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Sometimes chaos is good. Other times, the chaos means you can’t move. You know what helps?


Most writers I know love lists. Some make them in the form of blogs (like James Bradley). Others make their lists into diagrams or squiggles which, sometimes (for someone like Mark Haddon) becomes its own form of art. Sometimes the lists become books or plays on their own.

Every Brilliant Thing, for instance, is a spectacularly moving play which is essentially built around a list of… brilliant things.

Writing isn’t just the making of formed sentences, the crafting of characters, the shaping of structure. The quiet work around writing – the thinking, the beautiful pondering, the wondering, the careful ordering of desire and resistance and hope – all this is writing. All this counts.

Do you have a journal?

I mean, obviously, I am giving you permission to spend hours browsing the stationery section of Gleebooks or Dymocks. Go ahead, fondle vegan leather A5 journals with perfect squared pages (ahem, sorry – that’s my particular jam). Also, if you prefer, go ahead and use the 45-page primary school exercise book that your kid left lying about in the kitchen.

If you’ve got coloured pencils, stickers and highlighters, all the better. As Hilary Mantel says, you should ‘love your stationary’.

Today is play day, list day, squiggle day.

Instead of wrangling words into fully functional sentences, allow yourself today to simply make lists and diagrams. My journals for each book are full of circular diagrams – arrows pointing between characters, lines denoting structural tension – and lists of character desires, or things I want to explore. There are spirals which look like random doodles but which are actually clues to myself about how I want a particular book to hold together.

There is something soothing about list-making, something which helps order form.

In an American study which focused on problem-solving among mathematicians, a large group of postgraduate mathematicians were set a complex problem to solve. One group had to stay and grapple with the problem for a certain number of hours. The other group engaged with the problem and then moved on, spending some hours engaged in simple maths. And guess what? The group who went away and did simple maths were the ones who solved the problem.

Why am I telling you this? How does it relate to lists?

I think writers and artists can make use of that process – engage with the problem, and then go and do some version of ‘simple maths’. Return to the work, and you will find in it renewed, problems solving themselves. I promise.

For writers, that ‘simple maths’ might be line editing. It might be reading out paragraphs you’ve written and correcting grammar. It might be transcribing hand-written pages to the keyboard. Or it might be making lists.

Make some lists today. You’ll know what you need, but here is a short list of my favourite lists:

  1. A list of scenes or moments that you want to write
  2. A list of things you remember from your life that you want to write about
  3. A list of family anecdotes
  4. A list of things you need to solve in your work-in-progress (making a list of these problems immediately makes them feel more manageable!)
  5. A list of phrases that you want characters to use
  6. A list of speech habits or other rituals that a character engages in
  7. A list of things you want this piece of writing to be or do
  8. A list of things you want for yourself as a writer
  9. A list of things you want FROM your writing
  10. A list of reasons you write
  11. A list of things you love about writing
  12. A list of people who make you feel good about your work
  13. A list of ideal publishers or ideal readers
  14. A list of locations
  15. A list of chapter headings
  16. A list of writers you admire
  17. A playlist – songs to write to
  18. A list of things that make you get up and get writing

And finally, perhaps, a list of writing prompts. Today’s is below.

Today’s prompt…

Every cloud…