For Plotters & Pantsers: Easy Strategies to Organize Your Novel Like an Expert

For Plotters and Pantsers Easy Strategies to Organize Your Novel Like an Expert

For those of you who have taken up the lofty goal of writing whole books, you’ve likely realized that writing thousands of words is vastly different than the kind of writing you did back in school. Whether you are a plotter, a pantser, or fall somewhere in between, you are going to find that you need some way to keep your work organized. Good organization will save you so much time and energy in the long run (Believe me! I’ve wasted hours because of poor organization!). This blog post shows my strategy for staying organized, which I developed after feeling completely lost in trying to resolve all the plot holes in my 75k YA fantasy novel.

I used this method to organize my novel after my first draft was written, and now I use it with every new work I start. It’s much easier to use at the beginning and can really help you with the outlining process for those of you who love plotting. If you are more of a panster, I suggest using this tool along the way to keep you organized. (Keep reading for a sample template that you can use!)

There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners - George R. R. Martin

I was inspired to start using a spreadsheet to organize my work after seeing this handwritten outline from J. K. Rowling:

J K Rowling Handwritten Outline

I didn’t use many of the headings used here because they are too complex for my brain. However, I did come up with my own way of organizing my novel using a spreadsheet combined with things I have learned and value about writing over the years. The great part of this method of organization is you can completely personalize it and make it your own. 

So wanna know how to do it? Here goes…

Step One: Decide what kind program of spreadsheet program you’d like to use. I use Google Sheets. It’s completely free, easy to use, and all you need is to sign up for a google account (if you don’t already have one). 

Step Two: Decide on what kind of organizational headings are important to you. There are basic headings that probably everyone would want – (Chapter #, Word Count, Chapter Title, Setting etc.) But some headings would be specific to your work (POV, Romance Arc, World, Timeline, etc.)

Here are the headings I used in my most recent work along with a short description of why I include them:

1. Word Count: 

Fill in the chapter word count in this column. I like to turn these cells into different colors when the chapter is complete. I leave them white with the in-progress word count when the chapters are still in progress.

2. Chapter Number:

Fill in chapter Number – Easy, peasy. But so helpful to staying organized!

3. Chapter Title:

Select a title that helps you remember what the chapter is about. 

4. POV (Point of View):

Fill in the character name of the POV you are writing from. This is especially helpful when you have more than just 2 POVs (obviously not necessary if you only have 1). I also like to read all my chapters from one POV at a time. It helps ensure that each POV has a unique voice and each doesn’t sound like the same person.

5. Character’s Goal:

The character should have a goal that you can identify in every chapter. If you’re having trouble consider whether or not you actually need the chapter.

6. Chapter Conflict:

The more conflict in the story, the better! Make sure each chapter has some kind of conflict.

7. Curiosity Created:

Curiosity is what keeps the reader turning the pages. You’ll want this in every chapter!

8. This, but…(No “and thens”!) Have Agency!!:

Watered down, “This, but…” is the idea that something in your story is going to happen, but something comes along to alter what would have happened. These events should affect each other. This is different from “this happened and then this other thing happened…and they have nothing to do with each other”. {I’m planning to write a whole blog post on this. Follow my blog to see it when I get it posted!}

By the way, I added “Have Agency” to this heading a few years back when I was told my MC didn’t have agency. What is Agency you might ask? Well I have a blog post that explains it! Check it out here – On Writing & Agency: Easy Strategies to Make Sure Your Characters Have ItThe king died and then the queen died of Grief is a Plot

9. Romantic Arc:

Every story with romance (My favorite!) should have some kind of Romantic Arc. This column helps to make sure there is a forward progression in the romance, and it’s not just willy nilly existing. Nail the relationship arc, and I will read your book over and over again!

10. Short Description of Scene:

A good description gives you a good idea of what is in your chapter. It’s a lot easier to quickly glance over this column than to read your whole story from beginning to end. Especially, if you’ve decided you’re going to start moving things around.

11. Setting:

Just a few words on what your setting is will suffice or you can describe things a bit more fully in this column if you wish.

12. Characters in Scene:

I use this column to make sure I keep track of my characters. I’ve been known to develop some amazing characters at the beginning of a story only to lose them completely during the second act.

13. New Characters Introduced:

I use this column to help me keep track of when new characters enter my novel. It’s not exactly necessary to have this because of the previous heading, but I like to really emphasize when I’m entering a new character.

14. Character or Action Driven?

It’s good to have a balance of Character and Action Driven scenes. I use this column to make sure I’m balanced. I simply write ‘character’ or ‘action’ in the column.

15. Possible Revision

This is where I go to town writing everything I don’t like about the chapter and things I may want to improve upon in future revisions.

16. Other Notes

This column is for anything I want to make a note of that wouldn’t be included anywhere else.

Some of these headings are for organization and others are to make sure that my story actually has focus and isn’t a rambly mess. Note that this is a fluid process. I don’t know that I’ve ever written two novels that had exactly the same headings. Your headings should match up with the intent and goals of your story. 

Step Three: Fill everything in and adjust as needed. Wow, so simple! But this literally changed my writing. So now want to see an example of how this looks on a spreadsheet? Want an example you can actually use? I have one for you! 

H E Ebel’s Outline Blueprint – Here is a FREE template of what my empty Google Sheets file looks like. Please feel free to use this template and edit as you wish! ~ Follow the instructions inside the document to make a copy of it. ~ 

{Please note that this blueprint is formatted to include 24 Chapters with a three-act structure of 90k words. Obviously, you would want to reformat this to include your desired number of chapters and words. The idea of the 3-Act structure is that there is a beginning, middle, and end (with the middle being about the same size as the beginning and end together). If you’d like to learn more about the 3-Act structure, I’d recommend reading SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Also, I’m planning to eventually write a blog post on the 3-Act Structure. Follow my blog to make sure you get the update!}

Also, as a bonus… 

Ever get tired of scrolling through your word document to find the right chapter? I did, which is why I made myself a word document that includes links to each chapter. I now start every new novel with this template. And the best part? It’s free! 

H E Ebel’s Novel Blueprint – Here is a FREE template of what my Google Docs Novel File looks like. Please feel free to use this template and edit as you wish! ~ Follow the instructions inside the document to make a copy of it. ~ Stars, Quills, and Crumpled Papers (H. E. Ebel)

Up for Discussion?

What method do you use to organize your novel? If you use/plan to use a spreadsheet, what are some headings you would include in your novel? Leave me a comment in the box below! I love hearing from my readers!

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