Writing Tools that Work the Way I Do
April 11, 2012
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed some of the techniques I use to come up with my story ideas. But the fact is, there are probably as many ways to think up plot ideas as there are people to think them up. And for me, coming up with an idea for my story is only the beginning. That’s when I start brainstorming for key ideas (events, actions, characters) that I might want to include in the story, after which I create a rough outline of some of the scenes that will make up the story.
The Story Statement (from Part 1)
The plot that we came up with in Part 1 involves a mouse that tries to teach a litter of newborn kittens to like mice (a pre-emptive move, no doubt). So my brainstorming and outlining examples will feature that story line. Here’s the story statement so far (I made this story up for my blog, so I apologize if it is similar to anyone else’s story).
When a tiny mouse is faced with the birth of a litter of kittens in the house, she sets out to teach the kittens to like mice, only to find that one kitten plans on snitching to the parents about the plan, forcing her to prove to that kitten that it can trust mice, which leads to a friendship between the cats and the mice.
For me, my plot usually starts out as a notion or vague idea of something that I think will make a cool story. Something like the story statement above. So my initial brainstorming involves jotting down all the key ideas I think might be used in that story.
Many people use a notepad or index cards for this stage. I do something different. Back when I was writing textbooks, I discovered a tool called MindManager (for the PC) that allowed me to easily create mind maps, or idea charts. If you’ve never used these before, they are an easy and remarkably effective way to record and organize ideas as they come to you. They also allow you to re-organize your ideas afterwards if you wish to do so.
Since I now use an iPad 2 for my mobile writing and note taking, I searched around and found a free and easy-to-use mind mapping program called SimpleMind that does just what I want (there are also versions for Mac and Windows.) The free version is not fancy, but it does the job. I can highly recommend it. The full version for $3.99 offers even more features and is well worth the upgrade.
Using SimpleMind, I start with my interim story title in the middle (see Cat and Mouse in the image below). To that, I now add a main branch that I figure will be part of my story. In this case Mice. Then, I add other branches like Cats, People and Rats. Now I select the Mice branch and add to it some branches about mice that I think would make good story material. Things like They like cheese, They talk by squeaking, They come out at night, and so on. Anything I can think of. I can always delete silly or unusable ideas later on (although I usually leave these ideas in there because often they turn out to be useful). I then do the same thing for the Cats, People, and Rats branches. With SimpleMind I can easily go back and add, delete or move ideas to any branch at any time.
And so it grows. Branches can be colour coded and even tagged with icons to make them stand out. Eventually, I end up with a well-rounded mind map that includes most of the ideas I plan to use in my novel. This is also a great way to see how ideas are related. And most mind map apps even allow you to export the chart as a hierarchical text list.
Brainstorming like this is easy and so much fun that my family and I use mind maps for all sorts of planning tasks. For trips, for the kid’s school projects, for our family tree (it’s ideal for this), even for our household job jar. Mind mapping is almost addictive. As I said, I use SimpleMind on my iPad, but there are several other mind mapping apps available for the iPad, as well as for Mac and Windows PCs. Try one, I think you’ll like it.
Mind maps are a great visual reminder of the ideas I want to include in my story. But I find that before I am ready to get down to the real writing, I need to create an outline of my individual scenes. For me, outlining is where the real story telling begins. The mind map is simply there to make sure I don’t overlook something.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge those people who write in a free flow way as ideas come to them, or as the story seems to dictate. They say it allows them to connect with their creative, spontaneous side, often leading their story and characters down unexpected paths. That may well be. And it probably works for them. But as my story is a technological thriller with many intertwining subplots, I prefer to stick pretty closely to a well-defined path. For me, brainstorming and outlining are essential steps. That said, someday I might try it the other way just to see what happens.
Ok, back to outlining. With a coloured printout of my mind map beside me, I now begin my outline; a linear, scene-by-scene breakdown of the story. Here’s what a traditional outline of our story might look like;
CAT AND MOUSE
Chapter 1: The Mouseters
– Life in the nest: we meet the Mouseter family
– Millie Mouseter: Millie is the oldest and most responsible sister in the nest
– Millie Ventures Out: Millie feels she needs to know more about the house
– Millie’s Discovery: Millie discovers that a litter of kittens has been born upstairs
Chapter 2: The Litter Closet
– The Closet: Millie secretly watches what is going on in the litter closet
– Mother Cat: Millie learns that Mother Cat plans to teach her kittens to hunt mice
I got in the habit of outlining way back in the 80s with a DOS program called PC Outline, and I’ve been outlining ever since. I tried using Microsoft Word’s outline mode, but it never appealed to me. Something about the awkward interface, I guess. I tried searching for outlining apps for the iPad, but none of them was what I was looking for. Then I came across an app that, while not exactly an outliner in the traditional sense, fit the bill perfectly. It’s called Index Card from DenVog. It is, essentially, a computerized version of those traditional index cards that many writers fill out with individual scenes and then pin to a cork board. Index Card performs this task, and much, much more. Here’s what an Index Card outline of our story would look like.
As you can see, each card you create has a title and a short description on the front. Descriptions can be longer than the card can display. The back of each card can hold even more text information. I create one card for each intended scene in my story. I make ’em up as the ideas come to me. Some I keep, others I change or trash. I also find that I end up moving cards around a lot (which is fun and easy to do, especially on the iPad). I also find that if I write point-form scene notes on the back of each card, it helps me later when I start writing, because many of my raw ideas are right there.
Tagging and Stacks
Cards can be colour coded, and even assigned unique icons to make them stand out. I use colour coding to identify my subplots. For example, my romantic subplot cards are pink (aw!) while my protagonist’s story arc cards are green. That sort of thing. Cards can be added, deleted or moved around in any order and at any time until the story flows just the way you want. Once I have the cards in a suitable order, I group them into what the app calls stacks, but which I use for my Chapters. You can also use stacks for Acts if you prefer. Now what appears on the screen are Chapter stacks (shown with a clip on them like Chapters 2 & 3 above) that can be opened to reveal the individual scene cards inside.
Here’s where Index Card really earns its $4.99 price tag. Now that I have loaded the cork board with my scenes, I can apply the Filter option to show only those cards I want to see. For example, I might filter my pink romance cards so that I only see them. This is how I ensure that the subplot has a complete story arc, and that it contains the necessary rising tension. It also helps me avoid leaving loose ends. I really like this feature!
Another useful feature is the Outline view (see below). This view displays the whole story, or just a filtered subset of it, as a single text document. The contents of all the selected cards are displayed in a single vertical list, one below the other, with the title of each card followed by its description and optionally its back contents. It is like looking at a short synopsis of your story or subplot. The first time I used this view I was amazed at how real it made my story, even before I started the actually writing. It also lets me see where there are gaps, conflicts or redundancies. I find this feature really helpful.
Export to Scrivener
Index Card has one more handy feature that works nicely with another tool I use. My writing tool of choice is Scrivener 2.2 from Literature & Latte which I use on my Mac (I’ll discuss my experiences with Scrivener in Part 3 of this series.) All I’ll say about it right now is that Index Card can be synched to Scrivener so that outlines created in Index Card can be exported directly to Scrivener. This saves a lot of time and needless duplication.
Right now, Index Card is only available for the iPad. If you go to their site you’ll see that DenVog recommends that anyone wanting something similar to Index Card for the Mac or Windows PC should consider Scrivener.
I sure wish Index Card had been around back when I was writing textbooks. It would have helped with the early creative thinking, and probably saved me a lot of work.
My approach to brainstorming and outlining works for me. But it may not work for you, especially if you find such structured methods restrictive. I would suggest that if creating a mind map or outline feels awkward, or if using them to guide your writing feels limiting, then maybe you should instead try writing without them in the free-style way. Brainstorming and outlining are meant to help, not hinder.
And if you like my ideas, but not my tools, then here are some books and websites that I can recommend that might help you find an alternative approach that works for you.
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K. M. Weiland
Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner
The Bottom Line
This concludes Part 2, my look at brainstorming and outlining. At this point I have a good idea of what scenes will be in my story. Of course, I’d be kidding myself to think that this won’t change. It will. As I begin fleshing out scenes, I usually realize that extra scenes should be added, that some need to be split, and that others should be moved or even removed. The outline, in other words, evolves with the writing. That’s the organic part of writing. But I need to start writing at some point and, for me, that point is right after my initial outline is ready.
In Part 3 I will look at the process of how content is added to my scenes, including the writing software I use.