This Is My Brain On Index Cards

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I could not remember the dead friend’s last name.

I realize this is a problem likely reserved for novelists, because if I had a dead friend, I’d probably recall her last name.

At that point I hadn’t written many pages of my third novel yet, but I had an outline and a short synopsis for my agent, and ideas jotted down on paper just for me. I rifled through all of it.

Cooper.

The last name was Cooper.

I intentionally choose simple last names but obviously THAT memory trick didn’t work this time. I was going to have to figure out something so that this story, the new one, didn’t have me scrolling through pages to remember every name and every eye color.

So you know what this meant. A trip to the corner Walgreens.

There is not a plethora of index cards in Walgreens, but when I’m on a writing roll I am not prone to a shopping trip. So I worked with what I had. I chose the large, white cards because in a moment of stark realism, I know the small ones would not give me enough space because my ideas come out sideways and in large loopy letters, not neatly, and not on little blue lines.

I must say I was disappointed with the quality of the cards. They were more like paper than cards, but I was determined. I wrote each character’s name at the top, and anything I knew about him or her. Boys in blue. Girls in pink. I didn’t have check list or a method, I just jotted down what I knew about the character, mostly things like all their names (middle, maiden, nick—you get the idea), eye color, hair color and style, short or tall, thin or fat, and maybe his or her relationship to another character. I wrote the things that needed to remain consistent through the story, the things that wouldn’t change. Maybe for this novel’s first draft I wouldn’t have to type “find out what color Celia’s eyes were” on page 86, because I’d have a card that told me what i needed to know. I would limit my scrolling backwards and increase my moving forward. And in story writing, that is a good thing.

But I had more cards. What to do?

I don’t use the common novel-writing lingo because it doesn’t work for me. I’m a rebel that way. I find the words CONFLICT and TENSION empty. I look at them and think HUH? But, I do understand WORRY and ANGRY and SCARED and WONDER and SECRET and WANT and NEED.  So I wrote those out on cards for each character. Not in any order. Not the same for each one. Just what I knew to be important. Just what I knew at that time. That’s the great thing about index cards. There are always more.

I also put the major story points on cards. And—I wrote words you’re not supposed to write. AND THEN. That works for me. I wrote each major and minor event (you say plot point, I say event) on an index card followed by the words AND THEN…. This allowed me to consider the flow, and what was happening when and to move things around without major cutting and pasting in my Word doc.

I also wrote themes of the story on cards, and I’ll likely transfer those to—you guessed it—Post It Notes, when it’s time for me to revise. Those will stick all over my computer reminding me of what needs to float beneath the story to give it buoyancy.

For a few weeks I had each stack neatly paper-clipped together and tucked into an adorable little case I could carry around and look all writerly. Then one day I was chatting with my lovely agent and she asked, “What’s the last name of the dead friend again?” (No joke, she really did. She was writing up little blurb for the new book.)

“Oh my god,” I said. “I forget.”

“Well, call me when you remember.”

And then I did remember.

“I have index cards!”

And yes, the last name was still Cooper.

That’s when I realized index cards do not belong in pretty pouches. I wanted the cards out and around me whether I’m on the sofa or in bed (rules out the desk, but I don’t write there anyway).

The cards are like a little pat on the back to myself. I’ve thought it through, I have a plan, there is sense and order where I often feel there’s none. Even on days I get no writing done, I can read a card or two and have a good sense of story, remember something old, think of something new, and add a card to the pile.

I had no roadmap at all for The Glass Wives. When I wrote my debut novel I outlined the Chapter 3 when I finished Chapter 2. Yep, that book took four years to write. Not happening again. Ever. When I wrote The Good Neighbor I started with a (take a deep breath) twenty page synopsis. That synopsis served only as a loose tether to the story, because 1) stories always change as you write them, and 2) who is going through twenty pages to remember what’s just happened, what’s happening now, and what happens next? Not me.

The index cards are manageable size bites of the story and the characters, They’re snippets of time and place, fragments of intention and emotion. And on those days all writers have when the gifts of the writing life are elusive, when the rewards seem improbable and the words are fuzzy, these index cards are tangible rectangular reminders that many thoughts have been already been thought, and much of the work has already been done.

Cooper.

 

 

 

 

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58 thoughts on “This Is My Brain On Index Cards

  1. I keep a table in Word, but you could also use an excel spreadsheet. That way, I can sort it by first name, last name, or some other criteria. In my Chapel Lake series, I have an entire town (or at least 100 of its residents) that are mentioned or give a storyline. I’m now writing the 4th book, and have even introduced some new characters. I have to have a spreadsheet to remember names. Plus I don’t wan them all to begin with the same letter. lol

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  2. I love that last paragraph. What a relief indeed, to find so many answers and already-thought thoughts on your index cards and pages of scrawled notes! Thanks for the inspiration this morning, Amy. ❤

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  3. Very timely. I was cleaning out a bin (still unpacking 18mths later) and came across several packs of index cards which got shoved into a desk drawer.
    Two weeks ago I pulled them out intent on not forgetting random ideas. Book 2 in a series is in Nanowrimo first draft chaos, but book 3 is floating in my dreams. But – I have too many this-or-thats. Does the hero of book 2 come back into the protagonist’s life, or not? In time to rescue her or after she’s rescued herself?
    The techniques I learned for my English 101 term paper in 196_, should work here.
    Put it all on cards, spread them out on the dining table then sort and re-sort, add and discard, eventually deciding on a path. Type it into an outline or very long synopsis then start filling in the details.
    I use rubberbands instead of a case with an empty card on top. Makes it easy to jot a couple words on a moment’s notice.

    Thank you for telling me it’s a valid method.

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  4. Thanks for this, Amy! Currently working on two novels in very different genres and trying to figure out a method to my madness. Debut novel took me 5 years! Not getting any younger, so trying to push these two along. Yeah, spreadsheets, outlines, even index cards give me nightmares, but I like your
    idea of a lengthy synopsis done in advance. Maybe I’ll give that a try.

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  5. Loved this post, Amy, because I’m an index-card-user, as well. I love seeing how people use them differently. I tend to write a lot of short scenes during research, so those go on cards. My cards are also color-coded by theme, backstory, setting, plot points, etc.– the problem is: the index-card-creators-of-the-world only make a limited number of colored cards! (Oh and, good luck finding the ‘good’ index cards of our youth. I can’t find them anywhere. They’re all paper-thin and none are like the card stock we used to be able to get).

    Was just talking with friends about how Scrivener does this for you as well (allowing you to shuffle cards, etc). But I’m like you — I need to have it all laid out in front of me, not hidden inside a computer — so, even if I do ever take the plunge with Scrivener, I may still feel most comfy with my tactile, visual index card system.

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    • Scrivener didn’t work for me, Melissa. Not at all. I’d have needed multiple monitors all around me to see everything to make that work. I also write grocery lists on the backs of envelopes and to-do lists on magnetic note pads that stick to my fridge. I use my iPhone and laptop calendars, but also have a paper calendar hanging up. I think we’re a lot alike. 🙂

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      • Yes, ma’am, I think we are twins! This is why I’ve resisted Scrivener. Like you, I also have the paper grocery lists, the printed to-do for the week, the old-fashioned printed calendar. Out of sight=out of mind for me. Just call me old fashioned, but as you noted: do what works for YOU! 😉 Have a great weekend.

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  6. I also love this post. It’s like a confession that we all could make. I started out with typed lists of ideas, themes. Then I would add to them. They became difficult to manage. So I printed them out and spread them around. That worked well. I also had some index cards that stimulated where to go next. I never totally outlined the story–it grew and changed. The feature that I find I use almost every day, especially when rewriting, is the Edit/Find in Word. My mind works in strange ways, but if I can’t remember a character’s last name–I will remember that he met Jude’s mother at the Bar and Grille and I search for Grille and I’m right where I need to be. Ah it’s Kirk Simon. Okay.
    Whatever works takes us there. Love your photo and your sharing, Beth

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  7. I love index cards, too. I use them when I’m giving a short story reading. This next author reading requires a binder.
    On the theme of whatever works for you, I’ve read that other authors create bibles — binders full of details about their stories. I have a friend who uses post-it notes to track plot points. This way she can move them sort and re-sort them, until the story clicks together. But, all together now, whatever works for you –such empowering, wise words.

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    • Tape is a wonderful thing. When I had my long synopsis for The Good Neighbor, I taped it onto the wall in my office and highlighted (in bright pink, obvs) ever time there was DANGER and I wrote the word DANGER in bright pink. Now, I don’t write books with physical danger, per se, but I don’t like the word CONFLICT so this refers to emotional danger or relationship danger. That way I could see if there was enough PINK to make my book compelling. I guess I’ll find out when people start reading The Good Neighbor! :-O

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  8. Thank you for sharing this part of your process. My first novel took 6 years from page 1 to publication. I am a wanderer, and the promise of having some “rectangles” to remind me that much has already been done and thought through is a promise of paradise.

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  9. Amy,

    I’m also part of the an ICWG (Index Card Writer Group) I’ve used this method ever since being taught how to write long assignments by my H.S.Humanities teacher. I can still hear him in his Southern drawl: “Write the main thoughts on each card and re-shuffle as needed. Until it makes sense.” Spreadsheets, Scrivener etc.. doesn’t work for me either. 🙂 🙂

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  10. Loved this post, Amy. I only recently discovered your site due to an article in Writer’s Digest but I am enjoying it so much. I am currently working on my first novel and thought maybe I was a ‘dinosaur’ because I found notes on index cards, on post it notes, etc., more my speed.

    I find scenes will ‘appear’ in my head when I’m not sitting at my computer and I will grab an index card to jot down enough to remember it before it disappears into the great fog. I also have a binder divided into sections such as protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters, etc. I give each character a page and jot down the basics I need to remember…names, physical characteristics, quirks…so I can remember them and not have to search through my pages to find what color eyes the main character’s best friend has and I can add more notes to these pages as I write. I liked your idea of using key words such as Secret, Need, Worry for each character. I’m going to add those to my character pages so I can remind myself of those points, too. I also gave each chapter a blank page in my binder and use post it notes to jot down scenes that will happen in that chapter and I stick them on the chapter page. Since writing is a fluid process and the chapters will change as I am writing, I have found I can move the post-it notes from one chapter page to another one as needed. And those post it notes for chapter scenes/ideas also make sure I don’t forget a point I want to include.

    …And, yes, I write grocery lists on the backs of envelopes, have a paper calendar hanging on the wall in addition to the calendar on my computer and my phone. I have always had a paper and pen fetish. Glad to know there are others out there with the same affliction.

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    • Beverly they say everyone has a twin and I think I am yours. I worked for the government for 30+ years and if it was not written down and dated it didn’t happen. And from childhood I felt natural, pencil felt right and I felt what I wrote was important. So like you if I don’t have a note/list it doesn’t exist.

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      • It seems we have even more in common. I worked for state government for 27 years. It became habit to track information, back it up in multiple places and be able to provide evidence at a moment’s notice. We are twins. LOL

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  11. I use the Sticky Notes that are part of my computer. Love them! No more scraps of paper. I was a rabid outliner, I use Snowflake Pro, but am now working on the 3rd book of my new cozy mystery series and decided to live on the wild side and not outline at all!

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  12. These are great ideas, Amy. Spreadsheets give me hives, too, so I make a simple Word document with all my characters’ names. I add characters as I add them to the novel and the same with characteristics. If somebody drives a battered pickup truck, I write that on the list in case I need to refer to it again. The nice thing about a Word document is it’s easily searchable and unlimited in length. I can add as much information about each character as I want to.

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  13. I’ve found colorful spiral notebooks help me keep everything straight, one notebook for each story. On the cover I paste a mock-up of the book’s potential cover, or just elements that symbolize the story to me. In the opening pages I write a small list of topics I want to explore within this story and why I’m intrigued enough about the topics to write the story. This is followed by several individual pages of character definition, all that physical stuff along with motivation and their goals. If I’m feeling real crafty, I’ll cut an image from a magazine/store catalog of a model who looks like, or incorporates the personality of a character and add it. The remainder is filled with plotting actions for each chapter’s scenes. The very last pages can be filled with the names/dates of agent submissions. This works out handily for me. Sometimes, if you like journaling the story behind the story you are writing, you can add a few notes about what was happening in your real life as you wrote the story. (These entries can be fascinating to read in the years following publication.) Ahhh, the writing life!

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    • Fascinating, Nancy. I can’t use a bound book because I like to lay out everything to see at the same time. Turning pages is a chore! 😉 I don’t use images of people, because I never see my characters’ faces. I do have a private Pinterest board for things like houses and towns, so I can look at them and then alter and describe.

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  14. OMG – I’m only have way though and I LOVE this: ” I wrote each major and minor event (you say plot point, I say event) on an index card followed by the words AND THEN…. This allowed me to consider the flow, and what was happening when ..”

    Now I”m going back to finish and read the comments.

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    • That should have been “half way through.” But I’m all the way through now, loved the comments, loved the already-thought thoughts idea. 🙂 And I especially like the idea that you don’t use Conflict and Tension, but specific emotions instead – that helps me out a lot.

      I like putting my scene snippets on index cards and plastering them on the living room wall. (Post-it notes don’t stick.) I see it all the time, I can stand in front of it to ponder, my family walks by and gives comments or asks questions that help, and I can rearrange all I want. I love that I can see the gaps in plot, character development, if someone has been out of the action for too long, etc., all at once – something that Scrivener’s corkboard doesn’t let me do because it’s too little!

      Oh – and my answer to the not-enough-colors comment is that I use colored markers instead of colored cards.

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  15. WOW! I casually asked if anyone had a way to org a rewrite on and old MS and two days later you send me a plan. I;m a pantser but like love I need a way to organize all this stuff I have to keep raffling through to find XX’s eye color. Thanks a million maybe even spelled with a billion if it works for me. Starting now.

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  16. Years ago, maybe 1995, I was driving to the store when an interview with Annie Lamott came on the radio. She had just released Bird by Bird. She said two words that changed me forever. “Index cards.” I’ve used them for everything except dinner ever since.

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  17. Hi Amy: I use index cards for everything….mostly for reminders (telephone calls, at work, and anything else I need to keep myself current. p.s. I always look for index cards with various colors…

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  18. Boo hoo … I feel so alone in my little world of spread sheets. But then again, my spread sheet is no ordinary one. It has lots of columns and is sortable by every one of them yet retains a comment as to where it belongs. And it is a multi-colored, bolded, underlined, italicized, and e-post-it adorned work of art almost suitable for framing.
    My mother used to say, whatever floats your boat.

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  19. Great post Amy. Several years ago I read an article in Writer’s Digest about the Scrivener software for writers. Sounded like it would help with the organization and manipulation. I bought it and love it. You can even store and organize your research and import web articles. The customer service is also excellent.

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  20. Pingback: Forget Me Not | Write Despite

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