had about twenty columns, some with entries in every row, some active only part of the time. It helped me keep track of what happened in what order and with who knew what when. Some were 'big picture' items like major plot points and a calendar. One kept track of how much money my MC had. Another tracked his progress in job training and his boss's satisfaction.

This worked so well for me that I'll do it again without hesitation.

Maryn, old dog, new trick
 

erica_henry

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I have never thought about using a spreadsheet to track this kind of information. Thank you for the idea. I don't tend to write at the computer since my laptop broke but I think I will definitely start keeping track of key points with excel. Thank you for the suggestion
 

erica_henry

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Also forgot to mention:
In OneNote, if you go into Format, you can change the big white page to look like ruled paper (college, wide, extra wide, or extra thin), and/or to resemble graph paper.

I need good old fashioned paper and pen; however, because I move all over the world, I can't afford to lug allllllllll my notes all over the bloody place, so this OneNote thing has been a prize!

I don't like to use my computer to try to sit down and write out my works. I hadn't thought of using onenote though. i just like pen and paper. The lines just tend to inspire me. I think I will be using onenote quite a bit. I think seeing the lines will help me get inspired still. Thanks for the heads up about one note.

Do you know of a way to keep the lines when printing? I have a iMac so that may make a difference but I can't figure out if there is a way to keep the lines during printing. Thanks. I just like them for some reason. Not sure why :D
 

dgiharris

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I developed a Spreadsheet for Tracking all of my short stories and articles. It is color coded. I created a generic template that shows how to use the spreadsheet. Within the spreadsheet, just put the cursor over any little red triangle (comments) and a pop-up window will show up with an explanation of the section.

On the bottom of the spreadsheet you will see different tabs for different sections.

I loaded the spreadsheet on an online file storage site: www.box.net

The user name is: dgiharris
email address is: [email protected]
password is: spreadsheet

it is in a folder titled AW spreadsheet (the only folder)

go there, download my excel file and enjoy

Mel...

p.s. Norton says the site is safe http://safeweb.norton.com/report/show?name=box.net
 
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silvertouch

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Excel pisses me off. I'm too stupid to figure out how to get it to do what I want. I like notebooks, namely Moleskines. I can't work on large, think sheets. Ruled notebooks = FAIL.

I tried outlining on Word. FAILish.

Index cards are great but too messy.

Will try OneNote.
 

badducky

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Any form of pre-writing that cannot be backed up easily on GMail's servers is something I would never, ever risk.

This is why I use no notepads.
 

Invincibility

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I've been using TiddlyWiki. It's like having my own personal Wikipedia to organize my thoughts on. It's super useful.
 

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I've worked with Excel for nearly 20 years and never used to outline stories. This is very interesting. I put my story notes in a Word file now.

Does anybody have any experience with YWriter5? Is it good?
 

dgiharris

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Someone sent me a PM asking if this file is still available. Yes, it is.

Just log on as "me"

I put all of my account info on post #23, log on and just download that excel file,

easy
 

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