I recently struggled through the first draft of a novel. Actually, make that the zero draft. It wasn’t good enough to be a first draft. I found the process even more painful than usual, and eventually I realized why. I hadn’t laid out my book on index cards before I started to draft.
I’d written notes about the characters and plot, pages of them in fact. I thought I was ready to write and didn’t need to do my usual card tricks. I was wrong. I did make it through that draft but only with more weeping and wailing than was probably necessary.
What I do with index cards
When I am smart enough to use my index cards, I transfer what I know about the plot onto them scene by scene and lay them out on my dining room table. I intersperse the scenes with cards containing the items from Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (Save the Cat, p.70). Snyder was a screen writer with a strong sense of story structure. Beats include things like Theme Stated, Catalyst, B Story, Fun and Games. I don’t treat them religiously, but I find it helpful to think of my plot in those terms.
The first thing I usually notice is that there aren’t enough cards. So I leave them laid out, wander away, and think some more about ways to complicate and enrich my story. (I’ve had it pointed out that those of you with cats may have to work a little differently!)
I carry a pack of blank cards with me. If I get an idea, I write it on a card and when I get home, I add it to the grid. Sometimes I carry all the card with me and try shuffling them or finding previously unnoticed connections between different scenes that I can exploit.
After a couple of weeks, I’m much more ready to draft. I gather a few cards and set off to Barnes and Noble to write in the café. Once I’m writing, more ideas occur to me. Again, I put them on a card and fit them into the grid.
How the cards help
For me, the biggest advantage of the cards is that I can see my whole story at once. I can see that a character appears for the first time late in the story and decide if I want that or want to introduce the character earlier. I notice plot holes. I see the need to introduce a setting I plan to use later. Most importantly, I can see if both internal and external arcs are constructed bit by bit in a plausible, action oriented way.
For me, the rows and columns of cards create a two-dimensional sense of my story. The book begins to feel like a building rather than a road.
I have shared this practice with other writers, and one friend recently told me: “I can’t thank you enough for showing me the card trick. It was like turning on a light in a dark room that I’d been bumping and feeling my way in for months. With the lights on I can see what I’m doing!!”
I feel the same way. I will never neglect those cards again.
Bonus: A teaser from The Wind Reader:
I braced myself against the deck hand’s limp weight, the heat of his fever burning my side right through my clothes. Hurry. Make up your mind, I silently urged. I don’t want this man touching me. (Ch. 1)