Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing with Index Cards

Today I have an "outlining technique" that may appeal to many of you. I found the article about it at the Writer's Digest website, but it has an interesting use for writing children's books.

The article is called Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards. The writer got the idea from a book by science fiction writer David Gerrold, who wrote (among other things) the Trouble with Tribbles episode from the original Star Trek. The book sounded familiar to me, so I checked and found that I had it. It comes from a chapter called Structure, Structure, Structure! which has a lot more info than you'll get from the article. Still, for a children's writer, the article has all the info you need.

Here's the basic idea: You take all the scene ideas you have about the story and write each of them on an index card. I'd go even further and say you can be even less specific than that -- just write down each action you know you want in your story. (Hey, it's a children's book, not a 1200 page epic. You're probably only looking at two or three dozen cards, max.)

Then you arrange the cards in what appears to be the best order for them to happen... and try "reading" your story. Does it make sense? If not, rearrange the cards until it does. Is something missing? Add the necessary cards in the correct spots. Did you find something that doesn't belong? Take the card out of the stack. (And save it. Maybe it will fit in another book, and you've already got a card -- or more -- to get you started.)

It's a very simple, very organic way of outlining that doesn't feel like outlining at all. And because children's books -- especially easy readers -- aren't terribly long, you can start fleshing out the ideas on the cards themselves. Add dialogue, place info, character actions, and so forth right on the appropriate card. It's entirely possible that you'll get the entire first draft of your book written on those index cards. All you have to do then is just type your cards (in order) into your computer and voila! You've got your first draft.

I've used this method when doing long adult books. I actually used sticky notes and stuck them on the wall in my hallway, so I could see them all at once and rearrange them easily. If it works for a long book, it will certainly work for a short one!

If you're having trouble getting your story worked out, this also helps because it breaks the story down into little bite-size pieces. It simply doesn't seem as daunting this way. Give it a try.

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