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  • November 26th, 2007 | 7:51 PM
One way to play with plots

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.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 29 comments — Leave comment )
November 27th, 2007 06:25 am (UTC)
LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


ho ho ho!!!!!!!!!! that is splendid!
November 27th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. I kept reading all the various plot things you were trying and couldn't wrap my brain around them and this is what I came up with.
November 27th, 2007 06:56 am (UTC)

This makes my flash cards look simple.
November 27th, 2007 02:41 pm (UTC)
I was going to ask you about your flash cards. Can you explain them some, what you do? I think if I didn't have so many technical things to remember, it might not be so intense. Or if I had a better memory. (Mine is not so good.)
November 27th, 2007 01:42 pm (UTC)

THAT is impressive...and visually appealing. :)
November 28th, 2007 03:10 am (UTC)
It put things into perspective for me seeing it like that. :-)
(Deleted comment)
November 28th, 2007 03:12 am (UTC)
I love seeing how other writers work and pulling pieces of their process into my process as well. I know a lot of people really like using highlighters too and I may end up adding them in myself.

There's another thing, I can't remember the details right now, but it was about using little dots on the cards to signify certain things. I may look into that once I have a draft of something new too play with.
November 27th, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's amazing. I wish I could be as organized as you are, and maybe I will try one day. I'm just so lazy...
November 27th, 2007 04:13 pm (UTC)
Oh I am SO not organized and very lazy. I was too lazy to skim through the pages everytime I wanted to look something up or search through the computer files.

Of course it could all be for moot if it doesn't somehow translate itself into a book.
(no subject) - cyn2write - November 27th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
November 27th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
This is so cool to read (and see!)--I'm looking forward to hearing how it works for you.

I love color-coding things--it helps add another dimension to the organizational process (and I still, as a curriculum writer, use the same colors of file folders for each subject that I used for my school folders when I was in elementary school!)--but it's also pretty, something to engage the visual sense.

I just started writing the first novel that I've organized with colored index cards, and I, too, love their portability. I even found a little card-sized binder in which I can keep and carry the cards for the section I'm working on at the moment. Not that any of this is an excuse to buy office supplies or anything! ;)
November 28th, 2007 03:15 am (UTC)
I am hopeleesy disorganized with a desire to learn how to be more organized. I like the idea of the colored folders - and this is funny - I use colored folders but I never assigned a legend to them. I should have. I will. Thank you!

I started used colored folders in order to make my office a prettier place to look at.

And yes, any excuse to buy office supplies. LOL.

November 27th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
Remember when index cards came only in white?! When I started brainstorming my last book, I used the cards. I kept it simpler than yours, just made a color for each person and then wrote down ideas about them/their plot points on that color as they came to me. It was a great first step--really got the brainstorming juices going!

For me, though, if I go too long without getting things into the computer, I start to panic. So, once I had a bunch of the cards, I went to scene pages on my computer. This time around, I'm trying to start that way-using Karen Wiesner's First Draft in 30 Days--she's got lots of card-like pages to work with and it seems to be working so far.

For this project that you're reviving, Susan, I think the cards are brillian. What other way to go through all those notes/pages/ideas, get it all back into your mind, and get it organized enough that it doesn't feel overwhelming. And I LOVE the pics!
November 28th, 2007 03:18 am (UTC)
I do remember when the cards were only in white! One of my big fears right now is that the pastel ones will go away and all that will be left will be the dayglo colors that I don't like. They get in the way of my creating. :-)

I'll have to go look for Karen Wiesner's book. Thanks!

I like the idea of cards for different people too. Good idea.

November 27th, 2007 04:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing this. I love to see how other writers operate - especially when their method appeals and seems workable to my way of thinking, as yours does. :o)
November 28th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
Yeah - I'm glad you could find something that might work for you. I just love hearing how other people work too. At first I was thinking this would only be for old stuff but today I got an idea on how I could use it on a brand new project too! I'd love to get a system of any sort going for me.
November 27th, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC)
I can relate! (I remember throwing all of TCO's paperclipped chapters on the living room floor)...
November 28th, 2007 03:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, I've done my share of throwing the pages around and across the room too. :-)
November 27th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
This is so cool. I don't know if I'll ever try it but I'm bookmarking this page in case the urge is there.

Ooh! Just as I wrote this I thought of my first novel which I'm contemplating revisiting to rework as YA. This would be the perfect system as I haven't looked at it in years!!

Thank you, Susan!
November 28th, 2007 03:21 am (UTC)
Yeah! I hope it works for you or sparks something new that works for you. I've read about various card projects over the years and this is the first one that worked for me. Of course I'll feel a WHOLE lot better once I have an actual book to show for it.
(Deleted comment)
November 28th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
When you say you use them for plot points, what do you mean exactly? (I'm all done assuming I have any idea what anyone else means. )

And yes, VZ is just a big old comfy crazy quilt.
November 27th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you're moving ahead, and that you found something that works for this book.
November 28th, 2007 03:24 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly. It feels good to have the illusion of control on my side for the moment. :-)
November 27th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
When I'm feeling brave enough to enter the closet cupboard, I will drag out MY many versions of MY WIP and measure them, to see if they're taller than yours. ;)

This re-write, I discoverd the magic of index cards. They are indeed a wondrous invention!
November 28th, 2007 03:25 am (UTC)
LOL on the versions. If I had been brave enough to kill the trees I would print off everything on the computer too.

How are you using index cards for your rewrite? Please share.
November 28th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
Well, since you asked! ;)

I referred to The Writer's Journey, which gave me a nice set of bones based on J. Campbell's Hero's Journey. I wrote each point of the Journey on an index card, then took the basic elements of my story, and considered whether any of those events fit in Hero's Journey slots. I wrote those events on cards and placed them beneath the appropriate HJ heading. It was easy to shuffle things around, and easy to see when something was there that didn't need to be. (And later I went in with different-colored Sharpies and added different plot elements--romantic twist in red, showdown with obnoxious rival in green, etc--so it was easy to see if I was threading the subplots through successfully.)

When I was pretty satisfied with my card set-up, I wrote out my plot summary in longhand so I would have tidy papers to refer to, rather than shuffling through a stack o'cards every time I sat down to write!
November 28th, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)
Wow! Thanks for sharing your process. I'm nowhere near organized for that. I keep an outline on my computer and write key points on a whiteboard. One day...
January 15th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow! Thank you so much for this! I'm coming to this post a year late, but it's exactly what I needed to hear right now. Seeing the photo is a big help, too.
January 15th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome! I'm glad it helped.

Good luck on your own project.
( 29 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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