Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Using Index Cards I

I wouldn't be able to write a novel if I didn't use index cards. End of. I start a novel with a few ideas about characters, location and at least three 'big' events. A big event is one that changes the status quo - a kiss, a death, a revelation, whatever it is, the characters can't go back from what has just happened, they have to go forwards. I then start to write heading for those big moments - at this stage I'm guessing it's going to take me 15,000-20,000 words to get to each big moment. So I'm hoping for something like...

page 1...
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event A
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event B
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event C
15,000-20,000 words later, The End.

It may, of course, not work out like that in practice, but that's the rough scheme.

When I've got some words down I start to write out index cards, both for scenes I've written and for scenes I'm vaguely thinking I might write. So, let's suppose I've just reached A. I know that my next step is B. How can I get from A to B? I'll scribble some ideas down on index cards, one scene per card. I'll put down as many ideas as I can - I find this process sparks off lots more as you're doing it.

Then I arrange the cards out on my bed (as the nearest available flat space) and try to get them into a good order. If this happens, then that has to happen but this other scene will have to come before the first one to make it work. I fiddle around with the scene order, rewriting cards and adding stuff here and there until I have something I like. Then I type it up and that's my blue print. This is a bit from A Single to Rome:

Flat in Rome

Waking up, it’s all pretty mucky. Just got into bed. Claudio turns up with a viewing.

Natalie depressed, aimless in Rome.

Gets very miserable. The sun is shining but it’s raining in my heart.

Phones Michael in desperation. Chucks phone into Tiber. Thinks about chucking herself.

Claudio phones on landline. He’s bringing someone to look at the flat.

Natalie inspired to clean flat – it’s even muckier, she’s been subsisting on not much, not clearing up etc.

Borrows mop etc from Valeria. Valeria feeds her, offers her to come for supper that evening.

Claudio brings someone round to look at the flat.

It’s looking much better. Asks her for a date afterwards.

Supper with Valeria.

Clorinda also there. Mike is mentioned, Clorinda v disapproving. Establish Natalie can’t cook. Vanessa and Guy as super romantic couple. Clorinda hopes they’ll get back together. Discuss Claudio.

First date with Claudio. Meet up with his friends – she’s depressed, she can’t keep up with the language, she’s out of place. He makes a bit of a play for her, she tells him about Michael, he says M won’t be back. N cries, and is upset – what’s to become of her?

Clorinda hears her crying

NB turns up wearing white nightie – foreshadow ghost. Is very nice to Natalie, makes her cocoa, refers to once wanting space (something that relates to N, but also to her relationship with Mike, too proud, love is not love, hang on in there etc). Then says, contact Mike about a job.

Goes for job with Mike

he’s desperate, offers her something on the spot, that very evening.

It's not exactly detailed, but enough for me to write from - and if you've read the book you may realise that the book doesn't exactly follow this plan, but it's pretty close. Each one of bold heading was once an index card heading with the stuff following being the notes about that scene.

So I end up with a first draft. Then I read it, put the scenes on index cards again, and check for problems - which I'll write about tomorrow.


Giles Diggle said...

Another useful post, Sarah. I don't use physical index cards as such, but the virtual ones that are part of the authoring software, Scrivener. Instead of laying the cards out on the bed, you have a virtual cork board and you can shuffle the cards around on there. Scrivener also allows you to write your book as scenes and then drag those around with the mouse in the order that you want them, or insert new ones. Miraculously the index cards are reshuffled at the same time to reflect any changes in sequencing.

Scrivener takes a a little learning, but it is instinctive and mimics the way many of us compile our work. It can be downloaded on a try before you buy basis, and it is is cheap. I never touch MS Word now except for final drafts. Scrivener exports to Word.doc format with all formatting intact.

I don't get paid to say this by the way!!

Kath McGurl said...

Very useful - am about to start some kind of step by step plan. I was going to just write it in a spreadsheet; maybe I'll give the cards a go... Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

Philip C James said...

OMG, I was thinking of asking you whether you would write more about your index cards modus operandi, Sarah, because I'm at that stage where I need to track more and more scenes. And you've read my mind... Or is it a literary coincidence?

So, thanks for writing this post.

And thanks for the info on Scrivener, Giles. I use Open Office Writer rather than MS Word but that imports Word documents also.

I do keep a spreadsheet on characters and all their characteristics (but in the main, I populate that as I develop them, rather than try to define them completely beforehand. It's an aide memoire to maintain consistency.

One of the hard truths people sometimes fail to learn about ICT systems is not to rush into encoding a work process into an information technology system until you've experimented with it, and fully understood it, manually.

So I think I'll try Sarah's manual index card system first, until I've fully mastered it...

Sarah Duncan said...

Scrivener sounds interesting Giles. It sounds v similar to index cards in the way you use it. Maybe I'll give it a go for the next book.

Womagwriter - I'd worry that with a spreadsheet you'd feel less like moving stuff around randomly because it would look so nice and neat.

Phil - I'm a mind reader, didn't you know? I like index cards because I'm into low tech solutions wherever possible.