My Love Affair With an Excel Spreadsheet

My work in progress = hot mess from hell
My work in progress = hot mess from hell

All year long, I’ve been struggling with my second novel, which I call GREY MAN. I also call it the hot mess from hell.

During the revision process, I’d reach Chapter 42, throw up my hands, and start again from the beginning. I’d flayed the plot so badly I had nothing but plot chunks and stray red herrings and cool clues that really meant nothing and threads that meandered around and characters without proper arcs.

The story’s there — it’s just lost in reams of vomitous verbal goo.

Last month I realized that I needed a way to get my left brain working. My right brain works great. I can get creative all over the place, but during revision, I need my LEFT brain. Analysis. Objectivity. Clarity.

Forget getting lost within the tree of words. I needed to hot-air balloon myself above the trees and look upon the forest. The challenge with my novels — thus far at least — is that I like ensemble casts, which means I have several point-of-view characters, and most of them have their own story arcs. It’s kinda complicated.

Don’t ask my why I do this to myself. Seems to be the way my brain works. Chance to make things more complicated than they need to be? I’ll take it!

Back to the point: What could be more left-brained than an Excel spreadsheet?


I’m here to tell you that I love my Excel spreadsheet. L-O-V-E it. I could frame it I love it so much. I couldn’t believe how much it helped me. Basically, the blessed Excel spreadsheet endowed me with a fresh set of eyes. I used the following columns:

  1. Chapter number: To help me easily find a scene in the manuscript.
  2. Scene number: Some chapters have more than one scene.
  3. POV character: Helps me see where I’ve lost track of a main character for awhile.
  4. Description: Main action, such as, “At murder scene, questions witnesses.”
  5. Causality: Each scene must propel the story forward and lead to a next scene–a next action. In this column I include set up stuff for future scenes and also note how the scene ended.
  6. Next: Scene number of scene that follows from this scene. If you can’t pinpoint the next scene, then you need to analyze: Is this scene really necessary?
  7. Scene objective: Also helps me pinpoint whether a scene is necessary or not. I cut a scene when I realized that it didn’t lead anywhere (causality) AND didn’t have much of an objective anyhow.
  8. Character intention: The intention doesn’t have to be a big deal. I have a scene in which a character is simply trying to cope with a crappy day that reflects her crappy life. For many scenes I noted “needs clarity,” meaning I need to beef up the characterization.
  9. Possible changes: Revision notes. Reminders to self.

The only point of this spreadsheet is to help me analyze my novel with THE READER in mind. For example, I found myself adding what I call “connective tissue” to the beginnings and endings of many chapters. Like I’d know that scene 4 leads to scene 8, but I hadn’t ended scene 4  with the proper setup and began scene 8 with a little reminder to jog the reader’s memory. Part of our jobs as novelists is it keep readers oriented.

So causality and connective tissue were my themes. I ended up merging, cutting, and rearranging scenes too.

The best part? I had fun! Seriously, it was like a revelation AND I pummeled my way past Chapter 42! I’m finally on my way to getting this hot mess of a manuscript in shape for beta readers.

16 thoughts on “My Love Affair With an Excel Spreadsheet

  1. Yeah, this is great. I use pads of graph paper for extensive outlines, but you’re right, for really breaking things down it’s hard to beat an excel spread sheet. You should post your layout or a generic one as an template for lazy excel challenged writers. I’m sure a lot of people would find it useful.

    1. Hah!! I hear you! I have piles of colored index cards for this novel. After awhile they weren’t helpful anymore. Actually, I never thought of taping them to the wall … hmm …

  2. I love Scrivener for these incorporated organization queues. Best platform ever. The cork board allows me to play “spin the bottle” with plot revelation for the secondaries and I love that.

    Best to you.

    1. Hello J welling! Thanks for visiting! I’ve heard great things about Scrivener and that the Mac version is great — not sure about the PC version. I own a PC right now … I’m waiting until I graduate at long last to a Mac before trying Scrivener. A friend of mine swears by it.

  3. I’m having this same issue at ~45,000 words. The plot’s been through a meat grinder, and over the holidays, I’ve taken some time to step back. Lo! and behold, I found the linchpin scene. This spreadsheet will be right handy as I work on–thanks!

  4. How do you fit in several scenes in the column for scenes in the first chapter? A chapter usually have more than one scene. If chapter 1 has more than one scene, where do you place these other scenes? Horisontally or vertically, landing in the box for chapter 2?

    I don’t recognise my Excel from your sample and tried to list scenes below one another without landing in the box for chapter 2 but that did not work. Do you insert another box below box nr. 1?

    1. Hi Rapido,

      I have one row per scene, essentially, inserting new rows where needed. So, for example, if chapters 1 and 2 each have two scenes, it looks like this:

      Ch Sc Scene POV etcetera
      1 1
      1 2
      2 3
      2 4
      3 5

      This way, if I’m taking notes for changes, I can refer to a specific scene number, say scene 5, which I can see is in chapter 3.

      Thanks for the question! Lisa

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