Using Lists in Writing a Novel

Hi everyone! We’ve got Linda Rodriguez on the blog today talking about using lists in writing your novel. I love this idea and will have to start using it to ask myself questions about the book.

Here’s Linda!

hiresLindaCrop David JoelI’m a big believer in using all the help technology and professional writing books and programs can give me in writing. I’ve tried using all kinds of workbooks, charts, and forms in working on a novel. I’m even exploring Scrivener-type software programs for use in writing my next book. I’m hardly on the cutting edge, but I’m also not one of the “if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me” types. Still, sometimes we look around and find simple everyday solutions to our problems, and it would be silly not to take advantage of them.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found in writing a novel is the simple, old-fashioned list. If you’re like me, you use lists to remind you what you need to do during the day, what you need to pack for a trip, what you need to buy at the grocery store, and dozens of other mundane projects, large and small. It’s easy to assume we need something more sophisticated for this complex novel (for novels are all more or less complex) that we’re trying to hold in our heads and build on paper. However, I’ve discovered that simple lists can help in several ways with making that story in our head a reality in print.

First of all, I keep running character and place lists. I write a mystery series. When I wrote the first book in my Skeet Bannion mystery series Every Last Secret, I was creating all the characters from scratch, as well as all the places in my fictional town. I wrote personality and appearance sketches for each character, but in addition, I made a list of each character as s/he appeared with a few words to note key characteristics. I did the same for places in my made-up town. This meant I could look up the full name of walk-on characters easily when I needed to much later in the book. It meant that I could easily look up the important details of the buildings on the campus and the shops on the town square as my protagonist, Skeet Bannion, walked past them or into them.

These lists tripled in value when I started the second book in the series and now the third. No one will have brown eyes in the first novel and baby-blues in one of the later books. Old Central, the 19th century castle-like mansion on the Chouteau University campus, will not morph into a 1960s Bauhaus box of a building.

Next, when I’m plotting ahead, simple lists come to my aid again. I’m a combination of outliner and follow-the-writing plotter. I like to know where the next 25-50 pages are going, plotwise—or to think I do, at least. I do this by making a list of questions that I need to answer about the book. In the beginning, I have lots of questions. The answer to only one or two may give me enough to start the next several days’ writing. I stole the idea of asking myself questions and answering them in writing from Sue Grafton. She posts to her website journals that she keeps while writing each novel, and in these, she often asks and answers these types of questions. I took it a bit further by trying to make long lists of questions that needed to be answered, which often, in turn, add more questions to the list when they are answered.

Answering the questions tells me where the story wants to go, but these lists also help me keep the subplots straight and make sure they tie in directly to the main plot, and they keep me from overlooking some detail or element that will create a plot hole or other disruption for the reader. These questions can vary from broad ones, such as “What is the book’s theme?” and “How can I ratchet up the excitement and stakes in Act II?” to more detailed, such as “What clue does Skeet get from this interview?” and “What’s on Andrew’s desk?” Such question lists come in handy during revision, as well.

During revision, I make yet another kind of simple list. As I’m reading the manuscript straight through in hard copy, I write down a list of questions as I go. I notice a weak spot and ask myself, “How can I let the reader know how much Jake meant to Skeet, as well as Karen?,” “Should I have Skeet attend Tina’s autopsy?,” and all too often, “Reads competent enough, but where’s the magic?”

After going through my lists of hundreds of big to tiny fixes and changes to make, and either making them (most) or listing by scene where in the book to make the fix (for major issues), I sit down to wrestle with 5-15 major problems from almost but not quite minor to huge and complex. This final list is my guideline through the swamps of revision. The issues on this list require changes that thread throughout part, or all, of the book. Trying to do them all at once or even to keep them in my mind all at the same time would bog me down—perhaps forever. Listing them and working my way one item at a time through that list helps me to keep my focus even while dealing with very complex situations that must be woven in and out through the length of the novel.

In short, simple lists make the complex task of writing a novel doable for me. What about you? Do you use lists in your writing? Are there other tools you use for keeping track and keeping focused as you plot, write, and revise?

every broken trustAbout Linda: Linda Rodriguez’s second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books), was selected by Las Comadres National Latino Book Club. Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. For her books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Rodriguez has received many awards and fellowships. She is the president of the Borders Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of the Macondo Writers Community, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, and International Thriller Writers. She spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda and on Facebook at She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at

Cindy here again!

I don’t know about you but I will be using lists to help me write my next novel.

Happy writing.



  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Cindy, thanks so much for having me here today!

    • Cindy
      June 5, 2013 at 7:30 pm

      Thanks for being here, Linda! I loved this idea of lists. I’d never used them for writing before, just day to day to do lists.

  • Amada Irma Perez
    June 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Great ideas. Thank you, Linda. Congratulations on all of your success. It’s been so long since Macondo, but I remember you so well. Wishing you love and peace, Amada Irma Perez

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Amada, so lovely to see you here! And maybe Macondo next year? Would love to see you again.

    Isn’t this a great site with all the posts on various aspects of writing? I’ve been very impressed with what the Guelph Writers are doing here.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Storyteller Mary
    June 5, 2013 at 11:55 am

    I use lists and post-its for so much in life, including the major details and names when I am working on a new story to tell . . . so yes, I can see that they would be most useful for writing fictional worlds. I favor any method that helps you write your wonderful books.
    Lists of characters would have kept me from using the same last name for two characters in “The NCLB Murder,” a problem I solved by having them be married to each other . . .

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Ha, Mary! I’m writing a new novel, and I have a storyboard of Post-Its all over the back of a bookcase.

    Didn’t marrying off your characters to each other affect your story? That’s why I love my editor and copy editors, not to mention my editor husband who always reads manuscripts through before I send them off. They keep me from those kinds of errors.

  • Jim Jackson
    June 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Hi Linda,

    As you know, I’m a pantser, but I am also a firm believer in lists. In the first draft I start listing characters as they appear and whatever characteristics I’ve given them. I also keep track of open questions and research questions (while writing draft 1, I don’t want to slow myself down to research the weight of an fencing foil, for example).

    In later drafts I develop even more lists and the lists don’t stop after publication. There’s the list of bookstores to contact, libraries to visit…

    I list, therefore, I am.

    ~ Jim

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Yes, Jim, I hear you, brother! I currently have lists of places and people to contact about events to promote Every Broken Trust later this year when this first burst right after launch is over. At the same time, I’m working on the third Skeet novel, and I have character lists, lists of research to do, lists of questions to answer, lists of scenes I want to write, lists of characters’ motivations and secret agendas, lists of words to avoid using (I’m such a sucker for “just”), lists of clues and details and questions surrounding them, and so much more. And a long list of ideas for wonderful new stories and books that are trying to seduce me away from this one. I write them down for later so I can keep on trudging through Every Hidden Fear.

  • Reine
    June 5, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    I use all the technology my Bluetooth brain can get a hold of, but I still rely on the simple techniques. I love your take on lists, Linda.

    I’m so glad to discover this blog! Thanks again, Linda.

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Yes, Reine, isn’t this a wonderful site? I heard about Guelph Writers and met Cindy on the SinC listserve when she was asking for guest bloggers, but I’ve bookmarked this site and will return often to check out the great posts for writers.

    I, too, use lots of technology, but I have low tech tools like lists, writers journals, etc., that work for me, and I haven’t found a high-tech solution to take their place yet. So I combine all of them.

  • Cindy
    June 5, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks for visiting everyone.

    And thanks, Linda for the lovely comments about the site.

    • Linda Rodriguez
      June 5, 2013 at 10:59 pm

      Thanks for having me here today, Cindy! You’ve really got a great site here. We’ve been talking about it quite a bit on Facebook, as well. Lots of folks have commented there after visiting, and most have been as impressed as I am with what you’ve done here.

  • Joanne Guidoccio
    June 6, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Hi Linda, Lots of great ideas! I’m also a “list” person, but I haven’t used lists to help with my writing. I like Sue Grafton’s idea of journaling questions and letting them percolate. Definitely worth trying 🙂

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 6, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Joanne, if you’re a list person, I think you’ll find it a very useful way to work as you write. And anything that’s good enough for Sue Grafton is good enough for me! 🙂

  • jan brogan
    June 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Linda,
    Getting to this late, via Facebook – but what a terrific post. I use lists in some ways, but here are new ways!

  • Linda Rodriguez
    June 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Hey, Jan! *waves wildly* I’m glad you found some things you could use here.

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