Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Plotting with Index Cards

A couple of queries have come up about exactly HOW I use index cards.

I don't do anything complicated like plan out scenes using Excel, I start with three or four plot points and write to join them, making notes as I go along. After about 80,000 words and much gnashing of teeth I reckon I've scraped my way to the end.

That's when I use the index cards. I print out the novel, single spaced to save paper, and go through scene by scene. It's a scene per card, regardless of length - a scene could be just a paragraph, or 25 pages. (However, trying to squeeze all the info from 25 pages onto one little card might give me a clue there and then that I need to divide that scene into two/three/four separate scenes.)
I reckon there are about 50-100 scenes per novel. The set of cards I've just done, I started with lots of little scenes, but they've been rationalised into some meatier scenes ie I went from approx 100 cards to about 60 (I'm guessing the numbers). Some scenes have been completely cut, and new ones imagined.

On each index card I write the major points from the scene - it could be action, information, anything. When I first started doing this they were very neatly written. Six novels in, and it's all pretty much a scrawl. Still, I know what I'm on about, and they're a tool for me, not anyone else.

Then I sit down at the computer with a stack of cards beside me. I save the draft as Draft 2, and go through the cards until I get to the end. I move stuff I don't need to the very end of the text rather than cutting it, and I make notes to myself as necessary along the way marking them with XXX so I don't miss them at a later stage. Then I do the whole thing again. And again. 16 times for Adultery for Beginners (my first novel), 4 times for A Single to Rome, 3 times for Kissing Mr Wrong (but I was pushed to make my delivery date and did another complete re-write after my editor had seen it).

What I don't do is divide it into chapters - I won't do that for ages, it's the very last thing I do before sending off to my editor, although I'll have an inkling of where some of the chapter ends may fall.


liz fenwick said...

This is really helpful as i am about to look at a first draft' and have been thinking about how to attack it. Your way of working appeals...


Sarah Duncan said...

Try it! I find working with index cards is the easiest way in the world to give you the overview of a novel that's really hard to get when you're actually writing it.

Index cards also force you to concentrate on what each scene is doing eg introducing characters, moving the plot forwards...

liz fenwick said...

I think the index cards make it feel manageable. I also like the idea of printing out single spaced - less pages less overwhelming!

Jan Sprenger said...

Thank you, Sarah. That was really useful. It also sounds like it might be more manageable than shifting lines around in a spreadsheet.

Sarah Duncan said...

I'm wary of using the computer for this stage because it's one where you need to do lots of lateral thinking and organic musing and I think using a computer which makes it look organised and neat doesn't help with that squidgy, messy, imaginative process.

Ooh, I feel a blog post coming on....

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I shall try this. It sounds very useful. I too, find the idea of blocking my work (or trying to write) in 'chapters' very inhibiting and from now on I shall not do that until I am satisfied with the final structure.

Debs Carr said...

I've used index cards before when I've written using chapters, but I haven't split up my wip into chapters and am finding it so much easier to write. Thanks to this post I now know how I'll be able to use my index cards.

It hadn't occurred to me to print out the m/s in single space. I'll have to do it in future.

Thank you.

Sarah Duncan said...

Hooray, I'm converting everyone to writing without chapters!

And single spacing - you're only using the ms to write out your index cards not edit, so you might as well save on paper. And as Liz says, it's less overwhelming. I think this stage is all about making it feel both casual and everything is up for grabs, a nice fluid, creative state.

badas2010 said...

Some of your subjects for posting really make me think, for which I say thank you very much.
There was all the thats; pebbles and jars; apples and pears; flashbacks; and now index cards.
I imagined you meant you write a pebble on each card, shuffle them up, and then start to write, but that doesn't seem to be what you do. I'm really surprised you only write the cards after 80,000 words!
Also, by re-write, do you mean a re-type? 14 times! OMG!
I really like your idea of writing without chapter headings until the final polish, that's for me from now on. Thanks for that.
And please keep posting, you're the first place I go to every time I switch on.