Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thoughts, and What To Do With Them

Current Reading: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Inspirational Quote: "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details." -- Albert Einstein

Two things impacted me this week.

The first is a bit of writing advice from Claire Light, who was filling in for Justine Larbalestier on her blog. (Hmm. Three links in one sentence... that's value for money, that is):

The question isn’t “what happens next?” the question is rather “what does my character make happen?”

Anyone who has seriously tried to write has heard this advice, or variations on it, a hundred times. However, it's a piece of truth that I had forgotten in the midst of my current middle-angst. For reasons best left to psychologists to figure out, Claire's words were just the right ones to sink into my head and clarify (pun unintended) the solutions to some difficulties I've been having (plot and passive protagonists). I've already thanked Claire for her contribution, and am passing on her wisdom in the hope that it may strike others as sharply as it struck me.

The second thing is my discovery of mind-mapping software. The name is somewhat misleading in that you can't use this stuff to find your corpus callosum, no matter how much you may need to. Instead think of this as software for organizing notes.

In the course of writing novels, I have accumulated dozens and dozens of pages of notes: character sketches, worldbuilding details, scene ideas, thoughts, brain junk and random neural discharges. Notes are necessary for making sure characters don't change appearance half-way through scenes, that details of the world remain consistent and that the whole meanders more or less between beginning and end.

The problem is that there is no organization to these notes. Character insights are mixed in with setting descriptions, societal rules and scene fragments. As a result, finding the information you require at any given time demands slogging through all the other stuff. Oh, you can break your notes into groups under headings or even set aside different documents for different types of notes, but managing headings and multiple notes documents is painful.

Mind mapping software, in this particular case, Freemind (which is free, open-source software available for Windows and Linux) takes a non-linear approach to organizing things. Categories, headings, sub-headings and details are all visible at a glance. Items can be grouped, shuffled and moved or copied between groups. Right now I'm using it to deconstruct the Magnus Somnium. I've broken the story down to scenes and am trying to juggle their sequence to move up the first turning point and tighten the plot. I have a group for scenes and can rearrange their order with a few clicks. I also have groups for characters, making their details available at a glance without the need for hunting through pages, and ideas for new scenes, things I ought to work on and weaknesses I don't yet know how to address.

I recommend Freemind to anyone who, like me, has a lot of information and needs a free-form but structured way to organize it all. I'll be using it on the new novel from now on and I know it'll improve my structure as well as the consistency of my details.

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