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Writing Tip #7: MAKE LISTS

Thursday, September 11, 2014

As you all know, for many years before I changed careers and started working full-time in academia, I worked as a freelance editor to support my career as a full-time writer. One of my jobs was a copy-and-content edit of the first novel in a trilogy. The editor asked me, in addition to the in-document edits and comments, to create a “series guide” for the trilogy—because whether I edited the other two books in the series or not, whoever did it was going to need to know what was established in the first book about the characters (their physical attributes, ages, likes/dislikes, backstories, quirks, etc.), the setting (geography, town names, store names, area layout, who lives where, and so on), the timeline of the story (if someone says in book 1, in May, she’s six weeks pregnant, she can’t have the baby in book 3, which takes place from August to October), and so on.

Which brings me to today’s writing tip.

Writing Tip #7. Make lists. Lots and lots of lists.

Something every successful con artist or pathological liar knows is that you MUST keep track of the details; you have to know whom you told what and when. Since those of us who call ourselves writers know that what we’re doing is basically telling lies for fun and fortune (okay, maybe not so much fortune as farthings), we need to remember what we’ve made up.

But there are a lot of other things we want to remember also. For example:
Potential Character Names (some of mine are: Elaine, Stephen, Montgomery, Elisa, Joycelyn, Brandon, Kyle, Dacia, Liane, Neal, Ryan, Shaun (F), Alexander, Deborah, Grace)

Interesting Words (synonyms for loud: forte, fortissimo, sonorous, deafening, ear-rending, thunderous, crashing, booming, full-throated, trumpet-voiced, clangorous, clamorous, blaring; synonyms for do: act, serve, practice, take action, proceed, go ahead, run with it, make it so, get on with it, have a go, effect, bring about, deliver)

Possible Titles (The Wooing of Mrs. Paroo, House Mother, The Thirty-Five Guarantee, There Is Nothing Lost, Your Right to Remain Wrong, The Very Thought of You, The Bride’s Spinster Aunt, The Spinster Aunt Conquers the World, etc.)

Interesting Things Overheard (At a restaurant: “As soon as we get back to the office, we need to put a kill order in on McCall.” Guy on the phone at Panera: “How do you feel about widows?” Heard on ESPN: “Cooler than the flip side of the pillow.”)

There are also business/industry things we need to keep track of:
Networking Contacts (Agents/editors met at conferences; authors met at conferences; authors, publicists, book sellers met at book signings; librarians, book buyers, writing teachers)

Blogs (those to read daily, weekly, or occasionally—Google Reader is great for this)

Reading Lists (books to read for fun; books in my genre for critical reading/study; research books; craft books; nonfiction; devotionals)

Research Resources (contacts for interviews, websites, books, museums)

And so on.

These can be kept hand-written in notebooks or you can use my old method of various sizes and colors of Post-it Notes stuck to the sides of the computer and the wall. Or you can type them up and keep them electronically.

But even more important than these are continuity lists and style sheets.

Continuity Tracking
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, one of the main components an editor looks for, especially with a series, is continuity. One of my long-term projects as a freelancer was an ongoing series about four characters who worked in a hospital in a small town, which was written by multiple authors. To try to keep all of the authors up to date with what all the other authors have done in the volumes they’d written was to have created a Series Guide—a way of trying to ensure continuity from book to book to book.

But it isn’t just from book to book that we need to ensure continuity. It’s within the same book. Because we’re writing them over an extended period of time, we may not remember certain details—a character’s eye color or a minor character’s first name.

Obviously, when creating a series guide or continuity lists, that others (co-authors, editors) will be using, it’s usually done as text, with possibly a few images appended. But when you’re doing this for yourself, you can be as creative and visual as you’d like.

One of my favorite programs for writing is Microsoft’s One Note, which acts like a virtual three-ring binder. Here are some screen captures of how I used it to track continuity in Love Remains. (If these look weird, it’s because these screenshots were done before I upgraded to the 2010 edition).

And, as I was writing Love Remains, I tracked details I would need for characters in The Art of Romance and Turnabout’s Fair Play:

That way, I’m not having to recreate the wheel (or the descriptions/lives of my characters). I try to write these types of details down as I’m writing, but most of the time, it’s easier to do in the revision process.

Of course, sometimes the old-fashioned way works just fine:

Style Sheets
More often than not, style sheets are kept by editors. For example, here’s the house style sheet (the decisions made among the editorial staff that applied to everything we worked on) that I developed when I was working at Ideals Publications.

If you’re writing something that includes unusual names (such as Cajun, foreign, or otherworldly/supernatural), it would be a good idea to make a style sheet so that once your manuscript is acquired and sent to copy editing, you can make things easier for the copy editor by sending along a document showing how things are spelled, punctuated, capitalized, etc. For example, I should have done this on Ransome’s Honor, because port admiralty shouldn’t have been capitalized but the Admiralty (referring to the group that oversaw the entire Royal Navy in London) should have been capitalized. And I didn’t realize how much I needed it to help out my editor when I was writing Ransome’s Crossing because I wrote things differently in RC than I did in RH (in RH I had poop deck and Aye, aye, sir; but when writing RC I wrote them as poop-deck and aye-aye, sir, so she had to go in and correct all the little details like that).

I’ve recently revisited the Bonneterre books as I’m playing around with the idea of writing a sequel novella/novel for a much beloved character from those books. In re-reading those books, I’ve started a style-sheet based on a lot of the back-and-forth discussions/debates/down-right arguments I had with the copy editor who was hired to work on my books for that publisher.

Bonneterre Style Sheet

I know certain multi-published authors have personal style sheets that their publishing house gives to all of their copy editors who work on that author’s books (with instructions such as “don’t use semicolons”).

So that, little ones, is why we need to MAKE LISTS. Lots and lots of lists.

FOR DISCUSSION: How do you keep track of your information for your stories?

  1. Friday, September 12, 2014 7:52 am

    I like the examples you posted. From your post I learned the value of making lists for not only the characters but other details as well. Thanks for sharing.


    • Friday, September 12, 2014 9:30 am

      This is also a great thing to be able to do whenever I have writer’s block—to be able to go back through what I’ve already written and make notes on the details I’ve already incorporated, backstory tidbits, setting information, etc. Not only does it help me clarify what I’ve already established, it usually helps me get back into the forward momentum and start writing again.



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