When it comes to novel writing, I typically fall into pantser territory. That is, when I start a work, I only have a vague idea of which direction I’m heading, writing by the seat of my pants. However, National Novel Writing Month for me is a time of experimentation and growth as a writer. So, last year I thought I might try to dip my toes into the plotting water. What I found is that it is easier said than done. I’m amazed by my plotting brethren with their plot index cards, intricate outlines, and detailed character biographies. My mind simply doesn’t work that way, unable to work through a novel in such a linear fashion.
However a fellow NaNoWriMo participant turned me on to a technique called mind mapping and it is used to generate ideas for a novel in a manner more easily comprehended by a non-linear mind like mine. To put it simply, a mind map is a diagram used to represent thoughts, concepts, ramblings, and musings branching out from a central idea. Because the thoughts are not diagrammed in an organized manner, such as a hierarchy, or moving from point A to point Z, it allows the brain to roam freely and more intuitively, making cognitive connections. By way of example, let’s look at what I sketched out last year for Happiness: How to Find It.
Here I start with my central idea in the center of my page, in this case my novel Happiness. I’ve written it in a heart, which represents the romance genre I’ll be writing in. Mind mapping encourages visual symbols like this to represent ideas. Branching out from the center I have key aspects, such as main characters, themes, tones, and conflicts. You can see how other thought nodes spring out from these key aspects, sometimes dead-ending, sometimes linking together. This particular map took about ten minutes to sketch out; the idea is to quickly brainstorm and see where your mind takes you as you fill a page.
To show an example of how to mind map a loose plot, here is a scene from the novel.
Again we start with a central idea, in this case the “Scene”. Branching out from it you have the key concepts of plot, setting, and purpose. From there these concepts further branch out to prominent characters and conflicts associated with this scene. There is plenty of overlap and redundancy along the way with multiple errors, but you can see how elements of my novel start clicking in place. By comparison you can see how this mind-map evolved into Happiness chapter one.
I really dig this approach as it allows for some pre-writing planning while still encouraging spontaneity
I sketched these mind maps out while waiting in a court room on legal steno so they are a bit stuffy — I didn’t have pretty crayons with me to really make the ideas pop. In making your own mind map feel free to use markers or color pencils to highlight and connect ideas. Doodles and pictographs are encouraged if you are more visually oriented. Mind mapping awards creative approaches that are as unique as the individual. With mind maps there are no hard-fast rules so you can tailor to how your own mind operates and organizes itself. Why not take fifteen minutes, pull out a sheet of paper and see what you come up with!
[What I have shared here is a low-tech pen and paper approach but if you want to amp it up a notch there are plenty of computer programs to be found. Because I write on a Mac, a cool combination is MindNode for developing elegant digital mind maps which can be exported into the Scrivener writing software as a ready to use novel outline. If you are interest in checking out the nut-and-bolts of this approach take a look at this video tutorial.]