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?