Magic note cards (revision, yeah?)

Every once in a while I miss a blog post I wrote on the old blog and I need to duplicate it here.  Today I tweeted with another writer about note cards and I wanted to share these thoughts with her.  This post was originally published in my old blog on December 22, 2009.

Magic Note Cards

I’ve been doing a lot of work with note cards lately, sighing and saying, “Ah, note cards.  Is there nothing they can’t do?”  Questions follow, condensed mainly into one basic question:  “Why are you so in love with note cards lately?”

Most basic answer:  note cards help me see the big picture.

Here’s what I do:

Whether revising or planning, the basic rule is one scene per card.  If you don’t have scenes yet (early planning), go with one idea per card.  You may want to identify this core stack in some way.  Put a star in the corner, write in a different colored ink.  Add a sticker or a post-it note.

Add to the stack: ideas, discarded scenes, themes, settings, new characters, old characters.  Don’t filter.  If it seems important in the moment, jot it down.  Some of the cards will be thrown away or replaced with a better card.  Some cards will go into a stack for later inspiration.  Yesterday I went through more than 200 cards.  Don’t limit your ideas.  Add or delete cards any time you want.  This is a fun, creative process--not life or death.
Now that you have your deck?  Play.

Use more notecards as category cards.  I like using brightly-colored note cards for this, but you can note the type of card in any way (different color ink, notation in corner--whatever).  As you sort through your cards, you may find that some of the cards you’ve already written are category cards.  You can pull them out and add them to your category cards as you go through your deck the first time.

Use category cards to ask questions.

Thinking about the order of your novel?  Create a category card for each major section of your book.  Then go through your deck and intuitively drop the card in the category where it fits.  Based on this, are there scenes in your novel that are in the wrong place?  Are there scenes that don’t seem to fit?  (Do they need to be deleted?)  Are there duplicate or alternative scenes?

Looking for individual character story lines?  Sort by character and then arrange the cards.

Wondering about themes?  Write a theme on a category card and sort cards according to theme.

Arrange your main cards on a plot arc and ask yourself if the energy of the scene fits the energy of the arc.  (Building to major discovery?  Tumbling toward conclusion?)

Sort cards by tone to see if you have outliers.

Sort cards to see relationships between characters.

One of my favorite activities:  Does this scene fit in this book?  (This is a particular weakness of mine.)  Take the yes cards and fit them into chronology.  No fit?  Start again.

Want to see what your narrative will look like without a certain plot line?  Remove the plot line from your basic cards.  Want to add a plot line?  Filter it in and see how it flows.

That’s all there is to it.  One card per scene.  Add ideas.  Make category cards.  Play. Ask questions of the cards, but don’t force answers.  If cards or scenes annoy you, throw them in a discard pile.

I usually end up with a new base set of cards, arranged in the order the story is told. I’ll add tons of new notes to these cards, sometimes incorporating ideas from other cards.  Sometimes I number the new cards and then add related cards under that number, eventually labeling those cards by scene number and letter (4A, 4B, 4C, etc.)  When I’m writing or revising, I’ll look at all my notes and the related cards.

Then, if revising, save a copy of the original and apply changes to manuscript.  Keep playing and evaluating.  Are the changes improving the manuscript the way you thought they would?  Keep an eye on the big picture.  All changes should strengthen the whole.  Practicing this craft sometimes means acknowledging when things don’t work.  It’s okay to stop and start again.

Or, if starting a new book:  know how each scene fits into the whole story.  Avoid writing scenes that don’t fit with the whole.  At key points in the writing process, stop and evaluate.  If changes are made to the original vision, stop and find the whole again.  Plan around the changes before writing more.

Okay, so note cards aren’t magic.  They’re a tool.  But what you do with them?  That can be magic.


  1. RT @johannaharness: A discussion w/ @ClaireGoverts made me think about magic note cards: #amwriting


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