Wednesday, 7 November 2012

4. Keeping Track of Progress

So, let’s suppose that you followed some or all the tips in my earlier “Getting Started” post, or that you worked things out for yourself, and that you’re now writing. How do you keep track of progress? How do you keep track of all the questions that crop up while you’re writing? No matter how thorough your research, there will always - I suspect - be questions that crop up that will require an answer but do you really want to break your stride to answer them now? If not, you’ll need somewhere to keep them all so that you can go back to them later.
When I first started to write "The Marguerite Effect" I had no real plan and, as it was going to be a short story, it was all in one document, so I could easily get a word count. If I found that I needed to answer a question, then I could simply include the question in the text: (e.g. “It was <<the date of the night before the battle of Quatre-Bras>>”) and carry on, to revisit the question later. This was fine until I had reached 25,000 words and realised that I had a lot more to say. “Marguerite” was becoming a novel. At first, I didn’t really know what I needed to know, but I had a few ideas. I’d need to know: how many words were in each chapter and how many scene-breaks, for example. I’d also like somewhere to go for a simple, broad-brush précis of the chapter, to help me find it again quickly should I need to go back to fill in the answer to a question. A word count for the whole novel is a valuable thing to know, as is the average length of a chapter. With these questions in mind, I began to develop the Excel workbook that I continue to use for “The Blue Angels”. For simplicity, I keep the workbook in the same folder as the novel itself, or close by (in a parent folder, for example).

My Writing Workbook

I’ll attach a copy of the workbook at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested. If you do download it and use it, I’d be interested to hear of any enhancements you make.
In my workbook, there are a minimum of two worksheets, one showing each chapter in a separate row, and the other, the “To Do” sheet, that shows my questions and thoughts. I should mention at this point that the “thoughts” in the second worksheet are quick things that have a bearing perhaps on this and/or later chapters. They aren’t detailed research results: I keep these in OneNote.

The Columns of the Word Count Worksheet

A.    Part: The Blue Angels is arranged in parts (all within the one book/ebook). This indicates which part contains the chapter.
B.     Chapter: This contains a hyperlink to the document that contains the chapter in question. Hyperlinks are easy to create in Excel.
C.     This hidden column is used to calculate column D. The formula in this column searches the “To Do” worksheet for unresolved items:
(for row 27) =MATCH(G27,'To Do'!A:A,0)
D.    See the "To Do" Worksheet: This column interprets the result of the calculation in column C and, if it indicates the presence of unresolved “To Do” items for the chapter, displays a hyperlink to the first of them. This gives a ready visual check of those chapters that require a little more research and makes it easy to locate pertinent questions.
E.     Draft: You will visit and revisit your work. This is the revision number of your chapter. It’s up to you how big a change constitutes a new draft: you may decide that any edit requires a new draft number, or you may decide that a substantial re-work is required. I tend toward the latter: any change that feels big enough to require a fresh proof-read gets a new draft number.
F.     Read By: I use this to tell me who has proof read this chapter. I use X to indicate that no-one has read it and <WIP> to indicate that I am currently working on this chapter. Otherwise, I simply add an initial. You may wonder why I use the <WIP> convention - after all, we’re always working on the last chapter aren’t we? This might be true during the first draft but when you’re re-drafting, it almost invariably won’t be. Placing <WIP> in this column is a useful habit as it clears it of proof-reads before a rework and reminds you where you were when you last finished work.           
Hint: I write on the train and so am often forced to stop writing at inopportune moments. If this is the case, I quickly write <HERE!!> into the document at the current location. This makes it easy to find out where I was even if I have to shut down the computer until the next day. This is a little risky, as I might leave one behind, but I find it very useful and worth the risk.
G.    Ch. #: (The chapter number). This is required to work out the average chapter length and to search the “To Do” list.
H.    Start Date & Time (Local): This column is used in the fight again continuity errors that I alluded to in an earlier post. This marks the date and time when the action described in the chapter begins. For me, the year is immaterial, so I just pick one and stick to it. I also opt not to display the year here. You must do what suits you.
I.       End Date & Time (Local): This column marks the date and time when the action described in the chapter ends.
J.       GMT Offset (Hours): “The Blue Angels” is set in England, Texas and (unless plans change) Italy. I am physically located in England, so GMT is my natural time zone. This column helps me track of the novel’s timeline in absolute GMT terms.
K.    Location: This describes where action described in the chapter actually takes place.
L.     Scenes: How many scenes are there in this chapter? I tend to use a centre-aligned *** to mark a scene break, but there are other conventions.
M.    Words: How many words are in this chapter? Microsoft word gives you this free and it’s a valuable piece of information: not only can you track the length of your novel; you can check if the chapters all conform to the novel’s “rhythm”.
Hint: It’s broadly accepted that a novel’s chapters should be of similar length. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is something of which you should be aware.
N.     Pages: This is the number of pages that this chapter occupies and will always be an “approximation” as there is no single correct value: it depends on the format and font size of your printed book, or the settings of the ebook reader. Kindle appears to use a figure of around 300 words per page in its ebook listings. I simply use what Word gives me. It’s up to you.
O.    Running Word Count: How many words have you written up to and including the end of this chapter?
P.     Running Page Count: How may pages have you written up to an including the end of this chapter?
Q.    Novel Progress: How far into the novel are you? This the percentage of the novel, in terms of word count, that you have written so far, including this chapter. To give this figure meaning early on, I assume that the novel will be at least 85,000 words on completion, hence the formula (for row 2, e.g.): =I2/(MAX(F$1,85000))
R.    Avg. Chapter Length: How many words are there in an average chapter up to the end of this chapter? This helps you gauge how well you’re keeping to your novel’s “rhythm”.
S.      Chapter Summary: This column gives a very brief description of what happens in the chapter, to help you to find a particular one more quickly when reworking.

The Columns of the “To Do” worksheet.

A.    Chapter: This is the number of the chapter to which the “To Do” item is linked.
B.     To Do / Question: This is the question or “To Do” item itself. It describes the query/issue.
C.     Resolved? This is a simple “Y”/”N” field: “Y” implies that the item is resolved and need not appear as a hyperlink in the main worksheet. “N” implies that the item is still open.           
Hint: I have chosen to show the number of unresolved items in the header of this column, as a ready reckoner. The value of header cell is given by the formula:
=CONCATENATE("Resolved? (", COUNTIF(D2:D2001,"N"), ")")
D.    Resolution / Answer: This is the resolution to the issue raised, or the answer to the question, as appropriate.

How To Use the Workbook

It’s easy to use the workbook described above. Simply open it in Excel. When you start a new chapter, copy a row of the main worksheet into the clipboard, paste it in (usually at the bottom) and edit the values to suit. Copying and pasting is used to preserve the formulae. Similarly, to raise a new “To Do” item, copy and paste an existing row and tailor it. If I want to raise an issue that is more general (i.e. that applies to the whole novel and not just a single chapter) then I simply specify chapter number zero in the appropriate column. When you have an answer to the “To Do” item, write appropriate text into the resolution column and set the resolved column to “Y”. It’s as simple as that.
I find that it’s best to open the workbook first and then to use the hyperlinks to open the actual Word documents. This makes it more natural to update the word counts etc. once I finish work on a chapter.

I hope this little glimpse into my working methods is helpful to you. Please download the Excel Workbook (from which all spoilers have been removed!) and see what you think. I'm new to Google Docs etc. so please bear with me if the link doesn't work.

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