Confessions from a Wannabe Perfectionist
I’ll admit it. I’m not the most organized person in the world. I have hundreds of family photos just waiting to be organized, junk drawers that need to be cleaned out, and my desk is way too cluttered. I could throw out all the familiar excuses, of course. I don’t have enough time, or space, or even that life holds too many urgent things for me to handle besides stopping and organizing things. I’m guessing you probably have one or two of your own excuses as well.
I discovered early on, though, that if I wanted to be an author, I had to find a way to organize my stories. I write complex romantic suspense novels that take place over a very tight timeline. This means I can’t just hope my stories come together smoothly in the end. I needed a way to keep up with my chapters that included both a detailed timeline and running word count. There are many tools to help authors like Scrivner, which I love, but I always find myself going back to one program for a quick overview of my story. And that program is Excel.
If you’ve always assumed the Excel is just for numbers, this might come as a surprise for you. But it’s not. And while my husband uses Excel charts for all his accounting needs, it can be used for so much more. You can use if for lists, addresses, inventories, and even for your next grocery store run. For me, it’s become the key to organizing my novels.
I have a new book, Vanishing Point, that’s getting ready to come out in November. It’s the perfect example as to why I have to stay organized. When I started this book, I had just concluded writing my Nikki Boyd Series, which is a three-book series about a Missing Person Task force. One of the story arcs throughout the series deals with the disappearance of Sarah, Nikki’s younger sister. Sarah’s vanishing ten years ago is important to the storyline, primarily because it becomes the motivation behind Nikki joining law enforcement. My publisher came to me last year and asked me to write a fourth book to go along with the series—Sarah’s story.
In writing Nikki’s sister’s story, I had a new challenge. Instead of the storyline taking place over a few short days, I needed it to take place over an entire decade, beginning with her disappearance. To do this—and to keep the story moving—I broke up the action into four different time periods, and kept each of those time periods short. But on top of the different time periods, I had to make sure that the facts—from the characters, to every mention of Sarah in the Nikki Boyd series, and the detailed timeline—meshed with book four. Thankfully, I’d been using excel spreadsheets for years to organize my books and could go back to them for a clear look at the storyline. With Vanishing Point, this was going to be essential.
The wonderful thing about using a spreadsheet to organize your books is both the quick flexibility of changing the order of chapters or adding a new one as you write. You can also add as many columns as you need for your particular project. And because Excel is primarily for numbers, you can incorporate a running total of your word count.
All of my spreadsheets have a basic layout in order to keep track of my chapters. I include my word count, a detailed timeline, chapter description, a note on when a chapter is incorporated into the final manuscript, and the chapter hook. On top of listing my chapters and my timeline, I also use the sides and bottom of my spreadsheet to take notes. This includes keeping track of physical traits—so my heroine’s eye color doesn’t change from chapter to chapter—characteristics, and an ongoing list of anything I might need to double check on at the end. In addition, I add a section for things like the seasons, weather, sunrise/sunset times, as well as a list of minor character names and descriptions.
So while my photos and junk drawer might never be organized, at least I’ve found the solution for my writing. And the other added bonus to this is when I come back to the story months later for my publisher’s edits, I have every I need right at my fingertips, all on one handy spread sheet.
Lisa Harris is a bestselling author, a Christy Award winner, and the winner of the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel for 2011 and 2015 from Romantic Times for her novels Blood Covenant and Vendetta. The author of more than thirty books, including Vendetta, Missing, Pursued, and the Southern Crimes series, Harris and her family have spent fourteen years living as missionaries in southern Africa. Learn more at lisaharriswrites.com.
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