Thursday 27 March 2014

Document Map, Microsoft Word and Plotting Novels

How to plot novels and other forms of long fiction is a burning question for many of my writing students. I mentioned The Plotting Problem in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and how it relates to the plot being more than a head-full of information. 

Document Map in Microsoft Word is helpful to me in tackling this problem - particularly in the stage where I have already written some tens of thousands of words but do not yet have the whole structure clear in my mind. I use it to provide a map of the chapters and sections of the novel – presented in a side bar at the edge of the computer screen. Armed with that visual overview I find the emerging structure easier to comprehend. 
Clearly, this system won't be appropriate for everyone. But I thought I would share it in the hope that it might be useful to some.

Document Map as a novel writing tool
Screen-shot, showing Document Map enabled
In this screenshot you can see my setup for novel writing using Microsoft Word. The first thing you will probably notice is the colour tint in the background of the page. Background colour can be defined as part of the page setup. Like many dyslexics, I get a certain amount of visual stress when reading black text on a white background. Having an ivory, amber or straw-coloured background is far more easy for me to work with.

The document map can be seen down the left hand side of the page. Every bit of text in your document that is defined as a heading will appear there. I use the ‘Normal’ style for the body of each chapter, the ‘Heading 2’ style for chapter headings themselves and the ‘Heading 1’ style to mark out my act structure: Part One, Part Two and Part Three - or more if necessary.
Styles are accessed under the Home tab at the top of the page in Microsoft Word. Document map is enabled by checking the appropriate box under the 'View' tab.
Styles on the 'Home' tab
In the screenshot, I have clicked ‘Part One’ in the document map to open out that section, revealing all the chapters within it. I could similarly collapse it down with a click and open up any of the other sections.

Document Map close-up
To assist me in navigating the document, I the chapters names. These are memory joggers to help me know what is in each chapter. But once the novel has been written and edited, I remove the names. They are like scaffolding - taken down after a building has been constructed. The act structure markers are also removed at that stage.


The screenshot is from the opening page of my novel The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, which is being published by Angry Robot in September.

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