Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Myra’s WIP Management Tips

Through my 25+ years as a writer, I’ve tried all kinds of lists, charts, and plotting aids to help me keep up with the characters and story lines in my work-in-progress. My latest experiment seems to be working well for me--an Excel workbook containing a variety of worksheets that cover everything from goal/motivation/conflict to chapter-by-chapter plotting to the names of every character in the book. Here’s how I use it:

When I’m starting a new book--and once I have at least a general idea who my characters are and the central conflict they’ll be facing--I start thinking in terms of each character’s GMC. Using the chart below, I fill in the heroine’s and hero’s names, then determine each one’s basic goal (character wants/needs . . . ), motivation (because . . . ) and conflict (but . . . ).

Then it’s time to start plotting. I am a confirmed seat-of-the-pants writer, but I still try to use the next chart to help me at least get started on the story. Once the story takes off, I don’t always go back and finish filling in the chart, but I do refer often to the steps in the left-hand column, which I’ve adapted from Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure with inner and outer journeys. I’ve spread out the stages pretty much as I’d expect them to fall chapter by chapter, which helps me with pacing the story. You'll see only the first few stages in this screen shot.

Since reading The Moral Premise, I’ve added one more worksheet as a plotting aid. Once I can put my story’s moral premise into words, I think about how each character does or does not live live according to that basic truth, the event that will change the character, and how he or she approaches life after the change. Below is an example for the heroine of my upcoming Heartsong Presents novel Romance by the Book. At this point in the planning, I wasn’t sure what Sailor’s change event would be.

The worksheet I use most consistently is the calendar. I set it up to fit the time frame of my story, and then as I write each scene, I jot a brief summary of what happened on the appropriate calendar square. If I later revise a scene so it happens on a different day, I’m careful to make the change on the calendar as well. I also include key events that affect the characters but don't necessarily play out onstage. Keeping an accurate story calendar will pay huge dividends when your editor questions your timeline! Along with the previous worksheet, it’s also very helpful for writing your chapter-by-chapter outline or synopsis.

To keep track of all the characters in a manuscript--and to make sure I don’t have too many names starting with the same letter--I use the character name worksheet. I enter the character’s name twice on the sheet: once by last name, and once by first name, as shown below in the example.

I also like to track how many words I’ve written each day, and that’s where this next worksheet comes in. I’ve set it up so that all I have to do is enter the date and the number of words completed that day, and Excel automatically calculates the daily total and copies that figure onto the next line under “Start word count.” I manually type in the ending page number when I stop for the day.

No doubt these methods will continue to evolve the longer I'm at this business. If anyone is interested in giving my worksheets a try, I’d be happy to e-mail you the workbook file. Just let me know in the comments section and be sure you either include your e-mail address in the comment or are logged in so I can find your e-mail if I click on your name.

Remember, the key is to not become a slave to a bunch of spreadsheets, but to use only what is helpful at the time!

ADDENDUM 7/16/09: I may not get back to the comment section on this post again, so anyone who missed getting my novel planning Excel workbook and still wants the file, please e-mail me directly. You should find my contact info in my profile. Thanks for your interest!


Lee Smith said...

I haven't ever used anything like this, but I am also a true newbie and unpublished, so it may be something I should try. :o) I would appreciate the worksheets. I am logged in, so you should be able to send them to me that way. Thanks so much. It looks like an incredible system.

Leigh said...

Good morning -- great worksheets, Myra! I'm rewriting some things before moving forward with my WIP so am finally putting some of these fragments in my mind and on scraps of paper in organized worksheets. Love it so far but hadn't thought of adding one for the Moral Premise. I'll have to do that and would love to piggyback on yours as a starting point.

Y'all know I'm not a coffee girl but DH left some gurgling in the pot when he headed to work, so maybe that can get you started. Cinnamon bread should be out of the oven soon, so enjoy! :-)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cinnamon bread...

Leigh, thank you! It's chilly in WNY today, 48 degrees...

Did someone forget to look at the calendar? July 14th??? 48 degrees???

Anyway, hot coffee and cinnamon bread. That's a little piece of heaven right here on earth, but we're not relegated (for Mary's benefit) to the dregs in Leigh's pot. Oh no. I brought a full coffee service. We can pretend we're vitally important romance writers at a stunning D.C. hotel, busily preparing for our conference-filled day. :)

So we're the stay-at-homes, huh? The ones NOT rushing to airports for the RWA National conference?

Next year in Nashville. That's my mantra. One of them. The other one is "Fat is the new Thin"...

Kind of like "Orange is the new Pink". Yeah, and just as popular, LOL!!!!

Okay, Myra.

My head's spinning. How I envy that organized brain of yours. Seriously. That's amazing and impressive.

I bow to the expert because I have trouble charting anything, including monthly cycles.

In awe.


Tina M. Russo said...

Are you kidding me? This is better than a prize from the prize vault.


Tina M. Russo said...

Leigh, check out the weekend edition. You won a leetle prize.

Katie Ganshert said...

WOW! I love the charts! Very cool :)

Pepper Basham said...

Myra, Thanks so much for your charts. I'm ever-failing at charts and desperately need the organization they provide. This doesn't seem too rigid to employ, so it just might work for me. I think I'll go back with my WIP and try to chart some of it.
One chart I use consistentl is a dialogue chart - for those moments when parts of a scene will pop in my head, but it's later on in the book (and only in snippets). That's helped me with scene starters.

Thanks again.

Glynna Kaye said...

Fantastic, Myra! I use spreadsheets that are very similar to yours (a hodge podge of ones I've seen through the years and modified to suit my own needs), but mine don't have all the pretty color coding!

Thank you for sharing -- I'd LOVE to have copies! You know my email addy. :)

Rose said...

Hi Myra,

I keep a word count spreadsheet on all my books very similiar to yours however, I hadn't even thought of the rest of the spreadsheets. I plan to "study them" and try to utilize them in my WIP.


Cara Slaughter said...

I love these worksheets, Myra! My writing could definitely use more organization.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Hey, Myra, I forgot...

I'd love for you to e-mail these to me. I'm NOT too old to get organized.


I'm not.


Jessica said...

That's pretty impressive. Congrats on your sales! :-)

Julie Lessman said...

Sorry it took so long to leave a comment, but I was really the first one here, just too glazed to type anything.

Are you kidding me, Myra???? Is anybody really this organized? Or maybe I should say is anybody as disorganized as me??? I'm with Ruthy on this one -- my head is spinning!! I was impressed with myself because I created an age/anniversary chart for my fourteen characters ... uh, finally, after three books!!

I truly bow to your organizational skills, my friend ... I am in awe!


lynnrush said...

Wow. I really enjoyed this. Some great tools here.

Thanks for this.

Leigh said...

Thanks, Tina, I forgot about that. What do I need to do to claim my leetle prize? :-)

I'm sure everyone appreciates the real coffee, Ruthy! I do love to smell it perking -- just can't make myself drink any. But at least I can cook things to go with it!

Mary Connealy said...

Myra, You're not keeping a spread sheet of all the times I've .... uhhhhhh .... tld some innocuous little joke at your expense are you?

I promise to shape up.
I have all these files of stuff to remember, times lines for books for example, but I think if I used somthing like this, I could actually put my hands on the info when I needed it....without it being so hard to wade through notes.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Leigh, we've got your back. We'll make coffee.

You bring food.

It's a win/win.

Hey, grab some creamers, though, will you?

And Jules, glad I'm not the only one. BUT....

I'm not afraid to try this BECAUSE....

We need to be sharp and savvy so we don't mess up series writing. Unless I'm the only one who does that, mixing up characters names, ages, timelines, conflicts, plot points.

Gotta find a way to keep it quickly accessible. This might help.

Or a brain transfer. Maybe a Vulcan mind-meld.


First requirement is a mind. Second... A Vulcan.

Dagnabbit! Foiled again.

Leigh, keep the ovens fired up, darlin'.

JStantonChandler said...

What an amazing system you've got going, Myra! This is only the second time I've seen worksheets like this for writers. The first was in a book I bought in January and they really do work. I'm also a seat of the pants writer, but I found that getting everything in some sort of order (even if it only vaguely resembles order) helps my mind differentiate between what's going on, what needs to be going on, and what needs to be deleted (eek!) all together! Thanks and happy Tuesday :)

Speaking of coffee...my could use some warming up!

Laura Mc said...

Myra, I would love to receive the worksheet file. Thank you so much for being willing to share it. lauramctx at yahoo.com

Myra Johnson said...

Good morning, everyone! Sorry to be late to the party, but it takes me a while to get moving in the mornings. It's hot-hot-hot where I live, too, so I've brought some iced chai latte to the buffet table.

Well, I'm glad y'all are finding my spreadsheets so fascinating. As an SOTP writer, I will try just about anything to help the process along. As I said, I don't always fill out every sheet completely, and not always every sheet with every book. I used them just enough to keep the ol' brain cells cranking.

As soon as I get my act together later, I'll e-mail my Excel file to everyone who has SPECIFICALLY requested it. So if you want a copy, please make sure the comment you left is clear on that point. I sure don't want to burden anyone with a big file you didn't really want. ;>D

Lorna said...

Myra, I loved the worksheets--especially the color coding. I have one sort of like it that I use but not the great colors. That really helps keep things identifiable at an easy glance.

Thanks for sharing this!

carla stewart said...

Wow, Myra, I'm impressed. And realize that your organizational skills are what's keeping you on top of things w/ your multiple books coming out. Thrilled for you and that we're on this road together.
My charts pale in comparison to yours, so I'd love to have your worksheet files.
On hot days like today, I'd rather sweat over a spreadsheet than step a toe outside.
Thanks for being so generous.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Myra, are you teaching this at the conference this year? You should! So organized! I wish you could impart some of your organization to me!!! I try to do the calendar thing, but with this last book I kept neglecting it until I no longer was keeping up with it all.

Melanie Dickerson said...

And please email me the files! Thank you!

melaniedickerson at knology dot net

Erica Vetsch said...

I love seeing how other writers develop a process that works for them. And it's so helpful to see that though there is no one right way, there's something to be gleaned from everybody's styles.

I've become quite a fan of spreadsheets myself.

And my copy of The Moral Premise should arrive today. Yay!

Erica Vetsch said...

And I'd love a copy of the worksheets. Forgot that part...lol, do you have a worksheet for scattered memory cells?

ericavetsch at charter dot net

PatriciaW said...

Myra, this is great. I'm a structure kind of woman but haven't found anything that really works for me with my writing. I know I can't be too structured, or I won't write, but lacking structure, I lose the story and wind up with the same result.

Please include me for the workbook.
Thanks much.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Myra for showing how you used the excel. We've been hearing from Pam about how much she uses them and I kept thinking I should try it. I'm an old fashion 3 by 5 card user. But it helps to see it laid out. Now maybe I'll have the courage to try.

I"d love copies sent to me.

Ruthy, you're right. What's with cold weather in July? I'm sitting in a fog bank. Well. It is on the Washington coast near the Olympic Rain Forest. LOL

Soooooo the cinnamon buns and coffee are yummy. The strawberries, raspberries and blueberries up here are to die for so I have bowls of vine ripened fruit and a tub of whipped cream to go with those rolls.

Myra Johnson said...

Okay, I have just e-mailed my Excel charts to everyone whose comment clearly indicated they wanted them. Let me know if I missed a request.

I would still like to figure out how to include characterization charts in the workbook. Stuff like physical features, background, etc., all in one place. At this point I still keep that kind of info in a Word document and add to it as I "learn stuff" about my characters during the writing process.

The same is true for businesses, etc. in my story setting, relationships between characters, and other random stuff that comes to me along the way. See, I just hate it when I come to a point where I really need to remember where someone goes to church or shops, or were their eyes blue or green, and I have to go searching through ms. pages to find out what I originally wrote.

Tina M. Russo said...

Leigh, email me your snail mail address.

Vince said...

Hi Myra:

Not long ago I read and reviewed a romance called “Romance by the Book” by Tina Gallagher, Wild Rose Press, 2008. Just thought you might want to know this.

I would love for you to send me a workbook file. I have Excel but I always use the Works spreadsheet as it is simpler. Do you know if your Excel file will work in Works?

I’m writing a new book with a lot of characters and your system seems perfect for what I am doing. Great post.



Vmres at swbell dot net

Pepper Basham said...

Hey Myra,
Would you please count me in on that list of emails for copies?

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Vince. I always check my ideas against Amazon.com listings when I'm deciding on a title but was unaware of the WRP novel.

christa said...

Wow--This would be a great workshop topic! Thanks for generously sharing, and I'd love the worksheets.


Myra Johnson said...

Nice to see you here, Christa! And thanks to those of you who have suggested this as a workshop topic. Yikes! I'll have to give serious thought to that idea! I'm SOOOO much more comfortable hiding behind my computer screen.

Gina C said...

These are great! I always use a GMC, but when I try do the plot thing, I usually abandon it. I'll have to take a closer look at your spreadsheets which look a little more organized then mine.

Now, you'll have to teach this class at WIN!

Janet Lee Barton said...

Great management tips, Myra! I 'd love to show them to the OCFW chapter, if you don't mind!
Thanks for sharing.

Myra Johnson said...

Glad to see my Oklahoma friends visiting (waving to Gina & Janet)!

As the afternoon heats up, I've powered up the blender and am about to pour frosty glasses of virgin pina coladas! Any takers?

Tina M. Russo said...

Erica, my Moral Premise arrived. I am deeelighted. Have started reading it already!!!

Janice Olson said...

I like your method of tracking your WIP. You have some very good charts and ideas.

I would appreciate receiving a copy of your system to try out and see if it would be something that could work for me also.



Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Myra,

I'm impressed with your organization! I'd love to try a copy of your worksheets.
sbmason (at) sympatico (dot) ca

Thanks for being so generous and sharing your files!



Kirk K said...

Thanks for the great info, Myra. I would like to received your worksheet.

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for your interest, Kirk, but I didn't see any contact info when I clicked on your profile. So you write fantasy?

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Hey guys, I brought afternoon/evening snacks...

Chips and salsa with wonderful nacho cheese...

To go with those virgin drinks Myra's got going.

Anybody looking for something a little heftier in the drink category might want to see Julie...


Also brought a carrot cake TO DIE FOR since Sandra hooked us up with fresh fruits and whipped cream. I went totally non-heart-healthy to balance things out.


Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for the chips & salsa and carrot cake, Ruthy--yum! I actually like a little, um, heft to my pina coladas, but I thought it was a wee bit early in the day. However, happy hour doth approach!

Vince said...

Hi Myra:

I received your Excel charts and they are spectacular! I also loaded them in Works -- as Excel files -- and they will work but only one file at a time can be in memory. I had to exit and then load the next file in Works.

Given how useful these charts are I am going to take the time to learn Excel.



Myra Johnson said...

I'm sure no Excel expert (I think that would be Pam), but I'm getting better. What's the point of having all these fancy computer programs at our fingertips if we don't take advantage of them? The problem is, some things I don't use often enough to be proficient and waste too much time consulting the help files.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i would LOVE to get a PDF or Word file of your first two charts, esp. do you have any on your computer you could send? i've been making my own...but they aren't color-coded...and i LOVE that! if this is possibly...lemme know!!

charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com

Elaine said...

I found you by reading someone else's blog. I'd love the information about the flowcharts you use. If you have time and could make a few more comments about the calendar, I'd also appreciate that. I'm not "getting" that concept yet.

Thanks so much for your help. I've finished my first novel, but am still tweeking it. This looks as if it will be very helpful for the next work I intend to start soon.


Myra Johnson said...

Jeannie, all these are worksheets in ONE master Excel file. Not sure I could save them successfully into other formats. I'm not at my "real" computer tonight but will get back with you tomorrow.

Myra Johnson said...

Hi, Elaine! About the calendar...I build it based on the time my book covers. It helps me track the passage of time and record when events happen on the story timeline. Not sure what more I can say. As I said in my previous comment, I'll have to get back with you tomorrow when I'm at my computer.

Ayrian Stone said...

Ruthie--I'm busting up laughing about your mind-meld comment. Where are those Vulcans anyway?

Julie--I need to create that birthdays/anniversaries chart for my WIP since I have the hero research his geneology. Don't want anyone doing the math and telling me a 13-year-old had a kid. :)

Myra--I'm definitely a computer notes person. Probably because I travel so much. Can't keep track of loose-leaf papers! Either that or my kids will draw all over them. It's happened before! :)

Pepper and Janet--Thanks so much for your compliments yesterday on Love that is Blind, available through online stores. Bless you!

Lacy J. Williams said...


What a great post! I am in awe of your organization skills.

Can I get a copy of your worksheets?

Thanks for sharing!

ljyw at cox dot net

Audra Harders said...

Chiming in late, but couldn't pass this by! What a great method you have, Myra! I'm ready to try organized : )

Would you email a set my way, too?

Great, great stuff!

Karen Schravemade said...

I hope I'm not too late to add my request for your worksheets. This system looks brilliant. Thanks so much for the generous offer.

karenschrav (at) hotmail (dot) com

Anonymous said...

Hi Myra!

I'm a SOTP writer too. And even though my head is spinning a little as well, I'd love a copy of your worksheets! I've been looking for a way to get myself more organized.

Marian Pearson Stevens

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks to everyone for your interest in my system! It's a work-in-progress in itself--always evolving as I pick up new tips and tricks. So many more experienced writers have passed along their wisdom to me, so I must extend my thanks to them as well!

If I missed sending the file to anyone who requested it, you can e-mail me personally at "mj (that thingy) myrajohnson dot com"

Vickie McDonough said...


I love your worksheets and would like a copy. I do some of this, but not in such detail. Great blog!!

Carmen7351 said...

Yes, I'd love your workbook file. So generous to offer it. Thanks so much.
desertrose5173 at gmail dot com

Cathy Bryant said...

Oooh, me, me, me, please! :D


Anonymous said...

I, too, write seat-of-the-pants, but I realize that what I'm doing in my head looks very like the sheets you've created. I think I could school myself to jot thoughts in squares and free up a lot of memory chips in my head. :)

I'd love to have a copy!


Mary said...

Myra, Thank you for this post and the offer. I think SOP writing is the most fun, but I can use help keeping track of all the characters and who did what when. :-D

Thanks again and God bless!

Lisa N said...


Great ideas all in one place. I'd love a copy of your workbook. Thank you.

SeaMommie (at) cox (dot) net

Sheila said...

Just now getting a chance to read your blog.I love how organized you are! I'd also like to have a copy of your worksheets.