Mind maps, how I love thee

FreeMind saved my sanity.

I had been turning the thought over in my head for ages: how could I personally organise all of my series ideas into something cohesive? I have a very expansive world built, I have a large over-arcing plot in place, and I have a cast of characters as long as my arm. But I had not been able to lay it all out neatly and look it over.

I’ve tried index cards. They only work for me in very select situations. For instance, indexing a single-sentence summary of each scene through my finished draft to find dead zones, areas where no particular action occurred. If three scenes in a row turn out to be discussion or travelling, I can see that right at a glance and spice it up. Change where that information is shared. Throw in a different scene between them.

I have tried various programs designed to be used to track plots and outlines. Most of the writer/story programs drive me to distraction. I want simplicity, yet I need a lot of control. Not much software is designed for basic use with a high degree of customisable features. The software designers think they’ve stumbled across a great way to do this one thing, and it won’t be the one way I’m looking for. I know I’m picky, so if it doesn’t work, I shrug and move on.

I have even attempted to write things out on large sheets of paper, but there’s no way I can keep something like that tidy. Besides, who has the time? I could be drawing out huge diagrams, or I could be writing! Or… crocheting. A lot.

Eventually, I remembered an article I read back when I first discovered my favourite novel-writing software, yWriter. My love for yWriter is all kinds of special, but that’s not what helped me organise the quagmire of my chaotic plot, characters, and various world events. Simon Haynes (author, and programmer of yWriter) wrote about his own methods, in Plotting a Novel.

When I first found that article, I used FreeMind for a project, then promptly forgot about the program. When I went back to Simon’s page, it was a lightbulb moment; of course, why wasn’t I using FreeMind? I already knew how well it worked for me, using a system of organisation very similar to the one Simon discusses (with examples!) in his article.

Needless to say, I went ahead and fired up FreeMind right away. After inputting just a little fragment of the important information for The Damning Moths, I felt a lightening from my mind. It was getting all laid out. Nice and neat. Right where I could see it and feel like I’m not going to miss anything. Mind maps are great.

~A

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Integral ending

I recently read a book. I loved it; a cynical, jaded, altogether unsympathetic main character made through sharp dialogue and subtlety in action into the anti-hero you want to cheer on, even if he’s doing all the wrong things.

Then the ending happened.

I won’t say it was a bad ending. It tidied everything up neatly, took care of all the problems, and set the (remaining) characters off on their way with the right degree of this is completed, but there’s more for these people in life. Still, the ending. It niggles at me as too quick, too wrapped up. It rushed through a somewhat surprising turn and almost seemed to state, “There. All the loose ends have been taken care of. Are you satisfied?”

The answer to my imagined question is, unfortunately, no. Not really. The ended could have, and from my perspective, should have been drawn out further. The final chapter lacked the same wry interaction (largely because most of the characters died), and I felt like the protagonist began acting outside of his normal bounds, without a proper reason. Oh, sure, I know what part of the story was meant to act as the turning point, his trigger to behaving a little more compassionate. But I didn’t believe it.

Just because I can identify the when and why of this character’s motivation doesn’t mean I buy it.

Maybe that’s me being weird. Maybe it’s my background in psychology making the developments ring false. I would probably need to re-read the book, perhaps even several times, before I could pin down exactly what throws me about the ending.

Nevertheless, I’ve learnt something from this story, which I still think is pretty awesome. The ending is actually the most important part of your story. It’s the last taste we get of your characters, and the world they are in. It’s the part which will linger, because it’s the freshest in our memory. A weak ending could very easily ruin an otherwise good book.

Cue writer’s paranoia! Does my ending measure up? Have I made it too obvious and forced that all the pieces are coming together and being taken care of? Does it finish at the right pace?

It’s a wonder I’ve survived being an author as long as I have. Egad.

~A

The plan, the challenge

As you may know, I’ve switched to working on the potential-novella referred to as M. I read the opening I wrote several years ago and felt somewhat overawed by how awesome the idea was, and wondered why I stopped. I can honestly say it was because I hadn’t plotted any of the story out besides the general idea; it slowed me right down, and I can see that, now. At the time, I just drifted onto other projects that had more immediate appeal, without ever realising what was holding me back.

While the ideas for this story were still there, they needed a lot of developing. And as my last blog entry covered, the strange little ideas I’d worked out, and the interesting plot directions I wanted to use have finally started to make sense as a whole story. I got excited and I have begun planning out the plot properly. The best part about doing this is always knowing what to write next. Once this is sorted, I can sit down and throw whatever words I want at the page. Editing will be challenging, but the important part is always finishing that first draft.

My plan is to have the overall plot finalised, to whatever extent I usually do, by the end of this week. Then starting Sunday, I intend on writing like a maniac (or if you’re a fan of Dear Sugar, writing like something else!). Novellas clock in around 40,000 words in length. I want to hit that in two weeks. Madness? Oh, yes. With my lifestyle, most certainly. And that’s precisely what draws me to it.

I have always been inspired by challenges. Put some kind of ridiculous deadline in my head and I want to tackle it wholeheartedly, just to see if I can. Looking over my writing records for TDM, I don’t often reach 3,000 words a day, but where’s the fun in it if I already know I can manage ~2,000? I could do it in a month, but two weeks? We’ll have to see.

There’s always the distinct possibility that I will get directed, bored, or grumpy with this whole plan before it’s finished. You guys can always call me on it if my happy little word counter isn’t rising daily.

~A

When suddenly, it all makes sense

My writing has been on hold while I try to untangle the vast reserves of ideas I have. I needed to put everything in place for this story, because it’s been years since I worked on it, and despite knowing the general plot, I never came up with too many specifics. Ahh, the days of literally making it up as I went.

I have been sorting and compiling ideas for a couple of weeks now. It feels like forever, and I’m an impatient sort. I’d prefer to be writing than planning and plotting, but I can recognise that one must come before the other. Little ideas, big ideas, strange notions that don’t seem to fit into this story have all been running through my head. For a while there, I intentionally avoided even thinking of any of it, because I was getting so frustrated at how none of it was slotting together nicely.

Then yesterday, it clicked. The parts fell into place. Even the weird things that I didn’t think were relevant to this story had a specific and important role to play.

I don’t know how any of this works. It’s some kind of function my brain has had for as long as I can remember. I could attribute it to a wild imagination or half a lifetime of practice in writing, but that doesn’t encompass the fullness of how stories sometimes just “work”. After all that struggling with ideas, after all those days of just giving up trying to put the crazy jigsaw together myself, I can finally see the full picture and why those ideas were connected at all.

Does this mean I’m back into writing immediately? Not quite. I can see it all, but I still need a little time to percolate this as a whole. I’ll probably start by putting down a plot outline with all the major and minor events I’ve already decided on. From there, I think I will be able to fashion something like a story out of it. I have a pretty great feeling about this work. This is going to be fun.

~A

A line between fiction and reality

Before I threw myself headlong into other projects, I strongly considered going back and finishing my romance novel, known as FiA. But I have a rather significant concern surrounding that story, and haven’t quite been able to work on it.

In its simplest form, the setting for FiA is natural disaster stranding the two main characters together, where they fall into some kind of love (romance, after all!). In the time between birthing the full plot, and when I was going to return to working on FiA, a very similar event actually occurred in the location my book is set in.

It almost feels insensitive for me to write my novel about this location, and about this kind of disaster, when in somewhat recent times that place has gone through such a terrible experience. My feeling is borderline irrational; the location has seen other such disasters over time (as with many places on this fine planet, you get hot-spots for natural disasters, like Tornado Alley). It’s part of why I chose that location. The setting is realistic, the events plausible.

My handling of the event in FiA is befittingly serious. I don’t make light of suffering, but it’s also not the direct focus of the story, since it’s pretty much just the catalyst for the characters to be together. I hope that, given enough time, I’ll feel comfortable in writing this book again. I was really enjoying the experience, and the little that I got through taught me a lot.

I have the capacity to over-think my work to a degree I hadn’t realised beforehand. Writing FiA made me see that I could get just as caught up in my version of the real world as I can in fantasy (writing descriptions of a place I’ve only seen in photographs is wondrous!). I know I haven’t finished with this story, but I don’t know when I’ll go back to it, either.

~A

Series potential

My novella project is the first time I’ve put a lot of effort into planning a series. It’s alien and frightening, and every time I come up with some new perspective on the story, I’m afraid that half way through writing the whole set, I will understand something new and want to change something.

Usually an author will begin publishing a series before all the installments are complete. This is understandable, since a novel often takes a year or more to write, and no one wants to wait ten years to start publishing something they’ve completed. This means that the overall theme has to be well established before they send out book one, because once it’s printed, there isn’t any “fixing” the story.

I thought I had done most of the important planning aspects for TDM, laying out plots and important events, characters which won’t be involved until several books in, the list goes on. My notes are extensive and the outlines were poured over until a cohesive plot was made. I really believed I was in a good position to just write these and expect things to turn out the way I planned. But as I progress through the edit of book one, and drafting book two, I realise that little things can change, and indeed sometimes need to. I worry what this means to my series. Do I need to go back to the planning stage and make the outline even more detailed? Would that be so much different from just writing the drafts and working from there?

At the end of drafting book one, I realised some of the mistakes I’d already made. In some places, I had written the characters to behave in ways I had never intended, and some of the scenes were really unsuited to both the characters I was creating, and the story they needed to tell. Not only that, but it wasn’t until the full first draft had been completed that I understood some of the events I rushed to include too soon when I planned the stories. They shouldn’t happen in book one. They need time to get there organically. My enthusiasm for this series was driving me to cram too much in right away.

Maybe I deviated from my outline too much, even though I really didn’t change many events in the first draft. At the same time, one of the added ideas was so solid and brought together all these other elements, I start thinking I just need more time to get to know my characters and reassess how they will respond. Maybe I haven’t done nearly enough planning. This is an interesting learning curve. It’s hard not to worry about it.

~A

I didn’t write, because I was writing!

Yesterday is a haze of words and writing and tapping away merrily. Obviously that doesn’t include creating a blog post, but I’ve declared my efforts yesterday a rousing success!

I don’t like the idea of measuring things too much. If I wrote this amount of words, or kept at it for that amount of time. We all know there are days when you slave away for hours, and your pour out thousands of words, then find out that they are part of a scene you scrap entirely. That’s okay! Those hours and those thousands of words were just part of the practice that turns us into better writers. They aren’t a waste! They aren’t really lost! But it puts the achievement scale into a different perspective to me.

Other days, you might jot out a handful of lines, and that be your only writing work for the day. Or the whole week! But those words might be a pivotal point in your story, and the enormity of it all has to stew for a while before you can really put it together.

So instead of making measurements (don’t worry, I still glance at the “words added today” bar when I’ve saving and closing down for the night!), I just celebrate the effort. I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about these stories. I tried to plan them a little more thoroughly, but it got to the point where I just needed to get them out from sheer excitement. So I’m back to my usual, “I know where this is going, but how we get there is a bit murky for now”. I guess this is just how I write!

I also happened upon the relieving success of finding the right name for a character. It had been evading me since the beginning, but I have something going here that seems to be pretty awesome. Now I can just charge through the rest of the story with a carefree demeanour, and see how we arrive at our destination!

~A