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Posts tagged ‘mindmapping’

Visual Thesaurus for the Right-Brained Writer

Stick around for any period of time, and you’ll learn that I’m a visual person.  I buy books based on their cover. I buy cereal based on the box design (this sometimes leads to disgusting forays into cardboard-like spheres floating in my milk.)  I forgo the use of a Favorites folder in Internet Explorer or Firefox because I’m so in love with the slick design and visual kaleidoscope of Pinterest.

As much as I have my left-brained tendencies (anal about work organization, a perfectionist when it comes to household projects), my juices really get going when the right brain kicks into gear.  If I’m stuck on a problem, there is nothing better than a blank sheet of paper and 20 minutes of free flow writing or mind mapping.  Imagine how delighted I was when I stumbled upon a thesaurus that gives me a visual representation of my synonyms and antonyms.

I give you the Visual Thesaurus:

This program is a word playground.  You can see above, I typed in “bold” and it returned a full map of words.  The colored dots at the end of a branch indicate whether the word is a noun, adjective, verb or adverb.  To the right you can see definitions for the word.  Click on the megaphone symbol and you can hear the word pronounced.  Visual Thesaurus will even define and provide adjectives for proper nouns.

On the left, the program provides a word history so that while you are playing with the word “sausage blimp” you can always go back to your search for “reverberance.”  You can even create favorite word lists and name them.  See a word that looks interesting on the map? Just drag and drop it to your word list so that you don’t forget it.

Visual Thesaurus has myriad uses in a writer’s life.  The obvious? Find just the right word for the sentence.  Warning: don’t use this to overcomplicate things!  You’ve decided that your character is “bold.”  Bold doesn’t feel right because she’s not “fearless and daring.”  But don’t look at the list and throw in “temerarious” just because it sounds cool.  Maybe “bold” doesn’t have quite the right shade to fully describe your character.  Maybe it’s her careless unconcern that makes her “reckless” not “bold.” Or maybe she’s not “bold,” but “emboldened” because she recently became “fearless” but hasn’t always been that way. Writing is all about the subtle shades of language and words.  The Visual Thesaurus can help you pinpoint those shades.

The more “temerarious” use? (Did you see how I did that there?) Use the Visual Thesaurus to build layers in your scene.  After you’ve written a scene, pinpoint the key emotion swirling around the action.

Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction:

“To deliver a strong effect to your readers, you’ve first got to give yourself permission to go big. Big feelings aren’t bad; they’re just big. We all have them.  They’re dramatic. They connect. The only time they don’t is when they’re false: rote, hackneyed, pasted on or unearned. Think of them as primary emotions that take on unique hues in the heart of your main character. Love? Sure, but different this time. Rage? Never before like this one. Sorrow? Yes, but now utterly specific.”

Make a list of other words that can add subtle layers to increase the tension in the scene.  Here’s an example.  Maybe your character is “angry.”  Let’s type in “angry” and make a list:

  • Sore – “Causing misery or pain; hurting; an open skin infection”
  • Tempestuous (i.e., tempest) – “A violent commotion or disturbance”
  • Smoldering – “Showing scarcely suppressed anger”
  • Indignant – “Angered at something unjust or wrong”
  • Wrathful – “Condemnatory”

You can see from the list above that “angry” has many hues.  What type of anger is your character experiencing?  If you find just the right word to define the type of anger, you can build the scene around those hues and make your character’s anger uniquely her own.

Pretty amazing that you can do all this with a simple online program that costs $19.95/year.  Or $2.95/month.  Sure, you could open up your 15 lb. Roget’s Thesaurus, but for me seeing the visual connections between words and the ease with which I can click on a new word and follow it down a separate rabbit hole is priceless.

You can check out the details of Visual Thesaurus here:

Online –

Twitter – @VisualThesaurus

Facebook –

Nope.  I wasn’t paid or perked for this write-up.  I plunked down my own $19.95 to gain access to Visual Thesaurus. When I love a program, I simply want to share the love with others.

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The Mind Map – Give your ideas a visual form: Novel Writing Prep Series

You have your ideaYou’ve done your research.  You know something about your main character.  Maybe you’ve even taken a crack at your first scene.  And now you’re stuck…  All those plot points we talked about in the 3 or 4-part narrative structure?  You’re having trouble coming up with plot points.  You just aren’t finding the ideas that you need to carry this project through to a finished novel.  This is when the Mind Map becomes a useful tool for writers.

I use mind maps for everything.  In spite of the fact that I love fancy software and organization techniques, some days I feel trapped by the confines of my computer screen.  I need to break free – really give my right brain some room to move around.  Remember that group work that you did in junior high? When your English teacher forced you into a group with four other people and said, “On the count of three create a list a of all the things you could use this tongue depressor for.  And remember, there are no wrong answers!”

These old-school brainstorming sessions are the genesis for a mind map.  The difference is that rather than creating an outline or a simple list, you are going to create a visual representation of your ideas.  Here are a few examples:

 image via Mind Tools


image via Wikipedia


image via Mind Tools

When you are mind mapping for a novel, it’s just you and the page.  You don’t have four other pimple-faced middle schoolers offering up suggestions. Instead the different parts of your brain take the place of all five people in the group.  And it’s your job to let all those areas of your brain take over with ideas and to prevent your inner editor from censoring anything.  Let’s say you’re creating a mind map about a scene which takes place at 3 a.m. in a deserted pizza parlor.  The frontal lobes might throw out very logical descriptions like: benches, pizza ovens, cash register.  All very useful things to help you add detail later. Bracca’s area of the brain takes over and allows you to translate those thoughts to words on the page.  Then the Parietal lobes jump in and throw a bunch of sensory words at you: the cheese smells like burnt toast after your neighbor walked on it with his bare feet, the light shining on the water glass looks like sunlight reflecting in the glassy eye of a taxidermied trout.  You get the gist…  All of those things need to go down on your mind map.

Then the fun part begins.  I use the 5 W’s. Who, where, when, why and What if?  What if the MC character wasn’t alone in the pizza parlor? I create an idea bubble and put down emotions, actions… anything that comes to mind.  What if the mysterious person in the pizza parlor was the MC’s driver’s education teacher moonlighting as a pizza chef? Why does the teacher need to moonlight? What if he lost all of his wages because he has a gambling problem? Where did this gambling take place? What if he started an underground cock fighting club in the basement of the school? Who would attend? What if the other teachers were involved? What if the physics teacher lost her prize rooster in the last fight? What if the driving teacher was secretly in love with the physics teacher?

You get the idea.  By using a mind map, I’ve created lots of bubbles that make up a key scene in the story.  By looking at my lines I can see that the physics teacher bought her rooster from the rural route bus driver whose chickens have been inbred over time to create a race of super roosters.  I can see that our MC takes classes from three of the teachers involved in the ring.  How will these connections play into our MC’s goal of saving the school and making sure that the driver’s ed. teacher and the physics teacher find true love?

Or maybe you’ll find that everything you’ve written down is rubbish which won’t ultimately contribute to the good of your story.  Until… you glance over at that bubble in the left side of the page.  You’ve created another character in your mind map notes.  A teenage girl who comes in to clean the pizza ovens in the middle of the night.  Using the 5 Ws, you’ve speculated that maybe she comes in at 3 a.m. because she spends her days taking care of a sick mother.  Hmm… Now this could interesting.

The point is that after less than 10 minutes throwing some thoughts down on paper, I have several reasons that my main character could be in the pizza parlor at three o’clock in the morning.  I have the makings of several interesting characters, and I have some sensory items I can weave into my scene.

Next time you’re stuck in your writing, grab a blank sheet of paper.  Maybe even some markers or colored pencils if you want to get really fancy.  Start in the middle of a blank page, writing or drawing the idea you intend to develop. This could be a scene, a character or simply a theme you want to build upon.  Let your mind wander and see where it takes you.  You just might end up with a “map” that leads you in new directions.

**Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for the Scrivener for Microsoft Windows software.  I have three (3) licenses up for grabs.  Visit this post for more details.**

Happy writing!

The Plan: From notes to novel in 5 easy steps – Novel Writing Prep Series Part 4

In Part 1 of the novel writing prep series, we talked about inspiration and how ideas for novels spring to life.  Today, we’ll take a look at how to nurture that special idea into a workable format.  A format that is fleshed out just enough to allow you to sit down and start writing a first draft.  It’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different.  What works for me may not work for you.  But, just in case you’re curious, here’s a peek inside my brain and how it works:

1.  The Idea – You are driving in your car, humming along with Katy Perry (what?  I know I’m not the only one who busts out a little “California Gurls” chorus now and again!) and it hits you.  The lightbulb that has been buried under a stack of eight million other ideas turns on.  Your brain has been twirling it around for weeks – drawing connections, weighing the pros and cons of marrying this idea for the better part of a year (or however long it takes to write your novel), and doing its best to disuade you from taking on a project of this magnitude.  There’s no denying it any longer.  It’s time to take this baby for a test drive and see if it’s worthy of an 80,000-word manuscript.

2.  Pile of Post-It Notes – I don’t have stock in 3M, but I probably should with the amount of post-it notes I consume while working on a writing project.  Once the lightbulb is turned on the ideas start to come fast and furious.  Here are the top three reasons that Post-It Notes are the perfect way to capture these ideas:

  • They are easy to transport.  I can hide them in my purse, pull them out at a PTA meeting and jot down ten thoughts in the time it takes to explain the nutritional merits (or lack thereof) of the tater tots on the school lunch menu. 
  • They are just small enough that you don’t get bogged down in the details.  Post-It Notes are like the physical manifestation of Twitter.  120 characters is about all that will fit (unless your handwriting is miniscule).  120 characters is all that you need at this point.  The notes are just seeds for a whole slew of ideas – evil psychologist who intentionally loses patient files, grandfather hides whiskey bottle and audio cassettes in the attic of his barn, pumpkin carving contest in Illinois, MC meets teaching assistant at a dance club.  This is the time to jot down character ideas, locations, the first glimmer of key scenes, important plot points.
  • They stick together.  After my covert PTA meeting scribbling sessions, I can stick them all together and shove them in a folder.  When it comes time to organize, I can sort, stick and resort until they make sense.

This frenzy of Post-It Notes sometimes lasts for a week. Sometimes it can last for months depending on how many other projects I have in process.

3.  Mind Mapping – Notice at this point, I haven’t touched my computer at all.  It took me a long time to realize that my best thinking happens when I have blank sheets of paper and a pen at the ready.  Something about typing words on the screen makes me feel constricted when I’m planning a novel.  I need wide open spaces and room to get messy in the planning stages.  Even when I’m typing a scene, if I feel stuck, I close the computer, pull out a sheet of paper and start doddling notes.  The process of throwing my thoughts onto a blank page and using arrows, line and circles to indicate flow and connections often helps me see a problem in a new way.  Mind mapping is a great tools for this. I grab my clipboard and pad of graph paper and carry them with me everywhere.  Why graph paper?  I’ll admit that my right brain loves some wide open space, but my left brain gets agitated if I don’t have straight lines on which to write. Something about graph paper transcends both worlds for me. 

If you need some advice on mind mapping there is a good series over at Teaching Village.  I don’t let myself get bogged down in complex flowcharts with colors and lots of shapes.  It’s easy to get side tracked if your mind maps have too many bells and whistles. Three hours later, you have something that looks pretty, but you’ve only scratched the surface of those good ideas. 

Mind mapping is the time when all of those Post-It Notes comes together.  Why is the psychologist losing patient files?  How do the tapes hidden in the attic relate?  What does the whiskey bottle have to do with anything? Does the teaching assistant have a family? What are they like and how do they influence his decisions about pumpkin carving and dance clubs?  You’ll start to see trends – themes that you didn’t know were buried in your original idea which are beginning to surface.  Then it’s time to move on to…

4. Building the Skeleton with a Yellow Note Pad:  It doesn’t need to be yellow, but a notepad of any color is my best friend when I’m building my novel’s skeleton.  This is when all of those interconnected ideas coalesce into a plan.  My yellow notepads go everywhere with me during this stage. 

They are filled with:

  • Detailed character sketches (what color is the teaching assistant’s hair? how does the psychologist turn up his lip when he talks?)
  • Timelines (when was the grandfather born?  when does the grandfather meet the psychologist?)
  • Plot points (what are crises #1, 2 and 3?  at what point in the story do they occur?)
  • Location descriptions (what does the barn look like?  what does this imaginary – or not so imaginary – town that I’m building like?)
  • Beginnings and Endings: How, when and where does the story begin – complete with 300 variations of an opening line; do I know yet how it’s all going to end? If so, I take notes about this scene.  Otherwise, I leave it alone and hope that I’ll discover the ending along the way.
  • Scene outlines: I never put together a full scene-by-scene outline because I frequently don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle, but I do create an outline with approximately the right number of scenes.  Then when the bike race scene in which grandpa throws his whiskey bottle at the teaching assistant comse to me, I can add it to a logical place on the outline.  This outline also helps weave in subplots down the line.  A visual representation of the story is helpful for keeping track of what the psychologist was doing in the basement when we last left him five scenes ago.

Why don’t you type all of this detail on your computer, you ask?  Some days, as I’m transcibing these pages of notes from my yellow notepad, I ask myself the same question.  The reality is, I’m juggling several lives – aren’t we all?  I’m a mother to two young boys, I’m a volunteer at their schools, I’m a journalist, I’m a novelist.  The amount of time that I actually spend with my laptop is 1/100th the amount of time I spend thinking about my novel.  Carrying around that yellow notepad allows me to take notes during the 99/100ths of my time when I’m not in front of the laptop. 

5.  3 Ring-Binder: When I’m finally bursting with ideas, I put everything in a three-ring binder.  The tabs are something like this:

  • Character and Location Sketches
  • Research
  • Scenes and Character Arc
  • Timelines
  • Bibliography and Thank Yous
  • Notes
  • Other Projects

Having this binder to tote around makes you realize that you’ve put meat on the bones of that novel skeleton.  The binder goes everywhere with me while I’m drafting, and any new notes go straight into it.  A new bit of research. A scrap of dialogue. An idea for a title. 

One of the most important tabs is Other Projects.  When I’m in the thick of a first draft, I am easily distracted by shiny new things.  Inevitably ideas for new projects come streaming in just when I need to concentrate the most on the current project.  I used to lie awake turning the new ideas over in my head and admiring their shiny qualities.  Now I jot them down in the binder so that I won’t lose them, and then I get straight back to work on the work-in-progress.

6.  Time to Write:  I’m brimming with ideas.  I’ve lived with the characters for so long, they are practically talking louder than the real life people around me.  It’s time to start writing.  I sit down at the computer and start with Page 1.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about Page 1 and how eerily similar it is to a first date.

What about you?  What does your prep process look like?  Do you have a favorite pen or notepad that you can’t live without?  Or do you just skip note taking and get straight to telling the story?

Ideas for a Novel: Where do they come from and how can we find them?

A common question that I’m often asked is, “Where do you get your ideas for your writing?”  With NaNoWriMo upon us, many are asking, “How do you decide on an idea worthy of a dedicated month or year of effort?” I mentioned in the About Me section that I’ve known since I was young that I wanted to write.  I spent hours locked away in my room as a kid devouring the words of Thomas Hardy, Louisa May Alcott, Shakespeare, Judy Blume, Alice Walker.  You name it and I wanted to read it.  Reading inspired me.  I wanted to read more and I wanted to write. I always said:

If someday I can, through just the right combination of words, make someone feel the way some of my favorite authors have made me feel, I will consider my life successful.

The problem? I knew that I wanted to write.  I just didn’t know what I wanted to write about.  I had that same question that many of you do. Non-fiction came easy – and still does.  Fiction was more challenging.  All of my ideas felt cliche or overdone. I was convinced that I didn’t have muse.  It took me a long time to realize that the muse has to be nurtured.  Mine especially likes Peppermint Patties when I’m on deadline.  Sweet treats or not, a muse doesn’t just show up and hand you ideas on a silver platter.  She drops hints along the way, and it’s our job as writers to follow the breadcrumbs one by one to a great story.

Once my muse who claimed to be shy for so long suddenly decided she was an extrovert, I was swamped with more ideas for fiction than I could possibly write in a lifetime.  I was shocked because I didn’t know what had happened to open these floodgates.  Was it a wealth of life experiences? Probably. Was it the maturity that comes with a career and parenthood? Possibly.  Or had I tapped into something more important? Definitely. Read more

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