Tag Archives: writing

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.

Telling Stories: A Human Experience

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 April 15, 2018

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories, which is natural, I guess, considering I’m an author. Recently, I began doing some research on this topic. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to take a break from writing, but I learned a lot, so I’ll share some key points in this short post.

Before I begin, however, I want to tell you why I think storytelling is critical to our humanity: we are nothing without our stories. Imagine that you lived in a world where there were only facts, with no emotional attachment to them—no stories to connect these facts to the human experience. We would all be like robots, processing information without asking ourselves what it means or why it’s important.

The evolution of storytelling is fascinating. Oral storytelling was a way for early mankind to share events and to make meaning of what happened. One of the oldest surviving stories is the epic Mesopotamian poem, “Gilgamesh,” a tale about mortality. It was believed to have been written around 2100 BCE and is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. Around 1300–1000 BCE, “Gilgamesh” was carved in stone tablets and widely shared, becoming the first known written story.

Just look around you. The most successful people in their fields are great storytellers. Attorneys who weave evidence into the best, most engaging stories win trials. Business leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, use stories to get employees and customers to buy into their visions. Walt Disney created an empire from stories.

Now, we have podcasts, video, films, photography, and social media that tell the stories of our lives. In French airports, kiosks dispense short fiction to entertain travelers. The technology and methods of storytelling will continue to evolve, but one thing is certain: Storytelling will always be a part of the human experience.

Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy writer, said, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” When I read that quote, I thought of my own novels. In Murder in Madden, I invited readers to ask themselves how much personal risk they would take to learn the truth. In my second book, The Last Sale, I presented a different query: What would you do if someone you loved just disappeared? I began writing those books by asking myself: How would I answer those questions? How do my answers reflect my values and who I am as a person? And how might others react differently? In the process, I learned a lot about myself.

Good storytelling connects us and provides meaning. The next time you’re reading a story or watching a movie, consider what questions are being posed. Examine your own emotional responses. Ask yourself, “What meaning do I make of the experience and what does that say about me?”

I QUIT!

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 March 4, 2018.

 

Several years ago, I participated in a writing workshop with the late Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction. At that time, I had started and stopped writing a couple of different mystery novels. I was frustrated, and his feedback, though fair and accurate, frustrated me even more. I can still hear him saying, “More conflict. You need more conflict in your story.” When I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write a decent manuscript, he gave me some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever gotten: “Quit writing.”

I was stunned. There I was paying him good money to encourage me, coach me, help me write that elusive book. Yet, he told me to quit. I wasn’t sure whether to be mad or ecstatic. Mostly I was confused. When I finally got the courage to challenge his advice, he said, “Writers quit all the time, including me. But if you’re a real writer, you’ll have to start again. You cannot not write.”

After letting his last comments sink in, I then became afraid. What if I quit and never wanted to write again? That would, according to Cleaver, mean I had never been a realwriter anyway. Nonetheless, I did quit. I mean, I totally quit with the intention of never writing fiction again. I avoided anything related to writing and went about my life. At first, I was giddy with the lightness of not being a writer. No more worries about plots and characters—or conflict. I could enjoy reading a book without analyzing it. The freedom of not being a writer was intoxicating.

After a couple months of not writing, the impact of Cleaver’s message finally hit me: I needed to reevaluate why I was writing. As simple as that sounds, I had been focused on outlining, story structure, and all the other nuts-and-bolts of the craft. Was my goal to write the perfectly structured novel, worthy of an MFA thesis? While I wanted to write a quality novel, what I really craved was to write a novel that readers could connect with.

When I eventually returned to writing, I wrote the story I really wanted to tell. While I didn’t ignore all the workshop advice and education I had acquired over the years, this time, however, I began writing from my heart, not my head. I wrote for my readers, not for other writers.

About three years later, I published my first novel, Murder in Madden, which recently received Honorable Mention in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And my second novel in the series, The Last Sale, will soon be out.

During the past year, I have enjoyed the book signings, festivals, book clubs, and other interactions with readers. I’ve never had so much fun. And each time a reader tells me about her favorite character, or someone says, “I couldn’t put it down,” I thank the writing gods that I found the courage to quit.

Not Just for Kids

Last night, I drove to Charlotte to attend John Claude Bemis’ presentation on writing children’s books. Mostly, I went to accompany a friend who has written one. My assumption was that the discussion would interest her far more than it would interest me.

I was wrong. Bemis’ message was universal to all genres and ages. Children’s books, he said, are about self-discovery, in which kids are trying to figure out themselves and the world round them. Well, aren’t we all in this boat together—trying to figure things out? And isn’t that what most fiction is about?

In a typical novel, the protagonist is a flawed person who needs something, even if that person is not sure what it is. What the characters says they want, and what they really need are usually different. The need is usually a primal desire: love, acceptance, recognition, revenge, etc. The characters’ strengths and flaws are revealed through the story as they try to fulfill that desire. In the process, true character is revealed and self-discovery takes place for them, as well as the readers.

Enid, my protagonist, is working through some “issues” from her past, while dealing with family dynamics. She is trying to figure herself out, as well as the world around her. Through this process, I’ve learned a lot about her … and about myself.