Mind Maps

One of the pleasures of growing up in Britain in the 70s and 80s was that there was no daytime television. It seems weird now, but in those days there was no transmission during the day.

But sometimes there was the Open University. The OU is a distributed learning initiative, a bit like an online learning institution but using television and radio to broadcast the course lectures rather than the Internet.  That learning model was also applied to a number of self-improvement programmes, and one of the stars of the genre of self-improvement programming was Tony Buzan with his mind maps.

Mind maps are freeform relational diagrams. Tony Buzan always claimed they were novel (his company has a trademark on the term) but there are other diagrams of this type – fishbone diagrams, for example. He also has lots of structural rules, although personally I ignore them a lot of the time. The basic notation of a branching radial diagram is broadly applicable.

In a classical mind map, you start with a circle in the middle of your paper with a word describing the core concept you wish to explore. From there, you make radial lines, labelled in whatever way you feel appropriate, covering related concepts. And you continue like this, adding branching nodes and labels, and connections between branches, until you have something that either maps the conceptual space or you run out of paper. Buzan encourages you to use colour, and to draw pictures which illustrate the concepts, but I usually don’t bother since my maps are rarely the end product.

I use mind maps for:

  • taking notes in meetings, which includes roleplaying sessions, both as GM and player (I took a lot of notes at Wordstock as mind maps).
  • making notes for presentations – I don’t present often, but when I do I have a mind map to hand showing everything I want to cover. It’s not an intrinsically ordered format, so it is easy to vary the sequence of the material as needed.
  • thinking about design problems – this has paid great dividends, as I sometimes see relationships between elements of a problem that I simply hadn’t seen before.
  • recording story elements

For live note taking I use just pen and paper, going on to a new sheet if I fill one, but for anything where I am going to edit the map I will use a software tool to construct it. So the gazetteer that I have of all the plants, animals, geographic features, and cultural conventions within my world of Kissiltur are in a series of Freemind mind maps on the computer.

I find these to be a useful tool, though. I recommend trying them out at least once.

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Weekend Roundup

“Brave on the Page” Book Launch

I almost forgot to mark the occasion, but – I’m a published author!

I mentioned that I am one of the interviewees in Brave on the Page the other day, and I went along to the launch party at Powell’s on Tuesday this week. When Laura says “hot off the press” she is not speaking figuratively – those books dropping out of the Espresso machine chute are really quite warm.

Warm like freshly baked bread. Mmmm. Probably a bit chewier though. Maybe I should read it instead. I am sure I will have more to say about the book itself as I work my way through.

I’m also very excited to be participating in a reading to celebrate the launch on Saturday 3rd November. It’s at 3pm at the Fulton Park Community Center, so if you are in Portland come along!


As previously noted, Wordstock is this weekend. I will be there tomorrow, the Sunday, wearing a black hat with the Orange Mornington Crescent  symbol somewhere about my person.

Orange MC logo

I hope to see you there!

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Getting Ready For November

November is looming. I need a plan.

A frequently expressed dichotomy in NaNo Land is between the plotters and the pantsers: an archetypal plotter will outline to the point of absurdity, while a pantser will start the month with nothing more than a blank page and a vague feeling of which characters the story should feature.

I lean towards the plotter nature myself, but I have elements of pantsing (or “discovery writing”) in my method too – if I knew everything about the story before I started writing, then what would be the point?

My needs going into November are chapter summaries for around 25 chapters. If I have that, and I write 2,000 words per chapter then I hit the 50k goal. That also makes for a fairly easy pace – 2,000 words a day of stuff I know what I am writing about is not difficult to maintain for me. Things only really start to go pear-shaped if I am writing into the unknown. I mentioned before that I write early in the morning. That time is productive for me only if I have a good plan of what to write.

The content of a chapter summary is analogous to a use case, and consists of: the characters involved; the start point of the opening scene; the goal conditions of the chapter, and perhaps any points I want to hit on the way (eg character development, foreshadowing). Sometimes the chapter is clear enough that I don’t need that much, sometimes a component of the summary will be missing if it’s not important. For example, if it doesn’t matter who discovers the wrecked spaceship in the graveyard then I won’t specify characters.

I would also look to have character summaries and any ideas for the setting, although a lot of the discovery that I do is for the setting.

So, my plan over the next week or so is to write up the necessary chapter summaries for the 25 or so chapters I will need. I already have all the character and setting notes I need, so no worries there.

Then I’ll make a maze tracker, but more about that another day.

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I love National Novel Writing Month.

My first recollection of it is from 2003 when someone on a Mornington Crescent site mentioned it. It sounded amusing, but I didn’t see at the time how I would have the time, and I think it was mentioned a few days into November. I mean, 50,000 words in 30 days is one thing, but 50,000 words in 25? From a cold start? Nah.

Then I was reminded of it again the following year. 2004 was the year I trained for and completed a marathon, and so I was looking for another challenge after that. I heard that Chris Baty, the NaNoWriMo founder, was doing a talk at Powell’s to promote his book “No Plot? No Problem!” and I went along out of interest. I left a convert.

I knew I could do it. This was only a few days before November, so I dusted off a story about vampires that I had tried unsuccessfully to write a couple of times before, wrote out some chapter outlines, and had at it.

That was fun, so I did it again the following year, and again, and again… 2012 will be my ninth event.

I’ll have separate posts on how I approach NaNoWriMo, but in the meantime take this as a reminder that November is coming. You have three weeks to figure out what you are going to write.

Who’s with me?

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Designing My November Workflow

November is coming, and I am planning how to manage my writing time for NaNoWriMo. The basic question is how to share writing context so that I can work sensibly in all the places that I can write.

In previous years, I had the following blocks of time in which to make words:

  1. Early morning at home
  2. Lunchtime at work
  3. Occasional blocks of time in the evening or on weekends

My previous workflow was thus:

  • Work on my own laptop whenever I am at home, using Scrivener
  • Put chapter outlines in a shared location on a server
  • Use my work machine over lunch, writing in vim and then copying text written into the shared location
  • Write on my own laptop at work if I bring it with me

The things that are different this year are:

  • that I will have time on the bus to work, when I am not riding my bike
  • that I now usually carry my work laptop home so that my personal laptop is rarely going to be with me during the day
  • that I have a tablet
  • that I can use Scrivener on my work machine with a project shared with the home laptop, although the tablet doesn’t support that tool.

I think the way I am going to go is to change the shared location to something which all the devices will be able to reach. This could be a cloud store like Dropbox, but I think Evernote will fit better. This way I can work on the tablet on the bus, and then on whichever laptop is open at the time elsewhere. This will make it easy to copy data across the different work areas while also not requiring me do weird stuff with Scrivener like shutting it down when I stop working on the home machine. I could even write on my phone (which if I had a Bluetooth keyboard might even be reasonable).

The worst of it will be the woeful onscreen keyboard of the tablet – it is a Kindle Fire, which has served me well but which lacks Bluetooth to connect a usable external keyboard. I will only be using that for about forty minutes a day if I write both ways on the bus, however, so it should be manageable.

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Wordstock 2012

Wordstock is coming.

Wordstock is Portland’s literary festival. I’ve only been once, in 2010, but that was a fascinating experience.

This year I plan on attending on the Sunday. There are a couple of interesting workshops and discussion panels on the schedule that day, and I am looking forward to seeing friends old and new on the floor (Laura Stanfill, for example, with her new book).

Is anyone else going this year?

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Brave on the Page

A good writer friend of mine, Laura Stanfill, has a charming and interesting blog. One of the most consistently interesting features there is her series of author interviews – Seven Questions. I was delighted and honoured to be interviewed in this series about a year ago. She’s a talented interviewer, preparing questions that are not just individual to the author but engaging to answer – I certainly learnt some things from thinking about how to answer the questions.

She recently announced the publication of an edited collection of these interviews through her small press, Forest Avenue Press. “Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life” also features additional material around the craft of writing. The physical printing is being done with the Espresso book machine, initially at Powell’s but I understand it will be available through the On Demand Books network.

The official launch date is 08-Oct-2012.

I am really looking forward to reading all of the refreshed interviews, and the original essays by other authors. And of course it is always exciting to see some of your own words on the page!

Congratulations to Laura and everyone involved on a huge accomplishment.

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The Perils of Science Fiction

We are all living in science fiction.

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. The concepts expressed in the pages of stories and in the images of film have been inspirational to scientists and the general public alike: communication satellites, the Internet, tablet computers – all of these have been made real in the wake of stories featuring them.

The problem for authors is that science and society sometimes move faster than ideas can be written.

This is especially true of near future SF, of course. Charles Stross (Charlie’s Diary) wrote Halting State and then watched as his technological predictions came true. His sequel to Halting State was pre-empted by actual events when the plot was played out by one Bernie Madoff (and was ever a crook so perfectly named as he made off with the money?).

The reworked sequel, Rule 34, seemed more fanciful – well-grounded fantasy to be sure, but quite fantastic all the same. Then I saw this story in The Guardian –

Download, print, fire: gun rights initiative harnesses 3D technology

There are echoes here of the HEAP gun from Cryptonomicon also, with the emphasis on producing guns for personal defense (HEAP standing for Holocaust Education And Prevention). The question is how printing of barrels and  receivers is supposed to work – as someone I know who is experienced with 3D printing pointed out, most printing fabricators make models which are brittle, that do not deal well with mere rough handling, let alone the pressures of explosive ammunition.  The HEAP gun in Stephenson’s book required barrels to be brought in from some external source – maybe something like that is needed here too. That Guardian piece includes a claim of having fired 200 rounds from a printed receiver, but that may have been using an industrial fabricator – others in the same piece said that the guns could best be considered single use. The risk of personal injury seems very high.

For my own work, I try to avoid the very near future. A Turquoise Song is set 75 years hence, for example, which is close enough to be predictable but far enough away that I am unlikely to be embarrassed by anything I predict.

Still, we truly are living in science fiction.

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One of the longest standing rivalries in computing is over whether emacs or vi is a better text editor.

Even though I am a user of vi – or, to be precise, vim – I recognise that the question has no possibility of an objective solution: the correct answer is whichever suits the user’s style better – does it fit their workflow? Can they learn the commands? Are the key strokes compatible with whatever strain of repetitive use injury the user suffers from?

The same is true to a large extent of word processors. Microsoft Word has its devotees (even if only on the basis of ubiquity), Open Office and its derivatives likewise. There are even writers who use the aforementioned emacs or vi, depending on the writing arena and the proclivities of the author.

But I don’t use a word processor when I am writing. I use Scrivener.

Scrivener is not a word processor – it is a development environment for stories. You create a project for each story just as you would create a new document in a traditional document editor, using an appropriate template: for example, novel, short story, theatre script, or humanities essay. The files within that project are organised using folders. A new project has a place for the manuscript, but also folders for research notes and you can make any folders you like.

That in itself may not sound remarkable, but the secret here is in breaking the story up into small pieces. So for a novel the files are not chapters but scenes, so it is is easy to rearrange the scenes however you like. The rearranging can be done using the tree navigator, or in the outliner, or with index cards on the corkboard screen. The text itself can be edited in a number of different modes too – if I am writing new content I like the full screen mode, if I am editing a chapter I like the Scrivenings mode where multiple scenes are pulled together into a single block of text.

Scrivener is a great place for research notes. It understands how to import text, graphics, and other media from web pages, other document formats, and so on. And because not everything you put into the project has to be associated with the manuscript, you can keep old scenes and character notes in there too.

Once you have the text, you enter the realm of compiling a manuscript. Scrivener has a lot of options here so it pays to experiment, but the output can be in many different formats including, most usefully for me, ebook formats.

There is much more to Scrivener than this: tagging, labelling, coloured pins on the corkboard, project word count goals, and I am sure many other features that I have never touched. Scrivener fits the way I work, though.

But with all these features the best thing about Scrivener for me is that I have never lost data. I have been using it since the first beta in 2005, and the tool has never crashed on me, nor has it ever thrown stuff away that I have written when the computer has died (and I had a duff iBook for a few years, so I have suffered a number of computer crashes).

The biggest problem I have had over my years of using Scrivener has been keeping my projects up to date with the evolving organisation. I think the structure of a project is pretty well settled now, but the early work I did was one chapter to a file which did not map well to the newer scene/chapter layout which the compiler looks for. The break point for me with my main WIP was when I was trying to make sense of my second draft. I needed an outline, and it was a good opportunity to break it up into the scene structure. This is not a problem I will encounter again, since anything I have in older projects will be rewritten from the ground up anyway.

Still, that aside, I’ve been very happy with Scrivener. It is an excellent tool at an absurdly reasonable price.

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Possessed Pet

Writing prompt #1

Your pet is possessed by the personality of a public figure. It now talks to you with the voice of this public figure, but also has access to the memories of your pet: so the cat is Mitt Romney and knows you ate the toast off the floor; Brigitte Bardot the gerbil saw you picking your nose; and so on.

Bonus points if the public figure now has the personality of your pet.

Link to your story in the comments. Please don’t post the story here – any such postings go in the bit bucket*.

[*] which is to say they will be deleted.

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