Writing in Fragments
November 13, 2017 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I read about Nabokov writing Lolita on large index cards while his wife drove him around the United States so he could collect butterflies. I love, love, love the idea of writing an entire book, or at least heavily outlining a book or longer work, one card at a time. I'm looking for anything on writing in small chunks, or fragments, that are eventually combined into something larger. It could be personal experiences, methodologies, workflow examples, links to author interviews, apps, books, or what have you.

It seems so potentially liberating. I'm also fascinated with David Sedaris' workflow, of taking short notes and then expanding them into journals, and then mining the journals for essays. The interactive fiction app "Twine" also seems like an interesting way to gather and organize fragments.
posted by mecran01 to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I started outlining a book sort of this way. I had a bunch of index cards I had cut in half for another project, and once I got stuck in a book I had partway written, I wrote down all the characters and major plot points on those cards. Then I arranged them into some kind of order, typed up just what I had written on the cards, and that became my outline. I started filling in the blank spaces until all the disjointed bits fit together.

I am currently slacking off on NaNo on that very story, so grain of salt.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:33 PM on November 13 [2 favorites]

Umberto Eco's How to Write a Thesis is all about the humble index card. I wrote most of my dissertation on index cards. They are amazing.
posted by sockermom at 7:35 PM on November 13 [5 favorites]

I'm not super familiar with it, but the Scriviner software has an option for card-based writing.
posted by greermahoney at 7:37 PM on November 13 [9 favorites]

I thought for sure Kerouac's "On The Road," famously written on a scroll, was once a much shorter piece of paper before it was repeatedly lengthened and rolled up, but I'm sad to report that the scroll was 120ft long from the very beginning. However, he did this so he'd never have to load up his typewriter and so could always be ready throw down small chunks and fragments of writing.
posted by rhizome at 7:39 PM on November 13 [2 favorites]

Scrivener is powerful software that is based on the concept of writing in little, expandable chunks. There are tutorials for it available online.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:44 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method starts off with the analogy of a building fieldstone wall to describe an incremental writing process. I have over a shelf-foot of Jerry's books, and have had the pleasure of spending time with him. He's always had notecards in his pocket.
posted by dws at 8:04 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

Holy smokes, I have that book. I'll have to take it out, thanks. These are great recommendations.
posted by mecran01 at 8:09 PM on November 13

Well, there's Jane Austen's "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory", which seems to be referring to a pocket notebook of this type. Compose in pencil on easily erasable surface, then copy in ink on paper, repeat, repeat, repeat.
posted by Princess Leopoldine Grassalkovich nee Esterhazy at 8:20 PM on November 13 [2 favorites]

[wikipedia] [Franz] Kafka left his work, both published and unpublished, to his friend and literary executor Max Brod with explicit instructions that it should be destroyed on Kafka's death; Kafka wrote: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread". Brod ignored this request and published the novels and collected works between 1925 and 1935. He took many papers, which remain unpublished, with him in suitcases to Palestine when he fled there in 1939. Kafka's last lover, Dora Diamant (later, Dymant-Lask), also ignored his wishes, secretly keeping 20 notebooks and 35 letters. These were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933, but scholars continue to search for them.

As Brod published the bulk of the writings in his possession, Kafka's work began to attract wider attention and critical acclaim. Brod found it difficult to arrange Kafka's notebooks in chronological order. One problem was that Kafka often began writing in different parts of the book; sometimes in the middle, sometimes working backwards from the end. [emphasis mine]
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:23 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

Check out Robert Olen Butler's "dreamstorming" method described in From Where You Dream.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 8:30 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

I too wrote a chapter of my diss using index cards on the floor. It's an easy way to keep track of citations and play with ordering the facts you have to work with. Helpfully, index cards don't have wifi.
posted by momus_window at 9:10 PM on November 13 [4 favorites]

author Diana Gabaldon has some of this in answer to
"13. You’ve said before that your writing style is to write all the scenes and then piece them together in order when you’ve gotten them all done."
and "16. What is the underlying geometric principle that you use"
posted by readinghippo at 9:18 PM on November 13

Not index cards - but Georges Perec's "Life, A Users Manual" was written by envisaging the elevation view of a Parisian apartment block as a 10 by 10 grid - and then having each of the book's 99 chapters relate to places and people within this block using the chess pattern known as "the knight's tour". The fact that Perec was able to hide all this under-the-surface-nerdery and produce a coherent and enjoyable book, is quite an achievement.

(Perec also wrote the mystery novel "La Disparition" -translated into English as "A void"-which commemorates the loss of the author's parents by writing "without them" - or in French "sans eux" - analogous to "sans e" - and hence without using the letter E. So a whole book where the only instance of that letter is in the author's name on the cover. Just to make that challenge a little harder, Perec (and his English translator, Adair) wrote the book in rhyming form too. No pressure there! Some samples of the translated text here) and of Perec's original.
posted by rongorongo at 10:18 PM on November 13 [2 favorites]

In screenwriting class I was taught that you can make writing a feature film feel much less intimidating if you think of it, not as writing a 90-minute movie, but instead as writing about 45 x 2-minute scenes. Screenwriters often plot their storylines using index cards.

To make it feel like a normal movie, you'd try to adhere to a template that maps emotion-over-time into an arc that basically looks like this (slightly clearer explanation of the jargon here and here).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:24 PM on November 13 [2 favorites]

Nabokov's Laura was written on notecards, and the publication of the novel in notecard format is the only worthy thing about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:08 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

To echo pseudostrabismus, this is standard practice for writers of film and TV (at least in the US). Virtually any TV writers room will have corkboards to stick up the index cards. There might be one board plotting out the season as a whole (with one index card per episode) and then a separate board plotting out the episode currently being worked on (with one index card per scene.) Here's an article by screenwriter Terry Rossio about how he and his writing partner use one set of index cards to write their scripts, and another to pitch them.

I was one of the few screenwriters I knew who didn't plot things out with index cards. Perhaps coincidentally, I didn't have much luck in the American market, but I had a tiny bit more in Europe. I want to be very careful, because this is a huge generalization, but as a VERY rough rule of thumb: I think mainstream Hollywood scripts are more focused on story structure than European scripts. And if you start your writing process by plotting out each scene of the movie on index cards, you are probably a more structure-oriented writer. Whereas if you use my method, and write a brief outline but pay equal or greater attention to characters, setting, and theme, then you're probably more character/theme/setting oriented. (Again, I'm hugely generalizing and oversimplifying. Don't take anything in this paragraph too seriously.)

If I understand your question correctly, you're not just asking about plotting on index cards -- you're asking about the more general idea of starting with lots of fragments and assembling them into a finished product. Broadly speaking, that's how I wrote all three books in the fantasy trilogy I'm currently writing.

The series draws heavily on London mythology and history. The first book in the series took me about eight years to write, much of which was spent reading books and websites about London and assembling a gazillion notes on potentially interesting details. I also generated a lot of original material-- a timeline of my fictionalized magical London going back three millenia, notes about characters and their backstories, and rough outlines for every book in the series. I used Scrivener to collect all this material.

After spending eight years on book 1, I sold the series to a publisher, then had to write books 2 and 3 in one year each. This was only possible because I had already assembled the raw materials. Now, when I find myself stuck, I can look through my copious notes and find something that sparks the next idea.

I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're asking about, because my novels aren't entirely assembled from fragments. There's a lot of stuff in them that never appeared in any note, and many of my notes never end up getting used. But assembling all those fragments was a necessary starting point for me, and I return to them constantly as I write.
posted by yankeefog at 2:42 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]

This is more editing in fragments than writing in fragments, but P.G. Wodehouse’s editing method?

When Wodehouse was writing a book, he used to pin the pages in undulating waves around the wall of his workroom. Pages he felt were working well would be pinned up high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall. His aim was to get the entire manuscript up to the picture rail before he handed it in.
posted by LizardBreath at 3:30 AM on November 14 [8 favorites]

Ooh, that reminds me. I can't find the citation, but I think I read that when he was plotting a movie, Sam Fuller used to use red index cards for violent scenes and white index cards for all the others. When he looked at his cork board, he wanted to see a smattering of red cards early on, and more and more of them as the plot progressed, so that the story would build in intensity.
posted by yankeefog at 6:29 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]

I have heard of something called The Snowflake Method, where the idea is to write down the the broadest outline points first (like the capital roman numerals in an outline), then go into more specific details in whatever section is calling to you at the moment. You can grow a manuscript fractally that way, like a snowflake grows from the broad structure outwards.

Cards are unbeatable for rearrangability, and can definitely be combined with the above method in different ways, but i think that: cards for outline, notebook for notes, and Snowflake for the word processing bits would be a pretty natural system (at least for me! Your Milage May Vary).
posted by wires at 7:50 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in this book, Riding SideSaddle by Miriam Suzanne, that was written as a series of cards that can be rearranged. It's an interesting art experiment, so might not be as linear in result as you are thinking, but very cool!
posted by LKWorking at 9:03 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]

David Lynch says 70 index cards = 1 movie
posted by newmoistness at 11:38 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]

Maybe have a look at this:

janet malcolm on david salle
posted by sophieblue at 5:48 PM on November 14

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field explains the method for using 3 x 5 cards.

In Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Pirsig goes into some detail for using cards to organize research.
posted by Bron at 10:27 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]

When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order?
John McPhee on Structure
posted by Standard Orange at 8:10 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]

This might help: https://gingkoapp.com

I'm presently using it to organize my dissertation proposal and it is helping me make progress where I have been stuck for a long time. It lets you write in little chunks without focusing on length or word count. It is all tree-based so that every column on the left contains things that are subordinated to the one on the left. And you can export from it into a variety of different formats (like LaTeX, Markdown, or even *gag* Word).
posted by paco758 at 10:12 AM on November 16

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