My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Carrie Patel to talk about how the power of making lists relates to The Buried Life.
Once upon a time, I had the uncanny ability to down lots of mimosas without suffering any ill effects afterwards. I’d tell you my record, but my mother will probably read this.
However, as I creep closer to thirty, I’ve traded in some of my youthful superpowers (infinite mimosas, staying up for two days in a row) for more grown-up abilities.
Like making lists.
Lists are an underappreciated art form. They’re elegant and versatile — you can use them for just about anything related to story development, from brainstorming to chapter layouts. They’re also short and sweet. When you’re drowning in pages of notes, a good list can steady you and get you back on track.
I use lists for just about every aspect of plotting and character development. I try to keep my outlines as listy as possible so that I can refer to them quickly when I just need a reference point. When I’m getting to know my characters, I make lists about them — what they like, what they want, what keeps them up at night. In general, I greatly prefer this approach to writing fictional biographies. The lists keep me focused on the details I need to know about my characters, and they prevent me from expending more words than necessary.
I even make lists about themes. Yes, for real. When I’m trying to tie off the dangling threads of a narrative, having a sense of the big-picture arcs, conflicts, and themes can help me resolve those threads in the most satisfying way possible.
At this point, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’m more of a plotter than a pantser. I like to know where I’m going when I sit down to write, and the more signposts, the better. Not that I always follow those signposts — sometimes I approach my chapter landmark only to find a more interesting one off in the distance. I’m comfortable with that, but I still need those initial navigation points to find my way to my eventual destination and to keep my prose from descending into aimlessness.
Which brings me to another great thing about lists. You don’t have to commit to them. You can warm up with a list about your antagonist’s inner struggles, realize it’s not getting you anywhere, and kick it out the door after five unproductive minutes. Or maybe twenty. Hey, I’m not trying to imply anything.
The point is, lists keep you thinking. But, more importantly, they also keep you writing.
Lists are stress-free and anxiety-free. They’re pure idea generation, and they silence the inner editor long enough to get ideas flowing. When I’m working on a list, I don’t worry about how concise or elegant my wording is. I don’t care if one bullet point gracefully follows the next.
No. When I’m building a list, my brain is churning and my fingers are typing, which is exactly the kind of momentum I need to pull myself out of the nosedive that is writer’s block.
And if that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what is.