For your delectation some thoughts on the efficacy of spreadsheets for novel writing:
A while back I posted a tongue-in-cheek guide on how to write a novel in which I suggested using a spreadsheet. I’m still getting letters from folks telling me what a revelation that was, how it’s transformed the way they write, solved all their plotting problems, and made their teeth whiter.
And I’m still coming across comments from those who are appalled and outraged by the very idea. A spreadsheet! For creative work! The utter utter horror! Spreadsheets are for accountants! The muse is allergic to spreadsheets. What kind of philistine is this Justine Larbalestier? (If that is her real name.)
I don’t get the outrage.
A novel is a large document containing a whole world with a population that can range from one (boring navel-gazing novel about a man trapped inside a unicycle) to billions or more (space opera where the Empress of the universe destroys a whole planet and the reader follows the last day of each inhabitant of said planet). Keeping track of all of that is tricky. The longer or more complicated the novel the harder it is to keep all of it in your head.
I’m sure some writers can do it. Some writers can also write entires novels in their head and produce but one perfect draft.
But pretty much every writer I know has some method of tracking their novel. It might be a set of notes, a wall chart, a spreadsheet, a ouija board, an outline they annotate as they go, index cards, pigeon entrails, their ghostwriter, whatever. They have some kind of a thing that is not their novel that tells them stuff they need to know about their novel.
My first novel is an epic, 145 thousand words long,1 spanning many years, with a cast of gazillions, and multiple point-of-view characters. I wrote the first draft using another word document to note down who was related to who, what the countries were, the different language groups, the seasons, things I needed to change, and etc. By the time I finished the first draft, my notes about the novel was almost longer than the actual novel. I needed another document to keep track of it. And then I needed another one to keep track of the one keeping track of the notes keeping track of the novel. Spot the problem?
My boyfriend of the time (thank you, Geoff!) suggested I use Microsoft Project. I fell in love. It was the first (and only time) I’ve been smitten by any of Microsoft’s software.2 Project was exactly what I needed: I could chart each character in relationship to the other characters over a period of days, months, years, whatever I needed. At a glance, I could see characters who disappeared with no explanation, who remained pregnant for two years, babies who stayed at the baby stage even though five years had passed since their birth.
It made rewriting much easier.
My second novel was much more straightforward, shorter, and told from only one point of view. A very short file was all I needed to keep track. And to be honest I didn’t use it much, which might be why it’s so very bad, and will never ever see the light of day.
My third novel was Magic or Madness, which while not as complicated as my first, had its own challenges, such as being set in Sydney and New York City. Towards the end of the first draft, Scott introduced me to his spreadsheet method, which made it much much much easier to track what time it was in the two different locations as well as the shifts in points-of-view.
I used the same spreadsheet for all three books of the trilogy. It made me happy.
For the Great Australian Mangosteen Monkey Knife-Fighting Elvis Cricket Fairy Young Adult book I also used a spreadsheet, but it served mostly procrastinatory purposes. The book is told from one point of view and is pretty much beginning, middle, end. It woulda been just as easy to write it without one.
So there you have it: spreadsheets neither write your novel for you, nor do they stab the grand muse of writerising through the heart. They’re just this sometimes-for-some-people useful thing, ya know?
And now I believe I have a plane to catch.