Monday, April 30, 2012

Making Lists: A Way to Find Land When You Feel out to Sea with Your Manuscript

Many writers in my online book-writing classes get to the point where living with their manuscript is like living with a chaotic child.  

There are pages and pages, all over the place.  A storyboard keeps the overview, to some extent, but as the editing and revision get on, the book gets overwhelming.  It's hard to keep track of where you are, because the landmarks are all changing so fast.

This happened to me lately too.  I'm in revision with my next novel, and my wonderful writing group gave me some big suggestions this week.  Core changes for one of the main characters.  A lightening up of the downslide--"give them some good times too."  Maybe even a setting changed or gotten rid of.  Whew!  I really agreed with them--good suggestions like these help you see how to take your book to the next step.  But over the following days, I found myself avoiding anything to do with writing.  It all just seemed too much.

How to Get Out of the Overwhelm
At the same time, a writer from Texas wrote me about this very dilemma:

"I've been struggling for the last couple of months to get traction," she said, "because so much of my book is changing and I'm becoming overwhelmed quickly. It's hard to know where to start, and then when I do start and hit a bump, hard to keep going. It feels like a maze.
"One thing that is not helping is that I have notes and bits and pieces everywhere, and inspirations that I've written down are being lost. So I know I need to do something about that. When I start to pull them together, I tend to go wandering again... I know it's a personal thing but just wondered if you had any tips on systems. Actually, I know this is in your book (Your Book Starts Here), Mary. I'll go back to it this morning. :)
"I was also thinking about not knowing when paths are blind alleys or dead ends. Once you've done enough writing on your project to know that they exist, and you have all those little darlings hanging out to dry and cure, the Inner Critic has something solid to hook his claws into, that this next path you're on could be another dead end.

"Do you have any thoughts and tips on organizing things with where you are with your story?What approaches are you using? A to-do list?"

Yes.  That's exactly where I am headed.  Lists are lifesavers at the overwhelm stage of revision.

Three Kinds of Lists
I make three kinds of lists during this stage.  Some have been ongoing since the earlier drafts and some are new.  Each acts as a mini-map out of the maze of pages.  Each helps me orient and find that precious overview again.

They are:
1.  Questions List
2.  Location List
3.  Character List  (River of Life)

Questions List
First and most important is the Questions List.  This revision-stage list is basically a to-do list but made up of questions.  I find that tasks are well and good, but I can get equally overwhelmed by another list of tasks.  So I trick myself into a sense of exploring and creativity by turning the to-do's into questions.

I get a pad of paper and all the feedback and ideas I've accumulated thus far (printing them out is very helpful).  I don't refer to the manuscript during this exercise--it'll just bring back the overwhelm.  On the top of the pad, I write "Questions List."  I begin with anything I've been mulling about, based on feedback or my own ideas.  I list these as questions.

For instance, rather than "give Mel a fun scene in Act 2" I would rework this as "What could Mel do in Act 2 that would be fun for him?"  Questions get the creative brain juiced up and working.  To-do's make us feel burdened with tasks--and tasks are driven by discipline, which is part of the overwhelm (we're tired!!).

Once I have my Questions List started, I stop writing, get up, and do something completely unrelated to my book or my writing for an hour or so--fill the creative well.  The goal is to distract the linear self and allow the right brain to engage and the creative self to get cooking.  Tasks that help might include paging through a magazine and tearing out photos for collage, meditation or yoga, gardening, making food, reading a book in your book's genre, listening to music, taking a walk.  Gradually, as you disengage from the pressure, the ideas will start flowing.  I find that sometimes I'll get a new map, a sudden idea, a solution to a problem. 

If there's a desire to keep writing, then do it via a mind-map or cluster technique--where the question is put in the center of a blank sheet of paper in a circle and spokes come off of it with related ideas.

Location List
The second list that helps me during this stage is the Location List.  This exercise requires the manuscript.  I write down EVERY location in the book.  Every single one.  Usually this exercise takes only an hour or so--skimming the manuscript is pretty fast--and I come up with an astonishing list of all the places where I expect my readers to follow the story.  Here the kicker:  I try to reduce this to seven locations.  Even fewer is better.  Locations that are meaningful are like characters or people in a book--we can only get to know a certain number.

So I circle the ones that are most important to me/the story.  What can I eliminate?  What might deliver the same meaning as another location and be less redundant?  Getting rid of excess locations is like closet cleaning--it makes the story simpler and less overwhelming.  It brings air and light into the stuffy places. I've found this exercise very effective in helping me move ahead.

Character List (River of Life)
The final list is the Character List.  It's also called the River of Life.  You can use this for any key players in your book--no matter the genre.

Take a pad of paper and write the name of each main player in your book, allowing one sheet of paper per character.  Include yourself, if you are writing a memoir.  Begin listing the main events for that person, which are in your book or will be.  Write as quickly as you can.  Try to get 25 events for each person--this is an indicator that they are developed in your mind and preferably on the page.

When you run out of ideas, go to the next page and the next player.

Read your lists and highlight or underline the five most important events for each person.  Next to the event, write down how it changed the person.  What did they do or think or feel or believe differently because of that event?  Again, this is a way to check the relevance of your events--if the character didn't experience growth, then there's a good chance the event is not outwardly dramatic enough to feature in your book.

See if you have at least five events that are pivots for each character.  If you don't have enough, it points to why you may be overwhelmed--there are not enough "turning points" in this character's River of Life to build a book out of.  If you have a lot more than five, it also points to overwhelm--there's too much happening and not enough time in the book to process the changes.

Finally, if you wish, draw a river on a piece of paper (I have these as charts in my writing room--I use them for the entire book journey).  Place each player's key events on the river.  Note where they are in relation to each other.  This can help you with weaving multiple timelines and people's stories.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Pick one of the three lists and try it.

2.  Post your questions and results here--or share them with your writing friends.

3.  If you're interested in working with these kinds of organization techniques with me, online, my next class for book structuring begins the week of May 14.  Check it out here.


  1. Great idea. I've had a little detour on my book, but when I get back into it, this sounds like a wonderful exercise to use. Thanks for sharing.