Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How Loving List-Making Helps Me Write

I read much more than I write and feel that is necessary to be a good writer.  Steven King says, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  When I read, nothing makes me more upset than when it is obvious that the author didn't take the time to plan out the book. They just started writing. Now, when a writer has as much talent and experience as Mr. King, perhaps it is possible to write like this (by the seat of the pants), but for the rest of us, there needs to be a massive amount of planning for the story to be as rich as it needs to be. Foreshadowing, red herrings, clues and hints must be sprinkled throughout the book but that can't be done if the author only has a vague idea of where the story is going. Without planning a writer is more likely to paint themselves into a corner and, because there is no other way out, resort to deus ex machina. This is a plot device where an unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. 

I have always been a list maker. Groceries, chores, goals, errands, books, movies, events, ect. When I found Randy Ingermanson's snowflake writing method, it gave me the confidence to write my first book. I followed his method exactly for the first draft of Ishtar Bound (though it went through so many rewrites that the original book is unrecognizable). Then I adapted it for Transit of Ishtar and found what works for me.

* Step 1 – Write a one sentence summary of your story.
This sounds hard and it is. Take your time. Write a LIST of a dozen or more. Revamp them, combine them, change them. Here is mine for Ishtar Bound:
Surrounded by magical enemies with an intimate knowledge of her abilities, a matchmaking witch of the highest rank must fulfill both her duty to her coven and her desire for a love of her own, even if the two goals collide.

*Step 2 – Expand that sentence into a paragraph. Include a little set-up background, major plot points ('disasters'), what the main character wants and what keeps them from attaining it, and the resolution. This is NOT your blurb. Don't try to keep it mysterious, don't hold anything back. It needs to summarize the whole story but it doesn't need all the hows. SPOILER ALERT, Here is mind from Transit of Ishtar:
After killing herself, Nathalia wakes up as an immortal locked underground with a supernatural man responsible for her conversion and salvation. She finds herself falling in love with this man as he teaches her about her new life and their shared past. He is the Keeper of the Mothers and Watcher of the Betrayers. She inadvertently releases one of the betrayers while he is distracted. After she heals, they both go to the Daughters of Women to warn Maeve about the danger to her and her unborn daughter, the promised One, but it backfires, making Maeve mistrust the guardians. The evil one comes for Maeve, but Nathalia finds a way to destroy him.

*Step 3 – For each main character, write a one page summary sheet, LISTing details. Here is mine for Nathalia in Transit of Ishtar. It went through many changes after this so not all of it is up to date but this post is to show my technique.
Name: Nathalia Lovejoy
Motivation or Ambition: Nathalia wants to prevent all women from being duped and hurt by men, herself included.
Story goal: Nathalia wants to protect Maeve and her other sisters from the evil one.
Conflict: She has to find a way to kill the escaped betrayer, but she cannot do it with violence or hatred, because that nourishes him, not kills him.
Early Epiphany: She has directed her anger at the wrong ones: men are just being influenced by the betrayers. They deserve her hatred, but she cannot give it to them because it feeds them.
Final Epiphany: That she does love Eiran and she can use that and the love of others to destroy the evil immortal.
One sentence: Nathalia must find how to live with new love, and protect her old life.
One paragraph: After killing herself, Nathalia must find a new reason to live. She wakes to find herself changed, seemingly in a tomb underground with Eiran. She must come to terms with the change and that she has been wrong about men all along. She has to accept the fact that she likes Eiran and wants him, not just owes him. She brought the last danger to the Daughters and Maeve in the form of Michael and now she releases the betrayer this time. She thinks it would be better for them if she had died. She has to reconcile the fact that yes she is the only one who could have released him, but she is the only one who can stop him. She is the only one who can show them all how to fight the beast. She is the mother of the new era.

*Step 4 – Expand each sentence of step 2 into a paragraph. The end result is a one page summary of the whole book. Again, no one will see this so leave out the mystery. Hold nothing back. This post is getting long so I won't give you the full example of one of mine but here is a small sample.

From step 2: After killing herself, Nathalia wakes up as an immortal locked underground with a supernatural man responsible for her conversion and salvation.
After killing herself, Nathalia wakes up laying on a stone bed underground, but still in the sunlight. There is a stone statue there of a man and she finds it comforting. She explores her underground home, looking for a way out, and finds the tomb of the mothers. She thinks her solitude has driven her mad, because she hears a mans voice in her head. She finds herself falling in love with this man as he teaches her about her new life and their shared past. He reveals himself to be the statue. They start to make love and when he discovers she is virgin, will not go on. She feels rejected.

*Step 5 - Jot down any cool ideas for the book, or neat dialogue. I make a LIST and refer to it as I write, adding them in where appropriate. This is one note I made for Transit of Ishtar and those of you who've read it will recognize it. I think these few sentences, this idea, made a very nice scene.

She tries to ask who he is but he cannot answer, at least not in a language she can understand. He draws pictures in the ground that look like cuneiforms, but she cannot read them. Finally she recognizes the look on his face when he broadcasts to someone. He is like her. Then he opens his mouth and English words come out.

*Step 6 – Make a LIST of all the scenes you need to make this story into a book. I love a spreadsheet for this step. One line for each scene. I do columns for chapter, intended number of words, point of view, and, in an impossibly wide column, what happens. A spreadsheet is perfect for this step, because the whole storyline can be viewed at a glance, and it’s easy to move scenes around to reorder things.

*Step 7 – Write your book.

Don't be afraid to change any of these things you've written down. They aren't written in stone. They are to help write the best first draft possible in the shortest amount of time. If you realize that you had your character's goal wrong in step 3, don't try to smash the story into your incorrect outline. Just go back and change the goal. I love this method. The book practically writes itself. Yes, sometimes I deviate. Sometimes I have a dream or imagine a scene that I just have to write. Sometimes that is my step 0.

What do you use to build a story? Leave a comment and tell me what you think. 

Check out The Snowflake Method guy's site. There are a lot of other good ideas and writing hints.

Thanks for visiting The Romance Troupe's Blog and reading my post.
Author Natalie Gibson

Connect with me through:

Twitter @AuthorNatGibson
I review romance on Satin Sheets Romance Review Blog and all genres that catch my fancy on Amazon and Goodreads.

 Claire Cover to Cover                    Nanny Service                        Blind Furry


  1. Awesome post, Natalie! Thanks for sharing! I will have to check out the snowflake method.

    1. Not as entertaining as my first one, but more educational.


Please leave us a comment!