Checking the Charts

If you belong to any kind of social media, a writer’s group, a library, a school or even know a writer, you’ve probably seen J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet page from Order of the Phoenix about 32,941 times. In case you missed it, I’ll show it again.

It made me think of a few things.

  1. Those messy lines drive me nuts.
  2. Someone has worse handwriting than me.
  3. Rowling was very careful about plotting everything out.
  4. It shows in her writing, because one of the things I love about her stories is the careful plotting. If she introduces something or someone, you can be sure it will come into play somewhere along the line.

I really like that. I like dropping things in that seem kind of innocent and then later they become a major issue.

In DANCING HORSES Colton’s (MC) aunt find a massive amount of pina colada air fresheners on sale. She puts them in his truck, his closets, his office. He smells like a walking coconut. This triggers a subliminal urge to eat Mounds Bars and one of the horses develops a craving for Mounds Bars too. The horse recognizes his scent even when he can’t see Colton and has a funny little nicker when he smells him. Maybe he loves the guy, and who doesn’t aside from the mob guys who are trying to kill him, or maybe the horse loves the Mounds Bars. Either way, Colton has returned to ex-bosses stud farm and is hiding in the barn. The guys decide he isn’t in the barn until the horse does his little nicker and one of the hired hands recognizes it. Oops.

I love stuff like that. Unfortunately, unless you’re really careful, those cool little clues turn into, “What the heck is going on here? I’m totally lost.”

It gets worse when you cut out 1/3 of your book to get word count down and then it’s, “I’m so confused. The horse is a wizard?”

On the first pass, I highlighted all the scenes to denote different POV. That took a lot of highlighters, but let’s not get into that. It did show me where I needed to readjust scenes and chapters to introduce characters sooner or scatter scenes so characters don’t disappear for too long.

I actually have pictures of that phase because that was when I had a camera. We also won’t get into that.

I thought I had all that worked out. The problem with reading your own stuff, or even people who are familiar with your work reading it is the minds have become accustomed to the story. They know what’s going on because they’ve seen it before. Your mind knows exactly what’s going on because the story is where you’ve live for months, years or decades.

The new person reading it, like an agent, looks at it and scratches their head, pours another drink, decides to plow on for whatever reason and at the end they have a headache, either from reading your manuscript or the three bottles of scotch it took to get through it. In either case, there is a major problem.

Your plot isn’t a gently meandering stream with some lovely little meadows and forests along the way. It’s, as one person said, kudzu. The only good thing to say about kudzu is it’s green. It’s not a great description for a plot.

So, back to the drawing board, or storyboard.

I tried the storyboard, but it was too inconvenient to go from one room to the other to check on something while I was writing.

I did the character arcs for the main characters to get feedback from the writing group. That helped a lot. I also learned I need to show more “whys” when characters do something. What is their motivation? This was hard for me because Barbara Rogan drilled it into our heads to trust the reader and not explain everything. If you show a man trying to help a wounded bird you can assume he is kind-hearted. Or hungry. As usual, I took it too far and now I need to dial it back a notch.

Now I am doing an in depth outline. I start out with the chapter and then do each scene. Each scene is broken down into the important parts. I highlight items in yellow if it’s something that is “planting a seed” for future action. When the future action happens, I go back and highlight it with green. I tossed out a hook and then closed the loop so I don’t have stuff still dangling.

If something triggers in my mind that a line doesn’t sound quite right or something bothers me about it, I highlight that yellow also and make a note in brackets so I can check it later.

This seems like it ought to be great for cutting more stuff out. I recognize lines and scenes I can get rid of and streamline it even more. In actuality, it means there are some things I need, but I took out previously so now other things no longer make sense. I’m adding in some details, action and even a bit of backstory, but it means the story doesn’t have those annoying questions.

On the plus side, another POV is eliminated and a character everyone loves becomes much more important. Who the heck doesn’t want more of a charming, kind of, pirate with a warped sense of humor?

So, in honor of J.K. Rowlings’ spreadsheet that was seen ‘round the world, we are exploring how different writers organize their stories. I’ll be linking different blog posts relating to the subject here as will other writers on their blogs so we can do a sort of blog tour.

Caveat: Not everyone plans. Some people can’t or they lose interest in the story. Some people do it after the story is done. There is no “right” way to write regardless of what some experts will tell you. The right way is the way that works for you, but it’s always interesting to share ideas.

Susan M. Boyer has posted her methods!

Lisa Ahn debuts here with her methods.

Midnightblooms is plotting to take over the world

A.S. Has a method to her madness also.


  1. I’ve never seen that spreadsheet. And I’m with Kari. Organize? *snort*

    I do try, it just never works. It’s a constant battle with me on how to organize it, and functioning without ever accomplishing it.

    However, I do have something similar to that spreadsheet in ink. I shall post it tomorrow. Just for you.

  2. Somehow, I missed Rowling’s chart. But I do something similar in Excel–I can’t read my own handwriting, and without some kind of map, I get lost in the Kudzu, too. I’ll post my version tomorrow.

  3. Crystal,

    I know, I’ve tried organizing before. FAR RIDER taught me I either need to organize before or after. Beth Shope says she loses interest in a story if she knows what’s going to happen, but she has a knack for examining things afterward. Plus, she’s just incredibly talented.

    SONG OF ILWEN, another story, I wrote a chapter a day. Then I went back and did a very brief outline. I’m having problems with the beginning, but I think because I did the outline, even if it is just a line a chapter, I can sort it out easier.

    Looking forward to your post.

  4. Oh, Susan, I thought that chart had become required reading for the writer’s guild.

    I’m really looking forward to what you did in Excel. I tried that, and I do know how to use Excel, but it didn’t feel write.

  5. They know what’s going on because they’ve seen it before. Your mind knows exactly what’s going on because the story is where you’ve live for months, years or decades.

    This post contains so many points that I am working on. Glad to know I’m not the only one. Thanks.

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