List Making for Beginners: How To Organize Your Writing Life

I'm taking a little break this week from my Canary Isles Odyssey, mainly because I'm so obsessed with my Canary Isles novel, Orange Blossom Love, that I can't find creative space for very much else. Instead, I'm going to be writing about another obsession: lists. A recent excellent blog post by Laura Resnick all about the writing process and how we work as individuals (I can recommend it, especially if you've ever found yourself not so much 'blocked' as 'stuck') mentioned her liking for lists and I immediately thought 'that's me, too!'

I'm a compulsive list maker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with my lovely laid back sister-in-law, in which she mentioned, quite casually, that she 'never ever made lists.' It was my own response to this that fascinated me. I imagined doing without lists and instantly felt queasy. Then I felt a spasm of envy. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to be free from the tyranny of the list?  So I tried. I really did. I went cold turkey, tore up my lists. (Sneakily left them on my PC though, just in case.) I lasted about five days. Then panic set in. Just one little list, I thought. But you know how it is? One thing led to another and soon I was hooked, back in full list making mode again.

I sometimes go away for a few days and deliberately leave my lists behind. It's very liberating and I enjoy the break but I can only do it for so long and in specific places. My beloved Isle of Gigha is a pretty good place for doing without lists, a place where maƱana is a concept with altogether too much urgency about it. But once I get home, I'm back on them again.

Gigha: a good place for doing without lists.
On the other hand, list making may be a virtue rather than a vice. I'm so reliant on mine that I'm phased by people who - in a professional situation - seem to forget to do the urgent things while concentrating on the unimportant. Don't they ever make lists? Don't they know about organizing and prioritizing? Well, perhaps not. So in case you're a list making novice, and especially if you're a writer and a list making novice, let me give you a few tips from the depths (and believe me they are very deep) of my own experience.

One of our big problems as writers is that we often have an embarrassment of ideas, but don't know which to choose. Or we have said 'yes' to too many proposals and don't know which to work on first. Or we simply have too much to do and find ourselves trying to do everything at once, in a panic. We need to prioritize and the easiest way to do that is by means of a list. Or several lists. Ongoing, organic lists where nothing is fixed. And the easiest way to manage this is on your PC, because you can shift things around. Although I'm a compulsive printer-outer as well. I like to see my lists on paper! You should take a conscious decision to divide your lists into at least two kinds: work and life. If you try to amalgamate the two it will all go pear shaped. Writers love displacement activity and including 'mow the lawn' or (in my case, at the moment) 'sort out the flower pot mountain at the bottom of the garden' on the work list is inadvisable. Work lists are just that - professional projects which involve your business. And if nothing else, the list habit might encourage us all to be more businesslike.

First and foremost, I have a Mega List of planned projects. This includes all kinds of proposals and ideas, everything I may or may not be working on over the next few years, everything from the novel I'm working on right now to the tenuous ideas that intrigue me but may come to nothing. This is a long but fairly uncomplicated list, by the way. I keep detailed notes for each project, not just on the computer but in folders too. I'm paranoid that way. At the moment, my Mega List consists of brief descriptions of fiction, long and short, with one or two non-fiction projects. If I've promised an article to somebody, it might be on there too, but not blog posts like this one. They belong on a different list altogether. I revise the Mega List often and I use it mainly to prioritize but also to sort out my own thoughts about the work. The projects at the top of the list are what I'm working on right now. And they are important to me. The projects at the bottom of the list are interesting but non urgent. I may never work on them, and some of them will almost certainly fall right off the end but that's fine. If I grow bored with an idea, I shouldn't be working on it anyway. Also, outside factors will influence this list. If I find that I have a potential project which is pretty high on my list, and has suddenly become flavour of the year for reasons beyond my control, I can push it up the list. If I'm reluctant to do it, then that tells me something about my own commitment, so I'll think again. I will often add projected dates, but I do try to be realistic. And often - especially at the top of the list - there will be projects which I know will run in parallel with each other so this list will allow me to allocate time to each and to see where I'm overstretching myself. Most of all, this list allows me to focus, set some things aside but remember them and think about them from time to time. And sometimes, for no particular reason other than my own preoccupations, a project will leap over everything else and find itself at the top of the list.

Next is my Things to Do This Week list. 'This week' is a little ambitious, I'll admit. 'This month' would be a better title. This is also a work list, and again the trick is to be realistic in what you can achieve. (I give myself some very good advice but I don't always follow it!) And once more, you need to prioritize. At the top of mine, right now, is 'Short story proofs to be read and sent back' as well as 'Orange Blossom Love, onscreen revisions.' Everything else, including 'For God's sake do your tax returns' can be shuffled down the list a bit, because my accountant has gone on holiday for a few weeks. But he'll be back by the 21st July, so 'You have really GOT to do your tax returns' will probably be top of the list by the end of next week, and I'll bite the bullet and do them.

Finally, for work, I have a Today list and that really is all the things I need to do today in order of priority, including meetings, phonecalls etc. I sometimes allow other things to intrude on this list, but only if they're genuinely urgent and even then I always try to prioritize the work above the household tasks.

Because I sometimes sell antique textiles on eBay to help the budget along, I have an occasional 'Listings list' but the more I self publish, the less I trade on eBay and this is a fairly simple affair. Come October, though, when people turn to eBay for their linen tablecloths for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, as well as quirky gift items, it might grow longer and more complicated.

Besides these, I have a House list and a Garden list and a Shopping list. (I told you, I'm compulsive) The House list involves all the biggish jobs that need doing. This changes - sometimes it's in order of urgency and sometimes, like now, when I'm having a bit of a clear-out, it lists jobs from room to room. It's a very static list! The Garden list is always in order of priority. And yes, sorting out the pot mountain at the bottom of the garden is definitely top of that list. So is the weeding. But even with the weeds it's quite a pretty garden, so the garden list can run and run and run, like the bindweed.

The garden manages quite well on its own!

Recently, I introduced another list. Ever since I started self publishing, I've been uneasily aware that I should be wearing two hats: my publishing hat and my writing hat. My Mega List is a writing list. But this second big list is a sort of Promotion and Publicity list and at the moment, it's in the form of a dialogue with myself. What exactly do I write? What do I want out of the business? What do I want to work on right now? Can I market everything at once? (NO) What's the solution? This has turned out to be the most useful list of all. I don't know where the answers to those questions are coming from, but they have helped me to organize the publishing and promotion side of my business, balancing it with the need to spend the majority of my time on the writing. And it has influenced my Mega List in all kinds of unforeseen but useful ways.

Now it may sound as though I spend all my time writing lists, but I don't. Honestly! Once you've set this up, it only takes a few minutes each day (or the night before) to adjust the To Do Today list, while the Mega List and the Promotion List are only revised once a week - if that. Once a month would probably be enough.

The benefits are considerable - but only if you like lists! You don't forget urgent things. You consciously send non-urgent things to the bottom of the list and stop pretending you have to do them now and using them as displacement activity. You can clarify things in your own mind and get on with what you need to do first. Best of all, you can tick things off!

I do have a small confession to make. I have been known to write things on the list after I've done them, just so that I can have the satisfaction of marking them as done. But I suspect I'm not alone.

So go on, are you a list maker or not? If you are, what's your system? I'd love to know. Why not post a few of your own ideas below!











Comments

Augustina Peach said…
Yes! Someone else who puts completed items on the list just to have the satisfaction of crossing it off! :)

I have a "Things to Do This Week" list, but I may have to try some of your other lists.
Glad to hear somebody else does it too! I do try to curb my list making habit from time to time, but it never quite works out.
dritanje said…
This is marvellous Catherine! I have an 'ongoing projects' list which is too vague in terms of satisfaction of completion as they can take years. And a small one for immediate things to do. I'm off to revise and create new lists, thanks!
Morelle
Hope it helps, Morelle.