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?

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