Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Yay, Index Cards!

I've got a WIP that is quasi-finished. Except for two chapters that need to be re-written, I'm excited about the prospect of sending it to my agent.

So why haven't I yet? Because this WIP turned out to be so large that what I have is only Ye Olde Part One, and to sell Ye Olde Part One (given I'm an unknown writer), my agent needs an outline for Ye Olde Part Two.

And plotting is my nemesis.

I do think out scenes before I write them, because I need an idea of where that scene is going before the words will flow. I also generally know how the book will start and end. However, coming up with scenes for an entire novel, all at once, has proven rough. For one thing, as soon as I've got an idea, my brain wants to keep running with it. It starts sketching in conversations and images for that scene, and I wind up scribbling feverishly, trying to capture the good bits of dialogue.

And I'm thrilled that happens, but it defers me working out what the next scene will be.

A few weeks ago, I bought index cards. Yesterday, I actually broke the cellophane.

I've never used index cards to organize my thoughts before, but the chapter I've been working on has been kicking my butt. I had general ideas for what needed to go into it, and some specific scenes, but my brain just couldn't hold everything at once and juggle it all into place. It seemed the right time to swallow my scatter-brainedness and act hard-core secretarial, yo.

So today I tiled my living room floor in 3x5" bits of paper, and now that chapter is nailed down better than an undead butterfly in the Smithsonian.

Part of me still resists the idea of using index cards because it's so alien to the way I'm used to working, but the rest is quite tickled at how well things shook out today. I think I threw away about 50% of the cards I wrote on, but that was usually because I'd thought up something better for my characters to do.


So how far behind the learning curve am I, here? Do any of you use index cards for part or all of your plotting? If not, what system do you employ? If so, what prompted you to start using the cards, or did that always seem like the natural way of doing things? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


Alan Orloff said...

I tried the index card thing (twice, in fact!). I was thinking about re-arranging my scenes a bit, and thought a "real-world representation" (ie, physical cards) would help. I wrote down a scene on each card, along with a timeline cue and a few other details.

Did it help? Not sure. I don't think I looked at them again, but I think it did help me get my timeline straight.

Whirlochre said...

The problem with ideas is that they're such funny shapes, and I've yet to find any system that copes with them, as a whole.

I oscillate between computer and paper, then from lists to scribbles (and so on), but in the end, it's like picking up individual squirmy animals and saying "this goes with this...and that goes with that" until you have a blob of creatures that stands up and moves around the house unaided.

jjdebenedictis said...

Alan: I definitely used the cards to rearrange my timeline yesterday; I was shuffling them all over the place. Probably the most useful aspect of that process was figuring out where I had holes in the plot that needed to be plugged with something useful.

Whirlochre: Well, scissors can take care of the shape issue--or a jig-saw if you need to alter them in bulk.

Gosh...that mental image you just gave me... I shall treasure it for a long time, but there is something disturbing about the thought of a puddle of kittens and ferrets suddenly lumbering up and striding for the cupboard where the kibble is hidden.

Kate said...

I cannot tell you how many times I have purchased index cards for writing-related purposes. However, I have yet to make good use of them. Right now I have a stack that I made while re-reading my first draft the first time. It's all the unanswered questions that arise in the novel. They seem less onerous to deal with when you look at them one at a time.

jjdebenedictis said...

They seem less onerous to deal with when you look at them one at a time.

Yes! I noticed it was nice to be able to say, "Oh, there's only three holes. Everything else fits together very well." You're right that reducing the mess to finite chunks of mess does make it all seem less daunting.

Sarf's Travels. said...

I have a idea for a story, and have the setting. but how do you go about fleshing out the why?

jjdebenedictis said...

Sarf: That's a big question, actually. I'll send you an email.

Josh said...

I'm one of those people who works best within a little structure. Not too much, mind you, else it gets stifling. But I like having my story pretty well outlined from beginning to end before I start on the first draft. The process I normally use is called the Snowflake Model. You start by summing up your story in a single sentence. Then you expand the sentence into a paragraph, paragraph into a page, and eventually you have a full 4-page synopsis of the story. There are a few other sidesteps I do, such as some character and culture outlines, plus magic systems, but usually once I have those 4 pages, I can start writing.

As I said, though, the structure is only there to help, not restrict. There are many big differences between the outline and the finished draft. Some characters and events drastically evolve as I write them. The one other advantage to this process is that after I revise and polish and prepare to query, I kinda already have a synopsis once it's edited to reflect the true story.

jjdebenedictis said...

Josh: Like you, I tend to like a bit of structure, but not too much. However, I've never gotten the snowflake method to work for me. As I said in the post, my brain wants to take every little idea and run with it! Not a bad thing, but I wind up with soooooo much more than four pages...

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