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Organizing a Second Draft with Notecards and Tom Petty


I got some amazing feedback on the first draft of my latest project: Axe one of the storylines!

It was unnecessary. I didn’t need the characters that went with it, and I could use the space to deepen the stories of the important characters. It made so much sense. Light bulb over my head! Joy in my heart! I was ready to second draft the shiznit out of this book!

I sat at my computer and opened the first relevant scene. The vital information was tangled in with the stuff that needed to go. I stared at the screen for an hour or so, changed a few words to other words. Got overwhelmed. Did some laundry.

Next day, same story. Vacuuming.

A week later, my house was very clean.

During my procrastination cleaning, I formed a vague idea of what might make the process easier. What if I made an outline of each scene, detailing the information necessary to the story, and listing what needed to be removed? What if I put the outline for each scene on an index card, so I could play around with the order of everything?

My gut told me this was what I needed to do, but it seemed like so much work! I knew the story really well, and I believed I should be able to cut that corner and avoid wasting my time on work that didn’t even really count as writing. I told myself organization was really a form of procrastination. Then I sorted all the washcloths in the linen closet in order of how much I like them.

Next day. Armed with false confidence, I sat at my computer. Got overwhelmed. Started a sewing project.

After Stella had a freshly patched dog bed, and the hole in that sweatshirt I’d been meaning to stitch up for two years was finally fixed, I realized I’d never get anywhere if I didn’t take the time to get organized.

I used the notecard feature in Scrivener to create outlines of each scene. I kept myself carefully on task. My job in this process was not to make changes or judgments. I was only taking inventory of what I’d done so far. The first day, I made notes with the four hour Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream [1],* on in the background, and it worked so well that I watched it four times that week (I tell you this, because I feel like I couldn’t have done it without Tom Petty. He is now my spirit guide). Sometimes, I panicked about putting so much work in to this idea. Sometimes, I kicked myself for not starting it sooner.

Once I had a card for every scene, I went to Staples and walked up and down the aisles staring at things until people assumed I worked there and asked me for help. When I finally realized I was being weird, I grabbed the unlined 4X5 index cards I knew I needed, and considered corkboards for longer than anyone ever should. I would need a lot of corkboardage to display every scene from my novel all at once. I didn’t like the idea of the expense or the space they’d take up.

Suddenly, it came to me! Binder rings! A friend once sent me a picture of his index cards held together with a binder ring.** It was perfect! Everything would stay in order, but I could change the order easily. And it was mobile, so I could carry them everywhere with me and make notes when I had new thoughts about the story.

I brought my supplies home, printed my Scrivener cards to index cards, punched a hole in each, and put them all on one binder ring (to rule them all!).

It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my work process. I added handwritten cards at the end where I keep track of plot threads I need to pull through the book, and themes I’m seeing in the story. I flip through my cards before I go to sleep at night and again when I get up in the morning. I know what needs to be done that day when I sit at my computer and I am way less likely to get overwhelmed and start organizing washcloths.

I also started a ring of cards to outline my next project, adding new ones as ideas pop up, so everything will be in one place, when I’m ready to shift my focus.

It’s not fair to expect ourselves to make huge changes without allowing time for organization. In the future, I’m going to try to honor my gut feelings about what the work needs. It takes the time it takes. Process is important, and it’s okay to put energy into finding the right way to tackle a task. The time I put into those notecards actually got me somewhere, but if it hadn’t, maybe learning what didn’t work would have been important too (at least more important than patching that sweatshirt – it’s strangely scratchy).

And, of course, because I love asking other authors about their processes, I surveyed some friends to see how they organize their work.

Ruth Whippman-Levine [2] – I do a similar thing with post it notes- I write one ‘scene’ or idea on each one, then stick them on the wall and move them around as necessary to form a map of the structure. It’s also easier to see which ones are redundant/ don’t fit in at all.

Lisa Wingate [3] – Typically, I make a quick pass through my first draft and write a final story timeline, which I will pass along to the editor. I also make a list of all the highlights, notes-to-self, and research bits I need to finish, gather, or find before working the first draft into an editor-ready second draft.

Marcie Nault [4] – I’m the white board queen. I have four. One for overall story. And then one for each main character’s arc. It allows me to step back and see the entire story’s progress and it helps that it takes me away from the computer screen for a bit.

Matthew Norman [5] – I do index cards for each chapter and pin them to a cork board on my wall in chronological order. It makes me look like a lunatic, but I need to see it all laid out in front of me or the actual plot gets jumbled up and blurry in my mind.

Catherine McKenzie [6] – I do the same (as Matthew Norman). I call it the Wall of Plot (TM) (though I might have got that term from another author). Also, sometimes: The Wall of Crazy.

Sandra Gulland [7] – I’ve tried everything: color-coded index cards spread all over the dining room table, Excel worksheets. I print story beats (@SAVE THE CAT [8]) onto tabbed index cards and organize the cards that way. Being at a mobile stage of life (i.e. children grown, husband retired), I end up carting boxes of these cards with me everywhere. I’m always thinking: there has to be a better way, but nothing seems to work as well as the cards.

Do you resist organization? What do you do to keep your work in order? 

*That documentary is amazing and I highly recommend it.

**All the friends I’ve thanked for suggesting binder rings have been like, “Cool idea! That wasn’t me,” so I’m not exactly sure where it came from. Was it you?