Category Archives: Writing Craft & Process

Unlock Your Writing Brain with a Mind Map

This is slight variation of a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website July 8, 2018. 

About twenty years ago, I received an offer to try out MindJet, a mind mapping software. I downloaded the free trial and was hooked within minutes. Decades and many upgrades later, it is still my go-to writing tool for outlining, story plotting, and many other uses. Since Mindjet is now over $300, I’d recommend Scapple ($14.99) or some other free or inexpensive mind mapping applications you can find online. Or, you can simply draw your mind maps the old-fashioned way with paper and pen.

Tony Buzon, the author and education consultant who popularized mind maps, explained them as “a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain.” Remember those word association games? If I say “vacation,” you may think of “beach,” and then your mind jumps to whatever memories you have of your favorite beach trip . . . and so on. Over time, Western civilization has imposed left-brain, linear thinking into our psyches so that we apply logic, organize, and list before we explore and create. (That’s why traditional, linear outlines can kill a good story.) Since our minds don’t naturally function in linear mode, mind maps unlock our brains, as Buzon said.

When you’re starting a book, a short story, or even a scene, your mind may be filled with ideas bouncing around, with your synapses firing away. To tame this “monkey mind” jumble of thoughts, there’s nothing more effective than mind mapping. It allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and onto paper quickly without worrying about sequence or organization. And, if you enjoy brainstorming with yourself, as I do, mind maps can be your best friend.

By the time I sit down to write a book, bits and pieces of it have been bouncing around in my head for months. At that point, I don’t know the whole story, but I can imagine some of the beats: plot events that change the course of the story. They might be in the middle, at the end, or near the beginning. It doesn’t matter at this point, so I start with “Book” in the middle of the map and draw nodes or branches from that central idea for each of the beats. If I can map at least ten key beats, I know I’ve got a potential book.

Once I’ve mapped these beats, I move them around, connecting them in various ways and exploring how they relate to each other. Sometimes, it looks like they’re not related at all, but if I keep mapping, the story emerges. Later, I might map out a specific chapter or scene. Or I might map out a character profile to understand her better. The possibilities are endless.

If you’d like to see some visual examples, I urge you to do an online search (e.g., mind map + writing) and then give mind mapping a try. It could transform the way you write.

What Not to Write

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website May 20, 2018

It took me three years to write my first mystery novel, Murder in Madden. During that time, I worked with several wonderful writing instructors. They taught me how to make the shift from business writing to fiction, which wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Much of my previous work focused on instructing readers on how to do something, so step-by-step details were important. But writing fiction was a different animal, as I quickly discovered. I found myself having to unlearn many of my coveted business writing skills. While I knew how to construct a sentence, where to put the commas, and how to apply the grammar rules, I often stumbled, especially during my first attempts. And then, over time, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, I learned how to write fiction.

When I began writing the second book, which only took eight months from the first word to a first draft, I realized I had to learn something else: what not to write. I’m not referring to merely avoiding ornate language or eliminating you-need-a-thesaurus words. Fortunately, my business background had taught me to write at an appropriate comprehension level and to stay within the maximum word count. But, on those occasions when I did get overly descriptive, I followed Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My form of overwriting came from something one of my instructors called “temporal linearity.” I tended to instruct the reader on how a character got from one place to another, in a linear fashion, just as I had provided comprehensive details in business writing. Of course, fiction readers need enough information to make logical assumptions, but they don’t need to be led by the hand.

For example, if one scene ends with “Sara” telling her boyfriend she’s going to the library, you can insert a break and begin the next scene in the library. Unless it’s germane to the story, the reader doesn’t need to know how she got in the car, backed out of the driveway, and drove down the street to get to the library where she had to drive around the block three times looking for a parking space. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I did overwrite some scene transitions in my first draft.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, I developed “Raegan’s Rules to Avoid Overwriting.”

  1. Trust your readers to figure out how Sara gets to the library.
  2. Practice writing six-word stories and other forms of micro fiction where you have to tell a story within a strict word limit: writers should spend words like gold.
  3. Read your work aloud. If it sounds boring, it is.
  4. Hire a good editor—listen and learn.
  5. Keep writing and eventually you’ll overcome inexperience.
  6. Continue to overwrite, and you risk arrogance.

Perhaps all I really needed to do was re-read Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing.

Sit Down and Power Through It

Last night I attended my Wednesday night cycle class. As Kathleen, the instructor, led us through a series of exercises, one was a “hill climb,” in which we stood up to cycle using higher gears. I ramped up my gears and followed along. Then Kathleen said, “Now sit down and power through it. Don’t touch those gears,” which meant that it was going to be a more challenging ride. Sitting while cycling with a higher gear is much harder than doing it standing, because when you stand, you use your whole body weight.

As I sat down and struggled to “power through it,” it occurred to me that these cycle instructions would also apply to writing. When you first start a writing project—like a novel, you stand up and put your full weight into the ride. It’s not effortless, but it’s easier than at any other point in the writing process. Later, as you get further into your project, you eventually have to sit down and power through it. That means writing when you want to quit and ignoring the urge to get out and enjoy the spring weather. It means writing when you are ready to give up because you feel like you’re an idiot for ever thinking you could write a book. Powering through it is where most people lose it. The hill climb overcomes them and they drop out of the ride. I know. I’ve been there.

While writing my first book, I dropped out a few times. “I can’t do this.” Or, “What was I thinking?” You know, all of those self-recriminating statements we make to ourselves in our lowest moments. Thankfully, I was able to get back on track and finish my first novel, Murder in Madden. Now that I’m writing the second novel in the Enid Blackwell series, I am again facing that same hill climb. It ain’t easy, nor should it be, but I will make it to the top of this hill and finish the second book. I’m confident because I have been up this hilly path before. And I know I can sit down and power through it.