Nancy: Mind Mapping Your Way Out of Trouble

The Daniel in my head has issues. The Daniel on the page - not so much. I built this mind map to bridge the gap.

The Daniel in my head has issues. The Daniel on the page – not so much. I built this mind map to bridge the gap.

A few weeks ago, I sent my critique partner the first several chapters of my manuscript that’s under revision (not to be confused with the one in first draft stage or the other one in discovery phase). I knew those pages had problems but I’d been staring at them too long. I didn’t know where to start. When I got my my CP’s notes, she had lots of great insights, the most important being that my hero, Daniel just wasn’t clicking.

She had a few suggestions for improvement, and I immediately came up with some more. But I wanted a quick picture of what I know about Daniel and his character arc, and what steps he needs to take in his journey. Around this time, I’d been reading a lot about mind mapping for my ‘day job’, and in a flash of inspiration, decided to apply it to my ‘Daniel problem’, resulting in the lovely picture you see to the left.

What the Heck Is Mind Mapping?

Mind mapping is a way to get information out of your brain and onto paper (or screen) in a graphical way. The term graphical is up for grabs. It’s what works for you. That might be pictures, text bubbles (which obviously work for me), or some combination of words and pictures. The important thing is to avoid creating a linear structure. No sentences, paragraphs, or lists. You can get a more in-depth definition of the concept  here.

How Do I Create a Mind Map?

The short answer to this is, any way you please! The purpose of this exercise is to create a map of your own mind and the way it views a particular subject. There are some standard ‘rules’.

Set a timer. This is a stream-of-consciousness exercise, not a deep-diving analysis. You can come back later to add, subtract, or tweak important information as it occurs to you. For my initial session, I gave myself twenty minutes to list out the actions Daniel takes in the book and to come up with additional or better ones everywhere I could. That got me all the information shown in black and blue (two shades of it). The red bubbles and text on my mind map were post-session thoughts regarding my heroine and what her actions/reactions were as my hero progressed toward his goal.

Place the subject of your mind map in the center of the page. By setting up your map this way, every related idea literally flows from or circles around your main topic. In my case, I needed to figure out how Daniel is striving to achieve his goal as I’ve set it out at the beginning of the book. To draw my mind map for Daniel’s character development, I put his goal in a bubble in the middle of the workspace. That goal is going to be central to his character, his actions, his reactions, and his eventual psychic death/rebirth. The specifics, the whats, the wheres, the whats and the so whats of his story all revolve around that central point, both on my map and in my story.

Branch out from the center. After you’ve got the center of your map, draw a line in any direction and write down the thought that occurs to you. Does that idea spur another one? Connect a branch to your first branch and write down your new thought. Look for ways seemingly disparate thoughts might connect, and let those connections form spawn more ideas.

Let your mind wander in any direction. One of the reasons to brainstorm with a mind map is to get your brain out of its predictable and often rigid routines so it can tap into its wild side. Capture whatever weird thoughts occur to you, as long as they connect to that word bubble of text snippet or picture in the center of your map. What seems like a crazy idea in the moment might turn out to be a gem you can fold into your story later.

Be prepared to recognize the patterns in your mind map – after all, it’s your own mind you’re mapping. While this exercise hopefully frees your creativity and helps you find new and interesting approaches to your story, it’s bound to come out on the page in a way that makes sense to you. If you can decipher my map well enough on your screen, you’ll notice I divided it by acts of the book. I added the dotted line dividers between the acts partway through the exercise when I realized that’s how I was subconsciously organizing it. Don’t be surprised if your  brain comes up with some way to organize your map without your conscious participation. That’s not wrong or in violation of this free-flowing creative exercise. It’s just you being you, even in your most creative moments.

These pointers can get you started, but remember, it’s your mind and your map. If the ‘rules’ don’t work for you, don’t follow them. Find a new approach. Think outside the box-shaped map. For a few more ideas, check out the suggestions at the Lifehacker blog.

Also, consider whether you want to draw your mind map by hand (pen and paper, white board and dry erase markers, poster board and cutouts, etc.), or on the computer (PowerPoint, Desktop Publisher, your favorite graphics program). Mind mapping has gotten a lot of attention in the business world over the past several years, and where there’s a popular concept, there’s bound to be software to support it. If you decide to invest in software specific to mind mapping, this article provides guidance regarding which features to consider when comparison shopping.

How Can Mind Mapping Help My Fiction Writing?

Create a mind map to see what you already ‘know’ about a problem. Add to it to expand on that knowledge or to take it in a whole new direction. Then fold that information into your outline, use it to come up with new scenes, or compare it to your manuscript to see if what you ‘know’ about the story in your mind has made it onto the page.

Mind mapping can be a great way to look at a problem in your writing from a new perspective. It’s another tool to tuck into your writer’s toolbox. Pull it out whenever you think it best suits your needs. Use it as a tool  for discovery, trouble-shooting, or revision. Apply it problems in any part of your writing – individual character arcs, conflict, rising plot tension, scene sequences/progressions. The possibilities are as limitless as your own creativity!

8 thoughts on “Nancy: Mind Mapping Your Way Out of Trouble

  1. This sounds like a great activity. I had a crazy thought while I was reading this — one could use post-it notes if a thought is layered — for example, the top note might be what people see, and the bottom note might be what the character thinks of his/herself. On further reflection, you could do this with different-colored bubbles and spatial arrangements . . . but as a kid, I always loved those books where you would slide a tab, or peek into a window (-:.

    I’m going to try it for 15 minutes and see what I come up with.

    • Huh. That was interesting. On the surface, everyone is striving for scientific progress, and harnessing the advancement for the betterment of the world. But under the surface are ideas that are very much at odds with each other. Except when they aren’t — some of the deeper ideals are the same.

      Anyway, now I know what Michael is doing with his magazine. It’s not just a hobby or a simple career. It’s part of a magical network!

      • That’s so cool that you got an answer to one of your questions! You should consider going back to ponder or tweak it every now and then. I’ve found returning to the mind map hours and days later allows you to see even more connections. This is the first time I’ve used one for fiction writing, but I’ve used them in my day job and I’m a big fan of them. Now I just need to convince clients of how awesome they are so I can use them more often :-).

  2. When I get stuck, I can fill pages and pages of my notebook with random scribbles in an attempt to shake something loose, but I’ve never tried mind-mapping. I’m having a few issues with Cam right now and I wonder if this exercise would help. I’m going to give it a try!

    • Oh, let us know if it works for you! It’s based on the premise that the answer is in your brain somewhere, so this might do the trick for you!

      I’m actually going to mind map a specific issue for the heroine of the same book later today or tomorrow (depending upon day job intrusions). And then I’ll have to make sure the h/h mind maps mesh.

  3. I do lots of mind mapping (though I’d never thought to call it that) – in fact I only write in squared (as opposed to lined) notebooks (at work too) because I find non-linear thinking works best for me. Scapple (by the scrivener people) is great software for this (not to mention cheap and easy to use).

    • Our minds all do work in their own mysterious ways. When you’ve gotten stuck on something in your writing, have you ever tried something linear (outline, list, etc.) to take you out of your comfort zone and shake something loose?

      I’ve heard of Scapple, but haven’t used it. I’m a white board/dry erase marker kind of girl myself. I think it’s the combination of going non-linear (as my mind loves linear structures) and tactile that works for me.

      • I do make a lot of lists but am bizarrely superstitious about using squared paper, just in case my lists want to break out sideways! I agree white board better than computer but scapple is good if you’re travelling and whiteboard not to hand.

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