Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is There an App for That? Index Cards

My lovely co-writers at NovelMatters have touched on elevated and challenging topics this week. Me? I’m writing about index cards, sort of. This is a continuing conversation—jump on in!—of Anne Lamott’s writing-craft classic, Bird by Bird.

I happen to adore index cards. They don’t ask much of the writer, just a few words, an idea, a recipe. That’s all. Honestly, I get a little nervous if my stockpile wanes.

I have a long history with index cards. I used them to make flash cards and flip books in elementary school. When marriage seemed like a reachable goal, I wrote out recipes like prayers, learned all the abbreviations, practiced my best printing.

Index cards have always been my choice for to-do lists. If I can fit my list on an index card—and I write really big—I can get it all done in one day, guaranteed!

In college, I made my first planner by stapling seven index cards together and labeling them Monday through Sunday. Crossing out completed tasks made my heart beat a little faster. Yep, I invented the planner. I also invented Jazzercize about this time, but I forgot to tell people about that, too.

I went through pallets of index cards in college--both times--for all the usual uses. I carried them in a special holder. It was yellow.

My most fiendish use of index cards came as a fifth-grade teacher. I tired of reading 12-page summaries of my student’s reading. My eager students—despite repeated lessons on main ideas—included every detail of even the most modest story twist. The index card came to the rescue.

I gave each student a 5X7 index card for their book report. At first, they tried writing 12 pages of summary, only with much, much smaller printing. When I reminded them about main events and sent them back to their seats, their frustration grew. Fifth graders are large by the end of the year, and I started feared for my life, until one of them—God bless ‘em!— finally succeeded. I was beginning to think I’d asked too much. (Note: This was long before texting…and they all progressed to 6th grade knowing how to write concise summaries.)

As a writer, I’ve used index cards to record scene ideas and then shuffled them into a sense of plot. I have 163 index cards for one book. My husband made a special holder, so I could page through the cards. (Note: If you do this, be sure to number the index cards once you have them in order. Learned this the hard way.)

Although this chapter is titled “Index Cards,” it’s not really about lined pieces of cardstock. No, this is a chapter about collecting what we see in the world, recording it for use in our novels, and then remembering where that stinkin’ card went.

I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society…But then I wouldn’t.

Anne uses index cards as portable journals. The quickest way to stop a conversation is to whip out a fat journal and start taking notes. A black curtain of silence falls over the room. Index cards are small, firm, and easy to stow—perfect for clandestine note-taking. Simply jot a few words or several lines of dialogue. As Anne mentions, they fit in a pocket and won’t make your bum look lumpy. See, there are no excuses for letting a great idea evaporate.

… unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere, a thought or image arrives. Some will float into your head like goldfish, lovely, bright orange, and weightless, and you follow them like a child looking at an aquarium that was thought to be without fish.

These ideas come to us so vividly, so precisely, and oh so cleverly that we are tempted to believe they cannot be forgotten, but that is fairy dust, my dear writing friend. A Pulitzer Prize-winning idea will flit into your head and right back out again...unless you write it down. That’s what index cards are for.

My index-card life is not efficient or well organized.

Hey howdy! My question while reading this chapter was this: Anne, how in the world do you find that one brilliant idea when you need it? Who’s to say it hasn’t stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe and gone on its own adventure or slipped into the fifth dimension via the portal under the couch?

Anne doesn’t say, but she basically comes down to using index cards as a mnemonic device. For most of us, our visual memory is the most enduring, especially for converting short-term memory to long-term memory. That’s why so many of us take notes during lectures or sermons. Taking notes is turning auditory information into visual information. And if we're younger than 30 and very, very lucky, we won't have to look at that card again.

Still, the idea of hefting around a bale of index cards in my purse and then relying on my aging brain to remember what a few obscure words might mean, doesn’t fill me with confidence. I throw notes like that away every day.

We talked about journaling earlier in the year to capture ideas that alight on our overtaxed minds. Maybe the most ideal way to hold ideas is a marriage of index cards and a journal that is divided into categories: description, dialogue, titles, story ideas, in the news, etc. And then taping the cards in place, like a hinge so you can read both sides, in the journal.

Is it too late in this post to ask if index cards are passé? Is there an index card app? There should be. Did I just invent an app? At least I’m telling you about it.

I have some practical questions for you: How do you capture ideas at inconvenient moments? A recorder? Journal? Camera? The tried-and-true index card? How do you organize what you’ve plucked from an orchard of ideas?


lindaruth said...

There's an app for that -- really. It's called Evernote. It's free and I use it all the time. I use it to keep track of work projects, websites, quotes, recipes, tons of stuff. It syncs between my computers at home and at work and my iPod, so I have my notes with me all the time. It also has a website. No, I do not work for Evernote -- it's just one of those nifty little things that works right.

Anonymous said...

My problem isn't a lack of cards or journal. My problem is trying to find a pen in the mess that I call a purse. Ack!

There have been times that I've escaped to the bathroom to jot down ideas.

LeAnne Hardy said...

I'm a fan of index cards, too, Patti. I don't think an app would do the same thing as being able to spread out cards in a dozen piles on the floor. (I would use my desk but there are too many other piles on it.) I was thrilled a couple years ago in inherit two full drawers of blank cards along with a 6-drawer cabinet from a church library going electronic. I use dividers to separate cards that are future ideas or snippets of description from research on people, places, or culture in my current WIP. I scribble subject headings in the upper right corner to group related ideas in alphabetical order. Of course, I used to be a librarian....

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

I use index cards, too. In addition to the uses you mention, Patti, I write on a separate card for each non-fiction Ms I submitted where it went, date sent, etc. and later whether it was accepted or not. Without that info I'd be resubmitting the same rejected piece. Major congrats to Melissa. She's so fortunate to have Bonnie's critique of her work.

Anonymous said...

Raising my hand as a card carrying member (literally) of the Index Cards geeks club. 8-)

I do not carry several with me, but each night before bed I write a TO-DO list on a 3X5 index card with what I need to do the next day. I have to--between getting old and being pummeled with things to do, I have to keep it straight.

I also use color index cards for writing down story ideas and pinning them on foam board. And you remind me, I need to search and see if any companies sell a wider array of colored cards--I can get neon colored ones at Walmart, but it's only 4 different colors, which isn't always enough for a novel.

I would NOT, however, use an index card on the fly to write down a line that comes to me. For that, I send myself an email or write on a scrap piece of paper. My use of index cards is primarily at home.

BK Jackson

Anonymous said...

I want to slap my hand and say, "Bad me, Teacher." I've never used index cards since, well, fifth grade? I have this strange aversion even to the idea of using index cards. Do not ask me why; I couldn't tell you. But I HAVE learned the very hard way that what Anne says is true. Ideas will flit away like a feather in the wind if I don't write them down. So I have little piles on my desk and my nightstand of nuggets written on paper napkins, scraps of paper, a flap torn from an envelope, gum wrappers, post-it notes, you name it. Piles that look like so much rubbish. But I can tell you which note is on which type of scrap paper, and which pile it's in. And, Susie, my younger daughter laughs all the time at the array of pens and mechanical pencils I keep in my purse. But I can find them in the dark if I need to. I admire all of you index card users, I really do. I even question my authenticity as a writer, because all writers use index cards. Don't they? Just not me. Great post, Miss Patti.

Marcia said...

Rather than using index cards, I'm currently using slips of paper which are 1/8 the size of an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet. My son works at the phone company, and they have half sheet size scrap paper which he can slice 4 ways for me. Free!

I write one idea per slip, then clump the slips into various piles which are labeled: Character, Theme, Part I, Part II, Part II, Part IV, etc. I use the spring-handled paper clips to keep them in order until the piles start getting too big, then I rubber-band them together. Keep them in a Rubbermaid tub which is sold for C.D. storage.

I jot notes on these slips at any time, then pull them out when I sit down to write my actual manuscript at the computer. They fuel my writing.

This keeps ideas in front of my nose--instead of them getting lost and forgotten on my hard drive!

I like this method better than having a solid page of text, because I can manually rearrange my writing and play with it, putting chapter ideas, etc. in a different order or a different pile than they were originally. I can discard pieces I find unsuitable.

I also take notes on my "slips" from the writing books I'm reading, and can place them alongside whatever I'm working on to inspire me. Scripture verses are "slipped" as well.

Oh what fun!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

I'm not sure if there's an app for that, but there is a computer program. It's called Scrivener and has a note card feature where you can type in all your ideas and then shift them around. It displays your electronic note cards on a cork board like you might have them at home. You can also move around the scenes and chapters in your novel with the click of a button. It's an amazing tool for writers. The program costs about $45 and takes a few days to learn but worth it.

Patti Hill said...

Linda Ruth: I'm a little sad I didn't invent the app, but very happy to know about Evernote. Checking it out.

Susie: Ha! You could wear one around your neck or tether one to the strap of your purse. Good luck!

LeAnne: Ah, you've reached index card heaven. I'm rather jealous.

Pat: Index cards are ubiquitous! And yes, Melissa is a fortunate winner. Bonnie is a dynamite editor.

BK: Sending yourself an email...brilliant!

Miss Sharon: YOU ARE A GIFTED WRITER, and you do it without index cards. Simply amazing.

Marcia: You're an organized one. Thanks for sharing!

Ariel: I've heard of that. Is it mostly for screenwriters?

Anonymous said...

Hi, there is actually an app for iPad called index cards... I haven't found anything similar for Mac yet, but I'm looking. :)