Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘mind maps

Mind maps as a writing tool

with 8 comments

Mind maps—that is, informal diagrams with different words, phrases, or images clustered around a single central idea—are such a useful tool for writers and creative artists that they’ve become something of a cottage industry. I’ve been doing them for ten years, and never start a writing project without one. For Kamera, I probably generated upwards of 150 different maps, while a novelette or short story might have five or ten.

It isn’t hard to see why mind maps work. Since they’re loosely organized, with hierarchy giving way to a random flow of ideas, they’re naturally suited to loose, right-brained thinking. The process of writing with a pen slows down the rational left brain so that the right hemisphere can catch up. And, perhaps most crucially, a mind map provides a record of what might otherwise have been an unstructured brainstorming session. (Even the best idea in the world is no good unless it is promptly written down.)

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to create a mind map, since the process is different for everyone, and there’s plenty of instruction available online. For creative writers in particular, my advice is to do mind maps in three stages: one or more large mind maps for the overall plot, one for each important character, and one for each major section—for example, the three acts of a screenplay. My own preference is to also do one for each chapter, with additional ones for large set pieces, but this is a matter of taste.

Mind maps can be done on paper of any size, but I’ve found that larger is better, especially when you’re laying out the first outlines of a short story or novel. Later on, as you begin to drill down to individual scenes and characters, smaller pieces of paper may be easier to manage. Here, for example, is a view of the notebook pages that I used to brainstorm character details for “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the August 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

And here are the initial mind maps I made for “Kawataro,” a novelette scheduled to appear in Analog sometime next year:

A number of software programs exist for generating mind maps, but I’ve found that pen and paper is by far the best way. The physical act of writing tends to slow down my thoughts, forcing me to consider each word as I write it, until it seems as if the pen is doing the thinking. (This forced slowness is an advantage that we lose when typing, especially in Microsoft Word.)

As powerful as mind maps are in themselves, they’re even more useful when paired with what I like to call intentional randomness. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

Where do ideas come from?

leave a comment »

For most people, this is an interesting, if abstract, question. For a writer, it can be a matter of life and death. One of the first things you learn as a working novelist is that you can’t depend solely on blind inspiration: a great idea comes uninvited maybe a couple of times a year, while a novel requires hundreds of great, or at least good, ideas. All writers eventually develop a set of tricks for turning the unpredictable workings of inspiration into something marginally more reliable. Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about some of the tricks that work for me.

The problem of generating good ideas on a regular basis, while challenging for anyone, is especially pronounced for a novelist, whose job requires qualities of personality that don’t always lend themselves to inspiration. A successful novelist has to be a bit of a drudge. Writing a novel is hard, fairly tedious work, with a lot of bookkeeping involved. It demands organization, planning, and the ability to sit at a desk for six or more hours a day. In short, it’s a left-brained activity. But the right brain is where ideas come from. And anyone who wants to write more than one publishable novel has to find ways of coaxing the right brain to life on a regular basis.

Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X” (available in this book), describes the problem in a useful way:

…The right and left hemispheres operate at different speeds: the right is low, the left is fast. And this explains why they are out of contact much of the time. They are like two men going for a walk, and one walks so much faster than the other that he is soon a hundred yards in front, and conversation is practically impossible…

There are two basic methods for reestablishing contact between the two selves. One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down. The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement—the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights—so the right begins to move faster. Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the windows and talk.

Obviously, it’s hard to write to loud music and strobe lights, however fun it might be to try. But the opposite approach, that of slowing the left brain down, is more practical. Writers have used various techniques to accomplish this, ranging from self-hypnosis (which John Gardner describes in On Becoming a Novelist) to, more dangerously, alcohol and drugs. As I’m going to discuss this week, I’ve found two techniques to be especially useful: mind maps and intentional randomness.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2010 at 8:15 am

%d bloggers like this: