Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
February 25, 2015

Organize Your Novel With Excel

By Laura Drake

We’ve talked about it in other posts. How learning your writing process is finding your way in a pitch black room, full of furniture. You can learn by banging your shins, but there are less painful ways. Hopefully, this post will help.

I’m an organized person, and it would make me crazy trying to locate details in my WIP. Which chapter did the dog first show up? Or the first kiss? Or harder yet, the smaller details – what kind of shoes did the old man wear the second time the heroine met him?

I’d end up scrolling through two hundred pages. And get distracted...

Oh, now there’s a clunky sentence.

Wait, did I really use the word ‘jerk’ twenty-three times in this book?

I did NOT just compare his private parts to a DEER ANTLER! (yes, I did, and my crit group will NEVER let me forget it.)

Before you know it, I’d be hopelessly mired in the text, and forgot what I came for.

I’m an accountant by trade (well, I used to be - Ah, retirement) so if I need something organized, of course, the first place I go is Excel.

I know all you math-adverse readers have now broken into a sweat. Follow me here – no formulas are involved. If you can open the program, you can do this. Promise.

First, I thought about what information I wanted to capture. Here’s my list (yours may differ)

  • The length of each chapter
  • What happened in each chapter – by scene
  • Track POV – so I could check the balance in my novel
  • Track the romance, and where it happened.
  • Timeline
  • Word count

So I made up what I call my Chapter Cheat Sheet. Here’s what it looks like for my novel, Her Road Home:

If it's too small to read, click on it and view it full-size.

  • I now know how many pages each chapter is, and the word counts (if you total the word count column, you'll have the total word count of the book)
  • The pink highlight = chapters that advance the romance. I can see quickly where it is, if it's clumped together and if I have enough or too much
  • The column in the middle shows scenes, using only a few words, separated by '/'
  • The POV is shown by the color coding in the scenes; Green for the Heroine, Purple for the Hero
  • Blue I used to denote scenes that could be cut, if I ran over my allowed word count
  • Red was problem scenes I knew I'd have to come back to later
  • The far right column is a timeline - because I stink at them

Note that I have more than one sheet to this workbook. You can use them for a more detailed timeline, or anything else you'd like to track. Revisions usually means cutting and pasting scenes in different places, so I'll create a new sheet for my newly revised version.

As you may know, I'm not a plotter. If you are, you may start a cheat sheet before you even begin the book!  Since the thought of outlining makes me perspire, I complete my cheat sheet as I go.

Honestly, this tool has been invaluable for me. It gives me a bird's eye view of the entire novel on one screen. I can't imagine writing a book without one. Please let me know in the comments if you'd like a copy.

Hope it helps save your shins!

What do you use to organize your WIP? Any suggestions for us?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot (May 2013), Nothing Sweeter (Jan 2014) and Sweet on You (August 2014). The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The Reasons to Stay released August, 2014.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

Twitter  Facebook

197 comments on “Organize Your Novel With Excel”

  1. Yes please, I would love a copy. I am an aspiring writer, with minimal experience but a love of reading and writing. Even in HS outlining stressed me out. Your approach seems to be something I can put into practise without freaking out too much.

  2. Laura, This advice comes at a pivotal moment for me. And I love Excel! Please forward a copy as I'd also like to check out the other worksheets. Thanks for the wisdom.

  3. I really like the all "at-a-glance" view of this first sheet with easy clicks to other sheets. Maybe I should do something like this. Saving for when I start up the next book.

    1. Thanks Janet - it works for plotters OR pantsers. I'm the latter, and I just create it as I go along, adding chapters as I complete them. Best to you!

  4. Laura: Excellent suggestions. I've been using Excel to track many of the same bits of information as I write my thrillers and mysteries. I also have a separate sheet for the names of characters as I often have as many as 100 characters in my stories and need to keep track of spelling (was it Green or Greene) and make sure I haven't used names that are too close in spelling or sound.

    1. 100 characters, Peter? I break out in a sweat just hearing that! I've written a small town series that didn't have that many!

      I think Excel would be especially helpful to mystery and thriller writers - lots of McGuffins to track!

  5. You would bust a gut laughing at my current organizational cheat sheet. My handwritten "guide" is now covered in arrows and cross-outs with random changes shoved in wherever they might fit. Your cheat sheet looks brilliant. May I please have one? Thanks, Laura!

  6. What's worked best for me is a much lower-tech version of what you're tracking. I have a large white board and I use post-it notes to jot plot points for each chapter/scene. For me, the act of hand writing those notes helps solidify the points in my brain. Plus, it's away from the computer, so I can move it around and see the whole thing at a glance. Using different color stickies, I note the place the scene takes place, the day (in book time), and any secondary characters. In fact, glancing at the board from across the room for 1 book, I found my villain. He'd shown up at all the crime scenes, and I had no clue he was my bad guy until I saw that.
    I tried doing summaries in a Word doc, but that got too long and cumbersome. I can see how an Excel spreadsheet is handier. I do use one to track my character names so I don't have a Mick, Mack, and Mike (or 3 Hanks which my editor missed before I started tracking them).

    1. Terry, I like your way a lot because I also spend a lot of time writing by hand. It gives me a better connection to my creative spark, for some reason. I use post-its and color coding, too, but I use foam board instead. White board is even better. Reading your reply really helped me solidify my organization. Thanks.

    2. Yup, I love my post-its, and all the fun colors they come in. I agree with Terry, it's a step away from the computer and an opportunity for my brain to slow down and really take in what I'm trying to do.

  7. I do much the same thing (with a few extra columns to include characters in each scene, start page number for each chapter, clues - I write crime - etc) but in a Word table rather than Excel which can get cumbersome. This looks really good. I'd love a copy. Would that be possible please?

  8. Hi Laura - Born and raised in Texas. Welcome aboard. I would love a copy of this Excel Sheet. I'm a plotter and this looks outstanding. Best to you and thank you for sharing.

  9. I would very much like a copy. Recently I started using Scrivener, and while there are many, many things I love about the program, I want a more detailed overview than I seem to be able to create. So Excel might just give me what I need. Thanks!

    1. I was scrolling to see if anyone has used Scrivener to help organize. I second the recommendation for Gwen Hernandez's class--I'm still not using Scrivener to its full capacity but I am definitely finding myself way, WAY better organized and able to find things. I will keep scrolling through comments, but I'm curious, Laura, if you find that this works better than organizing through Scrivener?

      1. I have not used Scrivener myself, as I cannot afford it, but I understand it's a very good program for organizing. That said, I'm finding using excel to organize much handier than I thought.

  10. Just talking about this the other day with some colleagues. Like Terry I use a big color-coded-with-post-its story board, currently on the wall about eight feet away. I like to be able to physically move my scenes around, then stand back tag look at the design. One look from where I'm seated shows me the balance of POV and major plot points. I have chapter length and word count on a separate index card, and a separate word count calendar. And a chapter outline document in my chapter file.
    It sounds complicated? Mainly just a lot of hard copy. I look at everything on one sheet and start thinking about lunch. I guess it's the same reason I shop in small stores instead of big department stores. Too much stuff at my finger tips and i lose focus.

    1. Shelley - it's so funny - I have a white board as well, and tried the post-it thing - my perfectionism and horrid handwriting made it more frustrating for me! At least in Excel, I can READ it! 😉

  11. Great idea, Laura! Would love a copy. It's an intriguing kind of mayhem when all these folks run around in my head, however, when they decide to come up with some new antics, it's enough to make me want to scramble under my desk until it's safe to come out again. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Hi Laura - thanks for the great tips and examples. I'm reasonably literate in Excel and I'm going to attempt to create a similar document. My WIP is someplace between a mystery and a romance; developing the plot is like trying to get a dormant plant to bloom. It's not dead and has plenty of leaves...but where the heck are the flowers?? Maybe if I have a 'visual' like this it'll help.

  13. Hi Laura - thanks for the tips. I am to the point where I have to organize my book and I too, use Excel to track my work. Your tips are very helpful! One tab I use has a list of clues or intriguing events that need to be wrapped up by the end. One column holds the clue/event, one indicates when the thought was introduced; the last is the chapter/scene when it gets resolved. Thanks again!

  14. Vicki - you're right. I use foam core, not a white board. Early morning vocabulary lapse. I had a pack of 3 foam core boards; I cut one in half and then taped each piece to the end of one of the others laid out horizontally so it can fold up. The third board I use as an "Idea Board" where I put stickies of clues, reveals, plot points, questions, etc., that I know I'll have to address or just ideas that come to me. When I use them in the manuscript, I remove them from that board.

  15. Thanks for sharing! While I have Excel, I use Google Sheets for my writing stuff because I can access it ANYWHERE (including on my iPhone!)... I love the idea of marking POV by a different COLOR — I have a separate column to note the POV, but I think I'll look at changing it to a color.

  16. Not only do I love Excel, but I love common sense solutions. This fits both very nicely. I'd appreciate a copy of your sheet, and I thank you for being so generous.

    1. Chrissy - for me, the solution has to be simple. I'm using most of the brain cells to write, and I don't have many left over for tracking stuff. On the way to you!

    1. Tanis, I promise myself, after every book, that I'm going to dig into Scrivener...and then I look at the next deadline and say, 'Next time!' Jenny's a Scrivener fan, too!

        1. I just today found WITS through your article on OneNote from 2013. Very good information. Thank you for both the article and the introduction to WITS. I'm in the process of learning to use OneNote (again using your suggestions) but wonder if there are other tutorials you recommend now. I also wonder how you combine OneNote and Scrivener.

          1. Robert, welcome to WITS! You've probably already guessed what a OneNote fan I am and one of the best things about it is the "Print To OneNote" feature. If you're in Scrivener and want to send a description/snippet/compiled manuscript file over to OneNote, just use that feature. Or, if you want to copy and paste from OneNote into Scrivener, the software is totally open for that.

            Finally, Gwen Hernandez' Scrivener book is well worth your money, as is her Scrivener online class. Good luck to you! You're using great tools. 🙂

            1. Thanks for the note. Have you tried Scapple? I like the idea of being to visually think about personal and group relationships. Scapple looks like it do this better than regular MindMapping software, possibly no better than simple drawing apps.

              Thanks again, See you on the book shelves.

              1. While I'm still learning Scrivener and OneNote, I have used Scapple and love it! It's like a poster board but I can actually understand what I'm doing there.

  17. This is great, Laura! Especially your brevity. I've tried to do something like this myself, but quickly get bogged down by including too much detail and abandon the effort. (In school, my outlines were always 90% of the content just rewritten in outline format. Detail kills me!)

    I would love a copy please. Thank you! (andileroy44@gmail.com)

  18. Ah, Laura ... in my other life I worked with spreadsheets (pre Excel) ... I was a compulsive organizer. In this life I still love organization..

    I say this with trepidation ... but pretty pastel post-its on story boards ... Excel sheets or Scriveners ... none of these work for me. Still I am able to find obscure events and odd characters in an instant. I have dozens of folders with dozens-more documents for each story. Backed up and copied into flash drives, numbered by date and content ... listed by character and chapters, separate research documents and folders ... I even organize images and content for my Etsy shops the same way. I organize my photographs for Etsy in my picture app and organize my craft shop using Etsy apps.

    I can find anything from stories I wrote seven years ago to the chapter I wrote last week in a blink. If I tried to use Excel (which gives me a major headache) I would become confused and disjointed. Love your example as I do, just looking at that sheet makes me dizzy. And one glance at a story board with its dozens of post-its or index cards would make my stomach roll over. But whatever floats each boat ... with oars or motors ... keep cutting through those turbulent tides and have a blast. I'll stay on dry land and commune with my docs.

    Thanks just the same ... and BTW ... congrats on finishing your women's fiction novel. I can't wait to read it 🙂

      1. I have a very "organized" document system and that is how I find it all. I can zero in on any word or phrase ... even from something I wrote years ago. I have the same habit on my blog because I have a separate doc file for the blog.

  19. I would love a copy of it! What a great idea. My books always contain some sort of mystery, and trying to keep the timeline, clues, etc. straight is always a challenge. This will definitely help. Some publishers want a chapter-by-chapter summary as part of their submission. That can be accomplished with ease, when everything is already laid out like this.

    To organize, before writing, I use index cards. I write down ideas as they come and then I can sort and resort, putting them where they belong. It also allows me to change things easily as I write.

  20. I'd like a copy, too. I am a 'pantser' and am learning or trying to learn to plot now. At the OCC-RWA meeting- several months ago- they had a writer (from Texas, too) who spoke about plotting, which was really an eye opener for me. So now, I am taking my 'pantser' 1st draft and am trying to figure out what I've got and how I can mold into a real story with a believable plot. So, I would like a copy of you spreadsheet. I'm at jkroznos (at) verizon (dot) net. Thanks so much!

  21. Brilliant! This comes from a once Excel-shy woman--now, I cannot imagine budgeting without it--and a lifelong pantser who will never quite plot but would love to track. I suspect this is my answer. I would love a copy. Email: writetotheranch@gmail.com
    Thanks so much!

  22. Thank you Laura, I'd love a copy. I appreciated-heartily-your antler comparison. It still boggles my brain a little (maybe a sci-fi next?!)

  23. Love this idea! I use Scrivener to hold my entire project and color code the note cards, etc. But I'd love to have a copy of this Excel template. The more ways I can see my WIP the better. I took a course w/ you earlier in 2014 and you shared your Excel submission tracking template. I can't believe how easy that makes the process!

    1. Glad that one helped too, Candace - the whole process uses both sides of our brains, and all of us are stronger on one side than the other, so we have to help each other!

      Thanks for taking my submission course at Lawson's Writer's Academy!

  24. Love this - and I would love a copy, thank you! I write short stories, but have been struggling with organizing longer pieces, and my three attempts at novels have essentially dissolved once they got too long for me to keep track of in my head. I use excel now for tracking my short story submissions and for organizing journals, magazines, contests, etc I want to submit to, and it's been really helpful. I can see myself using this method too. Thank you again!

  25. What is this organizing of which you speak?

    All kidding aside, my WIP is a hot, unorganized mess. American Pickers couldn't find anything of value in this thing! Seriously though, this looks like a good tool. I'm going to give it a try! Anything with bright colors has to work, right? 😉

  26. Laura, thank you for the insightful post. Yes, please, I would love a copy to further explore these ideas as I begin a new project. I think this approach will help tremendously.

  27. What a great idea. I currently use post it's but would love to try something new. Thanks for sharing.

  28. I love organizing and I've got a bit of a crush on all things Excel.
    Would you send me a copy?
    Thanks, Laura
    You are such a good mentor for all of us.

  29. I've been using Excel for my books for 6 years. My excel books on my books each have at least 10+ sheets each in them. Every category of a book and then some+++ has a sheet. I'm not at all a Plotter. My Excel sheets fill up as each book is written. I have a blank book to start out with though (That became created over time.) This one for the chapters is interesting. Mine for Chapters is different. I've looked at so many of the other writing programs, NONE organize as well as my Excel spreadsheet books, or are as handy while I'm writing as my excel books in the bottom tray. I'm pleased to see someone else using Excel. I don't know how many times I've mentioned using this method to others and they think I'm nuts.

  30. I do all this with Scrivener. But I can see how excel would work too. It seems like extra steps though to transfer the info from your WIP to excel.

    1. Elle, It is a bit of duplication, but as someone said above, it helps me to write it again - helps to keep it straight in my head.

      Writing is such a micro-task, and I can do micro or macro, but not at the same time!

  31. This is a great idea, Laura. (I'd like a copy).
    Do you use this method when focusing on writing your synopsis?
    Thank you in advance

  32. I'm not an organizer or a plotter but I sure could use this. I, too, get lost trying to find some particular part of a book I am working on.

  33. Oh! I love Excel! I'm sure I would have failed out of college if not for that program. 🙂
    Thanks for posting this article, it looks like you've built a nice tool.

    I'm working on revisions to my WIP now, and I was thinking that POV balance was something I needed to specifically check. Please send me over a copy.

  34. This looks like a much better way of keeping track than a handful of note cards. Please send me a copy.

  35. I know I could certainly benefit from such a tool--my organization is rudimentary at best! Please do send me a copy when you have a moment. Many thanks!

  36. Wait! Did I read that right? You want to send me a copy of your fabulous Excel sheet? Really? That would mean I would have to get organized. lol. As I've told Jenny, I pile, not file. And that goes for real papers or virtual. They're neat mind you. But nonetheless a pile. But I like the way you organized your book Laura. It seems doable. So if you have nothing else better to do, can you also send one to me? karen@karenmcfarland.com

    Thank you!!! 🙂

  37. Hi Laura. What a terrific idea, to be able to "see" the contents of a book at a glance. I wondered if you could then compare it with one of Jami Gold's Beat Sheets next to your own analysis. That would allow you to immediately see if the key turning points were in the right place etc. When I write " you, " I mean everyone who is a writer. I would love a copy, thank you.

  38. I'm no good at Maths, but I love a good spreadsheet. I'm working on book 2 in my series, but keep getting ideas for book 3. And now I'm working on a short story for an anthology. Calvin, take me away!
    Would love a copy, please. Thank you!

    1. I used separate Excel sheets for each of my books in my small town series, Allison, but you certainly could just put all the sheets in one file. Great idea!

  39. How fortuitous! I organize practically everything with Excel. One class in college Statistics and I was hooked. I'm fairly new to writing, but love to read. (I read over 300 books last year) I've had several ideas and starts for books over the past few months and I think this could really help me develop them more and see if they're worth writing. I'd love to see your spreadsheet, please!
    Thank you so much! (And, I'll add your name to my list of authors to read.)
    Happy writing!

  40. What an excellent idea, Laura! I like the way you include the scenes in the chapter. I get way too wordy doing it in my version with each scene listed. I like your succinct approach better. I'm with . . . somebody up above who said the more ways to see the novel, the better, so may I please have your awesome spreadsheet, too? Thank you for your generosity.

    1. Marsha, I've realized my biggest weakness in writing a novel is not being able to get my head out of the details to see the big picture. Storytelling ability will only take you so far. This helps me get a Macro view.

      But I'm still not satisfied with it....still searching for the next big thing! But aren't we all?

  41. This method looks really useful. I'd love a copy of your spreadsheet, Laura. Thank you for the offer!

  42. Hi Laura, moving beyond my first draft and could really use your sheet to help me re-outline. Thank you for being so generous!

  43. I'm and English major, and math and Excel sends me into seizures, but I LOVE organization. I'm willing to fight through my Excel anxiety if you'd be so kind as to send me a copy of your spreadsheet, pretty please! Thanks for helping me rip the bandaid off!

  44. I am an unpublished author struggling with organization. My OCD side thrives on having an outline and organization while my ADD side forgets and say's "oh well"-- I am not very knowledgeable with Excel. I've used it for very basic needs. I know it can do so much more. I would love to receive a copy of this. I think it is awesome. I also think reading through all of the comments above will offer some helpful tips also. I plan to do this when I get the time. Thank you for sharing.

  45. I struggle with Writer's block especially in the first draft. I would like to try your spread sheet. Could you please send me a copy. I loved your post and look forward to reading more.

  46. I hear Excel anxiety in some of these comments. I've used Excel, but in the interest of having only one piece of software to deal with at a time, I'm managing my current WIP using a Word table that holds much the same info Laura uses. I use color coding for various purposes, and switch the font to a paler one when a scene's written. This means I can write out of order; I get stuck and don't want to write a scene, I can find a "juicier" one further along and do it instead. Whatever works to keep you going ...

    I use Heading 1 and a table of contents to keep track within the book document.

    I also keep a "Bible" for each book (or, in the current case, a trilogy). This is a simply organized list of every person and place mentioned in the book(s). With one book, you can always go back and search the document; with three, not so much.

    Thanks, Laura. Even pantsers need their tools!

  47. Laura, I'm using your Excel worksheets for my WIPS and love them! I'm a plotter and rough out the story on the worksheet beforehand. Then as I write, I revise and add details as I go. They are great for a series so you can keep track of where important details are and what they are in case you need to reference them in the next book. Super tool!

  48. As unpublished author, I think something like your spreadsheet would be awesome to keep track of the minor details. Sometimes there is so much that happens that it is hard to keep track of it all. Thanks for sharing!

  49. I would love a copy. My novel is finished, while working on the synopsis I discovered a few fill-able potholes and can see this as a great way to visibly see my work. Thank you, Laura.

  50. AHHHH! Don't know excel but I think this is what I need to get my story completely organized for editing as well as the moment you find your story stuck (written into a corner) and not know how to get out. I'd appreciate a copy. Thank you so much!

  51. What a creative idea! I can see using Excel with Scrivner, especially if you move to pie charts, etc., to give you a nice overview of your complete novel. Scrivener has been a great tool for me, especially when I'm at the chapter-by-chapter level. Excel seems like a more convenient way to look at the piece as a whole.

  52. I will definitely try to use this. I am writing my first novel and I started writing a summary for each chapter in MS word. It included major events, characters introduced,and settings. But with your method I will be able to see what each chapter lacks and what needs a little sprucing.Thank you so much for posting this!

  53. Laurie, I am working on my first book and this is very helpful. Not afraid of Excel used in my other life. I would appreciate a copy. Thanks eyeljay@gmail.com

  54. If you are still sending out copies I would appreciated one, also. Thank you in advance!! 🙂

  55. I'd love a copy, Laura. I'm a pantser desperately trying to widen my horizons. WITS is amazing - I'm learning so much. Thank you, Wendy

  56. Hi Laura! I would love a copy of your worksheet as well. Thank you for your article!!! 🙂

  57. Hi Laura, I've just found WITS and love the articles. Please send me a copy of your spreadsheet. I'm a plotter and I use a spreadsheet to keep track of the characters as I plan the book.

  58. I'd love a copy Laura and thanks!. One other page or column I'll need to add is character details. In one of my books no one caught that my heroine was two different ages throughout. I was lucky to catch it before it got published. I also have trouble tracking eye color and lord help me if a character has a dimple on their right cheek and I place it on the left out of the blue! LOL Yes, I have. 🙂 calisa.rhose@gmail.com

  59. Thank you so much. I agree about the outline. This is so much more logical. Please send me a copy.

  60. I love this idea for novels. I would love to try it out on screenplays. I'd like a copy as well.

  61. Hi, Laura!
    This looks like a great tool. I'm the type that tries to organize every task as much as I can (probably related to being a retired Marine.) I'm using Scrivener with a novel in progress and I like it, but I see your system here as offering some different capabilities, so the two could complement each other nicely. Could you please send me a copy of your Excel worksheet?

  62. Very nice article and amazing spreadsheets. If its not too much trouble, I would like to have a copy. Thank you.

  63. Hello Laura,
    Just landed on your blog today trying to find a template for writing my book synopsis.
    I think you did an excellent job and would love a copy if it's still available!
    Thank you!

  64. Laura, I love your level of organization! I'm an editor working with a writer on a 6-book series. Some of the characters are primary in one novel but secondary in another, and vice versa. Other minor characters appear throughout the novel.

    For the first novel, I listed the characters on a style sheet and later asked her to color-code for the novels that follow. She suggested a spreadsheet instead. Before she invests too much time in it, I'd appreciate seeing what your character spreadsheet looks like. BTW, would Scrivener work for organizing characters as well?

    Thank you for any suggestions you might have.

  65. Hi Laura,

    I'm not a plotter either. And I've been struggling with my WIP for too long to admit. What a brilliant tool you have! I would love to have a copy, if I still can.

  66. Found this absolutely brilliant and inspirational, if you don't mind could send me a copy

  67. Hello Laura,

    I came across your post while searching for a way to keep scenes and characters organized. I'm not a plotter either and would love a copy, if it's still available.

    Thank you!

  68. I would SO love a copy of this please, Laura. It comes at the most needed time, almost going barmy with scrolling up and down the MS looking for things etc. Thank you.

  69. I would love a copy. I'm a retired math teacher and I'm doing my first NaNoWriMo novel. I think this would really help. I'm just north of Houston, TX.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved