Posted On February 8, 2017 by Print This Post

Organizing Your Novel with Laura Drake

Whether you’re a plotter or panster, keeping track of the whom, what, why, and where in your novel can be problematic. RU Contributor Laura Drake shows us how she streamlines the process. 

Learning your writing process is finding your way in a pitch black room full of furniture. You can learn by banging your shins, but there are less painful ways.

I’m an organized person, and it would make me crazy trying to locate details in my WIP. Which chapter did the dog first show up? Or the first kiss? Or harder yet, the smaller details – what kind of shoes did the old man wear the second time the heroine met him?

I’d end up scrolling through two hundred pages. And get distracted…

Oh, now there’s a clunky sentence.

Wait, did I really use the word ‘jerk’ twenty-three times in this book?

I did NOT just compare his private parts to a DEER ANTLER! (yes, I did, and my crit group will NEVER let me forget it.)

Before you know it, I’d be hopelessly mired in the text, and forgot what I came for.

I’m an CFO by trade (well, I used to be – let me tell you, retirement does not suck.) so if I need something organized, of course, the first place I go is Excel.

I know, all you math-adverse have now broken into a sweat. Follow me here – no formulas are involved. If you can open the program, you can do this. Promise.

First, I thought about what information I wanted to capture. Here’s my list (yours may differ)

• The length of each chapter
• What happened in each chapter – by scene
• Track POV – so I could check the balance in my novel
• Track the romance, and where it happened, for balance
• Timeline
• Word count

So I made up what I call my Chapter Cheat Sheet. Here’s what it looks like for my novel, Her Road Home:

Click on the sheet to view it full-size. 

• I now know how many pages each chapter is, and the word counts (if you total the word count column, you’ll have the total word count of the book)
• The pink highlight = chapters that advance the romance. I can see quickly where it is, if it’s clumped together and if I have enough or too much
• The column in the middle shows what happens in the scenes, using only a few words, separated by ‘/’
• The POV is shown by the color coding in the scenes; Green for the Heroine, Purple for the Hero
• Blue I used to denote scenes that could be cut, if I ran over my allowed word count
• Red was problem scenes I knew I’d have to come back to later
• The far right column is a timeline – because I stink at them

Note that I have more than one sheet to this workbook. You can use them for a more detailed timeline, or anything else you’d like to track. Revisions usually means cutting and pasting scenes in different places, so I’ll create a new sheet for my newly revised version.

I’m not a plotter. If you are, you may start a cheat sheet before you even begin the book! Since the thought of outlining gives me hives, I complete my cheat sheet as I go.

Honestly, this tool has been invaluable for me. It gives me a bird’s eye view of the entire novel on one screen. I can’t imagine writing a book without one. Please let me know in the comments if you’d like a copy.

Hope it helps save your shins!

What do you use to organize your WIP? Any suggestions for us?

Leave your email address in comments if you’d like a copy of Laura’s cheat sheet. 



Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.

Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.

Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.

When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.

It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.

A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.


Laura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her ‘biker-chick’ novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin’s Superromance line, and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town.

Laura’s first women’s fiction, Days Made of Glass, released January, 2016.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

Connect with Laura via Twitter, Facebook, or on her group blog, Writers in the Storm.

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47 Responses to “Organizing Your Novel with Laura Drake”

  1. Thanks for having me, RU!

    Posted by Laura Drake | February 8, 2017, 4:11 am
  2. This is almost exactly how I used to do my WIP charts! Only my first tab was character names. I list every name I use, and now do streets and businesses, too. I track appearance, role in the book, ability if it’s a paranormal, and general notes. I still do that one.

    Everything else I do in Scrivener now. It allows me to color code for POV and assign a day/date to each scene so I can keep track of the timeline, and the project and document notes are where I keep track of revisions and future needs, since I’m not a plotter, either.

    But I loooove spreadsheets. So easy to see things like this at a glance. Thanks for sharing yours!

    Posted by Natalie Damschroder | February 8, 2017, 7:57 am
  3. I would LOVE to be more organized but it’s like my brain has a block. Currently I use index cards to map out scenes. It’s dangerous because if I lose one before I’ve got the first draft I often can’t remember what I was supposed to be writing!

    It never occurred to me to keep track of chapter word counts or block out areas that may be cut later. Your plan doesn’t seem to structured.It couldn’t hurt to try this method. Thanks, Laura.


    Posted by Nicole | February 8, 2017, 8:26 am
  4. We received this via email this morning…

    Hello Laura,

    This is exactly what I need this morning. I’m writing with Scrivener and I have a long list of folders running down the left side of my screen. My organization skills are sorely lacking. Would you please share your cheat sheet with me? Thank you!

    Julie Nieves

    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 8, 2017, 8:49 am
  5. Great post, Laura! I would love a copy of your cheat sheet. I’ve started a series for Special Edition (coming January 2018!!) And I really need a ‘series bible’.

    For now, I’m using Scrivener so when I come across something I need to look something from book #1 for use in book #2, I make a note of it in the General Project Notes, but this might even work better since it’s totally separate.


    Posted by Carrie Nichols | February 8, 2017, 8:50 am
  6. I used to do something similar in PowerPoint. I’d do one page for each chapter, use colors for the characters and blocks to denote plot progression.

    I use Scrivener now, and it keeps track of everything I need without me having to create a separate document to keep track of things. (I get to store my character bible and research in the same file, too, which is yet another reason I love Scrivener.)

    I don’t think it matters so much how you keep track of these things. Whatever works for you. My sister spent years in an accounting department and loves Excel. Your method would work for her, and she’d be very comfortable with it.

    Regardless of what software you prefer, I think it’s crucial to keep track of these things. In the end, it will result in a better story.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | February 8, 2017, 9:01 am
  7. What a fantastic tool! I would love a copy.

    I’ve evolved into a plotter over this last year and something like this would be super helpful. Thanks, Laura!

    Posted by Lisa Knight | February 8, 2017, 9:19 am
  8. I did something like this for my first novel (which is being re-edited for ebook – pre-Excel) I did a flowchart – but CLOSE! Yes – even a novella can use this! LOVE IT. and Excel is an excellent idea. I did so many project at work by tracking with Excel. Nothing they have developed since is as efficient! Thanks for reminding me. I have used textedit files of late – no where near as informative! (Also retired – still a CEO – of me – and yes – retirement doesn’t suck.)

    Posted by Donnamaie White | February 8, 2017, 9:44 am
  9. I would love a copy of your cheat sheet. I started to compile a master scene list in Excel, however I made it far too complicated, I think. Your setup is more streamlined. TIA!

    Posted by Sarina Rhoads | February 8, 2017, 10:15 am
  10. What an excellent idea. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m also terrible with timelines. I like how you have everything colour-coded, the word count, etc.

    Posted by Mercy | February 8, 2017, 11:16 am
  11. This is so amazingly helpful, especially as something I could hand off to the hired editor. Thank you for simplifying something that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around doing.

    Posted by Sara Zalesky | February 8, 2017, 11:17 am
  12. I use Document Notes, Project Notes and Tags in Scrivener.

    Posted by Sherryl | February 8, 2017, 12:26 pm
  13. Wow, what a handy tool. It seems each time I begin a story, I change my method. This seems like a great way to organize each project. I am a plotter, and this will work well with my system. I would love a copy, please:

    Posted by Alicia Dean | February 8, 2017, 12:49 pm
    • On the way, Alicia. And I wish I knew how many times I’ve changed my method – that’s one of the hardest things about writing, I think. You have to learn how YOU write a book, and you can only learn that by trial and error!

      Posted by Laura Drake | February 8, 2017, 2:06 pm
  14. Hi Laura,

    I keep spreadsheets to help me remember eye/hair color and physical traits of characters, but your cheatsheet takes this a step further. Story timelines are an area that make me paranoid, especially when books are in a series. For instance, if a character was four months pregnant in April in book one, discerning readers would know how old the baby should be in book two.

    I love the idea of having an aerial view of the story. How often do you add to your spreadsheet? After you’ve written a chapter or two?

    Thanks again, Laura!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 8, 2017, 1:09 pm
  15. Hellooo Laura —

    Smart, smart, smart blog.

    I love working with both sides of your brain in Immersion class.

    Your logical left side sets things up and tracks them, which makes it easier for your creative right side to, umm, be creative. 🙂

    Resulting in — stellar stories loaded with stellar writing!

    Posted by Margie Lawson | February 8, 2017, 1:45 pm
  16. Thanks Laura, I’d love a copy of your spreadsheet. My email is 🙂

    Posted by Karen | February 8, 2017, 2:03 pm
  17. Like you, I use excel for my chapter tracking. Never thought of using colors, but I write more fantasy than straight romance so I never thought of spacing the romance out. I do have a line for POV so I can rough out the percentages. I use a word table for my secondary characters (it looks like a spreadsheet but was more portable when I started it.) It also tracks the chapter the character first appeared in each book in the series and if I write them out that data also.

    thanks for posting. glad to meet someone lse with a cheat sheet.

    Posted by HELEN HENDERSON | February 8, 2017, 2:32 pm
  18. Thank you for sharing your writing process! I’d love a copy of the spreadsheet too.

    My email is write(at)preslaysa(dot)com

    Posted by Preslaysa Williams | February 8, 2017, 7:10 pm
  19. I love this, and I would adore a copy of the spreadsheet. What a help.

    Posted by jeanne kern | February 8, 2017, 7:59 pm
  20. Hey, Laura. I do something like this. Got it from some class I took on plotting, but as I’ve morphed into a plotser, I fill it out mostly as I go along. Mine’s just a table. I’m not fast with Excell and I say more than you do, so need more space. But I keep track of the same things you do. No color coding for me. I just write POV Kate or whoever at the top of the square. Margie’s is the only color coding I’ve been able to keep up with. LOL Great post.

    Posted by Marsha R West | February 9, 2017, 3:38 pm
  21. This comes at just the right moment. I’m in the middle of a muddle trying to figure out how to keep my Regency Historical series straight. I don’t want one of my heroes to be up in Scotland attending a friend’s wedding at the same time as, in another book, he is in London causing a ruckus! Plus, I have such a problem with my timeline. I am hoping your Chapter Cheat Sheet will help me. Thanks!

    Posted by J Jade Jordan | February 9, 2017, 10:43 pm
  22. Typically, I plot my scenes on large notecards that I paste to the wall by my desk, but I love the idea of this little spreadsheet. So organized and simple, and by mirroring your system, I could quickly gauge how balanced my WIP is, something that isn’t possible with my current system.

    I’d love a copy of your cheatsheet. Thanks!

    Posted by Jess Schira | February 10, 2017, 5:03 am
  23. I so enjoy reading articles on organizing your novel! Thank you for this glimpse into our process. I would also appreciate a copy of the spreadsheet if the offer is still open. Thank you!

    Posted by Alexis-Morgan Roark | February 13, 2017, 5:01 pm
  24. I just came across your post and I think it might the answer to help organize my story. More so I’m hoping it might get me out of the corner i feel like I’ve written myself into.

    I’ve tried to organize in Word but that didn’t work. Your process seems like it might be what i’ve been looking for.

    If i could have a opy of your spreadsheet it would be greatly appreciated.

    Posted by Sonja | March 31, 2017, 9:22 am
  25. Hello Laura, I’d love a copy of your spreadsheet. My email is

    Thank you for your inspiring blog / site.


    Posted by Michael Bücker | April 12, 2017, 12:02 pm


  1. […] Jami Gold talks story structure options for trilogies, and Laura Drake has tips for organizing your novel. […]

  2. […] But not everything will fit. My biggest problem was in the scene-to-scene details. So I needed a micro tool. Excel to the rescue (again.) As you may know, I use Excel to track my scenes, chapter page count, word count, and much more. If you missed that post, it’s here. […]

  3. […] Organizing Your Novel […]

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