Checklists, Waypoints and Revisions

Back in the mid–90s, long before 9–11, I was a guest on the flight deck of an SAS Boeing 737 flying between Stockholm and Copenhagen. For a man scared of flying this was a revelation. Everything seemed so peaceful and safe. The most reassuring thing about it was how routine everything seemed. One of the things that made it so was that one of the pilots, the captain, I think, sat there with a clipboard. He ticked stuff off on a checklist as the co-pilot performed various functions. It was clear that these guys had a system that made the complex task of keeping the plane in the air routine.

This was on my mind recently as I worked out the tip I am about to pass on, a thing so obvious that I am almost embarassed. First some background.

I am revising the seventh Kormak novel, Born of Darkness. During the writing of this book, I tried, as I often do, experimenting with a new technique.

I am a dedicated outliner. It’s the first thing I do when I sit down to write a book. This time I thought I would experiment with pantsing, just winging it from the basic idea of the story. Or I would attempt as close to this as my over-controlling nature will allow.

I had the idea of using waypoints. I would do micro-outlines, just brief sketches up to what screen writers call the Act Breaks. (If you’re not familiar with Three Act Structure take a look at this.) I wrote as far ahead as the Act Break, and once I got there, I stopped re-evaluated my plot, did another micro-synopsis and pushed on.

It went pretty well. Lots of interesting stuff popped up as I was writing. In some ways, too much interesting stuff. New ideas, new scenes, new characters, new bits of business all showed up, often out of the blue. Trying to go with the flow I did not go back and rewrite as I went along. I just made a note in the text, usually an inline annotation in Scrivener or a note in my journal or in Evernote and I pushed on. A lot of the stuff was cool, but some of it contradicted things said earlier, some of it needed foreshadowing in the text.

When I finished the first draft, things were even more of a mess than usual. I had notes scattered through my text, in various files in my journal, in plain text on my phone and in Dropbox. Sometimes I scribbled stuff down in OneNote on my tablet if an idea struck me when I was out and about. I needed to go through all this , put it together and sort it out.

That’s when I remembered the pilots on the 737. I decided I needed a checklist. I would go through all my notes, put them in one place and then tick things off as I went through the list of what needed to be done.

I started using OmniOutliner, an app I have owned for over a decade but rarely use these days. It’s a good program but I have not had much use for it since I started using Scrivener. So why was it on my mind now? Because I wanted something I could tick things off on and, as far as I know, there is no way of doing this in Scrivener.

OmniOutliner is great for making checklists but there was no place to cut and paste the information I needed to use.

Then I remembered that I owned Folding Text. I took all my separate notes and pasted them into Folding Text. I gave each of the major sections of the book a separate header and I put all the revisions I needed to make in order. I gave every item a checkbox.

Once I had done that I had a clear idea of everything I needed to do and more to the point I could see the order I needed to do things in. It was obvious which revisions would affect succeeding revisions. I moved the headers around to reflect the most efficient order to do them in.

Once everything was set-up, I worked through the list, ticking things off when completed. It was the easiest revision process I have ever experienced. Everything I needed was in one place. I knew exactly what needed doing and the order to do it in. As I worked my way throughthe list, ticking off the completed sections which gave me a sense of progress.

I had a clear road map to where I wanted to go and a bunch of sign-posts along the way to getting there. I knew exactly how far I was from my destination.

You don’t need fancy software to take advantage of this. You could do this with print outs and a handwritten checklist if you needed to. All you need is a place to get your stuff in order and a way of keeping track of your progress. I found that it really helps.


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Comments

  1. Pantsing? I love it!

  2. Interesting post, Bill. You clearly found a way of making it work, but I’m curious about the bigger question of whether you’d bother working that way again or not? To some extent, this seems like a tip for correcting some of the problems the method caused you, and only really brings you back to you preferred way of working anyway, no?

    • I have to agree with you there, Matt. I am very definitely someone who needs an outline to work from. I can’t see myself pantsing it again any time soon. There are many people who can do this but apparently I am not one of them.

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