The Post-It Notes Spree

In a previous post of this How I Write series, I told the tale of Cassidy’s birth. Once the spark existed, I had to turn it into an actual story. The technic I used is reminiscent of my approach to outlining any WIPs: glorified post-it notes. There are several differences though, mainly because Cassidy’s format is so peculiar.
The very first thing I did was to establish said format: 52 chapters (one per week), 1,000 words per chapter (later amended to 2,000 words), Prologue set in the future and insert a “flashforward” the first week of every other month. Now I was set for the post-it notes spree.

I have what I call a “To Do Wall”. It is a lemon chiffon rectangle, painted against the chocolate of my office’s walls. There’s a 50/50 ratio of both colors on that wall. In other words, my “To Do Wall” is huge: about 5″6′ in height and a little wider. Right now, it is filled with: a calendar; a “to do list” post-it note; a sheet with my blog’s stats and related observations; The One Who Sees’ timeline, post-it notes and list of things to watch out for when I enter rewrite; Cassidy’s original blurb and her 52 post-it notes outline for the year. That last bit is what interests us today.

Since I didn’t have a say in the number of chapters for this story, I started by sticking 52 notes on my wall. I grouped them in months to have a clearer picture of the rhythm of my story, using Sundays (the only day I originally posted my story on) as my definition of a week. Some months are four Sundays-long, others are five. Knowing that is crucial since every couple of month, the first Sunday is a flashforward. I marked those Sundays with a red pen. I didn’t know what would go in the flashforwards but I knew they would rule my story’s pace. Obviously, December is the exception to the flashforward rule as I need it to all be in the future so I can wrap up the story.
After that, I broke down the initial ideas in a few necessary scenes and summed them up in about three bullet points (or 20 words) on different post-it notes of the timeline where I roughly thought they ought to happen. Then scenes started flowing in: scenes that were needed to get to my milestones, scenes that revealed characters, etc. I wrote them down on one of the wall’s post-it notes and shuffled them around the milestones. While the flashforward can’t move, the rest can, and the rest will until it is posted on this blog. Some milestones ended up being completely elsewhere in the timeline than where I originally pinned them.
And that is fine! That is why I use post-it notes!
Again, up to the point when a chapter is written, post-it notes shift. I can move them forward or back in time. I can take them out to add a new scene. I can play around with the very short summary of scenes, read them in a sequence and see if that’s how I should tell the story or not. In a glance, I know where the story is too crammed with information, going too fast or lacking energy. Then I can work out a solution through a careful pondering of the trade-offs; there can only be 52 post-it notes in that story. I am forced to choose carefully but the flexibility of the sticky notes enables me to try different things.
As I write this message, half of the story is pretty much set in stone and some scenes are still missing in the second half.
And that is fine too!
My characters have space to surprise me by creating secondary plotlines and I’ll have the room to weave them in.

There you have it! The secret behind the 2010 Story outline, the gods of my writing world, are post-it notes. The core lesson you can take away from this exposé are the three rules I hold dear when it comes to outlines:

  • Do not over think it (else you’ll end up with too rigid an outline)
  • Keep it flexible (hence the use of post-it notes but go for whatever suits you)
  • Leave space for the “Wing it” part (which is why I limit it to small post-it notes; there is literally no space for details)

I’ll conclude with a sample post-it note. It is the outline of 14a and 14b – Conference.

  • Near-sighted agents
  • Questions on Ocean & psychics’ inefficiency
  • Perception of the rest of the world

That ought to give you an idea of how much “winging it” is left. But that’s a subject for another post. 😉

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About Aheïla

Somewhere in Quebec City, Aheïla works as a Game Design Director by day and writes by night. Known for her blue hair, unyielding dynamism and tasty cooking (quails, anyone?), she’s convinced “prose is the new crack”. She satisfies her addiction daily on The Writeaholic’s Blog and weekly on Games' Bustles View all posts by Aheïla

4 responses to “The Post-It Notes Spree

  • Phil

    That’s ingenious. Kim would be envious, lol. I know organization is essential and your system has given me some really important insights which will help! Thanks for this post.

    • Aheïla

      Ingenious? Thanks!
      I’m glad my method can inspire/help other people.
      Panster would probably say that I organize too much. But then, I read outliner types who outline way more than I do. I think I’m a healthy middle ground. 😉

  • Tiffany

    Thanks for the post Aheila – it’s helpful to see what other people do and try different stuff until I find what works for me.

    About how many post its do you feel ok with being blank when you start? And do you feel you need to have at least the beginning x number of them filled in?

    • Aheïla

      Since my blog novel had a fix amount of chapter, I knew I would start off with a lot of blank spaces. I knew where I wanted to start and finish but a lot of story was missing at first; I think I had one fifth of the post-it notes filled (so about 10). I was confident with my story so I didn’t need more.
      When I work on a novel, it’s a little different but I’ll talk about that in another post.

      Always a pleasure to help!

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