There's no end
to the things you might know, depending how far beyond Zebra you go! {Dr. Seuss}

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Index Cards: Creating Your Personal Universe Deck

Index cards have many uses in a writer’s world. Anne Lamott suggests carrying a couple cards in your pocket, glove box, purse, diaper bag, everywhere. Then when an idea smacks you upside the head, you always have an index card with you to write notes.
Other authors suggest outlining your novel with index cards. The idea is to write about each scene on the cards. This way you can lay out all your cards, which are all your scenes, and visualize how the novel is working in a more concrete way. You can rearrange the cards and test how scenes might work elsewhere in the novel.
I have another way to use these delightful index cards (nowadays they come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors!): creating a Personal Universe Deck. My college creative writing professor had every student do this exercise. It’s a way to spark new ways of thinking, break through writer’s block, create fresh unexpected angles for your story, or to ignite a new story idea. This is how it works:
Get 100 index cards
• Write one word on each card: the words are to be significant to you for any reason and sound good to your ear (whether it’s a favorable or unfavorable word)
Write 16 words for each of the five senses and be specific; can be adjectives, things, people, places, or whatever you think of for the senses (80 cards)
Write 10 words of motion; these words don’t have to be only verbs or adverbs (10 cards)
Write 3 abstraction words (3 cards)
Write 7 words of anything you want (7 cards)
Once you have your 100 words on your index cards, it’s time to play! Shuffle the deck and lay out 15 cards. Do the words suggest any scenes, narrations, voices, characters, stories? Group them by categories to see if you can find or forge connections. Write down what you discover. Play another 15 cards and do the same thing. Play fifteen cards as often as you need to in order to get over your writer’s block or start writing a new scene or story.
I made my Personal Universe Deck my junior year of college, and I’ve used it ever since. Since my deck was created five years ago, I did it all over again and made a new one. I was surprised how many of the words had changed. (Needless to say, but I will anyway, both decks had the words “zebra,” “orange,” and “gymnastics” in them!) So now I have two different decks to work with. If you like this exercise and it’s helpful for you, I suggest updating your Personal Universe Deck at least every five years! 
What are other ways you use index cards?

27 comments:

salarsenッ said...

I admit it. I am an index card hoarder. I use them all the time and have them strategically placed all over my house. lol

li said...

This is a cool idea! but it will have to wait until the A to Z challenge is over.

Laura Pauling said...

I write storyboards on them. And during the first draft I make a quick outline on them to put my keyboard so I remember where I"m going with the scene!

damyantiwrites said...

Wow! Thanks a gazillion for this idea :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

What a cool idea!

I've never used index cards for my novels before, but I used them last week after reading SAVE THE CAT. I loved it so much, I'm going to do it from now on, everytime I write an outline. :D

mooderino said...

some writing software progs have virtual index cards you can colour code and movea round on a pinboard in your computer. Makes it less messy and easy to organise. i use Writer's cafe for this, I think Scrivener also lets you do it.

- mood
Moody Writing

Bish Denham said...

I use index cards sometimes, but not a lot. However I like this idea of a Personal Universal Deck.

Keylocke said...

I love index cards. I also use Post-it notes on a huge trifold foam core board. I also tend to color code a lot. It's all about systems.

Thanks!

Sophia Richardson said...

I've heard of doing something like this but not quite on the scale of 100 index cards-- it sounds like fun! Have you ever had a brilliant story idea come to you from them or do you just use them to get the writing flowing?
- Sophia.

Madeleine said...

I like this idea a lot, I may just have a play sometime. :O)

C R Ward said...

I usually use coloured index cards so I can colour-code them. They're really handy when doing revisions.

I also use them occassionally to write down recipes. :-)

Jolene Perry said...

Way cool idea Laura!

Katie Mills said...

holy cow laura! I think you've just invited Tarot cards for writers!

Hannah Kincade said...

I keep sort of an index card catalog of all the books I've read. I'm totally going to steal this idea!! I loves it and I love index cards so...WIN!

Rachna Chhabria said...

This is a great idea. Thanks Laura, I will surely try it. Will probably make my students give it a go too.

Arlee Bird said...

This sounds useful and fun. I don't use index cards anymore but maybe I should. I probably still have a lot of them somewhere as I used to buy them by the box. I mostly used them for keeping sales leads with contact histories, but they do have many wonderful uses.


Lee
Tossing It Out
Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

Ciara said...

I love using note cards. I hope to find a great online version that works for me.

I'm a fellow A-Z challenger and new follower. :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

THAT is a really good idea! I have never used index cards but I have them, probably thinking I would use them someday. LOL

Lindsay said...

Wow. That is a great idea. I'm not one for using index cards, but I think I might give them a go.

Keena said...

That is a great idea. Any others??? Would love for you to come by my blog and give me some tips.


www.keena-itsmylife.blogspot.com

Christine Murray said...

I like the idea of a scene on every card...I feel a trip to the nearest stationary shop coming on!

TL Conway said...

I'm a huge fan of index cards and might have to give this 100 card deck a shot. Thanks for the tip!

New follower coming to you from the A-Z challenge!
http://tlconwaywriteshere.blogspot.com/

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I did something similar to this once, except all the cards were dropped into a hat and I had to draw two. I ended up selecting a forklift and old man. It ended up being one of my favorite short stories I've written!

Love your card idea, though. So cool.

Also, there's something particularly awesome about index cards, especially colored ones. I've always loved them.

Margo Berendsen said...

3 abstraction words? Only three? These will only pop up occasionally out of the 15 you pick - seems like there ought to be more? This is a very intriguing exercise - sounds like something fun for a writer's group to do too.

Tana Adams said...

I am SOOO lame at keeping track of detail! I've even introduced the hero to my MC twice in one book. See? Lame. I so need me some index cards.

Susan Fields said...

How cool - I love that personal universe deck idea!

My last ms had three different stories told from three different pov's all going on at the same time and coming together at the end. I had different color index cards for each pov and I'd lay them all out on the floor in the story's choronological order. It really helped get the timing right!

Brianna said...

This is a fabulous idea! I keep index cards here and there for when inspiration strikes, but I've never heard of a Personal Universe Deck before. I love the multi-color index cards and there are even cute little storage boxes for them now days. Anyway, I'm definitely going to do this! Thanks for the suggestion.
Brianna @ Pocketful of Playdough