The List Monster: Writers Beware

As some of you know, I currently work as an editor with Bancroft Press in Baltimore, MD, and have been serving as an editor with various other groups and agencies over the past few years. In this time, I’ve come to notice several commonalities between manuscripts my bosses are interested in and manuscripts they wish they’d never asked to see in the first place. And, given that NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, I thought I’d go ahead and share with you all one of my pet peeves as an editor: Listing.

Now, I’m not talking lists as in descriptors within a scene (“the trees were golden, the air was crisp, and the anticipation–overwhelming”), I’m talking about lists that typically come toward the end of young novels and that signal to me, the editor, that the author basically just gave up. These lists tend to read a little bit as if the author has crept up behind me and pushed me and their novel off a cliff, leaving us only precious moments to zip through a hasty ending before we both land in a bloody, unnecessary breakup.

The feeling looks a little bit like this:

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To give an example, the other day I was working on editing a terrific and funny YA detective novel that had built up some very interesting subplots and supporting characters. However, by the final chapter, the author had clearly decided that even though this last chapter was necessary, they had really stopped “writing” about ten pages ago, and so proceeded to tie up every loose end in a concluding couple of pages by simply listing out how every character achieved their dreams, accomplished their secret goals, made up with the people they’d hurt, and would now live happily ever after.

This – is – NOT – okay.

I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with these authors — when we reach the end of the long journey that is writing a novel, sometimes the excitement of being so close can work against our better judgment. However, giving in to this rush-to-the-finish-line giddiness also very often works against the betterment of the novel itself. How many stories have been ruined because the ending simply wasn’t any good?

My advice? If you find yourself feeling the itch to rush through a scene or a chapter (especially toward the end of your novel), go ahead and draw up one of these “list” sections so that you can see where you want each character to specifically end up — then take that out of your novel entirely and re-label it as an outline. This can be very helpful for not only giving you a clearer road map to follow when you finally do sit down again to pound out that killer ending, but it will also help you to see if too many characters or subplots are wrapping up too neatly or too prettily.

Either way, just please, please, cut that list out of the novel. Don’t cheat yourself, your novel, or your audience out of the ending you all deserve!

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2 thoughts on “The List Monster: Writers Beware”

  1. Awesome advice. As a new author I appreciate insight like this. I can also say, as a reader, I have noticed this kind of ending and it hurt to have a good book end like that.

    1. Thanks! And I can certainly understand your hurt — it’s hard to become so invested in a plot and characters only to come upon an ending that leaves you hanging high and dry

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