Mind map my next book? I was sceptical – but I’m pleased with the results
When I began to think about writing a short guide on how to avoid common editing and writing errors, I didn’t know where to start. I had a vague mental list of points to cover and things I knew, but that was about it. I had a lot of experience and expertise about the subject but it was hard to know what to do with it, how to organize it so that it could make a book that people would find useful.
This must be a common difficulty for many people: how to access the things we know, organize them for maximum clarity and effect, and get them down on paper (laptop in my case). It doesn’t matter what the subject is, one of the greatest challenges for any writer – and it can be really daunting, especially if it’s your first book ever, or the first book of its kind that you have tackled – is to make that crucial beginning, avoid discouraging false starts and get the impetus to write all the way to the end.
If you plan to write a non-fiction book (I’ll get to fiction later), why not try mind mapping? It’s a little counter-intuitive and I felt silly when I began the process, but the truth is it helped me get my thoughts down on paper (literally this time) and organize them into a coherent whole. Before I knew it, I had the contents of my guide before me and in the right order!
So how does it work?
Let me acknowledge that I learned this technique from Chandler Bolt’s short guide Book Launch, but apparently the term ‘mind map’ was coined by Tony Buzan in the early 1970s, and the concept of mind mapping dates back centuries.
Part of the surrounding process was quickly to list around twenty-five possible titles and subtitles for my book, select the ones that truly encapsulated what the book could be about, and write the title in the centre of a large sheet of paper or card. I then spent the next thirty minutes ‘brain dumping’ everything I could think of relating to the subject (in this case, copyediting for indie authors). The important thing about this stage was not to think too much, but simply let things flow from the mind, no matter how stupid. I found that the first few things came easily, then it became a little harder, and then more ideas began to flow relatively quickly.
Before I knew it, I’d covered the large card I was using in a splurge of ideas. I then grouped them according to which things seemed to belong together. For example, ‘punctuation’ clearly belonged with ‘quotation marks’ which led to such things as ‘spelling’, ‘capitalization’ etc. I formed around eight groups of ideas in this way, distinguishing them purely by colour:
It was then comparatively simple to order these groups of ideas so that they formed a logical ‘table of contents’ for my book, which could then be divided into stand-alone chapters within each section.
I was surprised to find that after mind mapping in the way I describe I was able to write Copyediting for Indie Authors in around two weeks. Of course, I felt free to adapt and change the results of my mind mapping as and when necessary. The important thing, however, is not that you should adhere rigidly to the order you’ve established, but to continue to use it creatively and freely.
I’m the kind of writer who finds beginnings really difficult. I often make false starts and I often give up on ideas because I can’t make them work out. If you are also like that then you may find mind mapping useful. There’s plenty of information about mind mapping available online – the things I have described here only scratch the surface. I am convinced it helped me and I plan to use it for any future non-fiction work.
So what about fiction?
Plots aren’t the main focus of my fiction and I don’t enjoy books that are all plot and nothing else. Plotting a novel or even a short story is the hardest thing for me when I write. I have plenty of ideas but I can’t use many of them because they always seem to be half-baked. Oh how I wish I could get a fully baked idea right away!
Recently, I tried mind mapping the plot of a novel for which I only had a title, some characters and a location in mind. The process of mind mapping generated lots of possible characters and incidents, and even a few ideas on general atmosphere and an ending. However, it didn’t result in a watertight plot. It may be that another mind map that builds on the first one could give more specific results. I hope so.
On the other hand, I have found that one should leave plenty of room for creative discovery. I discover what I want to write about in the very process of writing; plots develop because characters take over from me as the main propulsive force of the storytelling. I just wish I knew a little bit more beforehand than they are prepared to tell me!
How do you work? Have you ever mind mapped? If so, what were the results? Do you have any useful advice for someone who finds plots hard to formulate?