I originally posted this to a message board I oft’ frequent.
World-building, and outlining with Microsoft Excel:
I use Excel spreadsheets for outlining and for brainstorming.
For brainstorming, one merely fills out a series of cells with one’s ideas. Since each individual cell can contain a very large amount of information, I can squeeze lots of ideas into a very small spot. I also – in cases of scientific trickery – already have an excellent calculation tool looking back at me. I can check the numbers even as I am reviewing my brainstorming notes.
After a good brainstorming session, one can usually find the ideas boiled down to what one is going to use by crossing off the things one is not going to use.
Now, you’re ready to start outlining and filling in details.
Go to the bottom left, and notice that you have three pages open, and the ability to immediately make lots more pages of spreadsheet with mere clicks of your mouse. Go to the next spreadsheet, and choose the detail data that you need to think about next.,
The way an Excel spreadheet works, you get a long list of cells that extend down and across. Also, you get to write as much as you would like in each individual cell.
So, in cell A1, on page 1, I’ll write something outline-y-data-ey like “Magic System”. Then, on B2, I’ll write out a spell that would be really cool, like “Spleen Explosion”. In B3, the explanation of the spell “The magician uses a nifty poking object to deliver a magical insect into the enemy spleen, causing an explosion.”
Notice, how the cells stay way close together, so I can pack a lot of information into a very small visual space.
I can fill this spreadsheet out as far as I would like to the right, and to the down.
Now, say I want to brainstorm a bit about different cosmologies that could interact with this cool magical system I wrote out. I go to the bottom left-hand corner, and open a new spreadsheet page. I can reference directly to the first spreadsheet cells as I fill things out. I can cut and paste cells, and manipulate things all over the place. I can fill up whole books of data, referencing – always – specific spots and corners.
I can put together a book of data that I can use as a “book of the novel” that is flexible and easy to click around and manipulate and play with.
In this method, I can also always extend new notes and discoveries off to the right indefinitely in any particular spot in my brainstorming/outliney/spreadsheet.
This kind of thing can also be used to set up my reference materials for certain sections. For example, in my second novel, I have a magical system based on Zen Koans and Taoism. I can put a direct link to the particular corner of the Gateless Gate, or the Book of Changes (Tao Te Ching…), where I am ganking spell materials. Then, as I’m working, and need to double-check something, I am one click of my mouse away from any website I need.
With this simple, and effective system, I am able to corral lots and lots of world-building and magic and plot and character into a small zone.
Also, I tend not to write linear narratives, and do not write linear scene-by-scene as I write a book. With my chapter outlines, I will often use the spreadsheet to mark off the plot points (each one in a single cell, extending off to the right on the page) by finding the cell next to the plot point and placing an asterisk. Thus, I have not lost any of my outline, but I am not visually distracted by information from a spot I’ve already written.
I have many more tricks and tips up my sleeve, but this is a tool I’ve put to much use and recommend highly to others.
And, most importantly, you will never, ever get to see my spreadsheets. They are only for my eyes. My editor doesn’t get them. My agent doesn’t get them. My mother doesn’t even know they exist. If I have a specific problem I need to work out, I might take that here. However, I will not be expelling the contents of my spreadsheet to the wires. I will merely take one small spot and seek out advice/experts.
For instance, if I was having difficulty creating the best possible werewolf I could create – after much research on the subject, mind you – I might pop on here and say, “Hey, I am having difficulty choosing between an upright werewolf or a four-footed werewolf. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages of either wolf might be?” I will not reveal story information, nor will I weigh all opinions equally.
I hope this data is useful to anyone who has both Microsoft Office and a penchant for speculative fiction.
Excel is a very powerful tool, with many features that you will discover that can make your brainstorming and outlining a seamless, interesting process.
(Posted originally to this spot:http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=79297
Right. Back to being an adult. Boo.