Before the Blank Page, Part the Second: The Magic of a Magical List

Still working off one magical prompt for blog material from a Twitter pal, I’ve been writing about tactics for moving your writing along in those times when you need a little help. Last month I wrote about ways that I give myself a kick in the pants when an in-process project stalls. This month I’m writing about what happens before that–when you’re trying to pull vague ideas together into a Project, something you can dive into and begin to write. I have three main strategies (I think), and here they are:

Having already tackled Item Number One, let’s talk about lists.

My stories tend to come together like puzzles, which means I need to assemble a certain number of pieces before I get any sense of what the picture is. The story might have a single spark, but that’s very rarely enough to get started with, at least for me. So I start looking for the pieces that go along with it. I was on a panel last year with Sarah Beth Durst, who answered a question about the genesis of Vessel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her books often start out as ‘lists of things Sarah thinks are cool.’ I was really excited to discover that I’m not the only one who does this.

Making lists is kind of how I spend my days in between deadlines. I hunt down odd books. I make notes on things that interest me. My husband emails me almost daily with things he thinks might be useful either for something specific or just down the line. I keep everything. I read nonfiction like it’s going out of style, and I make notes when something interests me, even if I’m not sure why. Then every few months I sort the notes I’ve made into files or special notebooks based on what I think I might use them for. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m needing a new project, I’ll hunt through the file that holds the unsorted, undifferentiated notes. Inevitably, a few of them begin to coalesce into Something.

Now, what constitutes a useful list for you is going to be different from what constitutes a useful list for me, or that would be my guess, at least. I don’t think any two writers approach a potential story the same way. I also am not sure any writer approaches any two of his/her own books the same way. You might approach your list from a purely practical point of view: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, stuff like that, so you know what critical elements you’re still missing. I’m not a planner, so mine tend to be far less practical lists of stuff I want to include in the story. They tend to look something like this:

  • Fearsome critters
  • Old-fashioned candy
  • Pine barrens
  • Lost works
  • Radio dramas
  • A Popcorn Sutton-type character
  • Moonshine that isn’t moonshine

The downside of my whimsical lists is that there’s nothing to tell me what pieces I’m missing–but then, sometimes even though I need the list to get the story going, I need the story to tell me what it needs to be finished, and of course that comes later. (And yes, this is actually a working list for something I’m turning over in the back of my head.)

I think lists like these are useful because humans are wired to recognize patterns, to see how things fit (or could fit) together. Of course, sometimes it turns out a piece doesn’t fit, which probably only means it belongs more properly to a different puzzle. Save it! If you don’t already have one, may I suggest a folder or notebook specifically for cool ideas you haven’t found the right place for yet? Let no cool idea go to waste! And don’t judge yourself for what you put on your list. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. It doesn’t even have to make sense to you at first. It just has to put ideas–even if they appear to be unrelated–together for you to think about.

The bottom line is this: a list is a way of getting ideas out of your head without the pressure of figuring out story that comes with setting out to write an outline or synopsis. Outlines and synopses are tremendously useful tools, but they do require you to have, you know, the story figured out. (One could look at it the other way–that writing one or the other forces you to figure the story out–which is obviously true. But a) I’m on record that I personally break out in hives at the idea of writing outlines and/or synopses and b) anyway I’m talking about the stage in building a story before you’ve got enough to dive into writing outlines and/or synopses.)

The other useful thing about a list when you’re trying to work through what you haven’t figured out is that it helps you to see how much you do have figured out. And knowing that might give you a place to dive in and start writing. And once you’re there…well, you’re there! Get writing!

Next up: a trip to Nagspeake to discuss how building a set can bring a story idea into focus.


  1. Oh I am soooo at this place. Both this post and your last one have been really helpful. I’m not quite unstuck yet, but a few of the exercises have generated some sold thoughts that will tighten up my plot. I guess what it all comes down to is in the absence clear direction it is better to do something rather than nothing. Thanks for all the advice.

  2. Oh, I’m so glad they’re even a little bit helpful. Both getting started and keeping up momentum are such personal processes, everybody approaches them differently and different things work for everyone, it’s impossible to know what’s going to help. But I’m totally with you–doing something is always better than nothing!

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