March 27 – April 2: “Does keeping lists distract from writing?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Lists, lists and more lists. Does keeping lists help or distract from writing? ITW Members E. C. Ambrose, Charles Salzberg and Nancy J. Cohen weigh in on their list making process this week on the Thriller Roundtable.


E. C. Ambrose‘s Dark Apostle series of adventure-based historical fantasy novels about medieval surgery continues in volume 4, Elisha Mancer. Her April release will be international thriller The Mongol’s Coffin.  In her research, E. C. learned to hunt with a falcon, clear a building of intruders, pull traction, and shoot an AR-15.  The author is a graduate of and instructor for the Odyssey Writing workshop.  E. C. also works as a guide, leading adventure camps


Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have made the IMBA bestseller list, been selected by Suspense Magazine as best cozy mystery, and won third place in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy has also written the instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery. As the author of over twenty published novels, she’s a featured speaker at libraries, conferences, and community events.


Charles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus nominated Swann’s Last Song, and the sequels Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair and Swann’s Way Out, as well as Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine, and “Twist of Fate,” one of three noir crime novellas in Triple Shot. He teaches writing at the New York Writers Workshop where he is a Founding Member.


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  1. In terms of my own writing I’m not a list maker, never have been and probably never will be. I occasionally think about it—it seems like such a good idea—but inevitably something comes up and the actual making of a list goes by the wayside. There’s probably a good reason for that. Lists mean planning. Planning means I’d have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. But I’m afraid that’s not true. In fact, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next and I’d like to keep it that way.
    I’m very much of an instinctual writer and if I try to change that by making lists, perhaps of the traits of certain characters, or plot points, I’m afraid I’d lose spontaneity. But even worse, I’m afraid I’d lose interest because part of what gets me back to the empty page is the mystery of what’s going to happen next.
    The funny thing is, my mother kept lists all the time and they didn’t do her much good because she’d inevitably forget where she’d put them and by the time she found them they’d be pretty much useless.

  2. I am constantly making lists. Couldn’t get anything done without them. At the beginning of the year, I outline my overall goals. These are split into creative writing goals and business goals. Into the first section go the projects I hope to complete or revise. Business goals would be marketing efforts, book sales, and production for indie works. I’ll also list the items I wish to learn, i.e. how to do price pulsing or how to use Book Funnel.

    I’ll make monthly lists of items I need to promote for that month, i.e. contests I’m running, books I’m promoting, blogs or appearances. This gives me a quick list of tweets and Facebook posts for these items.

    Then I do my weekly lists. What do I have to work on now? For example, the week of March 5th, I was doing a virtual book tour for Facials Can Be Fatal. I had to keep track of reviews for this new release, book 13 in my Bad Hair Day Mysteries. I had three giveaways to promote. Meanwhile, I had to complete the synopsis for my next mystery, prepare for my upcoming speaking engagements, and write up the blogs from the conferences I’d just attended. Yes, all of this in one week. That’s why I need lists. It’s easier to complete a task when it’s listed in front of you. What’s up for this week? I’m proofing audiobook files for Murder by Manicure. I’m in the production phase for Hair Brained, book 14 in my series. And that’s it until April hits.

  3. I am a devotee of list-making in many aspects of my writing career, both to manage my career, and to write my books.

    Most of my lists are in the form of spreadsheets, and any of my historically based novels begins with a spreadsheet cover the time period I’m writing about. As I research, I fill in the dates, place, and important events that occurred during the time, and use another column to track events in the book. Discovering interesting events on my list helps me narrow the focus of the work, and develop plot points around those factual items. For my Dark Apostle novels, recording the birth and death dates of key historical figures alongside the timeline of events in the book provided some interesting coincidences—that became no coincidence at all.

    I also create a spreadsheet to help me keep track of character names and roles, to organize random notes or ideas, details mentioned in the text as I write, a sort of bible I can refer back to later.

    Lists can also help me generate new scenes or move forward when I’m stumped. I wrote a blog about this approach at using an example from “The Princess Bride.” The idea is that by listing the key ingredients already present—the gifts I’ve already given myself for the scene—I can find connections among them, and often find I’m more ready to write the scene than I’d thought.

    A scene inventory might include the characters present, the character’s motivations or emotional states, and actual objects. Basically, anything I already know about the scene and what has to happen. Sometimes, we suffer from “white room syndrome” where the setting is barely sketched in, and making a list of the items present—the buildings, people, furniture—can spark possibilities. If there are tapestries “hanging on the walls” how are they hung? Could that mechanism be used as a weapon? Especially for my thrillers, like the forthcoming The Mongol’s Coffin, it’s fun to write characters into a corner, then have them look around and rely on what’s already there to get themselves out again.

    Outside of any given book, like Nancy, I use a rolling to-do list to manage my time so I can focus on what’s important today or this week, rather than feeling overwhelmed by small tasks. Instead of putting everything on a big list, I decide what can be profitably put off until next week, then I write that on a separate list. Feeling reassured that I won’t lose track of anything helps me spend more time writing and less time stressing.

    I also have a career plan spreadsheet: basically a list of the tasks I need to accomplish for each major project I have in mind, interleaved to reflect the writing process, with deadlines or estimates of how long they’ll take. For instance, I might be completing a draft, then move on to revising a different book, then publicizing my upcoming release, then brainstorming for the next book—which is likely to involve even more lists. . .

  4. I’m in awe of you guys. I feel like I’m missing out on something by not keeping lists. Of course if I did it would probably be another way for me to procrastinate from actually doing the things I’d put on those lists. But in fact, I probably do keep lists–they’re just not written down. They’re in my head. Now that I think about it every night before I go to bed I make a mental list of what I want to accomplish the next day. So maybe that does qualify. At least I’ll fool myself into thinking it does.

  5. E.C., I do many of the things you mention putting on spreadsheets but mine are in Word files. That’s where I keep my series bible notes, timelines, etc. I really like your approach to scenes, which can be helpful when a writer gets stuck and can’t move forward. And Charles, yes. mental lists do count. It’s those to-do lists in my head that keep me awake at night.

  6. Nancy,

    I started out with Word, but spreadsheets make it easier for me to organize and rearrange the information. Perhaps you’re not surprised to find I’m a Scrivener user. . .

    Like Charles, I worried that getting that organized with my pre-writing would kill the creativity, but in fact, in some ways, I can relax more and just have fun with the writing. And I definitely take advantage of things that pop into my head on the fly! The outlines and notes (and lists) change pretty frequently, though not radically as a general rule.

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