Index Cards (Or Writer’s Block? What Writer’s Block?)

index card

There’s an old saying about when something’s not working, you’re never going to get a different result by doing the same thing. Or something like that (I’m the same way with wise old sayings and proverbs as I am with clichés – I mangle them to bits, unintentionally).

What with planning for our move to the city and all the details that come with it (decluttering, downsizing, selling the house, finding a condo), I’ve been taking a bit of a hiatus from writing. But as we’re getting closer to our move, I’m finding my thoughts drifting to my writing more and more frequently.

I’m really feeling the creative itch.

Anyway, I recently looked back over the volume of work I’ve produced over the past three years. Out of four different WIPs and hundreds of thousands of words written, I’ve only completed the first draft of one of them, my mystery. The rest all are stalled at various stages of completion. One of them even went and morphed itself into a whole different story, one which doesn’t really suit the original characters.

I have always been a “write by the seat of my pants” kind of writer. I love the thrill of not knowing what’s around the next corner. It keeps the excitement alive for me. So I’ve always avoided the idea of outlining.

But it’s really clear to me that I also work best when I have a vague idea where I’m going. I never had any problems with “writer’s block” when I worked on my mystery. I had no clue what would happen between the beginning and the ending of the book, but I did start out knowing A. whodunnit and B. why whodunnit did it in the first place. And that was all I needed to get to the finish line.

So it’s pretty clear to me that I’ve got to shake things up a bit. Do something different with my writing, because what I’ve been doing isn’t working. Take ELEMENTAL. I love the idea behind that WIP. I love the characters. It’s also a very exciting, action-filled story. And yet … I’ve been stuck at a very pivotal point for a very long time.

It’s the same with my other in-progress projects.

Enter my writing buddy Janel Gradowski. Honestly, she’s done more to keep me on the writing track than anything or anyone else. We email each other regularly, and lately she’s really become focused on her writing. And in one of her regular emails, she mentioned how she’d started writing her ideas for one of her longer works onto index cards, and how magically new ideas have been appearing.

This really intrigued me, and I began looking around, checking out how other writers are using index cards.

And one thing really stands out for me. When you use index cards to pre-write/plot your novel, you’re working with a system or method that is, by its very nature, flexible and changeable.

“Outlining” a novel using index cards isn’t anything at all like my idea of an outline as being rigid and death to creativity.

It’s also a chance to brainstorm, which I love doing. And it opens up the door to making some truly magical connections – connections which I’ve always associated only with the act of writing itself.

So I’m going to give the index card way a try. The beauty of it is, index cards are so small and portable, I can dump an idea on one at any time, any place, as long as I have an index card and a pen handy. So I can start now to satisfy that creative itch of mine.

An aside: one of the things that really jumped out at me while I was looking around for index card ideas – people use index cards for all manner of things, from productivity and goal management, to writing, to homeschooling, to time management, to menu planning to shopping to … the list is virtually endless!

Do you use index cards in some way or other in your life? I’d love to hear about the different and creative ways people put index cards to good use!

13 thoughts on “Index Cards (Or Writer’s Block? What Writer’s Block?)

  1. rhapsodyinbooks

    I used index cards (the largest size) when I was writing my thesis, and they were immensely helpful. For some awful reason I destroyed them, and now mourn their loss regularly. And for some other unknown reason, I have never gone back to the system, accumulating little pieces of paper instead (a very bad system!). I recommend them highly!

    Reply
  2. Nancy Jo

    What a great idea! I never related using index cards to an outline. I’m old school so an outline has to be lettered, numbered, indented, etc. I think I, too, will give this a try.

    Reply
  3. Barbara

    I had tons of index cards when I wrote my book; don’t know how I would have finished that nonfiction book without them. It made it much easier to organize. Now I’m trying fiction, a mystery. I know the beginning and it was fairly easy to write. I also know whodunnit and why. My only problem is the middle which has defeated me ever since I retired. Nowadays my life is too muddled to have time to think or work. My blog substitutes for real work at the moment. However, I’m thinking maybe index cards might not be a bad idea for my mystery. Thanks for the idea.

    Reply
  4. Janel

    I just told a friend who wants to start her novel about using index cards – and now she’s excited about it too! Honestly, I think combining these with sticky notes is both exciting and practical. :)

    Reply
  5. heidenkind

    I love index cards! I have a pack of them in my purse for no good reason. Seriously.

    I tried to outline a book by using index cards once, but I don’t think I’m the outline type. If I know what’s going to happen in a book, that takes the fun out of writing it. But maybe I need to rethink my strategy.

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  6. Ellen

    I’ve never used index cards for creative writing, and I’m not sure why – they seem like the perfect system, so portable and easy to rearrange. I’m also a big fan of how Nabokov write, which was to do it all on index cards. I didn’t much like his last (incomplete) work, “The Original of Laura”, but I loved the way it was presented, with punch-out-able images of his index cards printed on thick stock. I doubt anyone actually punched the cards out to try rearranging his work (it was a $30 book, after all) but still a cool way of showing how he wrote.

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  7. Memory

    I’ve tried index card outlines in the past, mostly during revisions. I felt terribly productive, writing things out and moving them around in the timeline, but I think the whole process took me about three times as long as it would’ve if I’d just typed my revision outline out and used copy-and-paste to switch things around. I haven’t yet tried index cards during the pre-writing stage, though. Maybe I’ll give them a shot with the next book!

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  8. Jemi Fraser

    So many people use them – I hope it works for you. I don’t do any outlining either – but I do like to have the ending/climax scene in mind. Once I have that and the first scene, I just start writing! :)

    Reply
  9. Cat Woods

    I used index cards all the time when I ran my preschool. It was great for keeping track of class projects and mixing and matching for different themes.

    The only time I’ve used an index card in writing was to actually write them out like postcards in my MG novel POSTCARDS FROM READING CAMP. I didn’t want to lose track of how many (the story needed 28) I had used, when I’d used them or what was written on each one.

    I hope your new method of outlining affords you the freedom you need to plan while allowing your pantster tendencies to be realized!

    Reply
  10. natalie @ book, line, and sinker

    hope your big move goes smoothly! so impressed that you’ve been able to get so much writing done, even if things are still in progress. i typically spend a few hours writing something and then come back to it the next day and erase 95% and start again…which may explain why i have nothing written. :) as for index cards, they always remind me of sue grafton’s kinsey millhone series. kinsey is a PI who writes down the info she learns during her investigation on index cards. the cards can then be shuffled and pinned up on a board, which helps her solve the case. i may not use them in my daily life, but they are handy for others!

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  12. Dean Cline

    As an investigator, I use index cards as my case notes. It makes it a lot easier to arrange the facts of a case and come to a conclusion of the case a lot faster than writing notes in a notebook where you could lose track by going back and forth to the pages you need. Index cards all the way for me. Thanks.

    Reply

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