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!

Pantsers vs Plotters

There’s a lot of hate going around regarding “pantsers” – the type of writers that write by the seat of their pants.

I started out as a pantser.

For me, there is no right or wrong way to write a book, so long as you actually sit down and write the damn thing. So many people get caught up in the thinking and editing and re-editing that they never finish.

So to avoid this, you need to figure out what kind of writer you are. Are you an outliner, someone who plans? Or are you a pantser that just lets the ideas and words flow, prepared to edit at the end? Or are you a mix?

Oh yeah, it’s not black and white, you can be grey. I happen to be grey.

I just finished writing my fifth novel and with each book I have found that my writing style has evolved just as the stories I’ve written have evolved.

When I first sat down years ago and tried to write my first novel, I was convinced, CONVINCED!, that it had to be totally outlined before I sat down to write even one word. So one night I figured out the entire story, plot point by plot point. I knew when it started, when it ended and every twist and turn in between.

Sounds awesome, right? Wrong.

I would spend the next three years trying to write that story. I only ever got to around 35,000 words. By the time I hit around the 25,000 mark I was two-thirds through with the whole thing. Not good since this wasn’t a short story or a novella.

It took me a long time to realize that, in my mind, I had already written the story because of how detailed my outline was. There was absolutely no urgency for me to tell this story so I couldn’t. When I realized that and was able to let it go, the backstory of Earth, the first book in my Elemental Series, blossomed, fully formed in my mind.

I sat down that very day and wrote more than 9,000 words in less than three hours. Remember, it had been over 3 years and I had only written 35,000 words of that first story. I have never written anything that huge, in that amount of time since, but I finally knew what I had been doing wrong.

As a pantser I accept that there will be a lot of editing and revising when I’m done. As a pantser I accept that I cannot allow myself to go back and edit as I write; I have to just write myself a quick note on a piece of paper to remind myself when I am finally sitting down to edit. But that’s all okay with me because it makes it so much easier for me to write. I have the urgency I need to tell the story and that urgency comes across on the page.

For me, I see the final scene of a book in my head when I first sit down to write; then I write to it. My stories are a map to that final scene and we follow it together. I don’t always know what characters are going to walk on stage, I don’t always know when my characters are going to fight, but this allows for my characters to behave more organically because I’m not fighting with them to stay in an outline. For me this works.

Now, I said I was grey earlier because recently I have had to do some loose outlines to stay on track.

Fire, the fourth book in my series, was one of the hardest, most emotional books for me to write to date. As a matter of fact I wrote about 75% of it and then suddenly walked away from it for about six months, unable to go on. I think because I was afraid of the ending. Anyway. When I finally sat back down I had no idea how to get from the point where I had left off to the end and just trying to write wasn’t working. So I took out a pen and wrote out full sentence outlines for the final chapters leading up to the last chapter.

I did not outline that last chapter. I knew that one had to be totally organic. But I managed to write the last 25% of the book in less than a month.

So see? Sometimes outlines will work and sometimes they won’t. You have to decide what works for you. Can you successfully plot a whole novel without a map? Can you drive this novel by sheer instinct and find your way home? Or do you need an outline to act as your map, taking you through the twists and turns and safely out the other side?

Answer those questions and you’ll probably figure out why you haven’t managed to finish that illusive first draft.