If you’re like me, you may have your novel on a huge document on Microsoft Word (or another writing program). At first, this arrangement seemed fine. But as my page count started multiplying and the 80,000+ words seemed to leap off the page to engulf me, that word document started to feel like an untameable giant. Not only is the document itself hard to manage, but there are also a million other things you need to make reference to while writing: character backgrounds, setting, plot points, notes for future scenes, etc. I had all of these on other separate documents so when I sat down to write, I had dozens of document tabs open and I would be clicking back and forth like a maniac.
A novel (and even novellas) are hundreds of pages long. Needless to say, it can be overwhelming to deal with a document of that size. If you’re not careful, you can stress yourself out and feel like giving up even before you start.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to make your life easier and streamline the writing process. Here are some tools I use that help me manage my novel:
1. Jump Between Chapters with Navigation Pane
*Note: I use Microsoft Office Word and Excel 2010. Some of the more technical tips therefore may be only applicable to those who also use Microsoft Office 2010.*
Depending on your writing style, you can either have a dozen chapters or, like me, up to 30. With a document hundreds of pages long, it is exasperating having to scroll back and forth to find the chapter you are looking for. Luckily, Microsoft Word has a function that can help you move through your document a lot easier.
If you’re using Microsoft Word, highlight your chapter title and click on “Heading 1” on the “Home” Menu tab in the “Styles” section. Now that you’ve made your chapter a proper heading, click on “View” on the Menu Tab. In the “Show” section, click on the little box next to “Navigation Pane.” This will open the Navigation Pane which is a bar on the left side of your screen. Here, you will be able to see your chapters and you can jump between chapters in your manuscript by clicking on their respective boxes.
I find this tool exceptionally useful because my book is divided into two points of view. This way, I can choose to only click on the chapters featuring my protagonist, Agi, or focus my work on my other main character, Hedor, in his chapters.
The Navigation Pane also lets you search your document which is helpful during revision. I use it to search for all mentions of evil words like “suddenly,” “really,” and “very,” so I can edit them out more easily.
I am one of those writers who writes completely out of order: a few pages in chapter 4, edit a paragraph in chapter 15, then back to finish work on chapter 22 (I’m not alone, right? Please don’t tell me I’m just a scatterbrained weirdo…) Most of the time, this is doable because of my alternating POVs, but in general I like to start in the middle of the story and work my way backwards and forwards. By having chapter headings, I can jump around my novel to my scattered brain’s delight.
2. Outline Your Novel on a Spreadsheet or Table
An outline is a great tool to keep track of your progress and of your novel’s plot. The best way to have a convenient overview of your entire novel is by making a spreadsheet or chart/table. You can organize this outline by dividing the spreadsheet/table into:
Chapters, Chapter Page Count, Chapter Word Count, Summary of Chapter, Key Plot points in each chapter that move the story forward, Scenes, Characters, and so on. These are just a few examples, but you can create your outline however you like. You can even create sub-categories within each column if you wish.
Above is a screenshot of my table replaced with example text due to obvious spoiler reasons. I chose to do a table in Microsoft Word instead of an Excel spreadsheet because I wanted to use bullet points within each column/row and Excel wouldn’t let me do that. I also am not incorporating complex numbers or calculating anything so the fancy Excel buttons were unnecessary. Also, Excel scares me a little with all of those equations. :/ Math and I have a strenuous relationship.
If you are a more methodical writer who likes to calculate the number of words and pages each chapter should have, by all means use Excel. A spreadsheet let’s you do fun things like only have certain chapters visible: a great tool for those who have alternating POV chapters or chapters divided by other reasons. It’s just a matter of playing around with the buttons and testing it out to see if it’s right for you and your novel.
Regardless of which kind of outline you decide to make, you can use the table during revision to maintain continuity as you make changes in various places in your draft. As I’ve said, I write out of order, so swords, plot points and characters disappear and reappear with alarming frequency. By just glancing at my table, I am able to keep it all in check—for the most part at least… I’m still trying to curb that minor character whose gender and identity I keep changing. (P.S. my characters hate my indecisiveness. I can’t say I blame them.)
This table/chart also helps monitor how much action/internal monologue/conversational scenes I have in each chapter. Just a look at my Scene column told me that I had too many scenes of exposition where Agi was lost in thought, and that there was not enough action in certain chapters. Furthermore, it made me see the varying number of scenes in each chapter which in turn let me know why certain chapters were so much longer than others.
I could go on and on. The point: Make a chart! I know it’s time-consuming at first, but once you have it made it’s just a matter of plugging in the new data. And trust me, it’s well worth the effort!
3. Create Character Profiles
There are some things however, that the table/spreadsheet outline can’t properly show, such as full description of your characters. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all of your characters and the changes they have gone through from draft to draft. To make it easier to remember, create profiles for your characters. Think of these profiles as sort of resumes that incorporate everything possible about your character:
Full name, Age, Likes and Dislikes (even the things you aren’t necessarily using in your story), Personality, Fears, Desires, Goals, Strengths, Weakness, Flaws, Story Arc Progression, and of course their Physical Description. It’s amazing how you can easily make a mistake and describe a character’s fiery locks at the end of the draft when they originally were supposed to be blonde. By keeping this profile, you can keep track of all of the changes your characters go through— sometimes before they even make it to the page! You can also include who they’re related to, their relationship status, their profession, where they live, etc. etc. Run wild with it! Make it as complex or as simple as you like.
(The picture shown above is a random profile whose layout was designed by a dear friend. I strung together the details of it at the last minute; it has nothing to do with my book. Maybe you figured that out if you can read what I entered for each section :P)
For my profiles, I go all out and even browse the internet for pictures of people that resemble my characters’ physical descriptions— ok, so maybe that was an excuse to procrastinate and end up on tumblr to look at pictures of teacup pigs in hats. Which was very important at the time I swear! You never know when you need that image on hand for a description in your story (highly doubtful, but possible.) — Regardless, having a file on hand with all of the details of your characters is a great reference for when you want to double-check a fact while writing.
Even though these profiles do add more documents to your arsenal of “My Book” files—or however you like to label it. Mine is called “My Precious.” … just kidding. Or am I? — it’s simply easier to have each character in their separate document. And if you do it similarly to how I’ve suggested, you can still get all of the information you need at a glance instead of having another document full of paragraphed text.
There are so many other things you can do to streamline your writing process. These are the just the main three that I use. As I discover more, I will be sure to share them with you. I hope that you find these tips useful or that they even spark ideas for your own helping-tools as you attempt to tame your own giant.
What do you do to streamline the writing process? I’d love to hear your ideas/tips in the comments below!