When you’re writing a book, do you keep a separate calendar for it, so you know what is going on and when? When you edit your chapters, do you often struggle to locate a scene that needs to be changed? Where is that swordfight, anyway? When you want to get a birds-eye view of your story for plotting purposes, do you get lost in the weeds of your book? If so, I’ve got a secret for you!
Use the Navigation Pane in Microsoft Word
If you use a different application, you might want to move on to another Fabulous Writing Tip. But for those of you who do use Word, let’s look at how the Navigation Pane can be your new secret weapon.
To see the navigation pane in action, open up Microsoft Word and go to: View/Sidebar/Navigation.
The sidebar will open on the left, with four tabs: thumbnail, navigation, revisions and search. You want to be sure to click on the navigation tab, which is the icon that looks like a little outline, with three bullets and three lines. If nothing shows up, that means you haven’t used the Styles pane to apply the Heading 1 style to your chapter titles. To format your titles, go to Format/Style or use the Styles Pane. And chose Heading 1 as the style.
The Navigation Pane can help you do three things:
- Plot your story
- Keep track of the timeline in your book
- Make editing easier
Plot Your Story
When I first discovered this feature of Word, I titled my chapters “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 2” and “Chapter 3” and so on. So that’s what I would see listed down the lefthand side: Chapter 1, 2 and 3. Cool. It was easy to bop around from chapter to chapter that way. But ho hum.
Then one day, I had an epiphany.
Why not add a hint in the title, so I knew what major scenes take place in each chapter? I started adding a couple words to my chapter titles, such as “Chapter 1 | Meets Hero | Rents Apartment.” Those were the two major scenes that occurred in my Chapter 1. And presto chango, I discovered a great way to use Word as a plotting paradigm.
I usually write a thirty-chapter book. So, I know that at chapter fifteen, I should be writing the huge turning point scene. If I use the navigation pane, I can look to the left, see my scenes and see if I’m on track or not. And when I’m planning my book, I can add all the major scenes to the chapter titles without writing a single word of prose and see if my book is paced the way I want it to be.
All writers know the most important plot point has to occur near the middle of their book. So, if you look at the navigation pane and see your most important scene in the wrong spot—too near the top of the list or too near the bottom—you know you have to work on your pacing. Same thing goes for the lesser plot points in your story.
Since I’m a slow learner, I slogged through a couple of books using the navigation pane and title descriptions and thought I was a genius.
But then I had a second epiphany.
Keep Track of the Timeline in Your Book
This epiphany hit me when I was writing my book, The Prodigy, which had a really tight timeline and dead parents in the backstory. The trouble was, I fell in love with the world I created in that book and wrote two other novels afterward, which became The Londo Chronicles series. But the two new books were prequels that made it mandatory to go back to the first book, The Prodigy, and fix some things. Like the dead parents in the backstory.
Let me tell you, it was a nightmare.
Sure, I had the major scenes showing in the navigation pane. I knew when the thugs attacked. I knew when Veronique’s audition occurred. But did I know what day it was? What year? No. And I had to know. So, I printed out The Prodigy, read the entire thing cover to cover and made notes about what date it was on the page.
Then began the task of adding scenes, because I had to resurrect parents that I had killed off in the first version of The Prodigy. They were only placeholders then. Part of Veronique’s backstory to explain her reason for being an orphan. But now, after two prequels, Veronique’s mother and father were the stars of the show. I couldn’t kill them off! The horror. But deciding where to insert the new parent scenes made me almost lose my mind.
Until an idea struck me.
Why not add the day of the week to the chapter title as well? That way, I could see at a glance what happens on say “Monday.” Wow. Such a simple solution.
Like I said. Slow learner…
So now my titles look like this: Chapter 1 | Meets Hero | Rents Apartment | Monday. If the book spans a great length of time, I might put in the actual date instead of the word “Monday.” That way I know what year the scene involves. It depends on the story.
Make Editing a LOT Easier
So, as I’m writing, I can now look to the left of my document and see the navigation pane and all the major scenes and when they occur. It is so, so helpful!
You wouldn’t believe how many times one of my characters will mention what they’re going to do on what day. And how soon I forget what day it is as I’m writing the book.
Of course, after the book is finished, I make a copy of my manuscript for publishing or for a querying, and I strip off the descriptive words in the chapter titles. I retain the copy with the long titles for future use—because, trust me, you will need to go back to your novel at some point in the future. And you’ll want that birds-eye view.
Sometimes, if I have clever chapter titles and I’m publishing the book as an indie title, I might retain the longer chapter titles. Longer titles can be provocative to a reader and induce them to read on because of an upcoming chapter title. So bland Chapter 13 might be much more exciting as Chapter 13 | The Haunted Castle or Chapter 13 | Meg’s First Kiss. But whether or not you can retain those longer titles during traditional publishing is up to your editor.
I hope you’ll check out the Navigation Pane. It has made a huge difference in my writing world. I’m sure it will change yours, too.
And you know what I always say: Life is short. Write smart!