A Writer's Book of Lists
Keeping Track of What's Important
September 20, 2018
This week I bought one of those journals where the pages have dots instead of lines, a bullet journal. I did it because my desk has a tendency to become a bunny nest of paper scraps with lists on them. All of the lists are things I wanted to be reminded of. But keeping them in a pile under the monitor really wasn't working so well. They tended to flutter to the floor (especially since my husband is really into fans this time of year). So I'm going to start keeping my lists in this bullet journal. And since I'm sorting through this nest of lists, I thought I'd talk about valuable writer lists you might consider making.
List of Questions About My WIP
I always have a work in progress. Really, sincerely always. If I didn't, I wouldn't be able to pay my bills. So I'm always planning a novel or writing a novel or revising a novel (and sometimes I'm doing more than one of these at the same time). And during any of these three things, I make lists of questions for myself. A list might look like this:
Chapter Six: Why is Morris acting so belligerent?
Chapter Three: When did Gina make the herbal tea? When did she add the poison?
Chapter Four: Why didn't Morris wonder about her odd behavior? Why didn't he ask questions?
These are questions that I could imagine a reader asking about the story. They're the kind of questions my husband and I shout at the TV when a mystery is on and the writer did things that don't seem to make sense. My inner critic asks a lot of questions while I write. I ignore the ones that sound like, "Why did you take on this project when you knew you'd be in over your head?" But the ones about the mechanics of how the story is working, those I write down in a list that I keep on hand throughout the life of the book's creation (planning, writing, revising). Before I send a book off, I make sure all the questions are answered somehow in the text.
List of Story Ideas
In my experience, there is nothing that will get the creative well bubbling along like trying to stay focused on a work in progress. It's during this time that my brain wants to throw ideas at me. So I'll keep a list of those ideas as they poke me in the brain.
- What if another planet sent a foreign exchange student to earth?
- Dee Little has a secret. She can talk to animals, beginning with her dog Doc.
- What if a kid saw ghosts, but all the ghosts were people who are still alive?
- Jack has just one super power. He can open any door. But the doors don't always open to where they should.
The notes I make on these popcorn ideas are short, often only a single sentence or scrap of a sentence and never more than a paragraph or two. Though not every idea will grow into a story, each one felt really compelling and distracting while I was working. Giving them their moment of attention helps me focus on the task at hand. And having all these ideas gives me a well to draw from when I need to start something new. So my pile on the desk had lots of ideas in it and I really think it's going to be better when I keep them in the bullet journal.
Words I Overuse
I have a list that I was keeping taped to the edge of my monitor. The list is made up of every word an editor has ever told me I use too often. Some of them are kind of strange like "lovely" and "deeply" which are verbal affectations that I now know to watch for in my writing because I'm prone to them in my speaking. Some of them are fairly normal such as "really," and "look." All of them together form a list that I search for as part of every single revision of every single story. I go through the list one at a time and do a search for the word in my word processing program. The program then tells me how many times I've used the word. Once I know the number of times I’ve used it, I have to make a decision about whether that’s too many uses. Say I've used "really" a total of 25 times in a novel. That's not too many so I quickly check all of those uses to make sure they didn't cluster in one spot. If they're spread over the novel and I still like the sentence where the words have landed, I'm fine. I don't need to change any. But if I do a search for "definitely" and see that I used it 100 times in a novel, I need to look more closely because the odds of it having been overused are far higher.
Some words I won't allow on the list even though I know they appear frequently. Words like "said" or "the" which are simply part of how dialogue works or how the English language works. My word lists aren't about normal words, they're about pet words that I must watch for. My pet words are unlikely to be your pet words. Mine grow out of my personality and how I speak. That's why having your own personal pet word list is potentially very valuable. So that’s definitely a list you should keep.
As I'm working on any story, I keep a list of every character and a few traits. I'll actually make the list at the top of an outline if I'm doing such a thing. If I'm not outlining, I'll sometimes keep the list at the top of the manuscript itself (though deleting it before sending it, of course). Having a list of the character names helps me with continuity (I won't call a character Pete in one part of the story and Peter in another) and will also help me be sure all the characters are needed. If I go back over the list and realize the character only appeared once or only appeared in half the book and then just wandered away, I'll examine the character closely to see if he or she is truly necessary, or if the character could be used better.
Sometimes I'll add other things I need to remember. Say I've given the Mom a job that begins early in the morning but concludes before the main character gets home from school (normally). I'll note that so I don't forget and put Mom in the house for breakfast on a workday without explanation. Books are often built of an incredible number of small details (especially if you're writing characters who feel like living, breathing people) and those details can trip you up if you don't keep track of them.
Market Specific Details
I spend a certain amount of time online every day, and I'm always interacting with other writers. So I see market information here and there and write them on those same little slips that I pin to my bulletin board next to my desk. (This bulletin board is nearly as scary as my desk.) The bulletin board has slips that say, "Highlights will only accept submissions on specific current needs beginning September 17," and "September: Little Tiger/Stripes reopens for submission, watch." Things like that with a specific date or even a specific month connected with it are also added to my calendar so I can remember to check on the information when the day rolls around. From little bits of market information like that, I actually glean not just specific information for that market but also insight into trends. Over time I've come to realize that a lot of markets really gear up in September, getting a kind of fresh energy. It's a good time to submit, and a good time to watch for changes.
So as I clear my desk of the bunny nest of lists and put them in my shiny new journal, I ask you, "What lists do you keep?" Are there some that would make your writing life smoother and your stories richer?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.