Tag Archives: mind mapping

Balancing Big Picture Brainstorming with Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Photo via ecooper99 Flickr

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but have you ever felt that you couldn’t see the individual trees because you were too occupied taking in the whole forest?

Sometimes, in the brainstorming phases of writing, the ideas are flowing, the big idea is clear in our mind’s eye, and we have no problem seeing the overall theme or message we want to convey. We might be going along with our day when we get a cool idea for a story; initially, everything seems to make sense, but when we sit down to really begin planning each scene, the going can get pretty tough.

It’s not often that I’ve liked getting into the details of any project, whether it’s planning a retreat, crunching the numbers on a new purchase, or even plotting a book. My high school English teacher once told me that I was a “big picture” person or an “ideas” person, which explains my aversion to doing math, and it’s true that I have always found mathematical concepts fascinating– whether I’m learning calculus or discussing quantum physics with my engineering friends– but I simply can’t be bothered to actually work out the details. This is hardly surprising, as I am an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgemental) personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test, and my intuition and preference for holistic thinking lends itself to generating concepts rather than concrete details.

This way of thinking is necessary for most endeavors, especially writing; after all, you have to know what you want to say before you can properly say it.

However, there is a Japanese proverb which states,

“Vision without action is a fantasy… action without vision is a nightmare.”

There are a lot of would-be writers who seem to have no shortage of ideas for the next big thing but who never seem to act on that vision and write. On the other hand, a quick trip through Amazon’s indie published titles reveals that there are just as many people with the ability to hammer out a book but who seemingly have no vision directing their writing.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, I’m a visionary. I’m just no good at the nitty gritty.” And frankly, this seems rather lazy. Writing is a particular business, and it takes a rare breed of person– one who possesses both the free-spirited creativity necessary for generating ideas and the analytical, no-nonsense practicality of organisation and discipline– to do it well.

It’s true that we all have differing balances of right and left brain proclivities, but there are ways we can leverage our strengths to help shore up the areas where we’re weak and to trick our brains into thinking they’re playing when the task at hand would normally seem like work.

For example, yesterday, while I was feeling particularly stuck with plotting my current WIP, I did something I’ve never done before. Usually, I resort to mindmapping, but this time, I just began writing down impressions and words connected to the scene I had in mind without circling or drawing connections between them. In this way, I created a sort of “cloud” where I could see the overall “feel” of the scene I needed to write, but I didn’t bother trying to draw connections between them until my subconscious tired out and the flow of ideas dried up.


In the past, at this point, I would have probably tried to jump into writing the scene, but the problem is that I still only have an impression: I can kind of see what the scene needs to be, but it remains shimmering, effervescent, and vague.

So instead, I then turned to a new page in my notebook and, still in that creative state of mind, began writing in linear fashion the progression of events in the scene. I was still pulling ideas from the air, but now that I had an impression of what the scene would be, it was easier to focus my creativity into coming up with individual events that would be plausible within the scene. Now, I have a list of targets to hit as I progress through writing the first draft.


I like to think of this method of brainstorming as “telescoping,” much the same way you can go to Google Earth and look at a map of the whole United States to get the big picture, then you can zoom in to your particular city to see the roadmap of where you’re going, and finally, you can enter Street View to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Similarly, we can first come up with the big idea for what we want to write, then we can organise those ideas into something resembling a roadmap for the draft, and finally, when it comes time to write the prose, we put ourselves actively into the scene and fill in the details on the level of sentences and paragraphs.

I’m going to tweak this method and see how it works for other scenes, but for now, I feel much more prepared to write the first draft.

How do you go about planning a piece? How would your process differ for blog posts versus fiction? Do you prefer to work backwards, writing scenes from the ground up and later organising them into a big idea for a story?

Breaking the Block

There are so many days when I wake up full of intentions to “make some progress” on the novel or the blog or whatever, but all too often, after my shower and breakfast (and too much procrastinating online), I will open up the project only to find all of my ambition gone.

If I’m lucky, I’ll push through the block, but there are many times when I don’t do much more than just waste a lot of time doing trivial things (like mindlessly checking Facebook or my school emails, even though I just did half an hour earlier), and before I know it, the day is gone and I feel even worse because I didn’t “get anything done.”

Being a writer, it’s easy to feel this pressure to show something for yourself. Writing of any sort– especially writing novels– is a slow, arduous process, and many times, it can be difficult for our peers to take us seriously if it seems like we don’t produce any results:

“So, when can I read the book?”
“How long have you been writing your novel, now? Four– five years?

Our fast-paced, utilitarian society places a premium on results, which has led to a constant pressure to produce. But part of being creative entails periods of rest, where ideas are allowed to germinate and the strata of our subconscious mind can settle. Often, I find that if I try too hard to write, it just makes me freeze up even more. I am beginning to be convinced that simply turning on the creative tap is not something that I can always do at will. However, there are some things that can help free up the flow. It’s all about learning how to get into the right state of mind (no pun intended).


As opposed to the left side…?

Moving on.

The next time you do feel a burst of inspiration, pay attention to what you are doing. It’s likely not when you are consciously trying to write. Personally, I’ve had ideas strike anytime from when I’m watching sporting events (yeah, I’m weird) to when I’m folding laundry. Often, I will realise that I’m zoning out, and not really thinking consciously when this happens.

Other times, if I feel like I just have to make use of my free time to write, but the well of inspiration is dry, I like to use the technique called mindmapping. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and almost always helps me get “unblocked.” Just take a blank piece of printer paper, write the question you’re struggling with in the middle of the page, and surround it with a circle. Then for the next five to ten minutes, just start branching off of that idea with every thought that comes to mind, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. In this way, your subconscious mind can draw relationships between everything bouncing around in there.

Another variation of this exercise is something called freewriting wherein I’ll open up a blank document (or just open a cheap spiral notebook to a blank page) and begin writing a stream of consciousness– basically, every thought that crosses my mind. It often takes the form of “talking to myself,” like this:

Ok, so right now I need to figure out how character X finds out the secret which will lead him to location B. What do I know about the character right now? And what do I know about the character with the secret? In a world like theirs, what are all the ways they could meet, and how many of those have a good potential for conflict?

Get it? Good.

Lastly, instead of staring at my project or a blank document in the vain hope that I will write something– anything, it is often more useful to just go do something else entirely unrelated to writing. I’ll play a video game, cook dinner, read a book, go visit a friend. Incidentally, if I visit the right friend, I can also talk out my problem with her. Just having another listening ear– even if the person is not a writer– can sometimes make a difference if you can just verbalise what’s giving you trouble.

Of course, make sure you don’t take too long of a break from writing, but hopefully, something will shake loose and you’ll be back in the creative flow before you know it.

What techniques or activities do you use when you’re feeling blocked? Are there times when you notice that you are blocked more than others (mornings, stressful real life, vacations)?