While writing short fiction, I’ve started to create, in a plain white 4” by 6” memo pad, what I’ve come to refer to as “story lists.” Using these most likely stems from insecurity and my steadfast belief in method’s magic: I want to, if not clinch writing’s Theory of Everything, at least uncover guidelines that push me toward likely success. Then, once a story is written (with the guide posts I followed recorded), I can reuse my list to orient myself and make my next story’s process less wild.
Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. But I do find the practice worthwhile, with the caveat that what’s helpful for one piece may, for another one, be entirely useless, and that the lists be works-in-progress, always amenable to change.
What follows is part of a list I wrote for a completed (forthcoming) flash story. I’m including it to give you ideas for your own lists, but keep in mind that what worked for me might be wrong for you—at least wrong for the story you’re working on. Gut hunches, half-formed ideas, and experimenting all play important roles, and as such we only want to make the process more wieldy, not limit our freedom and range.
– Force change on Jack and Staci; disrupt their relationship routines.
– Accept “messy” feeling as write. It’s okay. I’ve felt this way before and passed through it.
– “Test” characters’ feelings by comparing their experiences to own memories. Any responses ring false?
– Style more subjective, skewed like Jack’s viewpoint.
– Be fair to both sides of the issue; make the outcome/winner uncertain.
– Are the characters different enough from me? Is there something about them to relate to?
– Style high-flown or poetic? Toward honesty? Ego? Both?
Now, the difference between story lists and notes. As I write, I also jot things down in a small ruled notebook—revisions, ideas for future scenes, questions I want to explore. Typically, these are more specific than what’s in my story lists, relating to one problem or scene, while list items tend to be general and higher tiered, worth reviewing many times. Of course there’s some overlap (and with either tool, some items are written and later nixed), but the idea behind story lists is to have something to fall back on, a place to reflect and refocus.
Also, note that some days the items were in the form of moral support (“I’ve felt this way before…”); some days they were writing tips (“Be fair to both sides…”), things I’d heard or read that seemed relevant; while other times they were more exploratory (thoughts about style), tracking my growing awareness of this specific story’s needs.
I hope you find story lists useful. Think of them as words of advice and support—ideas that can prod you through, and just maybe past, the unknown terrain that’s calling.