Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Spreadsheets and series writing

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Today I will bore you guys with a post about writing.

Back in 2014 I did a piece on how I use a spreadsheet to plan my action scenes.
And of course there is the good practice of keeping track of word count and time spent writing to improve productivity1.
Today I found out another interesting application for spreadsheets: explore an ongoing series of stories, trace character arcs and keep the new material fresh.
And maybe I’m re-inventing the wheel, but…

ws_Age_of_Conan-_Brawl_1920x1200-860x280

Writing a series, especially if we are writing the different episodes out of chronological order, presents a number of pitfalls.
How many sword & sorcery stories – not to mention roleplaying scenarios! – start in a tavern? How many times did our old friend Conan fight a giant snake? How many times the bad guys motivation boiled down to “evil”?

Bride-of-the-swamp-god-previewI started thinking about this as I started my new Aculeo & Amunet story – working title, Curse of the Crimson Sands2.
The Aculeo & Amunet series includes now eight stories, and at this point the need to come up with fresh ideas, together with the need to keep the characters growing, are paramount.
So, here’s what I did.

I created a spreadsheet with a story in each row, in chronological order, and columns for

  1. Title (obviously)
  2. Location A
  3. Location B
  4. Advarsary
  5. Magic
  6. Amunet’s Motivation
  7. Aculeo’s Motivation
  8. The bad guy’s Motivation

So, here’s what I found out

a . Thrilling Locations

Three stories start in a tavern. Ouch!
And three stories feature underground structures.
This means that tunnels and taverns3 will be off-limits for a while. Time to start thinking about something original.

b . Meet the monsters

In eight stories, Aculeo & Amunet have faced and defeated: a Blob-like monster (baby-Shoggoth?), vengeful legionaries, a mad sorcerer and his pet lovecraftian god, said god’s cultists and a crocodile monster, fish-men and a creepy demon, ape-men, animated skeletons, zombies.
Not bad – in the monsters department, we might be still able to surprise our readers.

c . Girls are more complicated

The-Hand-of-Isfet previewAmunet’s motivations in the stories include curiosity, greed, ambition, vengeance, blackmail and the sheer need to survive. Interestingly enough, loyalty appears as a motivation in later stories, meaning the spoiled brat of the first stories is growing up.
Aculeo, on the other hand, normally reacts rather than act, and loyalty and decency are his main motivators, together with the need to survive.
It’s pretty obvious that most story situations are triggered by Amunet’s plotting and planning, and Aculeo then has to make the best of what’s at hand. It works, but it also suggests a few different ideas…

d . Behold… evil!!

Evil remains the main motivation of the bad guys, in four stories out of eight. This is probably the worst bit4,and the one that needs work the most. because everyone loves a power-crazed evil sorcerer, but giving him a little depth makes for a better story.
And anyway, no more evil sorcerers for a while, even if…

quote-it-s-one-thing-to-not-want-an-evil-sorcerer-type-villain-in-your-story-but-it-s-another-patrick-rothfuss-128-71-79

So, now I know what needs to be tweaked to make Curse of the Crimson Sands a better, (and easier to sell!) story.
The system seems to work, and I’m thinking about adding a few other columns to my spreadsheet. What about secondary characters, for instance?

I’ll keep you posted.


  1. check out Rachel Aaron’s excellent 2000 to 10000
  2. all the Aculeo & Amunet stories should have the Something of something something title structure. Only Severed Heads Valley breaks this rule. 
  3. nice title for a game supplement – must talk with my friend Umberto, the author of Beasts & Barbarians… 
  4. yes, worse than tunnels and taverns, because it’s easier to make those original than “he’s evil!” as a character motivation. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Spreadsheets and series writing

  1. A great tool for writing about alternate histories, forward in time or backward into the past. Kind of like having a time machine that tracks your character’s age forward or backward, not to mention multiple characters and happenings. Hard to do that on a manual typewriter!

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    • Yes.
      I am always in awe of the skill old pulp masters demonstrated in the ’30s and ’40s – the things they achieved, with folders filled with paper clippings instead of Wikipedia, and manual typwriters instead of word-processors, is amazing.
      But we have the tools, so why not use them? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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