Q & A: On Plotting a Course

Question: I have some ideas for bigger projects I want to work on -- an essay collection, a chapbook, a memoir. I have some pieces written for each, but I am struggling when I think about looking at the big picture of the project and where I want to go with each. How do you work on planning out a larger project to stay focused on your plan and not lose sight of your goal?

This question is fabulous.

I've been thinking a lot about planning and plotting larger works. Because I'm working on a few myself, I have tried a variety of ways to plan and organize my thoughts. Here are some ways that I have worked on this.

Index Cards

Sometimes the best way to organize my thoughts is to write them all down, and rearrange them as feels right. Elizabeth Gilbert uses a system of index cards to catalog research and ideas for each writing project. For my own projects, I use index cards in a few different ways, for both individual projects and for collecting ideas and quotes.

When I'm in the middle of a large project and feel stuck, I write down the existing elements of my project. Themes, goals, things I've written already -- all of these go on index cards. Sometimes I go crazy and dedicate a color to each category. Once I've gotten everything down on cards, I head to the dining room table -- the largest cat-free surface in my house. I start arranging the cards, giving myself permission to play with the order and layout. I might discover that something I thought was important to the layout of the collection isn't actually part of it at all. I also might find where the holes in the work are, and how I want to fill them in the process of writing.

Mind Mapping

This is a tactic I often employ in the conceptual stage of a project. I might start with an idea and be curious about where I can take it, so I get out a big piece of paper (or clean off a whiteboard) and write the idea in the middle. From there, I start surrounding it with related ideas, including memories and life experiences that relate to the central idea. From here, I can start to draw lines and connect things, expanding each as I am inspired. It usually ends up looking like a giant spider web, but through it I can find the recurring stories and have a better understanding of my hope for the project as a whole.

Making a List

Sometimes the simplest technique is the most useful. Making a list of everything I have done so far on the project, and making a list of everything I hope to accomplish for the project, and then compare the two. They places they intersect are the ways I'm succeeding, and the places they diverge are the points of curiosity -- are these important elements still? Do I want to refocus on them, or do they belong in a different project?

Sometimes, the writing itself might be a list. One of the things I love about my friend Isabel is her collection of lists as essays. Sometimes when I am particularly stuck in a project, I will use this form as a way to move through the ideas and confusion and get back on track for my own work.

What are some ways you organize and clarify your writing projects? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!