This is my current work-in-progress. A stack of paper over a foot high, much of it handwritten on old school lined paper which means the ink is fading fast. Add to that about another 25 MB of files on my computer. That’s after purging.
This is my current work-in-progress on index cards.
Granted that tall stack of purple prose has had close to 20 years to grow to that size. Diving back into the story again I knew it was too overwhelming for me to get a grip on the story I wanted to tell. The book was broken, I wasn’t arguing with that, I was just lost in a sea of paper. I made the mental commitment to basically throw out the old story (after reading everything through once more) and start anew. But there were some things worth saving. And because the book required a lot of research, there was no need to do it all over again. I also was, I admit it, a bit afraid of this book because it has a deeper plot and a subplot (maybe 2 subplots) and there was much more to keep track of in this book than in my others.
Enter the humble index card.
I started off with bright green for all the things that needed names. (I had decided to rename everything and everyone in the book because the orginal was a wee bit too, well, cutesy.) As I went through the stacks of papers or thought about the book I jotted down anything that needed a name on a bright green card. The town, the parents, the dog, and the daughter who may or may not be a love interst. (That goes on another card.)
As I read through the old stuff there were some of those wonderful phrases I didn’t want to let go of, even if the chance of me reusing them were slim. They went on the violet cards.
The book is about something I don’t know much about – airplanes. So the pink cards are my glossary of words that are used around planes, like Hobbs Meter and chords and elevators which do not meant the same in the real world as they do in the world of flight.
More details about planes, like the particulars about a Cessna 152 or cruising airspeeds in different planes went on the green cards.
Over the years I had read a lot of flying books and jotted down great words about flying from other people. They all went on the blue cards.
The three most important cards turned out to be orange, white and yellow.
I actually started with the white ones, jotting down just a line or two about a potential scene. I wrote down most of the scenes from the earlier versions of the book and then, of course, my brain generated new ones. I didn’t stop to evaluate it, I just wrote them down. I didn’t stop to think about setting or POV, I just wanted to get the good stuff out of the old stuff and start my subconscious working on bringing up new stuff.
As I worked on the cards I would get an idea of something I wanted to remember to consider during the writing, maybe something about his flaw or strengths or a piece of advice from someone on how to build a stronger plot. Those notes went on orange cards and are great to flip through and ponder when I’m feeling blocked.
The last cards are yellow for any questions that come up that I think I need to answer during the writing. At the moment it’s a very tall stack. It might be something like wondering if the MC is going to fall for Edna’s daughter or if he likes chocolate milkshakes or when he will find out the truth that is driving the story. As I work and a question pops into my head, I jot it down on a yellow card. One question to a card.
Now I have a stack of a little over 500 cards. Will I use them all in the book? Not hardly. Did it help me wrap my brain around the 17 versions of the book I have had stacked up in my office for years? Absolutely.
I love that the cards are portable. I can take them and some blank ones with me wherever I go. On my lunch break if I want to work on the book I can pull out a white scene card and see where it takes me. As I firm up the scenes I will whittle down the cards I keep close at hand. If I were a real outliner, this would be a good first step to writing an outline. That’s not my particular style. For me I think it is enough that I have the cards. Before I sit down to write I can thumb through and start to warm up the brain soup.
Now here’s the thing about writers giving other writers advice. Most of us love to talk about how we “do it” and quite often other writers, those just starting out, will listen to us and think that’s how they should “do it” too. And maybe you should. But maybe not. The best writing advice I can give anyone is to look at what works for someone else, take what will work for you, discard the rest and don’t feel guilty about it.