The Craft of #Writing: The Workbook Productivity Hack

One of my writing friends on FWO asked me to write about I how I organize my work so that I’m productive in my ghostwriting business.

Everyone has their own writing process. What works for me may not work for you. But I’m glad to share my tools to push, force to help me produce words.

The Writing Process

Whether to outline or “pants” (meaning to write by the seat of their pants) is individual to each writer. Some people, (like me,) “pre-write” their books with extreme outlining. Others start and thrash through each scene without preparation.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. Outlining gives you the shape of the book before you put the first word to the page. Depending on the level of outlining, you can have the details nailed down so that writing a description of a location, or a person is effortless. And you have fewer mistakes in your text that need rewriting. For instance, on a current WIP, one character is a female from the West Coast. In researching what she would wear, I found current fashion is much looser and more casual than what we see on the tube (often one to two years behind regional fashion.) So if someone from the West Coast read it, and the style doesn’t fit what she’s wearing, she’d think, “wow, this is dated.”

The disadvantage to outlining is that it takes a good chunk of time to prepare these materials. Plus, you might end up with more material than you’ll use. For me, it takes up to a week to outline. Plus, as you work, you’ll change things as a new idea pops up, so to keep a consistent narrative you’ll must revise the outline. The biggest advantage to me in outlining is that my first draft is tight and most times requires only a copy edit before it goes to publication.

Pantsing affords you the freedom to explore the story concept as you write. Nothing is pre-planned and you depend on your sense of drama to carry off the story. But pantsing is often time-consuming, and you’ll probably end up making substantial revisions two or three times minimum before it is ready for submission.

Because I ghostwrite and must produce finished books on tight schedules, I outline to a degree most writers don’t.

Let me show you how I do that.

The Workbook

I developed a multi-function Excel/Google sheets workbook that has places for all this information for my books. Cells from one sheet populate relevant cells in other sheets so that you only enter a piece of information once.

As I open a new chapter my first thought is, “given the outline and details, what’s the most dramatic way I can write this? What hooks me into the story?”

I work in separate chapters instead of one long document for editing reasons. All editing programs have word count limits which may run one long chapter which almost demand you do it one chapter at a time. When I’m done with the manuscript, I knit the chapters together with Google Merge Docs, then use Google Docs download process to convert them to Word for submission.

1.) Taking the proposed or decided word count of the work, I decide the number of chapters, and from that the number of words per chapter. This is from a work in progress, a 35K romance, in sixteen chapters. Since it is a shorter work, the chapters need to work heavy-duty to advance the plot.

2.) I write a short synopsis of the story. Here I put together the bones to it. Ultimately, as I refine it, it morphs into story pitch you often see of the publisher’s book descriptions. I’ll toss in a log line, too.

3.) I rough out the story in my Story Map Worksheet. Here I assign POV characters (because I often write in multiple POVs,) the location, and the events in the chapter.

4.) Next I’ll write character descriptions for each primary and secondary character.

5.) And location descriptions:

6.) The workbook has sheets for research notes depending on the level of complexity of the story. For a military sci-fi client, the research notes have reached 30 pages. For this story I have none.

But Wait. There’s More.

One person asked me that since I break things down by chapters, do I also do so by scene? Do I know ahead of time how many scenes there will be?

Yes, I know exactly how many scenes there will be. I’ve found, to keep the action rolling and readers turning the pages, each chapter is a scene, meaning, I do not break up chapters into several scenes. The characters may move from place to place, but I keep the focus on the characters inside the scene.

Additionally, I break up the chapter into three parts, so that at each third, I escalate the stakes of the chapter. I assign an escalating emotion for the main character for each third, and I’ll note power words reflecting the situation and the emotion that I may use. I tie the bottom third of my chapter outline in a concatenate formula that populates the last column on the sheet. I copy and paste this cell in the notes section of Google Docs so I can have the notes at hand.

Please note the middle of the sheet contains my plot hole tracker. It’s easy for little details to get away from you, like the name of a walk-on character. I enter these here, and they link to specific rows in the Beat Sheet for easy reference.

The chapter outline looks like this:

A great feature of Google Docs is the note section. I copy and paste each Scene Builder section into Google Notes to have the chapter outline at hand while writing. When I put it together to work on the page (stacking my page tabs,) it looks like this:

Because I hate repeating steps to get work done, I have a Synopsis page that links to each piece to form a complete synopsis that I can submit to clients. Here is the first page:

The first sheet of the full 11-15 page synopsis

I work like I do because I write a least a book a month for clients and I don’t have time to thrash through a book like many writers who might write one book a year.

And I schedule my work in the same calendar that I keep track of bills and the other details of my life. Yeah, it’s weird, but it helps me to keep track.

Other than that I make sure I eat and rest well, so I have the energy to put into the words.

With all the details nailed tighter than a sheet of plywood on a window before a hurricane, I can sit down and write, concentrating on the emotions of the characters and driving the action forward.

Measuring Word Efficacy

When I’m done I measure the efficacy of my words, and I have metrics for that based on a study I did on bestselling authors:

The level of detail in my workbook can be overwhelming, and truth be told, I don’t use all of it, all the time. But it helps me juggle multiple projects. And it helps other people too. One client I’m helping to get a book together wrote to me:

You rock so hard. You may rue the day you met me. But I am so grateful for you. No one has ever gotten me – the ultimate crazy writing cat – organized so I could focus on actually writing and getting my words where they need to be! Big virtual hugs.

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