I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I don’t even do character sketches. I know, I know … I’ve tried, I really have. Every time I try, I freeze and lose the spark for the story.
Here’s the irony, I’m a planner—not just any planner–a neurotically compulsive planner. I’ve never met a project, a trip, a day that I didn’t plan to the last detail. Seriously. Weeks are mapped out in my dateplanner. Days are detailed on insert sheets within the weekly plan. I even have a task list on my iPhone. Each new project starts life as a shiny Gantt chart. My brain is always two steps ahead, calculating how to go from here to there, anticipating roadblocks and thinking through potential detours.
You’d think my compulsion to plan would lead to careful plotting of stories. But nooooo. Sigh.
A story idea will come at me—sometimes it’s a title, sometimes an event, sometimes an object—then bounce around, collecting more details like a dust bunny grabbing at every strand of hair in the living room until it’s fully formed and ready to move out on its own.
But unlike the carefully calculated project plan (I can tell you within a day or three how long each draft will take) the brainstorming and writing process need more freedom.
Say hello to my good friend, Mind Mapping.
Mind mapping is a thinking tool that goes with the flow of the thought process rather than forcing those thoughts into a linear order. It’s creative and visual and perfect for brains that have a tendency toward the squirrel story threads. I heard it once described as “the little Swiss-army knife for the brain.” That was all I needed!
There are plenty of mind mapping software options to choose from (some paid, some free, depending on the features you want) or you can freehand with different colored markers and a large sheet of paper (or white board). Whatever works best for you.
I’ve tried the marker and paper and software before. For one of my picture books, I used crayons and poster board—man that was fun! But for my women’s fiction, I prefer software that’s easy to drag and drop and move and tweak.
Here are a couple of pointers that have worked for this non-linear thinker.
The idea behind a mind mapping session is not to detail the story plan but to empty your brain of details for the story. Order doesn’t matter. Whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind, put it down. Link it to other ideas or details as the connections become clear.
For example, in my WIP, my main character receives a letter from someone in her past that awakens a secret she’s tried to forget for over 20 years. The first thing I put down was “secret.” From there, I let my mind loose. Obviously the secret affects her, so she gets a bubble. But there’s the person who sent her the letter, the person who wrote the letter (he’s dead, by the way), her job, the friends who were affected by the secret back in the day, her parents, a rescue dog, one of the kids she works with, her husband.
Next, I looked at each of the bubbles and added to those. What about the secret will affect her job? Why does she suddenly feel the need to look for an old high school friend she hasn’t spoken to since graduation? Why would she adopt a dog suddenly?
At this stage, the items you jot down don’t need to have clear lines to others but they do need to inspire parts of the story. As you start digging a bit deeper into each one, you’ll discover how each relates to the other pieces. And you’ll add additional twigs to each new branch of your map.
Don’t tie yourself to one way of doing your map. Maybe you start with individual words or couple of words. For example, maybe there’s an anecdote between two characters that jumped to mind or a description of an object or place. Put those down as they came to you, don’t try to force them into the one or three word bubbles to match the others. Everything is fair game!
The more the merrier.
When you create an outline for your story, you have one outline. Mind mapping doesn’t have to be just one map per story. You’re not trying to organize your thoughts, you’re releasing them. If one bubble sparks an a-ha moment, give it it’s own map. See where it takes you.
For my WIP, I currently have four maps—the main one I started with, one for my main character (this is where I’ve captured things I know about her, details that bring her to life for me), one for her job/career, and another for her senior year in high school (20-some years ago). Each time I open a new page and let my mind run free with the possibilities, I see new story paths and details.
Think of mind mapping as the hot air balloon vision for your story. It takes you out of the forest of details and puts you up high above the treetops, to see the whole of the wooded space and all the cute little story squirrels scampering around in there.
Interestingly enough, I’m a linear writer. I have to start at the beginning and work through to the end of the story. I never fully know the end until I get there. With mind mapping, I get the big picture idea for my story, I have random details and an understanding for how each fits with the others—I have the map to guide me through the forest. I may still veer off a path in pursuit of another squirrel, but I know that to get to the end of my trek, I’ll have to get back on the main path.
If you’re not a plotter, not a linear thinker, give mind mapping a shot. It’s an organic, visual thought process that appeals to right brainers. Most mind mapping software have the ability to turn the visual brainstorming into a linear outline. That’s a bonus if you need to turn in an outline (or expand it into a synopsis) to your agent or editor.
I’d love to hear from pantsers and plotters how you approach the brainstorming process. Are you a linear thinker or a visual thinker? What tools or processes help you capture your ideas?
After years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.