Examining Excel from the a Non-Techie Perspective

Moonday Mania

a blog on the craft of writing

The last two Moonday Mania’s I’ve been discussing the Snowflake method of plotting and how it’s changing my pantsing ways. You can read the first post HERE and the second HERE. And today I’m going to talk about a tiny piece of the Snowflake method that has expanded my non-techie universe just a little more.


(cue scary music) DA-NA-NA-NA!

Here is what Randy Ingermanson says about writers and spreadsheets in ‘How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method’:

“For some reason, this is scary to a lot of writers. Oh the horror. Deal with it.You leaned to use a word-processor. Spreadsheets are easier. You need to make a list of scenes, and spreadsheets were invented for making lists. If you need some tutoring, buy a book. there are a thousand out there and one of them will work for you. It  should take you less than a day to learn the itty bit you need. It’ll be the most valuable day you ever spent. Do it.”

I read those words and I thought; ok, Randy says to just do it, I can do it.

Now like a lot of writers I have avoided the Excel side of life. I took a class, many moons ago, and about the only thing I remember is that you plug in rows of complicated formulas into the cells and they work their math magic all by themselves. But writing isn’t math, so how the heck is this going to work? Can I plug my scenes into the cells and my story will automatically write itself?

I wish!

I do have a little more experience withe Excel. I am part of an investment club, The Queens of Green, and we have been blessed with a woman with a masters in accounting. She created amazing spreadsheets for our stock evaluations. Every month I go to the Excel spreadsheet for my stock (until recently, Target) and I open up a two sheet multi-column spreadsheet with detailed instructions from the CPA goddess on how to plug in numbers.

It goes something like this:

I open the spread sheet and read the first instruction. Copy last column and paste. Ok, I do that. Then each color coded square has similar step-by-step instructions on where to find the correct numbers online. What site to go to, which tab to click. Go to this page and plug in that. Very detailed. I stumble through, and at the end I have some idea of what’s been going on with my stock. The color coding tells me if we want to retain it, or dump it.

And each month I have to figure it out again. Why? Because I’m non-techie (read: resistant to change.

But Randy says I need a spreadsheet. So last month, I bravely opened up Excel and did it. I, all by little old lonesome, created a scene spreadsheet for my new novella (working title Snow and the Seventh Wolf). And guess what? It was way easier than I thought it would be!

You see, I’ve been getting very cozy with Microsoft Word and Excel is its kissing cousin. Yes, they look very different on the surface, but underneath they are more similar than I thought. The navigation bar at the top looks almost the same, and there are many things you can do that are the same. So I started to play.

Yes play. I think the main thing that keep us non-techie writers from using Excel is fear. Fear I will make a mistake. Fear I will lose all my work. So the secret is to back it up, and back up frequently. Once you start doing that you realize that you can play in the sandbox with the other kiddos without being scared.

I now have a lovely spreadsheet where I can cut and paste my scenes. I can easily add extra scenes by adding a row, or cut them with a ruthless click of my mouse. And how has this changed my pantsing, um, plotting? Well, I’m figuring out my plot before writing. And even after I started writing (when those darn characters changed their motivations on me) I was able to shift scenes and change the plot.

The end result is a detailed list of chapters with an approximate word count, so my plot can stay on target. One line per scene, not too onerous for a pantser like me, still leaves lots of room for flexibility with my writing. And an entire book plotted in just a few days.

Is it life changing? You bet! I’ve never been one for shuffling the notecards, but here is an easy way to do it, without all the pesky hand writing. I know there are programs out there to do this for you, in fact I bet Randy’s Snowflake program comes with something to do it for you, but I’m glad I am doing it this way. Because I am also learning (although in tiny baby steps) how to work Excel. One more step along my road to writing as a career and a personal celebration of overcoming my fears.

One more note. Randy’s program, Snowflake PRO, is one of the most affordable writing/plotting programs out there. It only costs $100. And he is running a special. If you buy his book Writing Fiction for Dummies, he’ll cut the price to $50. Go to his website for details on how to get this amazing special HERE.

Have you used Excel in your writing? Or maybe a writing program that utilizes spreadsheets? What about new skills, have you ever taken on a skill that you were terrified to do? What made you try?

Enter my Little Red Riding Wolf contest HERE. Still lots of opportunities to enter and win! Contest will close at the end of February, so jump on and win some chocolate or the best sticky notes ever! And check out Romance and Beyond for my interview by the fabulous Sherry Isaac!


Filed under Moonday mania, writing craft, writing organization

16 responses to “Examining Excel from the a Non-Techie Perspective

  1. I used a spreadsheet to plot The Waiting Booth. I use Excel daily in my day job, so this was not a leap for me. I now use Google docs for all my writing related spreadsheet work.

    • My comment sounded rather…ummm….smug. It wasn’t intended that way. 🙂 I meant it to come across in a, “Yeah, Jessica, I agree that it works!”

      • Not smug at all. Everyone comes to this with different skill sets. My spredsheet skill set was just lacking. I’m not a big Google Docs fan, maybe it’s because I’m so used to Word, but I have trouble using it. I prefer Word, so Excel was a natural spreadsheet to use, then I just save them all to my dropbox. Glad to know you are a spreadsheet fan too!

  2. Hey Jessica,
    I don’t use excel in my plotting but can definitely see it as a useful tool. Specifically, I’d use new sheets for each character sketch or plot point, so they are all in one file. Hm. Might do that for the next novel.

    I did use Excel in my everyday working life for years, and yes, it’s many uses can be quite complex, but for basic usage, Excel is very user-friendly, easy to lear and easy to use. As you mentioned, familiarity with Word is a bonus because of the similar tools and menu orientation. If you can find a tool in Word, you will find it in Excel.

    • I don’t know why I was so resistant. Okay, I do. I knew it would take time and I’d get frustrated and I would make mistakes. But it turns out that almost everything is fixable and it’s easier than I thought. I even started another spreadsheet with characters and their information. I think it still needs work, but I’m playing with it!

  3. I am not much of an Excel user, but you may be on to something here, Jessica. I did an outline for every scene in my 3rd on the back burner novel and have them in print and in a Word doc. I can see how the spreadsheet could be used to see all at a glance. Thanks for sharing!

    • I seriously never thought this would work, but once I tried it it was very helpful. The clincher is to keep your scene description to one sentence. That way they are easy to move around. If I needed more than one sentence, then it was a hint that maybe I needed more than one scene. I also have POV listed first, so I can see at a glance if I’m favoring one character over another. Very helpful for a pantser like me!

  4. Waving HI, Jessica!

    I can work mathematical wonders on an Excel spreadsheet (No. I’m not brilliant. I had to learn it for my job.)

    But, it brings me to tears as an aid for plotting a novel. Oh, wait. Most aids for plotting bring me to tears. KUDOS on taking this one on! Can’t wait to see you at R&B tomorrow.

    • I’m surprised that you can work it for other apps, but not for plotting. I would think that the math apps your brain understands would translate to the plotting apps. Maybe you’re looking for it to be complicated? Which it can’t be if I’m doing it! 🙂

      It’s Tuesday now, so I will be on Romance and Beyond! WOOT!

  5. I have taught Excel!!! And I never ever considered it could be used to plot a book. Duh! I’m a couple of days late (blame my visiting granddaughter) but am I ever glad I read this post. Thanks, Jessica.

    • It never occurred to me either Elaine. I was pretty focused on it being for math apps. But it works great for this, better than a list on word of scenes etc. because the cells line up so nicely and can be moved more easily. I guess anything you truly want in a chart would work well in Excel. See you on the 10th on Becoming a Wordsmith!

  6. Vladimir

    Both are good.
    Still… It is not spreadsheet that matters – it is the right mindset 🙂

  7. I love the Snowflake Method! I learned about it a couple years ago while doing NaNoWriMo. It’s a great way to, not only plot, but to brainstorm your novel. I admit, the first time I used it I was too strict with myself and my whole manuscript ended up reading like an expanded scene list, but if you give yourself permission to stray from the outline, you’ll do great! I love it.

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