writers / writing

#IWSG June–A Secret About my Writing

This post is for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group (click the link for details on what that means and how to join. You will also find a list of bloggers signed up to the challenge that are worth checking out. The first Wednesday of every month, we all post our thoughts, fears or words of encouragement for fellow writers.

This month’s question — Writers have secrets! What are one or two of yours, something readers would never know from your work?

I have written about this before so I apologize if you’ve already read it. The reason I revisit this planning method is because it is an oddity about my writing style, something most wouldn’t know or suspect.

I write from a spreadsheet. I collect ideas like most of you do while I’m walking the dog, eating, reading email–something pops into my brain that is perfect for one of the books I’m mapping. I add it to Keep simply as a long list of tidbits. This one below is for my next book and has about fifty ideas curated already:

When I’m ready to start the book, I add these bits to a spreadsheet, rough out plot ideas in the rows first and then fill in details of the Eden State (the world that will never be the same), the inciting incident, the SHBL (strongly-held beliefs), story goals,  the dramatic points in the plot, the character growth, and what needs to be followed up later in the book. I then evaluate what I’ve written with columns that take note of the main and minor characters in the scene, when and where it takes place, the scene’s purpose, and a rough break-down of chapters. As inspiration strikes, I add details, emotions, ideas, and everything else that makes a story sing. Here’s what part of it looks like:

Interestingly, when I posted about this a decade ago, a reader sent me a spreadsheet showing how JK Rowlings writes in a similar fashion:

On a separate spreadsheet, I build a timeline with morning-noon-night activities, location, and all the story events as they lay out temporally. I want to be sure nothing is in the wrong place and all time is accounted for. I know this is too small to see, but here’s an example:

These steps forces me to think through the story, flesh it out, and prepare it for editing. Usually, I get 900-1000 rows, transfer it to Word (which ends up about 75 pages), and then go to work.

For me, this is perfect, but that’s the type of writer I am. I know this wouldn’t work for lots of people. But, to my surprise, the last time I posted about my spreadsheet approach to writing, a few people shared that they wrote in a similar fashion!

How about you? How do you lay out your story?

#iwsg #amwriting @TheIWSG

More on #IWSG

Rituals to Prepare for Writing

Celebrations in My Writing

What’s being a writer feel like?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Against All Odds, Summer 2020. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning

109 thoughts on “#IWSG June–A Secret About my Writing

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  5. I’ve never considered using Excel to plot out stories, I use a notepad to write my ideas and then brainstorm to determine whether there is enough for me to work with and then develop scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s how most people do it. Part of my spreadsheet use is so I know when I’m done. I can have a quick overview of each scene, see if it satisfies the plot and theme, and then end things. That sounds rather clinical as I write it but with some freedoms, it seems to work for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m afraid I don’t preplan. I may have a carcass of an idea, but I follow a character through an episode in their lives, and I know the story will have shape and integrity, as long as I believe in the character. I talk to them a lot. Quite often they are better organised than I.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, that’s incredibly organized. I’ve tried plotting things out in advance, but many times, when I got to certain points in the story, my characters did unexpected things or went in opposite directions of where I had planned, so now I just let the story go where it will with just some loose planning. I guess I’ll always be a pantser.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Jacqui – thanks for reminding us about Keep again … I’ve noted – but looking at your preparations and JKs … I doubt I’ll get to write a book … certainly there isn’t one sitting in the little grey cells … but I’d like to investigate Keep – all the best – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Absolutely brilliant way of describing how you work work towards your goal. Truly inspirational. Thanks and much appreciated for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating. Not sure that would work for me. I write my stories like a script—all dialogue and stage directions. Later, I fill in the narrative and emotion. Eventually we all figure out what works best for us. It’s great to read how others do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I would have sworn I posted a comment already. Anyway… I wish I could do all that, I mean I can, but that much information can overwhelm me. I use Scrivener to keep all my projects in one place.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is very organised, Jacqui. I don’t write like this at all. I write an overview on a single page and I write the ending. I then head towards that ending. It took me 105 000 words to get to the ending for A Ghost and His Gold, but get there I did and it is the same ending and the same title.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fascinating. No wonder your stories are filled with details and word pictures. I outline my stories, roughly, and as I write I scribble in notes in the outline. I did a timeline for my memoir which really helped me spark memories. Thanks for sharing. Something to consider for my future stories.
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is an interesting and fascinating way to write a first draft, Jacqui. Thanks for sharing (again). It looks organized and might be a way I’d tackle a story if I were to write fiction. So much to keep track of, though. It really seems like a lot of work. I think I’ll stick to non-fiction, where the spreadsheet is my mind. Mmmm, that might not be ideal! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow, Jacqui, your spreadsheets and files look amazing! With your world-building and research, I can see why you have so much of it! With my fitness book, I collected references on email and in Word Docs, and like you, jot things down with google when possible. Thanks for sharing your secrets!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m the queen of spreadsheets when it comes to finances or the business side of writing. I’m a scribbling, notes everywhere, no notes, just a vague remembrance of a note kind of person when it comes to actually writing the story. I’ve tried writing in a more systematic fashion and I’ve failed each time. Hats off to anyone who can plot and develop stories like you do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spreadsheets are great for organizing scribbled notes. I actually start with a bullet list I’ve collected and then start arranging, seeing where I need more. I think you should keep writing as you do. It works for you. Your books are wonderful.


  17. This post is very helpful. Thank you for re-post this, Jacqui.

    I’m a spreadsheet person. My daughter is even more so. We used spreadsheet for work and personal events that show the big picture. When I planned for a conference, I had spreadsheet for the calendar, the responsibilities of all people involved, and all info of the speakers, the layout and setup of the resort. On the day of conference, if something needed attention, I could solve it with little effort.

    I use the same skills for my writing. I do that for my current WIP nonfiction story. Yes, I list the event and timeline and other details on the spreadsheet so I won’t miss the tidbits when i write.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t write fast, though, despite this. This current book still took almost a year. I just don’t know how people write so fast!

      And how are you? I wish you’d blog more about what you’re doing. I worry, you know. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Jacqui. I’m fine given the circumstances. In fact, I’m very lucky – food on the table, a roof over my head, and a healthy family. Just very discouraged about blogging. I could never build the loyal following you’ve done for yourself. Too much writing for so little result. I’m putting my writing effort into my books and still trying to figure out the publication business. Thank you for being a great mentor and friend.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. I used to plan out my stories on index cards. That made it easy for me to switch things around, if I wanted to. But I became less dependent on that system over time, and now I basically just make stuff up as I go along.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I created spreadsheets for my existing WIP. I never did that before, but I’m working on doing more plotting and less pantsing. As a result, I found I had so much material I needed a way to organize it. Mine are nowhere as structured or detailed as yours, but I’m just now wading into plotting territory.

    Very cool look at your writing process, Jacqui!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi everyone

    My name is Nosipho September. I am new to blogger. I have only known writing privately on my journal. I was a bit insecure about my own writings, so finally I have decided to share my writings publicly although I’m still a bit nervous about it. But going through this page has made me comfortable about opening up to my fear and I am looking forward to learn for everyone here and receive assistance. I have a goal of publishing my own book one day and now I know with such community I have all the motivation I need. Knowing I will not be judged or looked down. Thank you to all.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I use a spreadsheet for each character and each scene. I also find pictures to match the characters. With the pictures of the characters I create a coloring book for a book funnel download.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I used to use a spreadsheet (and went back to it when I had a series with 8 POV characters). I also used to use PowerPoint to visually construct my timeline, scene by scene. Now, I tend to do everything in Scrivener. But it’s fascinating to see your process.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Your brain is always working, isn’t it? I scribble my ideas into a journal for each book. I also use a lot of bright and colorful index cards. I’m not big on spreadsheets, as I prefer to write with pen and paper.

    Liked by 3 people

  24. Totally a plotter. I do mine on paper rather than a spreadsheet. Across the top are the characters and then the left is the day and scene. Then I fill it in. slightly different process but very similar result =)

    Liked by 3 people

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