(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, March 5, 2003)
When I discuss writing, I often talk about using index cards for note keeping and plotting as if they were a talisman to guarantee good writing. They very well might be, for me at least, but I don't dare make such a claim publicly. If you live a good life, you might have a better chance of going to heaven--or to Texas, or wherever God resides. And if you use index cards, chances are you can solve a lot of the problems you face in organizing your writing ideas.
But those little 3X5 cards do tend to intimidate mere mortal writers like me. People who are perfectly willing to scratch notes on the backs of envelopes or on tiny shreds of paper--which they might throw away by accident and which cannot be filed neatly--balk at the idea of using index cards. Perhaps it's related to the problem we writers have with habits that bring order to our world, such as putting idea notes into folders and filing them away in alphabetical order. We fear such dreaded left-brain activities will diminish our access to the creative right sides of our brains.
The first time I sat down to write plot details on index cards, my hands literally shook, but I took several deep breaths and got down to work. I knew I'd be a nervous wreck until I got the plot details printed out on those little pieces of stiffened paper. When I finally finished, I had a wonderful book ready to write! That book even earned me a prize in a writers contest, and if I ever manage to get it published, it could even become a bestseller! Believe me, it was definitely worth the trouble of learning to use those index cards.
Experience quickly taught me four tricks that can help anyone conquer those 3X5 jitters:
TRY DIFFERENT COLORED CARDS
Colors affect us mentally and emotionally; they even have physical ramifications on the way we feel. Certain colors can encourage or inhibit our creativity. A color can affect one person one way and another person a different way. That's why people tend to have their own favorite colors. The colors in your office determine the quality of your work; in your home, they can even affect the way you manage relationships. The colors of the index cards you use for each writing task tend to affect how well you're able to perform that task.
Try using different colored cards in different ways. Sunny yellow might get you going in the morning--or early afternoon, if you're a night person like me. Blue, the color of sky and ocean, can help you relax; use it when you're too tense to create. Green is supposed to trigger a direct line to the creative part of the brain. Since it's the color of such good things as grass, trees, and money, it should inspire you to great things. (Try not to think of such green things as algae and Mr. Spock's blood.) But watch the orange cards. That color is supposed to trigger the appetite. (Keep a diet soda pop handy for emergencies.)
For one book, I used orange cards for character notes and green cards to organize plot details for my outline. Another book had so many characters with parallel but separate lives over the years of the story that I assigned each character a different color, plotted each character's life separately, then blended all the cards into a chronological (and multi-colored) stack that could one day be the basis for a huge saga and a prime-time miniseries. Success awaits!
If you still don't believe colored cards offer a psychological advantage over white (although when I need a lot of colors, I use white cards as if it were a separate color), just hold up a white card and a colored card--blue, for instance--and see which one looks larger. Every writer knows how difficult it is to stare at a huge empty sheet of 8 1/2 X 11 paper and try to fill it with words. Well, I hate to tell you, but filling an empty white note card is no less difficult. Colored cards seem a little smaller, and they're certainly more fun to use. Colored index cards do help you get the job done.
THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO RECORD INFORMATION ON INDEX CARDS
You can't put too much or too little information on a card because you can change it so easily. It's a snap to add detail to a particular card at a later time, if you decide it's necessary. And if you put too much detail on one card, you can cross some points off the first card and copy them onto another card in seconds.
PRINT INFORMATION ON CARDS
Try not to write details on cards in longhand. Printing takes longer than cursive, but you'll save time in the long run. When you try to organize your plot cards, or check a detail from your character notes, you'll find the words faster and read them easier if they are printed clearly. No matter how pretty your handwriting is, PRINT THE INFORMATION ON YOUR CARDS--NEATLY.
DON'T THROW AWAY CARDS RELATING TO A PARTICULAR PROJECT UNTIL YOU'RE SURE YOU'LL NEVER, EVER USE THAT IDEA AGAIN
When I was finally convinced that I should use index cards to organize a plot for an outline, I still didn't realize that I'd need them further down the road. Being a cheap soul (but not inexpensive, I can assure you), I plotted one book to what I thought was its logically best form. After I'd turned that masterwork into a complete outline, I thought I was done with the cards for that book, so I turned them over and used the blank sides to plot out other books and stories.
Later, after I became convinced that the plot for the first book still needed work, I knew I had to solve the problem at the most basic level--with the index cards. But the original cards for that plot were scattered throughout several other files--and even into the trash when their smallest empty spaces had been filled and the information transferred to larger documents. I've learned my lesson now. To quote the Raven: "Nevermore." I don't care how big my index-card bill gets, I'm saving them all!
Using index cards forces you to break down details into their smallest components, to find problems at the most basic level. Cards are the most flexible writing tool you'll ever use. In several ways, they're even superior to computers. You don't have to boot up cards; they don't require electricity; you can spread cards on a table or the floor and see more at once than you ever can on any computer screen; you can move cards around easier and faster than using a computer block move; and cards don't crash.
When you're happy with the order of a group of cards for an article or story, number them by 5s or 10s. That way, you won't have to worry about dropping them, and you can put new ones in between the older cards if you do have to add more details or even rearrange the cards again.
Index cards can also be a handy tool for the difficult task of trying to sell your writing. Use them for notes on potential markets, as well as keeping track of who you've just sent your work to and where it's already been.
The most important thing to remember about any filing system is that you must design it yourself for your own use. Listen to tips from others, try them, then use what works for you.
While you develop that system, try index cards. Once you get used to them, I think you'll really love them!