Friday, July 3, 2015

Making a List and Checking It Twice

by Linda Rodriguez

I’m a big believer in using all the help technology and professional writing books and programs can give me in writing. I’ve tried using all kinds of workbooks, charts, and forms in working on a novel. I’m even exploring Scrivener-type software programs for use in writing my next book. I’m hardly on the cutting edge, but I’m also not one of the “if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me” types. Still, sometimes we look around and find simple everyday solutions to our problems, and it would be silly not to take advantage of them.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found in writing a novel is the simple, old-fashioned list. If you’re like me, you use lists to remind you what you need to do during the day, what you need to pack for a trip, what you need to buy at the grocery store, and dozens of other mundane projects, large and small. It’s easy to assume we need something more sophisticated for this complex novel (for novels are all more or less complex) that we’re trying to hold in our heads and build on paper. However, I’ve discovered that simple lists can help in several ways with making that story in our head a reality in print.

First of all, I keep running character and place lists. I write a mystery series. When I wrote the first book, Every Last Secret, I was creating all the characters from scratch, as well as all the places in my fictional town.  I wrote personality and appearance sketches for each character, but in addition, I made a list of each character as s/he appeared with a few words to note key characteristics. I did the same for places in my made-up town. This meant I could look up the full name of walk-on characters easily when I needed to much later in the book. It meant that I could easily look up the important details of the buildings on the campus and the shops on the town square as my protagonist, Skeet Bannion, walked past them or into them.

These lists tripled in value when I started the second book in the series and now the third. No one will have brown eyes in the first novel and baby-blues in one of the later books. Old Central, the 19th century castle-like mansion on the Chouteau University campus, will not morph into a 1960s Bauhaus box of a building.

Next, when I’m plotting ahead, simple lists come to my aid again. I’m a combination of outliner and follow-the-writing plotter. I like to know where the next 25-50 pages are going, plotwise—or to think I do, at least. I do this by making a list of questions that I need to answer about the book. In the beginning, I have lots of questions. The answer to only one or two may give me enough to start the next several days’ writing. I stole the idea of asking myself questions and answering them in writing from Sue Grafton. She posts to her website journals that she keeps while writing each novel, and in these, she often asks and answers these types of questions. I took it a bit further by trying to make long lists of questions that needed to be answered, which often, in turn, add more questions to the list when they are answered.

Answering the questions tells me where the story wants to go, but these lists also help me keep the subplots straight and make sure they tie in directly to the main plot, and they keep me from overlooking some detail or element that will create a plot hole or other disruption for the reader. These questions can vary from broad ones, such as “What is the book’s theme?” and “How can I ratchet up the excitement and stakes in Act II?” to more detailed, such as “What clue does Skeet get from this interview?” and “What’s on Andrew’s desk?” Such question lists come in handy during revision, as well.

During revision, I make yet another kind of simple list. As I’m reading the manuscript straight through in hard copy, I write down a list of questions as I go. I notice a weak spot and ask myself, “How can I let the reader know how much Jake meant to Skeet, as well as Karen?,” “Should I have Skeet attend Tina’s autopsy?,” and all too often, “Reads competent enough, but where’s the magic?”

After going through my lists of hundreds of big to tiny fixes and changes to make, and either making them (most) or listing by scene where in the book to make the fix (for major issues), I sit down to wrestle with 5-15 major problems from almost but not quite minor to huge and complex. This final list is my guideline through the swamps of revision. The issues on this list require changes that thread throughout part or all of the book. Trying to do them all at once or even to keep them in my mind all at the same time would bog me down—perhaps forever. Listing them and working my way one item at a time through that list helps me to keep my focus even while dealing with very complex situations that must be woven in and out through the length of the novel.

In short, simple lists make the complex task of writing a novel doable for me. What about you? Do you use lists in your writing? Are there other tools you use for keeping track and keeping focused as you plot, write, and revise?

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger hates me):
Sparkle Abbey, don't you find lists really help you juggle in your mind all those layers and levels that come into writing?

Kay, keep your lists on the computer in the same folder as your drafts of the book, and then you won't have to worry about losing them.

Marjorie, see my suggestion to Kay above.

Debra, I usually keep my lists, though I often use Word's cross-through feature to show myself that I've taken care of that item. This helps with revision and with series continuity, and I've found it very useful when teaching. I give my students samples of actual documents I used in writing my books, so they can see how the process works. As to the list of illnesses, etc., from your mouth to G-d's ear.

Marilyn, yes, I think the lists carried over from my daily life and running a household into writing a book.


  1. Great to hear you're a fellow list-maker, Linda! We also use lists of questions and also a scene calendar to help us keep track of the passage of time. We're big believers in finding what works!

  2. Very useful post on how you use lists, Linda. I make -- and LOSE -- lists all the time, both in my grocery-buying life and my writing life. Those lists help me, but clearly I could do much better with them.

  3. My problem is I have list all over the place. :-)

  4. Great ideas! I make lists for everything but usually destroy them when I'm finished (see that I will need to keep a character list instead of rough notes for series writing). Speaking of a list to destroy -- read both of your posts on Facebook and while the memories will remain, I'm hoping the list of medical visits, doctors, etc. will be forever obsolete.

  5. I always make lists--grocery, to-do, and I use a notebook to keep track of characters and the passage of time in whatevr book I'm writing. Great post.