Are you entering National Novel Writing Month in November?
If you answered yes, the odds are 50/50 you’re doing some planning this month. If not hardcore plotting, at least making notes and brainstorming your story. I’ve done NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo many times and I’ve won my fair share. For me, planning is the best recipe for success, but that doesn’t mean my stories haven’t gone down a rabbit hole, because they have.
The one strategy that has never failed me is doing some pre-NaNo visual brainstorming. I’ve put together four tricks that I like to think of as my NaNoWriMo secret weapons, but they will work for any writing project.
1. Organize Visuals Cues:
I love Pinterest for letting my story creativity run wild. When I start a project, I pin everything! Eye colors, hair styles, outfits, you name it. I tend to keep these boards in secret mode; that way only I can see them and I don’t need to worry about giving away too many surprises.
While my Pinterest vision boards help me see the big picture, most of these pinned items will never make it into the story. Pinterest lacks the flexibility to take my visuals to the next level. Once I’ve narrow down the images, I create visual timelines in Canva. I like to use the free infographic templates to make these. This is the perfect tool to quickly create compact photo references and character studies. These visual guides help me plan each character’s changing physical look and track setting shifts. I like knowing both of these sources of visual candy are a click away, but it’s taking the extra step to organize my images in Canva that really helps keep my creative motor running.
2. Map It:
I’m an artistically challenged human. If you were to ask me to draw a map free-hand, it would look like blobs of Jello with sticks jutting out of it, in other words something completely un-map-like would emerge. However, I still need to see and understand how my characters will move in my virtual space, so that’s why I use tools. And graph paper, lots of graph paper.
My go-to trick for room mapping is the interior designer’s friend: a furniture template. This is not a cheap item, but you will only need to buy it once.
If you like your rooms more fleshed out, or just wouldn’t dream of putting pencil to paper, try the online tool from Pottery Barn. This tool is amazing! You set the room dimensions and drop in and arrange items until you have your room just the way you want it.
Looking for something with more scope, say you want to create a full town? Or perhaps you need a whole continent for your characters to explore? There are online tools for this too, but most of them are costly and challenging to master.
For this I use old maps. I simply can’t pass a sale of beat up and outdated maps without grabbing a handful. I’ve got a real passion for the historical maps, Havana, Cuba in the 1930s, Chicago, Illinois in the 1890s — I just never know what layout will inspire me.
You can make the most familiar landscape look fresh by rotating the ordination. Or stick a few different maps together to create a brand new world. Give the landmarks new names and boom the map is ready for characters to populate in no time.
3. Mind Map it:
This is another organizational brainstorming tool that many writers swear by. Scrivener makes their own version called Scapple. A free trial version is available here. Or you can use index cards and the kitchen table. Either way, this technique gives me a way to scaffold complicated ideas into relationship trees.
This is the perfect method for visual thinkers to lay out any series of events and work out how these events interrelate to the different plots and subplots. It’s also fantastic to use when you just don’t know where the story should go next. You can set down all your ideas and work them in different patterns until the right sequence of events jumps out at you.
4. Gather Brain Trigger Items:
When I get stuck, I always go for my brain triggers. These are special items that help me activate the creative part of my brain. This is not my idea. It’s based on highly detailed neuroscience most of which I don’t even understand, but it works.
The theory is your mind stores all unnecessary data in dormant sectors and you need something to re-prime those sleeping cells before you can access those memories. Almost anything can help reactivate memories: a smell, a picture, a sound, or a taste.
Putting together a box of items you want to use for triggers is highly personal. The triggers that will work best should relate to the emotions you want to transmit with your writing. If you want to write sad, you might want to revisit your worst breakup. You could also find something that reminds you of the death of a loved one. Want to write scary? Try fueling each writing session with mood setting sounds of a storm. I pack my box with old letters and photos. By looking these items over I can recall the mood of a summer beach outing, or trigger memories of childhood camping trips. Try to use your triggers just when writing. Overexposure to triggers weakens their best effect.
When the dark days of November strike and I feel my creativity tank running on empty, I take great comfort in knowing these sources of inspiration are ready to save me.
What about you? Do you have any unusual ways to brainstorm before writing? Please share in the comments. Also share your NaNoWriMo handle so we can all become writing pals this November and cheer each other on.