Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.35: How to Organize Your Writing, or Managing the Mega-Arc

Let’s talk about organization! This week, we’re talking about how and what to keep track of— characters, places, names, etc. How do you organize a book? How do you outline a novel? 

And don’t worry, we dive into the messy question, what is worth keeping track of in your writing? We also hear about how Howard and Mary Robinette have turned their planning tools (and research!) into money. 


Build a tool (spreadsheet, wiki, whatever) for tracking things in the universe of your writing. Start by thinking of three things to track—these could be character-driven, thematic, emotional. 

Thing of the week: 

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler MRK

Liner Notes: 




Schlock Mercenary Shop

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Tools to keep big projects in line. Use string to align things! Simple tools can manage big things. Airtable, a database. Track character names, places, what you’ve done, what you mean to do. Find things that you are missing! E.g., over using one gender, or personality traits or alignments. Tracking helps you recognize patterns, and be intentional about them. Obsidian, a digital whiteboard for visual layouts, and automatic linking, a kind of mind map of connections. Wikidpad, use tools that work for you, that seem intuitive. Use find to see if you have already written something, so it is canon, and a collection of useful links. Measure twice, cut once, or relative measurement. Think about monetizing your references or research results. Worldbuilding, prep work, pre-writing is not wasted work if it works for you and your project. Spreadsheets and other pre-writing can tell you what you care about, what’s important to you. The beginning needs to introduce the important characters, and the end needs to resolve or answer questions asked at the beginning of the book. What is the big story? Who are the specific characters in this book? 

[Season 18, Episode 35]

[1:30 minutes advertising, almost inaudible]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Managing the Mega-Arc.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Howard] This week, we’re going to talk about big projects and the tools we use in order to keep them in line. I’m reminded of the… I can’t remember who it was who was making such a big deal about how the stones and the pyramids were laid out in perfect straight lines, and someone else pointed out that, “Dude, they had string.” You pull the string straight and, boy, you got a straight edge right there. You can just line these things up. There are some very simple tools that we can use to manage really big things. So I’m going to pitch this to the rest of the cast. What is your string?

[DongWon] Hey, Erin, do you want to talk about airtable?

[Erin] [chuckles] I do want to talk about airtable. So, I will say first that while airtable is actually free to use, I am not being a shill for airtable. Any sort of database or way of tracking things can work. It’s just the one that I really love, because it has a really great fun way of looking on the screen that works for me. But what I like to do is a lot for my game writing projects is to track things like character names, places, what I’ve done, what I mean to do. One of the reasons that I really like tracking is actually maybe for a different reason than other people do. I use tracking a lot of the time, and I use airtable, which is, like, I set up this database and I’ll list like every character I’ve ever mentioned. Every place that’s ever shown up in this particular game, is to find places… To find the things that I’m missing about myself. So, for example, if I track all of my characters and their genders, I may find that I overly skew one way or the other in terms of gendering characters. If I then add in a little bit about their personality traits or alignments in like a D&D or TP RPG world, I may find, for example, that I love chaotic good women, which I do, because I am one. So I… And that I make all men evil, because they… No, just kidding.


[Erin] Those types of things we often miss in our own work, the patterns that we’re creating. I think that a lot of times when you create patterns, and you’re not intentional about them, that’s when you can replicate bad things in the world that we don’t necessarily want to put on the page. So, for me, tracking is a way to keep things straight, to learn that I love names that start with the letter K, and that I can’t make everybody’s name a two syllable K name…


[Erin] Because eventually it will be very difficult to keep them apart.

[DongWon] I don’t know. World of Karen seems pretty terrifying.


[Erin] Wow. That’s actually a bad theme park. The World of Karens.

[Howard] That feels very much like the string metaphor I led with. You stretch that string out, and if one of the bricks is sticking just a little to one side, oh, you can see, oh, that is so clearly a thing I’ve done wrong. Let’s fix it.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] I also do a spreadsheet for similar reasons about my internal biases. But then I also… The thing that I started doing, and this gets to the… Over the course of a long series. I originally was putting in the characters ages. But, in the Lady Astronaut books, I just finished writing book four, which takes place 17 years after the first book. So when a character, a new character enters the world, I’m like, “Okay. So I just wrote down their age, but their age in what year?” So now I write down what year they were born in instead, which makes it much easier to track. I still have to do math. But it makes it much easier to figure out, like, where they are in relationship to the other characters in the book and how old they are as the story progresses.

[DongWon] Going back to tools specifically, Erin mentioned the airtable is a database, which is technically true, but also makes it sound very scary. Functionally, when you’re interacting with it, it is a series of linked spreadsheets is kind of what it looks like, that you can make it show your information in various ways. It is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s a very cool tool, and one that I highly recommend playing around with and exploring a little bit. If you want something that’s slightly less hierarchical for… I use this a lot for my games. I use a tool called Notions… Or, sorry, not Notions. I use Obsidian which is sort of like a series of linked text documents. But the reason I really like it is it has two features. One, it has a digital whiteboard version, so you can sort of lay stuff out visually. The other is it automatically links different documents together. If you mention something in one document, it’ll give you a sort of a mind map, so you can sort of see how things are connected and clustered and it gives you a really useful way to be like, “Okay, this location, these characters, these plot points are all linked in this way.” So you can find connections, or see where you didn’t draw a line that you need to. So a lot of these tools are just different ways to visualize all the information that’s in your head in a really structured way that can give you more insight into what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

[Howard] Often we resist tools that have a learning curve at the front of them. You look at a tool, you’re like, “Oh, I’d… I don’t want to have to learn how to program a database. I don’t want to have to learn how to format a spreadsheet.” The very first planning tool that I really used for Schlock Mercenary was a standalone wiki software called Wikidpad. Wiki D Pad. I always pronounced it Wikidpad because it never occurred to me that the developer was making a fun pun and calling it wicked pad. I loved it because while I was typing, by doing just a couple of keystrokes at the beginning and end of a name, it automatically turned that name into a link for a new page. So I could just right and by doing whatever those little blips were, I don’t know if it was double pipes or whatever, by doing those at the beginning of the thing, I was making a note to myself that says I’m going to expand on this later. Then I go back on it and click it, and boom! Up comes a blank page and I could start writing again. The desktop version, the only me version of the Schlock Mercenary wiki, was born. We talked about it in an early episode of Writing Excuses. I’m not here to pitch Wikidpad to you. I’m saying the tool that’s going to work for you might be the tool that is the most intuitive. Maybe that’s sticky notes on the wall, maybe that’s a clipboard.

[Mary Robinette] So the two… Like, you’ll hear people talking about needing to build their worldbuilding bible and things like that. Yes, I use a spreadsheet to track my characters ages, I use things like eon timeline to track the big over… Making sure that I’ve actually allotted them enough time to get from point A to point B. But most of my worldbuilding, I don… My two organizational methods are the find function…


[Mary Robinette] So that I can look for it in something that I have already written. Because if it’s not in the document, it is not canon, and I can change it. Then, my Scrivener, I have a section that’s called useful links and I just dropped the links in randomly. Like when… After I’ve researched something, I will drop a link into what I’ve researched. The reason that I’m bringing this up is that I know a lot of people who feel like they have to create this very detailed document before they can start writing. I am here to tell you that if you are chaotic neutral about your organization, or chaotic evil as my case may be, you don’t actually have to… What Howard said earlier about using the tool that works for you to solve the problem that you need to be solved. All I need to solve with my links is if someone says, “Where did you get that?” that I have someplace where I have it saved.

[Howard] I think my alignment is lawful lazy…


[DongWon] In woodworking, which is another one of my hobbies, permitting me to pull extended metaphors from my hobbies, there’s two ways… There’s the old saying that if you’re a carpenter, you measure twice and cut once. There’s a whole different school of thought to that. Right? So in this case, measure twice, cut once, is very much like I’m cutting this to this exact dimension, it is going to be this size, and I’ve planned it all out, and you’ve built a cut list of like 15 different things that are exact measurements and you have to follow that to a T. If you screw up, your whole project is going to be off. Right? That is how I think of very much this, like, worldbuilding document where you’re pre-building all these things in a very detailed way. There’s another mode of thinking that I find more useful. It’s a very traditional method called relative measurement. Right? You have a board. You are now going to mark that board in ratio to the next thing you want to make. Right? So if you have a drawer back, then that is the size of your drawer, you’re going to cut your drawer front in a way that matches the size of that. It doesn’t matter how big it is. You don’t need to know that it’s 9 inches and three quarters. You just need to know it’s this size, I’m marking it to be the same as that size. So you can do that with all your joinery and all of your pieces, and you have a thing at the end that is very beautiful and very proportional that fits the design that you wanted, but you’re doing it all relative to each other rather than trying to impose this top-down hierarchy on it. So if you approached your organization that way, I think for a lot of people, I think it can be much more intuitive and fluid, and sort of takes some of the stress off, of having to figure all these things out before hand.

[Howard] My own woodworking mantra is I’ve cut this three times and it’s still too short.


[DongWon] Then you just cut the other board to be short enough that it fits.

[Howard] Exactly. When we returned from our break, I’m going to talk about turning my planning tools into money.

[Mary Robinette] I want to talk to you about Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. This book… Like, I started recommending this book before I finished it, which is unusual for me. He imagines a future where the sea levels have risen, as they’re going to. That’s not really imagining the future, but one of the things he’s looking at is whether or not octopi… podes can be sapient. He’s got that layered on with the way AI might manage fishing vessels. Like, there’s all of these different layers, and it’s heavily, heavily researched. All of the characters are also scientists at the top of their game. So the amount of research that he had to do was huge. But it feels pretty effortless on the page. So if you want to look at, like, what the end result of some of these tools that were talking about are, and you want just a really good read, it’s very thought-provoking. I highly recommend Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler.

[Howard] Probably the single most profitable thing Sandra and I put together for Schlock Mercenary was the Planet Mercenary role-playing game. I have a PDF of the Planet Mercenary role-playing game on my desktop that I refer to all the time so that I can get my worldbuilding details right. It’s totally fair to write a 300,000 page role-playing book and expect to make money off of it and then to refer to it yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. As I joked in a previous episode, between the words schlock and mercenary, which word suggests I wouldn’t do something like that?

[Mary Robinette] So I’ve done a similar thing, which is not the role-playing game, but one of the things that I’ve done to monetize my research is that I have a, so I have on that, I have a list of… The bibliography that I have for the books that I used to research my stuff. It’s there for two reasons. One, it makes an easy reference for me. Two, people are always asking me, like, where can I go to get information like this. Then, because it’s through, I actually get an affiliate kickback from that. It’s not that you have to do this thing, but one of the things that you will be doing as a writer is looking for multiple income streams.

[DongWon] Just one thing in general I want to remind you is that there’s no such thing as throwaway work in writing. Right? It may be frustrating to feel like you’ve written however many words in worldbuilding and prep work and pre-writing, 50,000 words, whatever. That all goes into building up your internal understanding of this world in the way that you may need it, so that that work is going to go into the book that you’re writing. Right? Words that you write and throw away just because they’re not ending up on the final printed page doesn’t mean that they were worthless. It just was what the project required. Right? Not every book will require that. Maybe that’s something you do for your first book. Maybe it’s something you find you need to do for your seventh book. Right? But I love framing, like, being able to take the pre-work you’re doing and make it work for you in other ways. I think that’s an absolutely brilliant way. I think writers yeah… Look for ways to monetize that work you’re doing. Look for other income streams. But also don’t feel like you’re wasting time by doing these things. Yes, sometimes for some people it’s a mode of procrastination, but I just encourage people really, like, if that’s your process, that’s your process. Lean into it. Find ways to make that work for you, and don’t beat yourself up just because that doesn’t end up on the printed page.

[Howard] One of my favorite outgrowths of the research was I had a spreadsheet for when people were born. I realized that two of my main characters were from the same area, had the same life… About the same life span, and may have been sitting on different sides of the same war. I had never explored that. An entire story and the whole bunch of character data came out of one moment where I looked at a spreadsheet and went, “Huh.”

[Erin] Yeah. I think something else that spreadsheets can do, and, granted, I love them more than I should, is it teaches you what you care about. So a lot of the process of making a spreadsheet is trial and error. So you decide, I’m going to make a spreadsheet today. You’re like, “Oh, put all the character names down,” or something very easy. You’re like, “I’m going to track their age.” Then you’re like, “Oh, no, that’s wrong, because my thing goes through time. Actually, I need to track their date of birth.” That tells you something about the way you view the story, the timescale that you’re working on. If you keep going back to your spreadsheet and being like, “Oh, this spreadsheet is not working because it doesn’t tell me X.” That means X is important. Number one, figure out if there’s a way to add it to your spreadsheet. Number two, like, that should be, then, something… If that’s important to you, then it’s something important to the story, and you should see is that actually coming through. That thing that you keep thinking about. So, I think that a lot of times what tools do is they force you to take the wide creative universe that you’re working in and put it into some sort of structural mode. Even if it’s just like I’ve made power points of stories before, being like random things I mentioned that I should get back to. They don’t have a lot of form to them, but it’s a way of putting it somewhere on paper, put it in some sort of box, even if it’s just a box that I’m going to rifle through later to see if there’s something really interesting that I can use to inspire myself going forward.

[DongWon] Aabria Iyengar has this brilliant worldbuilding question that she uses that is, “What is the lie that the people of your world believe in?” Right? The questions you’re asking and putting into your spreadsheet can be so thematic and so creative and so generative that… Yes, you want the biographical details, when was this character born, who knows who, what are the connections. But also, going to Howard’s example of here are two people on opposite sides of the war, what lies were each of those characters told? Right? What things do those characters believe and how is that going to drive story down the line? The way that… These tools are storytelling tools. They sound cold and mechanical when you say, “It’s a spreadsheet. It’s a database.” But I think from that you can find such rich narrative hooks and chase your own interests, as Erin was just saying. You list the things that you are interested in. Sometimes you will be like, “This is boring. I’m not interested in this part of this world, or the set of characters, or this question,” because when you’re making a spreadsheet you are asking a question, and I think that is a really useful way to think about these things as you approach it.

[Howard] In structuring Schlock Mercenary, I realized on around I think book 5 or six, I realized that every book needed to stand alone. Because it needed to be a salable product without someone having to buy the earlier books. That may sound crassly commercial, and that’s because it is. It would have been a terrible business decision to tell people, “Oh, you have to start with my very first thing that I ever did before you can read this thing that I’m super proud of.” The solution… I mean, it should be obvious, I need to make sure that the beginning of every book introduces the characters who are going to be important, and that the end of the book resolves questions, answers questions that were asked by those characters at the beginning of the book. That started going into my planning spreadsheets very early on. I would have some cells for this is the plot, this is the big story. Then I would have columns and cells for the specific characters that this book was tracking. I had people come to me later and say, “You know, I always thought that Schlock was the main character, but he’s almost never the main character in the stories.” Yes. Yes, I’m so glad you noticed that. That’s how we’re supposed to say that, right, Mary Robinette?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Yeah, I’m so glad you noticed that. He’s very rarely the protagonist. Because he very rarely gets an arc that tracks things. I realized on about book 17, book 18, I realized that I needed to return to Schlock for the finale. So the ending that I had originally envisioned, the big solution, the big resolution to the plot that I had originally envisioned and that I had in my spreadsheets needed to have more Schlock in it. I went back to, and this is going to sound funny, I went back to an old forum post from like 2003 where someone said, “Yeah, the answer to a lot of these stories is just Schlock eats it.” I looked at that and thought, “You know, I bet that’ll work.”

[DongWon] Character is destiny, you know.

[Howard] I bet that’ll work. It felt so… It was one of those moments… Again, it grows right out of staring out the spreadsheet and realizing there’s this pattern and there’s this missing piece of this pattern, and I have to fill it with this character. I took my proposal for the changed ending to my brother and said, “This is what I’d like to try.” His response was, “Oh, my gosh, that’s genius. How long have you been planning this?” I’m like, “30 minutes.”


[Howard] I’m so glad you noticed. Speaking of 30 minutes, we don’t want to run for a full 30 minutes. So, let’s wrap this up with some homework. Erin?

[Erin] So we have talked about a few different tools today. Sometimes I think about tools as hammers in search of a nail. So the homework is for you to actually find what are the nails within whatever story that you’re working on? What are the things that you can or could track within your story? What I would challenge you to do is find three different things that your story could be tracking, whether those are informational, thematic, character driven, emotional. Write down what those are. Maybe a few examples of what those could be. If it’s birthdays, right down five characters birthdays. If it’s theme, write down what five characters are thinking about thematically. Then start looking at what are some tools that could actually help you take those nails and build something really cool out of them.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] We are now offering an interactive tier on our Patreon found at called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and the hosts of Writing Excuses to ask questions.