Color-coded notecards, organizational fetishes with Lisa Gardner

I have a fetish for organizational tools–in my credenza as well as in my writing. How do we get a handle on the big picture of a writing project when the project is huge, like a novel, or a book, or a dissertation? How do we track just exactly what we’ve written, how it will affect the reader, and whether there’s a natural, compelling flow?

New York Times bestselling suspense author Lisa Gardner has a system, and she generously shared it in her workshop about revising, Paring Down and Fleshing Out.

When Lisa’s rewriting, she says, she’s concerned about whether each scene is justified. And she’s got a system, involving color-coded notecards, to help her see those justifications and make decisions about what to keep and what to toss out.

So here’s what Lisa does:

Each scene in her novel’s draft gets a notecard.

On that notecard, she details what happens in the scene and why it happens: plot development, character development, tension, conflict, or resting moments.

But wait–before you start putting your scenes on notecards, you need to make some color choices. Lisa uses three colors:

  • yellow: plot movement
  • orange: character development
  • blue: resting moments

And then she lays them all out all over the floor in order. Can you imagine your book organized and laid out this way? Suddenly you can see the rhythm of your story! Lisa’s enthusiastic about this technique, issuing all kinds of ideas about what you can see when your novel’s laid out all over your floor in three colors. Here are a few:

  • How long does it take to get to your major plot points?
  • How well-spaced are your story’s turning points?
  • What patterns exist in your story?

Lisa goes on to discuss the art of lean writing, where each scene is doing more than one of these things at once and offers a not-unfamiliar bit of writing advice: when in doubt, cut it out. “When you don’t know what you’re talking about, you will write around it,” Lisa says and then confesses about a recent draft: “And that’s how my book got fat.”

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