Justine: Pressed for Time? Make a List!

notepad for listI’m embarking on another Immersion Master Class with Margie Lawson this coming weekend. I’m really excited to be working with her again and to get my head back into my story (where it hasn’t been for the last several weeks – pretty much since the last Immersion in November). Before it starts, though, there are a ton of things for me to do in a short period of time — to get the family ready, to get me ready, and to get my writing ready.

A complaint many of us in the writing field have is time (really, the lack thereof)…we’re not Nora Roberts or James Patterson, where writing pays our mortgage, car payment, and personal assistant/marketing guru. We’re typically balancing writing with husbands, families, full-time jobs, aging parents, and often more.

Something I’m learning about myself is that I make excuses for not working on my book or writing in general if I don’t have vast stretches of time in front of me. Sometimes, I do have the time, and I manage to get in a couple hours of deep editing, writing a new chapter, or (as in the case of this blog post) finishing up other writing-related things.

But there are lots (and lots and lots) of times where I don’t have hours ahead of me. I have 30 minutes. Less if I’m picking up the kids from school. I’ve resolved to take advantage of that time – maybe not EVERY time I’m sittin’ and waitin’, but at least some of it.

So what can I do? One of the things Margie taught us was to make lists. The lists I’m talking about here aren’t basic…they’re rich, detailed descriptions of whatever it is you’re listing. Hair? Think of ways to describe it that are atypical…not “honey-colored,” but “streaked with gold and honey and biscuit and beige.” Think of all five senses when you’re making lists about physical things; dig deep for lists about emotional things.

Remember, too, to make your lists reflect your style. If you write snarky, sexy paranormals, like my critique partner Jennifer Windrow, your lists should reflect that. I write historicals, so the words and phrases I use in my list should be vastly different from hers.

Margie suggests creating one electronic file for each type of list. I think you need to do what works best for you. Perhaps you have a file for physical descriptors, then break it down into sections (or tabs if you’re using a spreadsheet) for hair, faces, expressions, etc. Maybe you use Word. Maybe Excel. Maybe you create a project in Scrivener that is just Lists (which is what I intend to do).

You can make lists about anything, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Physical Descriptors (how it looks, but also how it sounds, smells, tastes, and feels)
    • Hair – color, appearance, texture
    • Eyes
    • Skin – same as hair. Don’t forget scars, freckles, warts, etc.
    • Clothing – particularly helpful if you write historicals
    • Scenery
    • Weather
    • Rooms/Furniture
    • Body Parts
  • Emotions
    • Find different words or phrases for basic emotions, like anger, hatred, fear, happiness, guilt, sadness, etc. For example, she wasn’t “mad.” “She clenched her hands together behind her back to avoid planting her drunken fiancé a facer.”
    • Find words or phrases to describe those emotions on a person’s face…how to do they look when they’re angry, surprised, etc.?
  • Visceral Reactions
    • What are the different uncontrollable physical reactions that happen when someone experiences the emotions listed above? Come up with creative ways to say “his heart raced” or “her stomach fluttered.”
  • Dialogue Tags
    • Eliminate “he said” and “she said.” Find more interesting ways to attribute dialogue to a character. In particular, find words or phrases to use to convey emotion or delivery without using telling tags (like “she said angrily” or “he said bitterly”).
  • Adjectives
    • Colors – there is more than one way to talk about something that is “white.” Try eggshell, taupe, silvery-white, cream, nude, stark white, moonglow, bleached, etc.
    • Textures
    • Smells
    • Sounds
  • Body Movement
    • How do you describe someone moving through a room? Sitting and reading? Spying? Sleeping?
  • Sex/Physical Interactions
    • You can break this down into the Four Bases…what happens on first base, second base, etc.
    • Think of the physical actions, the physical (visceral) reactions, and the emotional reactions
    • Come up with lists for the different body parts – again, depending on your style and genre, they might be crude/direct or euphemisms.

This is a very short list of things for which you can create lists…it’s a start and surely you can think of other things you should make lists for (particularly things that you tend to do all the time — common phrases you use or ways you describe a character or situation). But when you’re in the middle of a scene or you’re editing and are stuck for a word or phrase, pulling from your list can save you, trigger a new thought, freshen what you’re writing, and add emotional impact to your words.

What other things can you think of that you can make lists for? Write them in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “Justine: Pressed for Time? Make a List!

  1. I, too, am taking a Margie Lawson class this month. I’m taking Getting Serious About Writing a Series one. I will be making lists about my series: links among books, individual book conflicts and series conflict, etc. I’m sure as I work through the series class, there will be a lot more lists.

    As for sex/physical reactions, I use Desmond Morris’ 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy. I can see that it would be very helpful to have lists about each stage and how characters experience and convey each stage.

    • I’ve heard several people recommend that book. I think I’m going to have to check it out. Good luck with the Margie class and let us know how it goes. I was interested in that class, too, but with Immersion and some things going on at my kids’ school this month, it was too much.

  2. This could get unwieldy and be hard to use later, but I think this is a great way to get unstuck, free write, and get going. I can also see where it would help me out as individual “tags” for people or particular items. Jim Butcher talks about how he has tags – just to quickly link you to a person or place – he has a few and rotates them, but they help lock you in – For Dresden it can be his gangly height, his black trench, his silver pentacle necklace, shield bracelet or rune covered staff. For Mac’s little underground bar where he get’s his favorite specialty micro brews – you get the 13 supports, tables scattered in an erratic pattern to shunt off errant magic from gathering, the unseelie accords note, Mac’s silence, his fab brews, steak sandwiches, etc. So using this method to brainstorm some key “tags” for various regular people and places would be really useful.

    I’m a horsepower geek – so car and motorcycle descriptions are fun and not difficult for me, but I just went shopping for weapons for my lady sheriff – it would be really good for me to have some tags and specs on her toys, manner of dress, likes, etc. I had read an interesting discussion on clothing for practical fighting and women – and pitfalls this last week (I’m also a kenpo karate person so have some hand to hand and weapon’s use knowledge, plus I shoot bows and guns). I also was just reading a story with a secret service female agent – where he mentioned that of course she wears suits and dress blouses – but that where she carries her side arm on her side constantly chafed and caused her to bleed and scab up on her side – so she sews extra panels of material into all of her blouses on that side to help. Having “lists” for your characters could be really useful for consistency, placement, as well as character identification… I’m thinking you’ve got me and I will be making some lists this week as part of my book work! Thanks.

    • I completely agree about it getting unwieldy. However, I know there are common phrases I use (particularly for visceral reactions), so having a list of other words or phrases would be ideal. As with anything, you can take it to the extreme, but it’s nice having options for “he said/she said.”

      I like the idea of tags for characters, too, and making lists for them. Something for me to think about as my mind wanders around this other book I’ve started. Thanks for the idea!

  3. I’m sort of doing lists right now in an Excel spreadsheet. I’d been really jammed on this book, so I decided to write down in a spreadsheet the turning points for my main plot and all my subplots, and then space them in the cells for where they should fall in the chapters. So right now I’m just writing the turning point scenes for these various plots, and I hope that as time goes on, a) the book will gel for me, and b) I’ll be able to revise and transition suitably with what I’ve written. What I’m got so far is dreck, but I’m pinning my hopes on revision. We’ll see!

    In general, I like lists and was just revising my character sheet, in fact. But also I like my lists to be short and simple—just triggers for what I want to include. But I can see how if one has an expansive vision of what one can do with a scene, but only fifteen minutes to capture that idea, that including more details in the list would be helpful. Whatever works!

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Whatever works. Going back to the truths post I did a couple months ago, you could make lists of your character’s truths, so you’re keeping in mind what’s important/different/significant for them.

      I used to be a big-time list girl in my working days, but not so much anymore. I can see I have to get back to it, though, just so life doesn’t feel so chaotic. I also need to cross that over to my writing life. It’s a lot easier to pull up a list than go back and read to see what color a character’s eyes were.

  4. Lists are great! Just the simple act of making a list does certain things to the inside of your head, even if you never look at the list again. This last year, I’ve kinda-sorta been doing lists.

    First, I have a huge, long file of things I think will be helpful for the book. I have a note, and the URL where I found it and date accessed, and sometimes a screenshot or pictures. For particular things, I transcibe the screenshots so they will be searchable. When I have something new, I’ll sometimes do a search and try to put things in the same area. For example, the Death at the Opera scene, which is based on a real event. It’s messy, but since it’s all in a Word document, it’s searchable. (-: Helpful to have some keywords.

    Not only is it helpful while writing, but I think it’ll be very helpful when I publish, and do a blog to help support the book.

    Second, I have a non-traditional set of lists that are really picture collections. I have pictures of Madison Square Garden in one list. I have a Masquerade Ball list/subfolder. And I have a blizzard/snow list/subfolder. In the general subfolder, I have some random pictures that don’t have enough oomph to make an actual list.

    A playlist is also good, if you use newsclips from YouTube to help you get into your story.

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