Atchity and Me: The Index Card System for Writing a Narrative Book

Index card boxAtchity and Me

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 Math

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.

The Cards

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.

The System

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.

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. I liked what you said in our writing cycle phone call about sitting down with the blank cards at the end of the day. If I don’t finish my 14 cards, I can sit down with them in the evening and see if anything comes to me. I’ll probably end up writing all my cards at the end of the day since I have a two-month old baby and a three-year old home with me all day.

  2. And don’t forget, you can carry some index cards around in your diaper bag or in the zippered part of an Ergo (that’s what it’s for!), in case something comes to you while you’re with the kids and you can jot a swift note . . . But the end of the day is great, too. And fatigue can melt the harsh editor and let the storyteller run free . . .

  3. I really love the idea of index cards, it’s something I’ve loved since I was a child and I witnessed a grad student’s dissertation project tacked up all over one of her walls in student housing. I wanted to be her at that moment. Even as I was confused about how they were going to come together, I loved the idea of categorizing my life on index cards.

    Later, when I was preparing for an endurance performance, I rented one blank wall in a collective studio space on Adeline Street in Oakland, and I bought myself a huge stack of index cards and pens. I remember staring at the wall, at the pile of index cards and trying to figure out how to use them. I mostly felt like a faker, a pseudo artist who didn’t really know how to go about studio work. I had no real plan. I had hoped the index cards would get me there, even though in my life up to that point, freaking out until the last minute and then pulling something out of “thin air” (not so thin really, but not neatly outlined, that’s for sure).

    I ended up looking up words that were evocative to me and related to the theme of the performance, which was called Intake. It helped, but it didn’t get me there as neatly as I had imagined it would. I think I had the notion that the index cards would somehow organize themselves and show me the answers. I know I had the notion that I would suddenly get what that grad student was doing when I finally had my own blank wall and stack of cards.

    So, here I am again, facing a stack of proverbial index cards (I haven’t bought any yet, and I did get Scrivener, but since I don’t take my computer with me everywhere, not sure how useful that is. I have actually been tempted to buy another computer just so I can have the tool with me at all times – but I think that might be akin to renting one wall after a trip to the school supplies aisle).

    All day long I take mental notes for my index cards, but by the time I have a moment to stop and write, they aren’t there the same as they were in the moment. And, the notes, they are a constant dialog of things I’ve noticed, thoughts I’m having. It’s like a hall of mirrors version of the cloud meditation where you notice your thoughts and send them off in clouds. I notice my thoughts, think about them on index cards, write the way they would appear in my head, try to hold on to them to remember, let them stack up in a pile and then by the end of the day, they are transformed, or different, or scattered.

    This happened to me when I was driving across a bridge the other day. I didn’t have any cards with me to write down my thoughts and there was no where to pull over if if I did. I couldn’t figure out how to use the function on my cell phone that lets you leave a message for yourself and so I kept telling myself the idea over and over and over again in order not to forget.

    Okay, so there is all that – and the fact that I am writing a memoir. Up until the other day, it’s been all from the inside out. Then in our first BWC writing exercise, I wrote from the outside in, third person about me. That was interesting. How can I use that? How does it relate to the index cards? Shall I start thinking of myself as a character and then notice things that might affect that character’s trajectory?

    I really should stop commenting and walk down to Walgreens to peruse the school supplies.

  4. Clearly, index cards are a part of your process, Jenny! Yes, get thee to a store and get index cards you can carry around with you. Words will pour forth.

  5. you have so many wonderful, useful tools in your bag!
    While reading this article, I could see you in my mind’s eye, opening a satchel and sorting through it like a medicine woman or magician, selecting just the right tool or combination of tools for any situation.

    I am using index cards for the screenplay I’m writing now and it has been nothing short of miraculous!

    Thanks for sharing – I look forward to reading more and joining the group after the holidays.

  6. Thanks, Amy. That’s a wonderful image. Yes, I think Hollywood depends on index cards. Glad you’re finding them useful. You’ll love the group; I’ve told them you’re coming!

  7. Book 1 is in stores. Book 2 is off to my editor. Time to work on book 3.

    Ideas for book 3 have been swirling around like leaves in a whirlwind. After reading your post, I decided to try index cards. Now I’m nailing down those ideas where they’ll stay put. That provides a sense of accomplishment and provides manageable goals. Thinking in terms of cards per day is so much easier than thinking about abstractions such as character development and plot.

    Thanks for helping me get started.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *