Outlining With Index Cards

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but on the continuum of pantser to plotter, I’m pretty far down on the pantser scale (as in, by the seat of my pants, meaning I don’t do much in the way of outlining). I do try to outline–really, I do! I’ve read a number of craft books promoting the practice, from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’ve downloaded beat sheets and mapped pinch points.

But for some reason, outlining has never quite clicked for me. I’ll get half-way through an outline for a project, only to get so excited about the project that I abandon the outline and just start drafting. Or, I’ll outline all the way through, but then once I start drafting I’ll realize some plot point isn’t working, and instead of going back to the outline and working it out that way, I just say eff this! and figure it out on page. Usually, by the time I’m done with a novel and go back to look at my original outline, the finished manuscript looks absolutely nothing like the outline I started out with.

And honestly, that’s worked out okay for me so far. I’ve written mostly first person narratives that move linearly through time (well, one was close third person, but that’s almost the same). I’ve never pushed myself to work with multiple POV characters, different settings or times, or even too many subplots.

Until now.

I’m really excited about the project I’m about to dive into (no spoilers yet!) but I’m self-aware enough about my own creative process to know that my usually laissez-faire style isn’t going to cut it. With 4-5 POV characters, two parallel timelines, and plenty of intertwining plot lines, I need to do the diligence of actually outlining. Which means I think I need to change my method of outlining in the first place, since nothing has really worked for me in the past.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past few days, and I’ve finally decided to try out using index cards to outline! It’s not a method I’m totally unfamiliar with–several authors (including Caraval author Stephanie Garber) who I follow on social media use it to outline their books. But I never knew exactly how. Apparently there are numerous methods, but all of them focus on the basic principle of writing scenes, character arcs, plot points, conflicts, etc on single index cards, then adding, removing, or rearranging the index cards until they begin to resemble the coherent plot of a novel.

I’m not positive it will convert me from my pantsing ways, but I’m hopeful for a few reasons:

First, it seems like a very tactile method. Before I actually start drafting on my laptop, I really enjoy brainstorming, jotting down ideas, and fleshing out characters longhand. But in the past, I’ve done my outlining digitally, either on a word processor or in a program like Scrivener. I’m hoping the index card method will be a more organic way for me to explore my ideas.

Second, there’s plenty of flexibility. Like I said, the second I feel boxed in or off base with my outline, I go off script in the draft. But with index cards, if something isn’t working I can just get rid of the card or write a new one. I don’t need to have a sense of pinch points, character arcs, or even linear plot in advance of jotting down scenes and seeing how they fit together. I’m hoping this will stimulate my creativity while still providing structure.

Finally, it seems new and fun. Hey, I’ll admit it–I can be a bit of a dilettante! But sometimes, exploring a new method or element of craft can be just the thing to keep you moving forward and learning new things.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few of the resources I tracked down:

Holly Lisle–Plotting Under Pressure

Writer’s Digest–Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

Greenkeys–How to Plot a Novel

Have you ever outlined using index cards before? Do you want me to report back on how it turns out? Let me know in the comments section!

Hamilton: Three Lines That Grab Me as a Writer

I want this poster!

Earlier this month, my mom took me to see Hamilton in Chicago as an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is in August, but we were up there for a conference). I knew it was going to be good, but I was not prepared for how much it blew me away! I could go on and on about how great the choreography and lighting were, and how much of a genius Lin Manuel Miranda is, but this is about an aspect I never anticipated…how much Hamilton touched me as a writer.

I cry at musicals. A lot. It’s because I love theater and it makes me very emotional. But there were several moments that touched me deep down as a writer and made me sob all the more, but this time, they were happy tears because I knew someone else–and Lin Manuel nonetheless–felt the same way.

First, from a song called Non-Stop, which is the last song in the first act: “Write like you’re running out of time. Write like you need it to survive.”

HOLY CRAP! THIS IS ME! I have never felt so seen as I did during this number. I constantly feel the pressure (self-induced and otherwise) to write more and faster. I’m scared I will die before I get write all of the stories in my head. Writing is literally all I do outside of my day job because a) I LOVE it and b) I feel like if I do anything else it will just get in the way of realizing my dreams.

There is a certain obsession that can overcome a writer that I am feeling very keenly as I’m researching my first biography. I don’t know that I can explain it. It is an extra drive, a stronger sense of need, of owing the characters your all, of being put on this planet to write…so you have to do it ALL THE TIME.

Secondly, from My Shot, perhaps one of the most iconic lines:
“I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Yes, yes, everyone and their brother loves this song. But as an indie author, it has special meaning to me. People ask me all the time how I win so many awards, etc. I don’t want to sound flippant, but honestly, I win because I enter contests. Of course, you have to have a great product, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Being an indie author is all about taking chances. Sometimes you win big, like I did with taking a chance on a new company called Taleflick and ending up with a movie option for Madame Presidentess. Sometimes you lose so much money you want to cry. *cough* print ad in a magazine *cough* But the key is you have to try. Pay attention to the opportunities in the industry, investigate them and if they sound good to you, inquire. That’s all it takes. If you see a shot, take it. If you don’t win, you’ve lost nothing (or as in my case with the ad, you’ve only lost money). But if you do, it could be your ticket to success.

Last, but certainly not least, from the closing number of the show: “And when my time is up, Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?…Who tells your story?”

First of all, “when my time is up, have I done enough?” OMG, the question every artist asks. And chances are good the answer will be no, because there is always something new to create. It’s both the blessing and the curse of being a creative.

As for the other half of the quote: I write biographical historical fiction and now biography because the idea of someone’s life being forgotten rips my guts out. That’s how strongly I feel about it. That’s why I choose the unknown/little-known characters. Everyone has done something worthy of being remembered and if someone doesn’t tell our story, it feels like we never lived. I want to save as many historical women from that fate as possible.

Will my story be worth telling someday? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll be over here “writing day and night like I need it to survive, not throwing away my shot” and eventually, winning a Pulitzer. Just you wait.

Writing as a Career

Recently I’ve had more and more conversations about professionalism as an author. I’ve also seen more posts popping up on how to behave professionally. This is something that comes and goes in waves. Last year there was a lot said on “Authors Behaving Badly” and “Reviewers Behaving Badly”. What I haven’t seen much about is the overall professionalism that is necessary when you decide to make writing your career. Not just with reviews, but at conferences, online in general, and at signings.

So here are a few things I think we tend to forget when we spend day in and day out behind a computer in our PJs.

1. Appearance

One of the greatest things about being writing being your career is the freedom to be who you are. A stuffy suit isn’t always required. While PJs are fine for working at home, when you head off to a signing or conference, I’d recommend making sure you check to see what general dress codes are. Also, make sure you plan your wardrobe to fit what you’ll be doing. If you are on a panel speaking, signing, or pitching to agents you want to make sure you look your best. Even in jeans and a nice shirt.

2. In-Person Attitude

I’ve had a handful of experiences that I would prefer not to repeat when I’ve met an author. It’s important to remember that no matter how big (or small) you may be, you are still a person. Readers will be ecstatic if you acknowledge them with a simple hello. You will more than likely make their day if you offer to sign swag or their book. And if you have a conversation with them about every day life, not just your work, then you’ve probably made their whole weekend. But don’t forget a blow off can ruin the weekend as well. When you are promoting yourself in person, you have to put away all the stress and focus on the positive. Fake til you make it if necessary.

3. On-line Attitude

If you’re anything like me, it’s a lot easier to open up online. As a professional I have to remember just because I’m behind a screen doesn’t mean I can let it all out. It can be easy to type a long ranty post and hit publish. But I caution you to do this. Yes, readers like to see authors as people. That doesn’t mean they want to know all of your dirty laundry. You don’t have to be upbeat and happy all the time, but it’s important to have someone close to you who you can confide in when the waters gets rough. A close confidant is much better at offering advice than the Internet anyway. 🙂

I love writing. It is now my career and I wouldn’t want anything different. It’s always good to remember that this is still a job. One that helps to pay my bills and if I want to be successful I have to be professional–I just get to have fun while doing it.

What tips do you have?