The Power of Lists for the Methodical Writer

An itinerary is a great thing. A lot of authors talk about how they just write as they go along with not much plan, how you just have to keep writing, but that advice isn’t very useful for people who need a plan, the methodical writer. That’s where an itinerary comes in.

Start off with a simple dot list outlining what you ideas are so far. The beginning, end, important scenes, main themes, characters, any recurring imagery, whatever you have.

Once  everything you do have is written up in front of you it’s easier to identify what you’re missing. Do you know what your character arcs will be? Do you need to come up with some red herrings? What research do you still need? How familiar are you with your genre and are there any ‘must reads’ you need to have read before diving into it? How about some writing exercises to get a better grip on your character’s voices or to flesh out your setting? Work out a to-do list and expand your notes as you go through it.

Remember that most of your notes neither need to nor are likely to become explicit in the text, but having a solid grasp of how everything works beneath a surface makes for much more vibrant characters and settings.

Once you’ve gone through most of your to-do list, whip up a summary for all your chapters. Three to seven sentences outlining what will happen in each chapter, as well as what the overall tone, theme, or mood each chapter should reflect. Be it paranoia, newfound trust, thrill of adventure, betrayal of expectations— something to keep in mind to avoid mood dissonance. If you’re not sure exactly what will happen in a chapter, just a vague result or action, that’s fine for now. Put down what you have so far like ‘the hero is framed and ends up imprisoned’ or ‘the sidekick’s trust in authority is shaken’. You can come back and flesh it out later.

If you haven’t already, this is probably the best point to begin working on your first draft— or resume work on your current draft as the case may be— and remember that you don’t have to write in order. If you have a stronger conceptualization of some scene than others, go ahead and write them first. If your story has flashbacks, is about uncovering a mystery of the past, jumps around the timeline, or is otherwise told in a different order, then consider writing everything in chronological order first then rearranging it during your editing.

When you do get to editing, further itinerary does help. List everything you want to avoid or remedy. Ways to condense sentences without losing meaning, places where you can add more meaning by using a synonym with more applicable connotations, reduction of passive voice, consistency in descriptions and symbolism, said-isms, clichés, double checking that a word means what you think it means, all kinds of stuff. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for, it’s pretty easy to look up the common pitfalls to be wary of. You can also show some of your work to a friend or a writing community and ask them to identify what they feel is your prominent weaknesses.

Often editing doesn’t come until even later. There’s no limit to how many drafts are flat practice runs to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch, but with both full overhauls and plain editing you need to be careful of not falling into a perfectionist cycle. You can always do better but sooner or later you need to put a lid on your project and declare ‘it’s done’ (and then make a few sneaky fixes over the following two weeks because you suddenly realized mistakes you’d somehow only just considered during your shower) but ultimately, editing can only go so far before you start to see diminishing returns on the work’s improvement.

And if you get stuck, make a list of why you’re stuck so you can isolate the problem and figure out how to fix it. In the end, remember that you’re setting your own course. If some part of your plan just isn’t working, or you wanna try something else, go right ahead and change it.

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Author: benjamindempsey

Benjamin Dempsey was born in Tasmania and grew up in the city of Tamworth, the country music capital of Australia. There, his parents ran a small white goods store. After graduating highschool he studied computer science at TAFE for a year before moving to Newcastle to attend University. He studied a bachelor of arts majoring in Creative Writing, while also taking classes on Psychology, Philosophy, Religion, Film Studies and Literature. When an opportunity to move to Sydney opened up, he took it with little hesitation and enrolled at the University of Sydney to continue his studies. However, financial reasons forced him to leave university before he could graduate. This did not deter him from finishing his first book, Draconian Symphony.

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