Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Guest Blogger: Melissa Cutler- Color Coded Index Cards

Last week I mentioned a dear friend who uses color coded index cards for her writing- well today I have HER! And she's got some great ideas.

Please welcome Melissa Culter :)

Color Coded Index Cards?!? You Betcha!

My writing space matches my professional personality. Not the goofy, easy-to-laugh, cocktail-swilling person I am around family and friends, but the professional, no-nonsense me that kicks writing ass every single day and is unequivocally devoted to my career as an author. Borne from that professional personality, my writing desk is efficient and organization. Dictionary and thesaurus? In easy reach. Post-it notes, paper clips, file folders, blank note pads—it's all at my fingertips, exactly where I designated it to be. My personal preference for orderliness has also extended to the way I organize my thoughts about stories I'm writing.

Is the same true for you? Does your writing style match your writing space? Marie Andreas asked me to talk about my color coding system of thought organization, but I don’t want you to think I'm advocating my methods for you. You've got your own neurotic writer quirks to contend with, am I right? But maybe there's something in my system you can use. Or maybe it'll spark your own meditation on how you work.

When I start dreaming up a new book, I write every thought down. Sometimes I write big long thoughts on notepads, sometimes I scrawl in spiral journals, and I always fill out character charts. A vast majority of my ideas get jotted down on different colored index cards. It's so dang convenient when I get to the actual writing part to have everything laid out by color. And as I get into the heart of the book, and more ideas come to me, as long as I grab for the right color index card to write them on, I'm made-in-the-shade when it comes to adding those ideas into my book.

Here's the system:
Blue = the external conflicts
Pink = the romantic conflicts
Purple = character information and/or the characters' internal conflicts
Green = book research. This could be about place, laws, time of year, anything.
Yellow = revision notes.


Blue and pink are fun. If I'm not sure what order to write external plot details, I lay the blue cards out in the order I think they should go. Then I put them in different order. I play around with the sequence, let my cat roll on them, shuffled the deck and deal them out. Anything to spark my creativity. Then sometimes I take the stack of romantic conflict cards and see where they'd fall in the plot compared to the external conflict points. I can clearly see if I have a section that's too external plot heavy or vice versa using this method.

Of all the cards, yellow is the most practical. Obviously, because it's for revision notes, these cards don't come into play until I'm already hot and heavy into writing the book. If, on page 100, I think to myself, "For the last three chapters, I forgot to mention his limp!" Instead of pulling out of the scene I'm writing to fix it, I write it on a yellow card ("work in the limp to chapters three through six") and stick it in the yellow card pile. When I finish the rough draft, I pick up the pile and go through the manuscript making corrections. Easy Peasy!

Purple is a great one. I make notes on all the characters on purple cards. Then, if I forget what a secondary character looks like or how their name is spelled, I flip through the stack of purple cards. It's way faster than scrolling through the manuscript or sifting through scraps of paper on which random notes are scribbled.

I do a lot of book research, from how to shoe a horse to varieties of artisan salts or the weather in Panama in May. When I read something online or in a book that I need to know for my story, I reach for a green card. This makes the rainfall total for New Mexico in December an easy fact to find later on.

The major benefit to this color coding method is that it sets me up to NOT STOP WRITING when my muse is flowing. Writing fast and meeting deadlines is all about efficiency. Do it fast, and do it right. I don't waste precious time scrolling back through a manuscript to find out if a character is thirty-two or thirty-three. I don't spend an hour changing the guy's walk to a limp throughout chapters three through five when I could be adding to my word count.

One more thing I do: when I'm absolutely finished with a card—say, I don't need to know the rainfall totals in Mexico anymore—I toss it in the "Used Notes Box." That's right, folks. I keep a used notes box within arm's reach. I fill it with all the notes I'm don't need anymore so that I don't waste time later flipping through them to get to the notes I still need. By the end of writing the book, its file folder is nearly empty. I don't organize these boxes by book, but by date, because I'm often dealing with more than one book at a time, especially now that I'm published. When I start a new box, I write the start date. When it's full, I write the end date, put the lid on, and stick it in my attic.

Remember at the beginning of this post, when I told you that all this organizing was part of the personality I was born with? If this plan isn't for you, don't sweat it. I customized it based on my personality, as you should with yours. My only hope is that if you plan on establishing a career as a writer, you give great consideration to how to organize your thoughts and your work space. If you want to be a professional, think like a professional—with your time, with your environment, and with the writing process you develop.

So, does your workspace match your personality? How about your writing style? What do you love about your current methods? What do you wish you could change about your process or your workspace?

Melissa Cutler writes sexy Contemporary Romances and edge-of-your-seat Romantic Suspense. THE TROUBLE WITH COWBOYS is coming in October 2012 from Kensington Zebra, and SEDUCTION UNDER FIRE is a November 2012 Harlequin release. Find out more about Melissa and her books at


  1. Wow, Melissa. I especially like the yellow revision cards. Rather than go back and fix at the moment, I tend to keep those kind of notes in my notebook but that can waste time later when I need to find the fixes. I'm going to adapt this and keep cards in the sleeve of my notebook.

    A lot to think about, thanks for sharing!


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Pam! One other thing I do with the yellow cards is keep a running list of "words I think I've overused". If I type the word "unequivocally" and have the feeling I've already used it a few times in the manuscript, I'll add the word to the list and move on. Then, during revision time, I do a "find/replace" for each word on the list.

  2. I'm exhausted just reading this. :) I'm more of an outliner. I write one heck of a synopsis, then break it out into chapters. I did a storyboard once, but I found I'm more of a kinesthetic learner, so I made the board and never looked at it again. One thing I do need to do better, though, is keep up with character traits. Sometimes I forget their eye color or something and have to go back and look. Having it on a card or in a notebook would be handy.

    Oddly, I'm a super organized person, mentally, but externally, I'm surrounded by chaos. My desk at home and at work is a mess at all times. I'm good at blocking it all out.

    Congrats on your book success. :)

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Andrea. I love the way you break your synopsis into chapters. I do that with my index cards. Storyboarding doesn't work for me, either. How cool that you found a system that works for you, which is all that really matters :)

  3. Excellent tips, Melissa! Thanks for sharing them with us.

    I'm amazed at how organized this makes your writing time. I keep a notebook with everything written in it so things are at my fingertips but I'm very interested in trying your yellow card revision method. I edit as I go but this would allow me permission to continue on without fear of losing ideas. Great tips!!!!

    1. I'm glad you like the yellow card idea. I tried to keep a spiral notebook once, but it frustrated me that everything was bound together so I couldn't "play" with the information as easily. If a note on a particular card has me stymied, I'll pull it out and prop it up in my kitchen while I do dishes. And I love to spread the cards out on the floor so I can look at the big picture.

    2. Never thought of that, Melissa. Great way to find inspiration and gets the kinks out of the story. I'm so going out tomorrow to buy colored index cards! Thanks!

    3. You're welcome, Katherine! Take from my methods what works for you and discard the rest. Keep me posted on how the cards work out for you. :)

    4. Looks like I'm a mix between Lauren, Katherine and Linda-- I keep notebooks, outline that can break into chapters, and post-its. BUT, I do like your organizational ideas, too, Melissa, and think they make sense. I'm going to try a few to finish out this book I'm working on. Maybe the process will help me fly through to the ending. :)

  4. This sounds like waaaay too much work, Melissa. No wonder your cat has fallen over. LOL. And neat, eh? I have papers all over my floor when I'm working on a project. Synopsis is there, research papers are there (if there's research involved), etc. Little piles in folders. I scribble ideas non-stop in notebooks, on napkins, post-its, and I've been known to write an idea on the back of my hand if no paper is available.

    But if you saw my office.... and all those papers scotch-taped on the walls, a true neatnik would cringe!

    Funny how we all have this specific process. Other than the outline I'm required by Harlequin to have approved, I write by the seat of my jeans, and love every minute.

    YAY for writing in whatever process that works!
    And congrats on your recent successes. Couldn't have happened to a nicer person.


    1. Hi, Linda. Thank you for stopping by! I think papers scotch-taped to the wall is a great idea, actually. I love the fluidity of interacting with notes, which is why a spiral notebook wouldn't work for me. I often spread my notes all around me during the day (it's just that I clean the up and tuck them back in the file folder at the end of the day). You're exactly right when you said "YAY for writing in whatever process works!" I totally agree.

      p.s. Thanks for the compliment and the congrats!

  5. Hi Melissa:
    I was organized when I started writing novels 30 years ago. Sometime between then and now, my office exploded into a mess and has never recovered, lol! My research books and notes are scattered throughout the house these days. But it works for me.

    I tried storyboarding, index cards, outlining, and just about every technique writers employ while writing. None worked. I'm linear, and I have to write from beginning to end. I'm a pantser, so I cannot outline. I do have a notebook for research and notes with subjects separated with tabs. I also keep folders on certain subjects. I'm a visual and a chart person. I have to see all the info in front of me. After 30 years, I haven't changed.

    If I need to add a thought, I make notes in the margin on the page where I want it to go. This works for me because after reading through the first draft, I go into the ms file and make corrections or add scenes according to my notes. I do my best writing straight into the computer. I think it's because my fingers fly over the keys and keep up with my thoughts!!!

    Ya gotta do whatever works, right?

    Enjoyed your orgnization tips.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Jannine! It's great that you kept trying different methods until you figured out what works for you. I think that process of sellf-discovery is so very important.

  6. Hey Melissa!!! *waving*

    I'm still trembling a little about the color coded notecards... I'm having flashbacks to high school research papers and having to turn in notecards before we could start writing! LOL

    I do keep a research file for each of my series that I'm writing with everything from character traits to city research, etc. but I think that's the extent of my organization for the most part... :)

    I wish I could clean up my workspace! LOL My desk is SO scary!!!

    And as far as what I love about my writing process is being surprised while I write... I LOVE discovering something about a character that I never saw coming. That's my favorite!

    Great blog Melissa!

    Lisa :)

    1. Hi, Lisa *waving back*
      Thank you for stopping by. I love discovering things about my characters, too. It's such a wonderful rush. Your research file sounds great, and very necessary since your books take place all over the world. Glad you found a system that works for you!

  7. This whole system won't work if you don't have a cat to hold down the cards. So I'll try something else. Maybe train my dogs.

  8. So THAT'S how you make the magic happen! I knew you used cards, but I didn't exactly know your system--and with the high-quality books you're cranking out, it's obviously working! I love how deliberate you are and how when you're done with a novel, you've hit on all the important points from external conflict to wonderful character arcs. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Thanks for posting this Melissa :). It makes so much more sense to me here! Yeah, I'm with Lisa, colored cards can be scary, but I think I might be able to work some of this in :).

    I'm a very scattered writer, and in a way it's good because I go places I never thought I'd go- but a wee bit more orginazation would be a good thing!

    Marie Andreas (who has to post as anonymous when posting from work ;))

  10. Oh, wow! I'm impressed. Usually I'm a panster but just recently I sold a book on the blurb only and now the editor needs a synopsis. Panic time! I write in a linear fashion with no notes, no plot, nothing. Of course all of this has to change and that's why this post came at the perfect time for me.

    I like the idea of notecards except I write on two different computers in two different areas of the house so toting cards wouldn't work for me because I'll forget them.

    What is working is Microsoft One Note. Oh, my. Its like a binder with tabs. I have a tab for each character, for synopsis ideas, for story ideas and many tabs for different areas of research. I like it because if I find a tidbit of research I need, all I have to do is copy and paste it into my One Note. One Note will also automatically put in the website it came from so that is always at my fingertips.

    Then I save One Note in my Dropbox so I can easily access it on my other computer.

    I've gone from being an unorganized, messy writer, to somewhat organized and less messy.

    I really, really like your idea of colored index cards though. Next wip I might give that a try.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. Congratulations on your book deal! I haven't heard of One Note, but it sounds like a terrific solution. I love Dropbox, as I'm like you and work on two different computers when the mood strikes me. Plus, the cloud storage is invaluable so we don't lose our precious writing materials. If you see this reply, stop back by and tell us the name of your book, anad when and where it's releasing. Congrats, again!

  11. Melissa,
    I use the index card system also and have just purchased Scrivener which also uses the corkboard and cards. I love my free WordWeb on my computer for the dictionary and Thesaurus. I also keep on my desk so it's handy is the Chicago Manual of Style. I'm a combination Panster outliner. I love organization, great and helpful post. Thanks, Marian

    1. Marian, everyone I know who uses Scrivener loves it. I bet you will too. I love using a paper dictionary and thesaurus. My thesaurus is massive--"The Synonym Finder" by J.I. Rodale. I highlight every word I look up, just for the fun of tracking it. What a word nerd, right? :)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  12. I think I need a better work space. I'm starting to think that the recliner in the living room with a diet coke on the side table may not be working for me anymore. I need to try the notecard method.

    1. You make me laugh, Georgie! The recliner/diet coke method has proven efficient for some writers, I bet. I certainly incorporate diet coke into my writing day every day. Thanks for stopping by!