Here’s where a writer has to get organized. I’ve talked to a lot of writers who just plow through with no aim, and hope a story works out in the end. In my opinion, that’s for amateurs.

I use Microsoft Excel to keep my stories and chapters organized. A lot of writers use Scrivener, but I don’t know much about that program. I hear it does a lot of custom things and helps organize on a lot of levels.

I use Excel because that program speaks my language. It just makes really good sense to me.

One thing I do is create a page in Excel for my list of characters. What do they look like? How do I describe their attire or mannerisms? What do they do? Who do they know? This way, if I refer back to a character from chapter two in chapter 19, I can just look at my spreadsheet and see what was unique about them.

I also keep a timeline page. What happened and when? I put down dates and years, whether or not I use those in the narrative.

I keep a chapter highlights page. What was the crux of each chapter, when did it happen and who had the point of view (POV)? It’s easiest and less confusing to keep the POV with one character through the entire narrative. But it’s also limiting. So my rule is that the POV cannot change in the middle of a chapter. New POV? New chapter.

The outline stage is where the writer decides who everyone is, and whether they get married, have babies, or die. A story has to have twists and turns. It has to have conflict and intrigue. Find appropriate places for these in the outline.

The writer might decide later in the process that certain plot twists don’t work, or that certain characters need to do something different than planned. That’s fine. The outline is not your Bible. It’s your Constitution. You can alter it.

I change the Excel spreadsheet to reflect changes I’ve made later in the process. So when I’m done, the two documents tell the same story, just in different ways.


Some of the writers I chat with in Writer’s Cafe asked recently how well dictation software works for writing novels. I would never try that, as the software could never understand the difference between what I’m saying and what I’m meaning, in my opinion. But I have “Dragon Naturally Speaking,” and I think it could be useful for the first step I take in novel writing, which is Concept.

There’s no structure to the concept stage. It’s just about blurting out everything that comes into my head about a story. Getting it all down so I don’t forget. Last night I was brushing my teeth when I got a great idea for how to solve the problem of travelling to planets in other star systems. So I ran back to the computer and typed in the idea. Normally I apply this kind of idea to an existing story idea. I looked to see if I had any stories about travelling to other planets, so I could use this idea as the means to travel there. But I don’t have any stories about people going to other planets. So I saved it as a text document in the folder for a sci-fi epic I plan to write one day.

The concept stage can be a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages. It’s rarely longer than that. If I read my notes back to someone, they should make sense, but maybe not a lot.

I was talking to my oldest son a few years ago about story writing, structure, Act I, Act II, Act III. It was a 300 mile drive, so we had lots of time to hammer things out. We started with a silly concept idea. What if you had a big spill of oil or grease in your kitchen or garage, and you poured kitty litter all over to absorb the goo, and from this you got a monster that tried to eat your family? So we went over what the family might be like, what the monster’s motivation might be, and how this would create conflict for the family. Who changes and who stays the same? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What if the monster turned out to be the good guy? It was a lot of fun.

Sometimes two or three concepts can be attached to the same story. Sometimes a new concept requires a new folder. Some of these come from dreams I have. Some come to me when I’m out walking, or cooking dinner, or washing dishes. They almost never happen when I’m sitting at the computer, trying to think up something new.

The key is to write them down, even if they’re silly. If you decide later the idea was stupid, it’s easy to hit delete.

The Process of Writing a Novel

Sometimes blog posts are meant to communicate something to one’s readers. But today’s post is more a note to self. But go ahead and read along anyway.

Now that I have the draft completed of my work in progress, the next step is editing. I don’t dislike editing. I just don’t love it. There’s something thrilling about composing new material, like watching your kid do something they’ve never done before, like watching the light go on in their head. Editing is more like correcting their manners or bad behavior, or changing a diaper.

So as a reminder to myself, and a diversion from the grueling editing I get to do now, I have listed below the steps I take in novel writing. Each day I’ll post a paragraph or two on one of these subjects, and link them all back here, too, in case anyone thinks it is/was useful.






Character Editing

Line Editing

Beta Testing

Self-Publishing/Self-Marketing or Marketing to Agents

Song Stuck in Your Head

Sometimes I seek out the song stuck in my head and listen to it actually being played. While it doesn’t make it go away, it changes the experience of having that song stuck in my head.

Today, all day, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony has been rattling around. Yes, it was playing at the end of the Nicholas Cage movie Knowing. But I didn’t know what it was when I watched the movie. Strangely enough, I was at my kids’ city-wide orchestra concert a couple of weeks back when another middle school played an excerpt from this tune. They performed it well, too!

In some ways, I like the 7th more than the 5th. Heresy, I know.