Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Map stars' homes, map Topeka, but map your story? :: Mindmapping & the Writer

I've never been a big fan of brainstorming in general. As everyone knows, brainstorming leads to flow charts, flow charts lead to outlining, and outlining leads to the dark side of the force.

I kid.  I know some people who love to do these things and I've seen writers cover walls with flowcharts and elaborate graphs and detailed outlines that are almost a novel in their own right. It's not for me, though, thanks. But I get brainstorming. I even understand all the geneology charts and whatnot if your story is complicated enough to warrant them.

To brainstorm is human; to really screw things up (or over-complicate them, which is the same thing in my book) requires a computer. Cue the rise of "mind mappping"  software.

For those of you who don’t know what a "mind map" is, it’s essentially a trendy word for creating a flowchart.  There are a lot of software producers out there, just aching to sell you a tool that they allege will help you generate these "mind maps", promising that their brainstorming tool will translate your disjointed ideas into a fluid narrative.  By putting your thoughts in bubbles and then rearranging them and drawing lines between them to map "logical adjacencies". Sometimes it's called 'concept mapping' but it's essentially the same thing.

We use these tools rather a lot at the writing center where I work, and in my opinion, they're of limited value once you start getting into fiction... at least for fiction longer than, say, a short story.

Bear in mind that I don't like outlines to begin with. I was the kid in school who wrote the final paper, screwed it up to create a 'rough draft' to turn in, and then wrote a fake outline from that. I find outlines less than useless.

Novelist David Hewson sent me a helpful link to this mind map of War & Peace. As you can see if you follow that link, deep stories with multiple characters and threads rapidly loses its coherence when displayed this way.  What's worse, is that the mindmap at the end of that link is not nearly as convoluted as it could be. Certainly not as tangled as some I've seen for significantly less intricate stories than Tolstoy's.

In the writing center, we use mind mapping software like Inspiration daily to help students who are completely at sea in their essays pick through the disparate facts they’ve accumulated to see how they connect or don’t. At the end of the exercise, most are able to walk away with a clearer idea of how the body of their writing assignment will fit together.

I certainly can’t imagine writing a book using this tangle of lines and thought bubbles as a map.

That doesn’t mean the software or even the technique is useless or that you shouldn’t use it to create your fiction. Just because Mr. Hewson or I don’t see the value doesn’t mean there’s no value there.  Always bear in mind that there are no one-size-fits-all tools for anything, much less writing. I cannot say beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who are more pattern-minded than I would be able to look at a flowchart and find their story. In essence, there’s no “right way” to do this thing we call writing.

Mind mapping is trendy and you'll hear it pitched to you from time to time as the silver bullet for every monster that lives under a writer's bed. I certainly have. Among other pitches, you'll be told how many famous writers use it.

To which I say: Yeah, so what?

Every writer's conference will at some point include the admonishment that just because JK Rowling or Dan Brown got away with something doesn't mean you will.  The corollary to that is that just because they do something, it doesn't mean that you should.

Do what works for you, but for heaven's sake, do everything you can to simplify the process. Think of it as the author's version of Occam's Razor: In the story and in how you write it, the least complicated solution is almost always the best one.  

From where I sit, this tool is a complication, not a simplification.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).