If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.


Our reason for creating WWK originated as an outlet for our love of reading and writing mystery fiction. We hope you love it, too, and will enjoy our holiday gifts to our readers with original short stories to celebrate the season. Starting on 11/16 stories by Warren Bull, Margaret S. Hamilton, Paula Gail Benson, Linda Rodriguez, KM Rockwood, Gloria Alden, and E. B. Davis will appear every Thursday into the New Year.


Our November Author Interviews: 11/8--Ellen Byron, and 11/15--Sujata Massey. Please join us in welcoming these authors to WWK.


November Saturday Bloggers: 11/4 Margaret S. Hamilton and 11/11 Cheryl Hollon.


Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.


In addition, our prolific KM will have the following shorts published as well: "Making Tracks" in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon anthology, October 2017 and "Turkey Underfoot," just published, will appear in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fifth Course of Chaos.


James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for order.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Making a List and Checking It Twice


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?

10 comments:

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Linda, I too am a list keeper, most of which I maintain in Excel.

As I write I list all characters -- major characters get their own tab, all others are listed on one tab with whatever description I have given them. Also included is the manuscript in which they appear.

I also keep a list of all invented companies (My mysteries involve financial crimes).

The third list I keep while I am writing is an "open issues" list. That includes all the things I've left hanging. For example a character may have asked a question that is not yet answered, or I've sent a character off stage and need to remember to bring them back. After the first draft some things will remain on the list and those need to be tackled in draft two.

I'll work on plot until I have that where I want it and then address other self-editing issues.

While self-editing, I make a list of issues as I read through the manuscript. For each scene I record some basic, but useful information: POV used, senses engaged, level of tension and the number of words.

And finally, I have a list of the type of writing atrocities I routinely commit -- which I talk about in tomorrow's WWK blog.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I'm a list maker by nature, but I have to admit that until I sell the first book, I minimized the importance of keeping lists. If I sell the book, then I'll have to go back and make all the lists that Linda documented, and I can understand the merit of doing so.

While I read my ms to revise, I too kept a running tab on "open issues," which I'm not sure I followed up on in subsequent chapters.

Perhaps I'll try Jim's Excel method. Hadn't thought about that program, but then, I'm not quite as financially astute as Jim is.

Thanks for the suggestions, Linda, and the insight into your process.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim. it sounds like you have a good, comprehensive system to keep track of what you're written and how it needs to be changed in revision. Are all your lists in Excel spread sheets?

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, how do you handle revision without using lists? I'm always interested in hearing other methods to see if I can use any or all of them in my own process.

Warren Bull said...

I use lists. I can't outline since that feels like completing the book. I wish I could but my characters don't like it. I list characters and sometimes events. One absolute essential for me is a timeline.

E. B. Davis said...

I know this sounds egotistical, forgive me, but I can memorize details easily, plus I visualize my characters so I know the color hair they have, etc. When I worked for SAIC, I had to memorize a computer system specs. I noticed others have more difficulty with memorization than I do. But, it's the logic I follow, and if it is logical, it's easy. But, like I said, I kept a list of follow up items to make sure that I actually do address them in subsequent chapters. Great post, Linda.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Warren, a timeline! I keep one list that's headed CHRONOLOGY. On it I put things that happened before the book opened that still affect the book's plot, as well as when each thing happens in the book.

I started this newest book I'm working on with a list of 25 scenes I wanted to have in the book. Then, I went on to list scenes around and leading to/from those until I had 50. (Ken Follett says a book should contain at least 50 good scenes.) Then I changed around the order until it was optimal. That's the guide I'm using while writing first draft now. I never can stick to an outline, so we'll see how this goes. (So far I've written the first nine scenes.)

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, I don't think memory alone would work for me. I've written too many books. I recently pulled a novel out that I wrote a number of years ago to reread and revise so I could send it to my agent. I was truly grateful that I'd made all these lists then!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Linda,

I do keep all my list in Excel, except for my list of writing blunders I need to check--that's a Word document.

I also have a timeline including a date. Among other things I want to make sure a full moon on the 12th isn't followed by a quarter moon on the 14th!

~ Jim

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Jim, no full moon immediately before a quarter moon. Or, even simpler, in my Skeet books, she has responsibility for a teenager. If Chapter 3 was on Wednesday and Chap. 4 the next day, he's either got to be in school or there has to be some mention made of why he's not. Can't have Saturday follow Wednesday without a time lapse. Things like that.