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Do you need a map?

Back in 2003, I listened to a course by Michael J. Gelb about a creativity device called mind mapping. The idea is that using a non-linear method for keeping notes and organizing your thoughts will spark creativity and help you better see connections between seemingly disparate ideas or parts of a subject.

A mind map is essentially a diagram representing whatever subject you want to take notes on. I've used it to outline my goals, take notes in class, and plan a project. I'm also going to use it to help me visualize and organize my next book. I may even use it for the current one to help create my synopsis, pitch, and query letter.

So, by now you're probably wondering what a mind map looks like. Here's a sample mind map created by Danny Stevens that illustrates the guidelines.

Despite its freeform approach, mind mapping actually has several guidelines for making it effective. They include the following (from

  1. Start in the center with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colors.
  2. Use images, symbols, codes, and dimensions throughout your Mind Map.
  3. Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
  4. Each word/image is best alone and sitting on its own line.
  5. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image. The central lines are thicker, organic and flowing, becoming thinner as they radiate out from the centre.
  6. Make the lines the same length as the word/image they support.
  7. Use multiple colors throughout the Mind Map, for visual stimulation and also to encode or group.

There's no limit to what you can use mind mapping for. As an example, I created a simple mind map for the hero of my current book, using the free version of MindNode (which does not support images or connections but is still a good option for getting started).

If you're the hands-on type, get out your colored markers and blank paper. Start making links and drawing pictures and see where it takes you. If you're more inclined toward digital media, try one of the many software programs out there created specifically for mind mapping.

And most of all, have fun!

NOTE: Tech Tuesday is on hiatus until I'm struck with new ideas for Scrivener or other technology posts. Feel free to make requests for any tech topic, Scrivener or otherwise.

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  1. Reply

    I’ve been using Mind Node Pro on the Mac for this. I should use it MORE…

    I just taught this technique to a client who has a hard time with English…and never written before. She loved it.

    Hell, it will make my life easier with helping her plan and edit (non-fiction book) 😀

    • Reply

      It’s definitely helpful for organizing your thoughts and being able to see it all at once. It would have helped me when I was doing the timeline for my current MS.

      I used to mind map a lot and then kind of…forgot about it for a while. Not sure why it didn’t occur to me for writing before, but I’m full of ideas for how to use it again. I may have to go PRO if I get serious about it. I want to add images and cross-links.

      Happy mapping!

  2. Dunx


    I use Freemind for digital maps, although mostly for cataloguing purposes – since it runs on every platform I use, I don’t need to fret about file conversion from one machine to another. The gazetteer of my world is three large mind maps – much easier to keep organised than a text file or even a Scrivener file.

    But I mostly use pen and paper. I use mind maps for brainstorming and note taking, as well as agendas for meetings I’m hosting. Very useful.

    • Reply

      Hey, Dunx. I haven’t checked out Freemind yet. I do like pen and paper too. There’s something about brainstorming with motion and visual that gets things going. What I really want is one of those giant, rolling white boards like they sometimes have in classrooms or conference rooms. Give me dry-erase markers and a clean slate and I’m happy.

      Thanks for checking in.

  3. Reply

    Clearly there is nothing new under the sun. I found Writing The Natural Way, Gabriele Rico in 1983. It is mind mapping without the right angles. It looks like this..

    Random folks like me are able to us it to find structure and content at the same time. I guess it goes with being the sort that likes the big picture. Anyway, when I’m ready to write I grab a large drawing pad, no lines are nuthen, and free wheel my way to where my mind wants to go.

    An aside.
    I used this with an ” alternative” i.e. kids in trouble High School class. They produced some imaginative writing. Used the same thing with an Honors class and found them to be so assimilated into the culture that the best they could do was re-imagine the movie they had seen the last weekend. Maybe three of the class still had an imagination.

    Thank you for the variety in your blog. You got it all going on. 🙂

    • Reply

      Thanks for sharing this, Curtis. Rico’s ideas are very similar, though they seem to be specifically geared toward creativity in writing. I think mind mapping probably built off of a similar idea. I may try his writing exercise for one of my Sunday Squirrels if I get brave enough. 😉

      Very interesting about the HS classes. As a logical, rule-oriented person, I’ve never felt very creative in the arts, more with solving problems and gleaning the big picture. The hardest–and most fun–part of writing for me has been giving myself permission to use my creative side for a “creative” pursuit.

      Thanks for your continued interest in what I have to say! 🙂

      • Reply

        I would like to see you just cut loose and write one. Skip the censor and filling out any form of any kind. Just let it rip. Can’t wait for you to tell us about Margo Slidel or a red head named Chauncey.

        I have a friend who wrote under a pen name to gain the freedom she needed to both write and publish. She writes Romances.

        She is a Dorm mom at a small private college. The pen name was the only way she could get past her “proper.” And, she is a proper lady. But…. 🙂

  4. Reply

    These do remind me of the pre-writing exercises I would have my students do when I taught high school. Trying to appeal to the visual learners and such! I’m a much more linear person myself, but I like your mind map for your character. The character charts I used for my previous novel just didn’t work very well for me, so maybe I’ll try something like your map this time around.

    Thanks for another great idea!

    • Reply

      One of the things I love about mind mapping is how it incorporates the visual. I used to use a similar technique to memorize concepts for my exams in grad school. For one test there were 8 parts to something. I created a room with every element in it that I needed to memorize, like a calendar for planning and a dollar bill for cashflow, but used as part of a scene, not random objects. I showed it to some of the other students before the exam and they said it helped them remember the items.

      Anyway, I think mind mapping will be a fun way to keep track of my characters, their traits, and how they’re all linked. I imagine a giant white board for this, but it will probably be more like a wall of white paper due to my budget. 😉

      Good luck with your own mapping!

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