The second most common question I get asked is ‘How do you keep track of everything when you’re writing your book?’, and that’s a really good question. My neighbour asked this, just a couple of months ago.

I’m going to answer it by asking a slightly different question, and there’s a good reason for this. ‘What things do I want to track as I’m writing the book?’ In no particular order the answer is:

  • Word count (cumulative)
  • Word count (by chapter)
  • Word count (projected to completion)
  • Primary characters
  • Secondary characters
  • Plot items (and their triggers)
  • Timeline against the story arc
  • Versions

All of these enable me to answer the first question (How do you keep track of everything when you’re writing your book?). Without these, frankly, I couldn’t keep track. I’d get lost down a rabbit hole, or I’d veer off track. Or I’d just sit here all day watching bad films on the TV.

So to keep me on the straight and narrow I have a tool I refer to every single day I’m writing. It’s a little database I wrote. It has some date triggers and some activity-based alerts, but I key in the data and it monitors things for me. I could use a native spreadsheet, but then I’d lose the trigger and alerting capability and, frankly, that would not be helpful.

So, on a writing day, I fire up my little database, I deal with any alerts, I input the day’s progress and, if the day’s progress causes anything to pop up, I deal with the time-based triggers.

I took an export of some of the data for you. That export dumped the data into a spreadsheet. I tidied up the spreadsheet with some colours and a few other formatting tweaks, to make it easier to read. And then I took a screenshot of the spreadsheet.

You can see (below) the cols and rows, and the tabs of the export. This is my database. This is what keeps me on track. Let me explain some of the details.

The columns headed ‘V’ are version. I only switch to a new version when there has been a major rewrite, as in the case below. When the wordcount is green, it’s been edited three times, twice by me and once by my editor. You can see how the wordcount changed in the rewrite.

The Identifier column contains my primary characters and a breakdown of what they’re up to/where they’re up to it. In the database these are distinct fields, but this output concatenates them. This ‘running together’ is only an inconvenience in the export, so I’ll live with it.

The total column is my cumulative wordcount, the WordCount column relates to each chapter. And the two Timeline tabs at the foot, monitor the original timeline I set, and monitor progress against that timeline/time left to run. My plot items (and their triggers) are in the second Timeline tab, which is a report of progress to date and items outstanding.

And that’s it. That’s the answer to the second most common question I get asked. Has this been helpful?

Lazy writing

The topic I’m going to talk (see also: ‘moan’) about today has got me fired up and riled, and, and, and… a tad annoyed.

The Internet is a place of great goodness, and terrible harm. It allows the best, and the worst of us, to move, digitally, around the planet as if we are all equals which, in obvious ways, is exactly what we are not. But we all put effort into this thing called life, so that’s a point of equality in itself, yes?

This equality might be effort to achieve things. Or it might be effort avoiding achieving things. Not looking at any teenagers at this point. But that doesn’t matter. It’s still effort. I don’t believe anybody does nothing in life, and I don’t think that’s just an over-optimistic thought.

To pick up a pen or bang away at a keyboard and write a sentence, well, that takes effort. Heck, mentally composing the sentence in the first place takes effort. And there was probably some thinking effort put in to it, even before the general structure of that sentence was determined.

So why would anyone pick up a device and compose a badly thought-out and incomplete sentence, then read it, think that it’s good enough, approve it, and post it on the Internet? I’ve seen a lot of this lately and it seems to be a growing trend. Let me explain.

I hang around on some writing/writers forums. I’m chiefly there to learn, rather than participate, because there are people in these places who are brighter, and considerably more experienced, than I.

As is the custom in these places, new arrivals announce themselves to the group, with a few self-directed words, sentences, or paragraphs.

Early last week a new arrival announced he was a starting-out writer from the Bay Area. I was on to him like an enthusiastic puppy. ‘Oh, I love Sydney. I’ve sailed with the RANSA at Darling Point. Do you live anywhere near Milk Beach?’ The starting-out writer came back and said he meant the San Francisco, California, Bay Area.

OK, so there’s two things here. Firstly his introduction was constructed on the egregiously false assumption that everyone, in a global readership on the Internet, would know which Bay Area on the entire planet he was talking about. Secondly this enthusiastic puppy immediately leapt to one of the Bay Areas in which he’s spent pleasurable time.

It could be argued that I should have immediately homed in on Cardiff Bay, Conwy Bay, Cardigan Bay, or even the Bay of Biscay, all of which I also have experience. But it was a cold and miserable UK summer’s day, and even in midwinter, Sydney is a great (and warm) place.

In defence of this enthusiastic puppy, though, I wouldn’t have made such a geographical boo-boo if the sloppy introduction hadn’t been constructed with the care and attention to detail of a toddler feeding themselves soup. Care and attention to detail being implements the starting-out writer should already have in their toolset.

I’m not singling out this person (well, I am really). But this mindset of ‘the readership really should know what I’m on about, without me having to make it clear to them’ seems to be a growing trend, particularly amongst Americans.

Yesterday, on another forum, a writer said they were from the Midwest. Because I’m not a complete dunce, I deduced that the Midwest this person was highlighting was likely to be the one in the United States of America.

But why would this person assume that everyone on the planet, who reads that forum (the majority of whom are neither American, nor likely to be native English/American speakers) can intuitively understand what the writer is trying to say? Is it a lack of awareness? Or is it laziness?

I’m with Deadpool on this.