The List of Twenty

A quick glance at my latest publishing contract last week provided a shocker. While my next book isn’t due for more than a year, my proposal is due next month.

the list of twentyHere’s a quick catch-up on what “proposal” means. In traditional publishing editors usually require authors to submit their ideas ahead of time if they’re already on contract.

Depending on where you are in your career, this can be a very elemental suggestion. “I’m going to write a book about women in prison who are plotting an escape.” You get the picture? If an author has proved she always turns in a great book, or at least one that their readers love no matter what, then, depending on her publisher, she may have more leeway.

The middle ground on proposals is presenting a synopsis, but no chapters of the as yet unwritten story. A synopsis is a quick recounting of the plot. Here’s the first paragraph of my synopsis for my novel The Swallow’s Nest.

During the party to celebrate the end of her husband’s chemo treatment, Lilia Swallow is confronted at her front door by a woman carrying a baby. Marina Dooley is the outside sales representative for a supply company with whom designer-builder Graham Randolph, Jillian’s husband, does business. She hands Lilia the little boy and tells her that Graham is the father. Then she leaves.

There are three versions of this synopsis in my files. Fourteen, eighteen and twenty-eight pages respectively. I like to first present the shorter version since it can be easily passed around to decision makers, but my editor likes to see the long version I write for myself with lots more detail.

The third kind of proposal would be a synopsis–a short one most of the time–and anywhere from one to three chapters of the book. This more complete proposal helps editors decide if a new(er) author knows how to tell a story. Of course sometimes the entire book is required before a sale, a gamble for the author.

Since I like to write synopses–which makes me an anomaly among my author friends–I’m happy selling this way. But before I can write it? I have to plot it. And that’s when the work begins.

I’m sometimes approached by people who tell me they have a great idea for a novel. Sometimes they offer to let me write it and split the profits. Truth is, ideas are everywhere. But making them work? That’s a whole different ball game.

I’ve known the basics of my next book for a long time. I brainstormed it with my fellow authors last June. My unconscious and I have been tinkering with it every since. A character’s sister is now another character’s sister instead. A major character has died. The setting has changed. I’ve surprised myself with lots of things I didn’t know the two main characters wrote their autobiographies.

However the story feels loose to me, as if the thread that should bind it together has yet to be spun and woven in.

So today I will resort to my favorite private brainstorming technique, the list of twenty.

I’ve talked about the list of twenty before. It’s not just for authors. Anybody can use it if they aren’t sure which direction to turn in their art, their personal life, their relationships. It’s remarkably simple. I sit down with a yellow legal pad and a cup of herbal tea, in a quiet place where I won’t be disturbed. I pose my question.

Let’s take the synopsis paragraph above. The question might be this:

What does Lilia do when she is given her husband’s baby son who she didn’t know about?

With the question firmly in mind, I would then list twenty things Lilia could do. And I refuse to get up until I’ve listed twenty. I persist because I’ve learned that by the end, my solutions get sillier and crazier. And as unlikely as it seems, these are often the best of all.

My list might begin this way:

  1. Leaves Graham for good.
  2. Chases Marina down the street screaming at her.
  3. Asks a neighbor to keep the baby until she and Graham are alone.
  4. Takes the baby into the party and hands him to Graham in front of all their friends.
  5. Destroys something Graham loves in retribution.

And so on. What did Lilia really do? A hint. The answer is one of the above.

Twenty really does seem to be a magic number for me. I can almost always come up with twenty possibilities. By the time I finish, one or several will jump out at me as options I want to explore. I usually have a couple of good laughs as I picture my characters doing things on my list. Sometimes I wince. But the list of twenty is exactly the right time to throw quality control out the window. It’s the time to be creative, to think outside the box, to take chances.

Like I said, this also works in your personal life. “What can I do about my annoying coworker?” “I want to move. Where would I be happier?” “How can I help an ailing neighbor?”

You’ll be surprised how many answers you might have to difficult issues in your life. While I’m a fan of completing my list, sometimes I’ve hit on a solution early in the process and know I don’t have to come up with any other alternatives.

Take a chance and try it. And let us know if you do and how it works.

Meantime, I’m off to make my own lists today. And I’m looking forward to it.

**I’m an Amazon Associate, so if you happen to click on any of my links to Amazon, I get a cuddly little kickback. But always remember other bookstores carry my books, too. Amazon just makes posting so easy.


  1. Nancy Lepri on March 13, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    I love the idea of making lists and find that doing so is very helpful. If I have to make an important decision, I’ll do a pro and con list, and the side with the biggest number usually wins! Though there are times when your mind may go one way, and the list may price to be a waste of time! ?

  2. Ola Norman on March 14, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    Looking forward to reading The Swallow’s Nest with those teasers.

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