Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Beloved Index Cards

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the joy of index cards in the writing process before, and here are a few new ideas:

First, from writer Paula Whyman (who just redid her website; check it out!): “I’m having some success with the index cards, btw; I make notes on them, color-coded by character and yellow for ‘general.’ I ask important questions (how did Dawn die?), write down lines I think of that I don’t know where they’ll go yet. I even have a card with a list of songs the characters might listen to. It helps get me started when I sit down to work.”

And, second, this idea came to me a couple weeks ago when we did a visualization exercise in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins. We were working on building our scenes, and I had everyone close their eyes and imagine a scene they were having trouble with. Then I asked a series of questions (i.e. “Where is your character right now? Inside, outside? What colors are around him/her? What are five specific things he sees without turning his head? What is something your character might reach out and touch; what does that thing feel like? How does your character feel holding onto this item?” and so on).

My questions went on for about five minutes, and then everyone wrote down their impressions and notes about what they’d imagined. People came up with some good stuff (which, I was pleased to note, came into play in later chapter submissions!) and after the exercise, there were some jokes about having me come to their houses and read my questions when they were working.

So, I can’t do that—unless maybe there are really excellent snacks involved!—but it did occur to me that this is another job for index cards: Write out the questions that are most helpful for you*, one per index card, and every day as you’re about to write, flip through your cards, imagining the scene in your head as you read and mentally respond to the question. Or save this technique for when you’re feeling stuck, or for when you’re revising and looking to add more detail in the scene. In short, as always—do what works for you.

*I like questions that reach for emotional depth, sensual details, and just basic logistics (who’s there and where is everyone standing).


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.