Record Cards, Astronavigation and You

This article was written in June 2013 for Project Educate on The original can be found here.

Once upon a time, there was a strapping young lad named Arnold J. Rimmer.

Sec.Technician Arnold J Rimmer by Menschenhautkonfetti
Arnold Rimmer joins the Space Corps as a lowly third technician, but has great plans to work his way up through the ranks until he is an officer. To become an officer, however, one must pass the dreaded astronavigation exam. Fortunately, Rimmer is organised. He knows how to make the absolute most of his time, and so he takes a sheet of paper and draws up a revision schedule. He blocks out the times he must spend at work, and also those times when he will be distracted by his slovenly bunk-mate, David Lister. On another sheet of paper, he notes down all the subjects that will be covered in the astronavigation exam, and weights the importance of each one, colour-coding them for ease of reference. Now that he has established what he must revise and when he can revise it, he fills in each available slot in his schedule, using all his skill as an expert calligrapher to ensure that his writing is legible. Rimmer’s timetable is a work of art, magnificent in scope and glorious in its display of detail.

…so how does it work out?

worlds happiest mushroom cloud by smushbox

Not well.

You see, it takes Rimmer a week to make this epic timetable. That’s a week he can’t spend revising for the astronavigation exam. It’s also a week that he’d already planned into the timetable itself, rendering it pretty much completely useless. Because of this, he is forced to devise a new timetable, which also takes a week to produce, and thus is also completely useless. This happens two or three more times without Rimmer doing any revision whatsoever. Eventually he realises that the timetable has also sprouted an extra September and that he is an hour late for the exam…which he fails for the thirteenth time in a row. Shortly afterwards, he is vapourised by a reactor malfunction.

You don’t want to be like Rimmer, do you?


Didn’t think so.

A plan—whether it’s for a novel, or for an astronavigation exam—should be simple, and it should be easy to change. The entire point of a plan is to give you an opportunity to change things without having to delete pages of text and hours of hard work. If you come up with some sort of colour-coded, laminated monstrosity, you might as well have just gone ahead and jumped right into the novel, because it’ll be a nightmare to change that perfect plan, even when that’s exactly what you need to do. Planning helps you get your story set in stone, but the plan itself should be changeable, disposable, because once the story is written, the plan is nothing.

Don’t be like Rimmer—be like Bruce Lee.

Everyone is different. There are people out there who can come up with a detailed plan right off the bat. There are also people who don’t need a plan at all. These two groups are typically referred to as “planners” and “pantsers.” However, there is a third sort of person who—like Rimmer—gets so stuck into coming up with the perfect plan that they never get any real work done. If you’re a Rimmer who wants to move onto the story, or a pantser who wants a little more direction, here’s a method that you might find useful.

This is what SD cards looked like in 1972:

SD cards from 1972 by DamonWakes

Record cards (also known as “index cards”) were used to store data in the olden days back before computers. As a ’90s kid, I have basically no idea how one went about doing that—they’re literally made of card, so I assume they’re not good for, like, .JPEGs or anything—but they seem to work pretty well for story planning. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Record cards can be moved around, allowing you to change the order of events or look at the story from a new angle.
  • Record cards are too small to include an extra September.

I’m only sort of kidding about the September thing. The small size of record cards (3×5 inches, typically) forces you to think in terms of plot points rather that scenes, which is excellent if your plans normally go into too much detail. However, I first tried using record cards in preparation for NaNoWriMo last year, and found that it was also an excellent method for coming up with a plan really quickly: this one took less than a week. I have to admit, before I tried doing it this way, I never really planned novels out at all, largely because I just wanted to get stuck right in.

Spoiler alert! …but only if you can read my handwriting.

Face of Glass Plot Outline by DamonWakes

Apologies for the grubby carpet in the background! There were only so many places I could lay all of these out flat. Here are the cards—the entire plot outline—from my NaNoWriMo novel, Face of Glass. Twenty-five record cards, numbered zero to…wait. Eighteen?


Yes, really. That’s another bonus with using record cards—you can just slot in extra ones wherever you like. So if there’s a bit of a jump in the storyline between, say, card 10 and card 11, you can just add in a card 10.5. And if you need to come back and add still more, you can add a 10.25. If you were doing this with a regular pen and paper, you’d have to cram that extra text into the margin. If you were typing the plan on a computer, you’d have to print out a new copy. I wrote the card numbers in pencil just in case I had to change anything, but really there was no need. It’s not even essential that you number the cards, though it will make it easier to put them back in order if you drop them on the floor, and it means you don’t have to worry too much when you rearrange them, which is a really nice option to have.

Don’t concentrate on the finger! Concentrate on the moon.

A Finger Pointing to the Moon by DamonWakes

At some point—I think the day before I started the novel—I decided it would be good to have a story within a story. This inner story would be a legend told by in three parts by one of the characters in the novel. This meant that I had to work on two scales: coming up with the legend itself (making sure it was an interesting read in the first place), and working it into the book. This is the sort of thing you can do really easily with the record cards. Here you have the three cards that make up the legend. Set out on their own, without the other cards, you can easily see how they link together as a story in their own right (though I’ll admit it’s not exactly long or complicated). Having the three parts written out on separate cards also let me try putting them in a variety of places in the novel, trying either to liven up a calm portion of the story or to match the legend to something thematically similar going on in the main plot.This is just one example of how you could rearrange record cards. You can lay them out literally any way you want. Got main characters wandering all over the place? Not sure Bob’s story is pulling its weight? Make things easier for yourself by just laying out the cards Bob appears on. Alternatively, take Bob’s cards out of the deck and see how it changes the story. Any sections fall apart? Any sections where he’s not even missed? You could also set out the different character storylines side by side, something like this:

XKCD Movie Narrative Charts

Keeping things simple.

It’s worth noting that even at this late stage in the planning process for my book, none of the characters even had names. My protagonist was still simply called “the Hero.” People can get awfully sentimental about character names, but if you’re just interested in ironing the creases out of the plot, they really don’t matter. Similarly, the “Empire” antagonist later turned into a foreign trader with a band of mercenaries, overly keen to “civilise” the protagonists’ stone age society (and turn a healthy profit by convincing them to grow cash crops for export). I feel like this is a more interesting, believable motivation for the “bad guy.” If I’d stuck rigidly to the first version of the plan, I’d have been lumbered with a bloodthirsty “Grrr! Conquer everything!” antagonist who just liked to break stuff. The beauty of the record cards is that you can swap out anything, anytime (though in this case it was less work just to read “Empire” as “merchant”). Plot now, sort the details out later!

Sorting the details out later…

Character Cards by DamonWakes

Okay, so you probably will want to start keeping track of who’s who at some point. Record cards don’t offer any spectacular benefit over regular paper here, but it is still nice to be able to just keep a card for each character rather than have everything written on one big sheet. Again, if you tend to go overboard with tiny details when planning, the small size of the cards might help you stick to just the essentials. After all, there’s no point jotting down your character’s eye colour in the plan if it never comes up in the actual book. There’s not normally much reason to bring up eye colour in the book anyway. Time spent jotting down that sort of unnecessary detail is time that could be spent revising for your astronavigation exam. Or writing, if you’re into that.Personally, I tried not to add anything to my character cards unless it had already been written into the story itself. As well as keeping trivial details out of the finished book, this meant that I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that I had a well-rounded character, when in fact all I had was a well-rounded character sheet. The card in the bottom right corner, for example, reads:


A chief unfortunate enough to have had his femur turned into an arrowhead by the KasseKo hunter, BakaRo.

That’s it. That’s all he gets on the card because that’s all that made it into the book. He’s actually not so much a character as a means of illustrating that the KasseKo (one of the book’s stone age tribes) use arrowheads made of human bone. Still, the card was helpful just to keep track of the name (I couldn’t be sure when I introduced him that he wouldn’t get another mention later on), and to ensure I didn’t get my characters confused. Every character, no matter how small, got one of these cards as soon as they were mentioned in the story itself. I had a similar stack for the various tribes involved. There was also one card (top right) to remind me of the different name suffixes for different social ranks. This is all stuff that could just have been scribbled down on paper or typed into a file somewhere on my computer, but the cards are always handy and you’re never tempted to go overboard with the fine details.

Not going overboard with the fine details.

I’m not going to count how many words I used in my entire novel plan, but at a glance, it’s not a lot—you just can’t fit a lot of words onto 25 record cards. Face of Glass came to around 55,000 words. This means that each card represented (on average) more than 2,000 words of story. A little planning goes a very, very long way. I can imagine this might be daunting for someone who usually keeps a whole folder of plot outline, world history and character sheets, but as someone who didn’t normally do any planning at all, I found this gave me a nice, solid (but still versatile) starting point for the story. And even after I’d started keeping notes on characters and tribes, the whole collection of cards was still small enough to keep right next to the keyboard:

The Complete Set by DamonWakes

In conclusion…

Record cards are useful because:

  •  You can rearrange them however you like.
  • If you’ve written yourself into a corner, you can easily replace the cards that aren’t working out.
  • You can spread them out on the floor in various ways, tracking where characters are or how various storylines play out.
  • You can easily focus on just one segment of story, if you have to.
  • The small size of the cards forces you to focus on major plot points.
  • They’re exceedingly cheap and easy to get hold of.
  • They offer a readily available, easily stackable source of things to scribble notes on if (like me) you’d ordinarily just use the back of an envelope.
If anybody decides to plan a novel using record cards (or has already given it a go), I’d love to hear about it! Especially if you come up with some clever new way of organising them. It’s always good to find a new way of looking at your work.
I'm crazy by ViOLeTjaniS
Aaaaaaaah! It all makes sense now!

Thanks for reading.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Mystery Mondays: Damon L. Wakes on Planning Your Novel | KRISTINA STANLEY

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