The other day I was browsing writing web sites and came across one that made me blink. Every post for months had a title like “Seven Dialog Mistakes” “Five ways to a Great Scene” “Ten Resolutions for Career Writers” “Twelve Dynamite Endings.”
OK, I get that a lot of people really, in their heart of hearts, want a quick-and-dirty paint-by-numbers approach to writing a great book. I also realize that a lot of people don’t want to read more than one screen’s worth of blog post (or so several of the How To Do A Great Blog web sites claim). Lists of tips and tricks and common mistakes seem like a perfectly reasonable way to get at both things at the same time.
The trouble is that, in my experience, a short list of tips or mistakes just doesn’t work very well when it comes to helping people improve their writing. (I can’t speak to the thing about sticking to one screen per blog post, except to note that I obviously don’t follow that advice, either.)
Writing a short story or a novel is complicated; every bit of it affects everything else. It’s easy to focus down on one particular aspect of writing, like dialog or endings, and dash off a list of dos and don’ts. But in an actual story, it’s not so simple. That #3 “Don’t…” from the dialog list, for instance, may be both thematically appropriate and more perfectly in character than any of the alternatives, not to mention being the ideal way of moving the plot along. #10 “Do make sure you…” from the characterization list may be impossible to make work, given the constraints of the style and setting.
But there are several sorts of lists that I find extremely useful. They just don’t have anything much to do with writing technique.
The first set of lists is stuff I use during the first draft to save time. For instance, I have one possible-next-book that involves characters from several different imaginary countries/backgrounds. I want their names to sound as if they come from different places with different languages and naming conventions, and I don’t want any of them to be token representatives of their cultures. That means that eventually, when I’m making up secondary characters like the barman and the traveling salesman, I’m going to need more names that sound as if they came from the same places, and maybe a few others from completely different backgrounds.
So I make a set of lists: six to ten male and female names that would come from each country, along with six to ten family/clan/house/tribe names for each country that mix and match well with the personal names I’ve picked. When I need the traveling salesman, all I have to do is decide which country he’s from, and pick from the list.
Or I make a list of place-names so that when they pass by that small town, I can grab a name on the fly. I’ll also make lists of things I’ve mentioned in passing, like local foods or animals I’ve invented, so that I can use them again if I need to (and so I can make sure that I didn’t name the fish stew “kishta” and the tiger with antlers “kitsa” – far too confusing, not to mention the potential for tragically horrible typos…)
The other kind of lists I find useful are checklists of things to do during the first round of revisions. There’s an ongoing, ever-changing list of all the phrases I tend to overuse, so I can do a search-and-destroy on them easily. There’s a list of things to check for consistency and continuity (I have a really bad habit of changing the spelling of a character’s name by one letter somewhere in the middle of the story, or calling someone “Anthony” for two chapters and then switching to “Andrew” because I couldn’t be bothered to look up which male-name-beginning-with-A I’d used, and I was sure it was Andrew…)
In other words, all the lists I find useful have to do with the content of the story: names, places, descriptive phrases, etc. That’s what I need to keep track of when I’m writing, not the five dialog mistakes that I may or may not be making in any given scene, or the twelve dynamite endings that don’t fit the story I’m trying to tell.