I am writing this off the top of my medicated head as I recover from wisdom-teeth extraction, so take it with a grain of ibuprofen and go get Kenneth Atchity’s great book A Writer’s Time for yourself. I began teaching my Book Writing Cycle (BWC) this week, and one of the techniques I am recommending is based on Atchity’s use of index cards. I’m going to explain something about this system, as I’ve applied it to my own projects. Recently, I’ve switched over to Scrivener, so that my index cards are computerized. We’ll see how that goes . . . (My To Do List is also computerized, has been for a year or so, and I’m still on the fence about it . . .)
The idea with the index cards is that you will gather up a bunch of them, doing exploratory and then focused research (which, for fiction, and even memoir, is already a lot more open than for non-fiction), and then organize them, and then use them as stepping stones when you write your first draft.
Since my BWC participants are all going to write a full manuscript in seven weeks, in November (as part of NaNoWriMo) and for three weeks in December, they have (coincidentally) seven weeks from today to collect their cards. So the first thing to do is the math. Let’s say you want to write a 300-page manuscript (at 300 words/ page, that’s 90,000 words). And let’s say you want 2 cards to carry you across each page. You’re going to need 600 cards to write the manuscript. But not all cards you create will survive to your final stack (more on that soon), so you aim for, say 700 cards. You can toss 100 and still have enough.
Including today, there are 50 days until Nov. 1—manuscript launch day. In all fairness, Atchity gives twice this much time to research and doubles the number of cards per page to four (though he’s more flexible for fiction), but we’re working in an accelerated timeframe. That’s part of the fun and challenge of NaNoWriMo and the BWC.
So: in order to gather 700 index cards before Nov. 1, starting today, you have to create 14 cards/ day.
What the heck is on these cards?
For the “expansion” phase, Atchity has you wandering in the stacks of the library, making your way through various books and interviewing people, too. Interviewing for fiction is fun—more focus on quirks and sensate detail than just the facts. I also make my way through books on writing—currently John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, for example—and use the suggestions and exercises in there to spur ideas that go on cards.
When you sort the cards in preparation for the focused part of your research, Atchity suggests that you be sure you have enough dialog, action and setting cards. So those are three good categories to focus on. Character cards are important, too. I also have notes like, “Maybe Lucy and Magdalena went to high school together and the whole pink elephant scene happened between them.” A lot of my cards start, “What if . . .?” What if Lucy were writing a book about Magdalena’s ex-husband? What if Edward and Magdalena already had kids? What if Magdalena’s trouble about the truth of her book happened at the same time as Edward’s job sent him to Israel? Some of my cards contradict each other. At the gathering phase, I’m not worrying about that. More will be revealed. Always. As long as you keep wondering and writing down your notes.
In essence, if our job as writers is to ask questions whose answers we do not know and then to answer those questions, index cards, those neat, open, blank spaces, give us the tiles in which we begin to explore answers. Something from nothing, here on this 5 x 7 rectangle. It’s manageable and exciting at the same time. You have a blank stack of cards, 14 cards, and some bit of time in front of you. So you make notes. You turn to the world, you turn to your imagination, you spark ideas—and you write them down. That’s it. There’s a lot of intuition and trusting of your storyteller in this system.
Here’s another metaphor: the index cards are firewood you are gathering from the floors of the forests where you wander. When you write, you will burn your way through them to keep things hot.
About half, or two-thirds, of the way through your card gathering phase, you take stock of what you have and what you need. You need more information about Edward’s journey to Israel. You need more about Magdalena’s book and Lucy’s motivation. You need more dialog cards. Whatever. The last phase of your gathering, what Atchity calls “Contraction” is about filling in the gaps.
And so, the day arrives when you have your 700 cards. (Atchity gives you days to sort and road-map with vacation days in between. Again, for BWC folks we are modifying this system so that we can jump in and write like crazy.)
Atchity’s rule is “NO THINKING” for the first part of the sorting. Here you are making two piles: Yes or No. You ask yourself, Is this card dramatic or not? Will it create a memorable scene or image or not? Yes or no? He suggests you go through the entire pile once and then quickly again, to be sure you got it right or to adjust.
The next stage of sorting is into piles. First card goes into its own pile. Does the second card join it or begin a new pile? Go through all the cards, creating piles. Then go through them again, correcting and confirming and looking for ways to combine piles. He suggests putting rubber bands around your piles, so you can then move them around, looking for a natural order—beginning, middle and end—to your novel. Somewhere in the book, he also suggests that you order the middle of your book into “beginning, middle and end,” and do this as many times as you need to keep the middle taut.
Basically, he’s applying non-fiction research and writing methods to fiction, allowing for a lot more open, loose application of the techniques. If you stop needing the cards, he urges you to let them go and keep writing. They will be there as a roadmap if you lose your way or your momentum.
Order and Creativity
I was a strange child. I make up plays and played dress-up and wrote stories, but I also loved filling in the blanks in notebooks. Atchity’s well-organized system reassures me. In the end, I will move back and forth between the plan and my own urges and intuitions. But note, the plan itself is based largely on intuition. Having a structure creates a pathway for your intuition. It gives you a way to begin that does not ask you to know where something belongs or how it will become a book. It gives you a way to proceed until you have a book.