Over the last few months I’ve been putting up a series of posts regarding my progress in the writing of my humble saga of books. On those posts, I’ve talked a little about my writing process, and more than a few times I’ve mentioned my Spreadsheet of Doom™, which is the central source of my writing organization.

Suffice to say, I got quite a few comments and questions regarding how I go about my writing process. So, this week I’m going to take you on a deep dive into how it works for me. 

Quick note: This is a follow up to an earlier blog post where I talked about how I go about creating characters. Click here to go read it first!

Okay, so before I start, let me just say this…

I’m not a professional writer. Until such a time as my books are in print and somebody has forked over their hard-earned cash for what I’ve written, then I’ll hang on to my amateur status.

This post is not meant to be a tutorial on how to do it. I’m honestly not qualified to be advising people on how they should go about writing their own books.

This is all simply HOW I DO IT. That’s all. If you can take anything away from what I’m about to disclose, then great.

Humble Beginnings

It all started with a notebook. Or more accurately, a series of notebooks. 

Once I had the idea for ‘Songbird‘ – way back in 2015, my original working title was ‘Gods & Monsters’ incidentally –  I started scribbling furiously in notebooks. I had a number of them.

It started with me jotting down chapter descriptions, story outlines, chapter briefs and anything else I could think of. At the time, I really didn’t know a better way to figure out exactly what I was doing. I’d written before, but only in a VERY amatuerish way when I wrote the Femme Fatale stories that were based on the City of Heroes game I used to play. 

Those stories had been VERY ad-hoc. Written practically on the fly.

For my new endeavor I needed to be meticulous. I needed structure. I needed to plan properly. So note taking is where it started.  Here’s a sneak peak of where it all began…

Note: It’s odd to look back now at those hand-scrawled notes from half a decade ago. Things have changed over the years; the story and the characters evolving over time into something slightly different.
For example, Katherine Knightley underwent a name change to become Allyson. And the whole ‘Carrie Anne being the harbinger‘ idea never happened. The book went in a VERY different direction.

These notes were the start, and soon I was beginning to write the the first book in earnest, tippy-tapping on my laptop.

The problem was that this book was just the first in a multi-book saga. With multiple locations. With multiple characters. There was a lot to keep track of, and a notebook just wasn’t cutting it!

So, it was Microsoft Excel to the rescue!

Enter, the Spreadsheet…

The more I wrote, the more I needed to keep track of important items.

Here are a few examples for you:

  1. Physical Description – On top of the usual skin, eye and hair colour, plus height, weight and age, etc, Gayle has been injured in combat prior to the book and Zarra gets injured in Chapter 2. For continuity, what are the wounds and where are they?
  2. The narrative is linear, but jumps between location and character. When the locations are all over the world – meaning different time zones – how do I keep them all in order?
  3. The book starts on Gayle’s 28th birthday (Sept 25th 2045), so as the book passes, when in the narrative will we hit things like Halloween, Christmas, etc.?

This stuff gets confusing. 

And so I created my MONSTER of a spreadsheet.

The aforementioned and world famous…

I’d dabbled with Excel in the past. Using it to track all kinds of things from NFL and NBA game results, to tracking what my most profitable crops were on Farmville. Give me a good excuse and I’ll make a spreadsheet!

So, with that in mind, I set off to create my masterpiece.  Here’s the finished ‘Index’ page, so you can witness what I’m tracking…

The Index page…there’s A LOT on there!

Okay, so let’s deep dive on my process. 

All the boxes in the yellow area to the right are the information I’m tracking as regards the characters and items, etc. in the book.  

These ‘rainbow‘ coloured blocks are links to the pages that relate to each book. ‘Hunters‘ is at the top, all the way down to the planned 7th book in the series at the bottom, ‘The Broken Circle‘. 

Let’s go take a look at a snippet of the tab for ‘Hunters‘ to show you how I work.

So, first tab…

The ‘Book 1 – Hunters’ tab in the Spreadsheet of Doom™

You can click on the image above to blow it up in a separate tab so you can see it better if you like. When you do, you’ll notice that I’ve handily numbered items for you. I think they’re pretty self-explanatory, but here’s what they mean…

[1]  Column 1 is straight forward – it’s simply the chapter number. ‘Nuff said.

[2]  Okay, so column 2 is where I register my progress.

It has five different states (accessible from a drop down list) which report directly into the progress box you can see at the top of the sheet in item [9].
These reflect what state that chapter is currently in so I can easily reference which ones need work. Here are the five options:

  • No Text‘ – which means the chapter isn’t started as yet.
  • Incomplete‘ – meaning I’ve started, but not finished the draft yet. It may take a few sittings to get to the end of writing it, and when I feel I’ve said everything I need to say in that chapter, it’ll move to the next status.
  • First Draft‘ – and it’ll stay like that till I get through the entire book, getting all of the ideas out of my head and onto the virtual page. Then…the edits begin. 
  • Edit Stage‘ and I put a number in the next box – see item [3] – that indicates which edit I’m on – for info…’Hunters‘ went through 24 edits! Mostly because I had no clue what I was doing! Finally, once I’m happy that it’s edited to within an inch of it’s life…it moves to…
  • Final Draft‘ status. This is where I leave it alone. It’s done! If you refer to items 9 and 11 on the screenshot, you’ll see that ‘Hunters‘ is now 100% edited and ready to go!  Exciting times ahead!

[3] See above. If it’s filled in, it shows the current edit number, giving me an idea of how thoroughly each chapter has been checked.

[4]  The chapter name. Personally, I prefer to work with names rather than just numbers as it makes it easier to remember what happens in which chapter. For instance…if you asked me in which chapter Gayle gets Michael drunk (**spoilers**) then I honestly couldn’t tell you. But I KNOW that the chapter is called ‘Tequila‘ 

(…it’s chapter number 69 in case you were wondering!)

[5] Okay, so this where it gets a little complex.

There are 5 columns here and they all deal with the timeline and my ongoing struggles to keep it all straight. Because when you’re writing an epic saga like mine is supposed to be, this is the shit that really fucks things up!

It starts in column 1, which is simply a number I can type in that triggers a formula to make a Day to appear in column 2. As you can see, Day 1 = Monday. As a point of reference, the last chapter in the book is Day 45, which is a Wednesday – about 6 1/2 weeks later.

It’s really important that I track the days for a bunch of reasons. For example, much of the story takes place at the HFA Academy, where the students are studying Monday to Friday. There have been times when that’s caught me out. I’ll be editing a chapter where Gayle is teaching the kids, and when I put the number in, I find it’s a Sunday. Eeek!

This is VERY bad news.

Because when that happens, I either have to – at best – juggle chapters around, or – at worst – do a partial rewrite to change the chapter slightly. It also matters in respect to where the characters should be on any given day.

(Side-note – If you cast an eye back to the Index page, you’ll see an entry for ‘Academy Timetable.’ This tells me where the students should be on any given day, and which teacher they should be with. Bonus image below!)

The HFA Academy Timetable

For the same reason, the other columns on here detail the PLACE the chapter is taking place, and also the time of day. As I bounce around the globe from character to character, there are many different time zones involved. So, to keep them all straight, I have a column which details the time in GMT, so I have a common denominator to play with.

[6] Easy… these two columns are the WORD COUNT for the current chapter and then a running total, which then sums up in item 10. I often have a word count I think I’m aiming for. More on that in a mo.  🙂

[7] Details the MAIN character who’s point of view we’ll be experiencing the narrative from for that chapter. The other column details any other important characters that will be involved in that chapter.

I like to keep track of these to make sure that the flow across the book is balanced. I don’t want, for instance, a bunch of Gayle chapters all together, and then the story flits to Zarra for a bunch of chapters. 

It’s important to me that the story flows without you leaving a particular story thread or important set of characters for too long.

[8] Here’s where the rubber hits the road. THIS is where I start to detail the contents of each chapter. There a small synopsis for each one. 

These boxes get filled in as the FIRST step towards writing the book. Once these are filled in, I have an overall gist of how the flow of the story plays out. It allows me to then cut and paste the rows, moving them around until I’m happy with the flow. 

It also enables me to see if there is something missing, or – conversely – if there is too much going on. An example of the latter is that in the original draft of ‘Hunters,‘ there were about 11 ‘flashback‘ chapters that dealt with Gayle’s team as they were a decade previous. As an idea, I really loved them, but when you see them in the narrative flow, they simply didn’t fit. All they did was interrupt, causing road bumps along what should be a smooth road.

[9] This is simple a count of how many chapters are in what state.

[10] Purely informational, but it does show me what my word count is looking like. For ‘Hunters,‘ I was aiming for a 140k word story, and as you can see here, I overshot it by about 6k words. Not that that bothers me at all…it is exactly what it is!

[11] is simply item [9] but displayed in a graphical form.  I LOVE a pie…

…I mean a PIE CHART!

So, in summary…

If I was writing a smaller story, I could probably get away without all this ground work. If I was basing my story on just a few characters, or maybe sticking in one location for a short period of time, then maybe I could just work on it without the need for a huge spreadsheet.

For instance, I’ve spoken to Nikki (NT Anderson to you! Find her website here!) about her ‘Acts of‘ series. They’re erotic romance and are based around two characters for a limited time period in a singular location. She has no need for a spreadsheet to track what’s going on in her novel.

But, I imagine that the likes of JK Rowling, or George RR Martin, MUST have a similar document or database in order to track this stuff. Their worlds are just simply too big for it to be otherwise. I honestly can’t see another way for it to work!

So, over my first two blog posts in this series, I’ve talked about how I approach Character Creation and then the Planning and Plotting

Stay tuned for the next one in this series, where I’ll dive into how I actually write the chapters. 

Love & Books

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  1. KTReed

    Jon, you are super organized! Thanks for sharing your creative process. This has given me some ideas for how to better organize my work. Did you already know how Gayle’s story would end when you first started getting it all on paper?

    • Jon Ford

      Gayle’s story yes.
      It’s not really a secret or a surprise to reveal that Gayle is the ‘Songbird’ to which the series title ‘The Ballad of the Songbird’ refers to. It’ll be spelled out early in the books. It’s also signposted by the fact that her call-sign is a combination of her names… Gayle Knightley = Knightingale. Which is a bastardised form of Nightingale which is widely known as a songbird.
      So while Gayle was always the spine on which the saga was built, as I fleshed it out I added A LOT of other characters and created a wider narrative. There’s many surprises and mysteries which will be fleshed out in a slow-burn fashion across the series.
      In many ways, that has been the most exciting bit. Finding all these other characters and filling out the wider story. I’m REALLY looking forward to writing the series in its entirety and sharing it. 😀

  2. Shari

    To say I am impressed would be an understatement! I never knew it took this much detail and organization to write a book. I do understand though, because you detailed it out so perfectly! I love spreadsheets too (but I’m an accountant). You are definitely a “super user” in Excel. I’m guessing you are more than a writer, right?

    • Jon Ford

      I’m an IT consultant by day, but don’t use Excel much in my job. My spreadsheeting is purely a hobby. 🙂
      As for the writing process… I honestly don’t know what other writers do, it’s just the only way I personally could figure out how to keep track of everything.
      I think it’s mainly as a result of the fact I’m trying something pretty ambitious in regards to the multiple characters, multiple story-threads and multiple locations. If I was writing something with just a few characters in one location, then I guess I could just do it without the need to track everything.
      OR maybe it’s just that I have an awful memory for the details! LOL

      • Shari

        That makes sense Jon, about being detailed because there is so much in each book. Excel is the perfect tool.
        I see you said you’re in IT and working from home. Do you find it harder to do this from home versus in the office?

        • Jon Ford

          MUCH easier. Working from home has given me time back in my life (which I’m putting towards my writing!) and dialled down the stress. (I used to commute for 2+ Hours a day! Hated it!)

  3. Acro

    I could never get the hang of making spreadsheets. The lines all blur together and the information becomes meaningless to me. I think I’m just too hyper to make it work. What works for me is a combination of MindMeister and EndNote to plan my content and keep track of my ideas. I like seeing how other people get down to business and organize their creative work. It’s cool that we all do things a little differently.

    • Jon Ford

      I did look at some other online tools to help, but none seemed to fit what I needed.
      Mindmeister looks interesting… I don’t think I could use it for whole books, but for some of the plot details it could work. I’d have to dig into it more.
      What I really need is some sort of database, where I can have all these aspects interlink. LOL
      And yeah, I totally think it’s cool that we all have our own ways of doing things. That’s what makes life fascinating. This is simply my own personal solution to a problem that I didn’t know I was going to have until I started writing it.
      When I get book 1 out there into the world, I’ll dive a little more deeply into how it all came into being, because at that point I can do some modest spoilers. 😀

  4. Mitch

    Wow Jon, you’re on your way! One book down and six to go! I love the spreadsheets too. I can’t imagine using Excel to write a book. I did read your other comments and it makes sense. I would get confused too. I say kudos to you for starting so big on your first book.

    • Jon Ford

      LOL It kind of had to be big.
      When I first got the idea for Songbird, it was clear that it was a BIG story. I started jotting notes down, then that became the spreadsheet.
      First I had figured on a trilogy, but then the more I started to flesh it out, the bigger it became.
      7 books is where it’s set now. 😀

  5. Jack Davies

    I’ve wondered how authors do it, so I appreciate your behind-the-scenes look. Good on you for being so organized. It looks like a good system.

    • Jon Ford

      I think the Author community are split in two.

      Those that write by the seat of their pants… and those than plan meticulously.
      I’m definitely in the latter group. 🙂

      It’s a system I’ve evolved over the years, it works for me.

      • RaeY

        I would have to be like you too. I would need some organization. I think it would make you feel accomplished. Check ✔ finished that task, moving on. I love your spreadsheet!

  6. Scribble Me This

    Ha! I love that you keep a detailed spreadsheet to track things, Jon. I enjoy writing as a hobby, and I have to say that my method is more similar to your original notebook scribbles. I’ve tried being more disciplined with it, but I always eventually give up and go back to my original chaotic method.

    • Jon Ford

      For me, there was simply no way to keep track of the complex storylines at play within the Songbird saga. My new Femme Fatale books (first one coming out soon!) are a little more simple in their narrative arcs, but I still keep a spreadsheet for that too. LOL

  7. Lily Cho

    So this is the famous Spreadsheet of Doom that you mentioned in your last blog post. What a clever way to set things up, so you can keep track of everything. It’s rather brilliant! And now I’m thinking about all the TV shows that could’ve used your spreadsheet to help with their continuity issues.

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