Writing via Spreadsheet

Let me start by saying this — everyone writes differently, and whatever system works for people is the one to go with.  If you can write by locking yourself in an attic or hanging out in a park or, I dunno, hanging upside-down, go for it!

But, since it’s my blog and you reading it are presumably interested in my writing a little, here’s my own version of the quirks that make writing work for me.

There are some things which have been said by many, many writers far more accomplished than I, and I find them to be true as well.  These have to do with dedication and discipline, the ability to sit down and force oneself to write even if one doesn’t feel *inspired* or even happy about it.  The ability to set goals and write to them no matter what.

From my perspective, talent/inspiration is only a third of the writing triad — to really get anywhere, I’ve also needed skill (as in being able to actually craft a coherent narrative and write it in passable English) and that same discipline.

That discipline comes first and foremost with me.  I set myself incredibly aggressive goals and then I strive to meet them.  For example, I know from years of experience that I can regularly write a novel in 2 months.  Sometimes that novel has been 45k words and sometimes it has been 100k words, but it’s always a single novel and it can get done in 2 months.  So I commit to doing that between January and October — every 2 month period is a novel (or a related project like a novella and some shorter stories).  I’ve been sticking with it pretty consistently for 3 years now and it really works for me.

That trend came to light because of my relentless, obsessive tracking of my writing in spreadsheets, and this is what I think is really weird about me and my process.

By day, when I’m not plotting out twists and bringing characters to life, I’m an analyst.  I look at data, sometimes huge, huge tables of it, and I do the math and graphs and everything else to make sense of it, to find patterns, to understand what is really going on in it.  I am an Excel WIZARD.  Anything you can ask, I can figure out a way to do in Excel (without the use of Macros because I hates them, precious).  Also by day, I tend to do a lot of executive decision-making inside my house; Sarah struggles with it and I’m good at it — it’s also why I do all the budgeting.

I know we’ve mostly debunked the whole right-brain/left-brain thing, but I do think it’s a nice way of thinking about this.  Because on the one hand, I’m all the math, structure, function, but on the other hand I’m the creative, arts-oriented, emotion.  I’m not all one or all the other — is anybody, really? — but I’m both as needed, largely in balance.

And what I have learned about myself is that I do better at the one when I involve the other.

Lots of people have tricks for breaking writers’ block, but mine is to do some math.  Some analytics.  Something in a spreadsheet with numbers and equations and patterns.  Something quantifiable.  If I can’t come up with the next words to type, I go add something to the spreadsheet where I have tracked every completed work going back to 2004, look at how the years trended for wordcount or novels vs shorter works.  If I’m struggling with a plot point, I’ll make a list of every week I’ve posted a fic chapter and look to see what works I have finished and how I want to allocate them to upcoming weeks.  If I’m worried about a character’s motivation, I’ll go break down the wordcount of the current project and look at averages and day-of-the-week vs productivity.

As a consequence, I can predict my own writing behavior with the precision most online marketers would kill to get about their client base.  I know throughout the year, almost to the week, about how likely I am to write X number of words.  I know about how long my chapters are and how that varies by the genre of story.  I know for a fact that if I write more than 500 words in a day, I’m likely to get to 2,000 before I call it quits.

Working on a spreadsheet just helps me clear my head, get focused, and realign my priorities.  I think it brings back the things that get lost (and when they are lost, so is the writing), things like “where am I going with this?” and “how do these events impact one another?” and “where are the plot holes I need to fill?”  It forces logic and structure back into my sometimes nutty creative side and forces them to work together.

I imagine this wouldn’t work for even the majority of other writers.  But hey — being the oddball even in a room of oddballs is what I DO!  And proud of it, always.

So.  Now that I’ve outed myself as a spreadsheet nerd along with all the other kinds of nerd, I think I’ll go do some trend analysis on the latest project.

And then hopefully add some words to it — 2,000 is the goal.

What did I say about discipline?
I better go do that.


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