Downstairs on a shelf in my basement is an index card organizer from Levengers. The actual name of the thing is ‘card bleachers’. It’s made of polished cherry, a lovely tiered curve with slots cut into it for 3×5 index cards. You can organize the cards along or down the rows, anyway you wish. “What a great way to work out plot and characters,” I thought. I had used index cards in the past while working out storylines. What could be better than a piece of desktop furniture designed to hold the cards?
I think I used it once. I didn’t even work out the whole story–I wrote some quick character sketches on a couple of the cards, set them in the slots, then went back to the keyboard and just started writing.
Dig into any of several of my handbags, and you might find a little spiral-bound notebook. Mead makes them under the brand name “Fat L’il Notebooks”. Petit Carnet de Notes Épais. I have filled several of them over the years with scenes, character information, plot points. Notes To Self to Look Something Up. I have to have one with me at all times–there’s one on my bedside table filled with all sorts of detail…that I hardly ever go back and reread, much less use. I keep it handy, even as I sit at the keyboard and type and seldom refer to it.
There are lovely software programs that allow me to organize my online research and outline and sketch characters. I try them, for a little while. Then a voice in my head says, You know, you’re doing a lot of writing that isn’t actual word count.
“I’m organizing my thoughts. Laying the groundwork for the story.”
You’re futzing. You’re going to discard 95% of it, and the 5% you’ll wind up keeping is already etched into your brain. You don’t know all you need to know about those characters–they’ll tell you what you need to know when they’re damned good and ready. The plot will spin out from under. Your outlines traditionally have the lifespan of a glass hammer. Why are you wasting time? Just open up a blank page and get on with it. Type, delete, cut, paste, and rearrange. On the page. That’s how you work. That’s how you’ve worked through five books. What makes you think it will ever be any different?
“My outlines are getting better.”
Shut up and type.
Tools. Are for other people, apparently.  Lovely, shiny, tools.

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  1. 1. Elizabeth Moon

    Heh. That sounds so familiar…as a teenager with an engineer mother, I decided to “get organized” about my writing. Bought a card file (not pretty cherry–ugly gray metal) and 3×5 cards and made lots of little term-paper-like notes about dozens of story ideas.

    Never wrote one of those stories. All the actual writing I did was done the same way I do it now…just pouring the story onto the page and then messing it about until it feels right or I can’t stand to look at it again.

  2. 2. Adrianne Middleton


    I gave up on 3×5 cards as soon as my teachers stopped looking at them. I tried the software organizers, but spent more time on them than writing. I may never get published, but I think I’ll follow in your (and Elizabeth’s) illustrious footprints, and see what happens. For the first time ever, I’ve got a whole novel just from letting my characters take over.


  3. 3. Melanie Fletcher

    Ha! I bought a whiteboard back in the day — thought it would be great for outlining, rearranging stuff, all that. It still has notes on it from six years ago.

  4. 4. Carolyn Bahm

    I’m such a magpie when it comes to collecting writing tips, sites for arcane research, software, etc. For a sparkly-eyed minute there, I thought, “Oooooh, CARD BLEACHERS.” But then I pinched myself and remembered the whiteboard I created and then ignored, my attempts to use index cards and Post-Its, my studiously begun and then guiltily abandoned writer’s journals, and my overly detailed character sheets that I once used.

    I think the various tools are useful for organizing my thoughts, though, even if I don’t refer to the gathered data again. Have you found the same to be true? Or were all your books written without the use of any such tool (even if used only to focus your energies)?

  5. 5. S.L. Farrell

    I once tried to outline a novel on index cards before I wrote it. Wrote out every last scene on maybe seventy cards. Then, around the second chapter, I decided I needed to make a small change… and that change cause necessary more changes in the next chapter, and even MORE changes in the next, and by Chapter Six the scenes I had on the cards weren’t even remotely close to what I was writing.

    I threw them all away and never tried that technique again… :-)

  6. 6. bev hale

    I’ve tried to be very organized in my writing, but it doesn’t work like that for me. If I try to do a complete outline or synopsis before I write, I am bored with the story before I finish it. I already know everything. So now I know sort of where I’m starting, and sort of where I want to end up and I take the journey to get there. That is for Novels.

    For Short Stories: I open up files on my computer and put bits of stories in and save them so that I will have them when I have time to look them again.

    The only time 3×5 cards work for me is when I do Tim Power’s process and just write ideas and interesting/wierd stuff on cards and toss them into a pile. Then try to come up with something that will unite all of it- like a secret conspiracy, hidden secrets, etc. Makes for interesting plots.

    I always hated outlining in college -even though I was an English Major. I wrote my papers by writing down a word or a phrase that I thought would go into the paper. Then when I got a list of them I woulld go back and rearrange the list until I had it in some order I liked. Then I wrote the paper. If the prof required an outline, I wrote it after the paper.

    I didn’t ask for outlines when I taught Freshman Comp. Just drafts. The first draft is where I learn what I think I want to say. That fit in with what I later learned from CJ Cherryh – write crap, edit brilliantly.

  7. 7. Karen Wester Newton

    I keep project folders for things that I can’t keep electronically — web page printouts and photocopies of book pages for research. Everything else is electronic. I make a folder/directory for each book and have a time-line file, a character description file, a “to do” file, and so on. If I write a scene out of order I put it in its own file with a description name and merge it in later. I have a generic folder for story idea files. But of course, with all my story eggs in one hard drive basket, I have to back up frequently!

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Hee! That’s me too. Don’t tend to go back to the notebooks (although writing the ideas down and talking them out on paper with myself sometimes helps solidify things). I looked at the Scrivener program and thought, how cool! And then I thought, yeah right. Like I’d actually use it.


  9. 9. Kristine Smith

    Mel–I have a whiteboard on the side of my file cabinet that still contains the notes on Haarin and bornsect pronunciation and posture that I wrote for CODE. Never erased them. At this point, why bother?

  10. 10. Kristine Smith

    Carolyn–I think some of my note-taking is useful. I’ve got some notes now for the wip that I scrawled on an email from my editor–I really don’t want to lose that one. Motivations and justifications were flashing through the brain haze like meteors today. Can’t lose those notes.

  11. 11. astrea taylor

    In the same vein as Kristine Smith mentioned, the whiteboards are *great* for surrounding yourself with pictures, landscapes, and icons (they love this one in the modeling world.) Also, I have found music to be a great motivator to unlock the frustration and passions of characters. I’ve gotten a hundred pages off of one particular cd. These are the “notecards” that truly inspire.

    However, I must admit that I am a note-taker. But screw the index cards. I write tentative ideas or plot thickeners as two liners in the shadowy future of the electronic cursor. ( ie “Lavander thinks she is pregnant, tells everyone. She is not.”) Electronically, they are easier to keep track of and none of those tiny moments are missed. They are always subject to revision.

  12. 12. Radish

    I tried the index-cards method, but never could get it to work for me. But I am a avid note-taker, with stacks of old cigar boxes full of hip-pocket spiral notebooks and cocktail napkins, whose contents do indeed make it into the manuscript — the fun part of that is deciphering my handwriting, once it’s gone cold.

    Now I have a school-salvaged 8ft x 4ft green chalkboard with the handy-dandy deluxe map-rail [I heart! my chalkboard, found it on Craigslist] that I use for time-lines, continuity, and genealogies, and roughing out various scales of geography, all with different colours of chalk.

    The closet doors of my writing room are fully-mirrored sliders, half-covered in post-it notes that I update and rearrange as needed.

Author Information

Kristine Smith

I'm a scientist by day, spec fic writer by nights and weekends. Author of the Jani Kilian SF series. Owned by two overgrown puppies. Visit site.



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