Brainstorming Through MindMapping

January 3, 2012

“Just Brainstorm it!”

I hear that a lot. I think it to myself a lot, too, but I’m often not very nice to myself internally, so it always sounds insulting (and YES, I realize this is something I need to work on. Baby steps.)

“Just Brainstorm it!”

As if that’s it. It’s just THAT easy. The solution to my problem is so easy to find, I’m just being a dolt for not seeing it. (Again, I’m working on it.)

Thing is, it’s not bad advice, it’s just NONSPECIFIC advice.

What does it mean when someone says “Brainstorm”?


Enter “Mindmapping”.

Mindmapping sounds complex, and every time someone explains it to me with words, I get intimidated and stop reading.

Here’s the thing.

You cannot mind map incorrectly. Period. There’s no such thing as “doing it wrong” as long as you’re getting results. That’s key.


The basics of mindmapping involve putting something down as a “root”, then branching out from it with ever-expanding ideas.

Holly Lisle spends a LOT of time talking about and encouraging MindMapping in her HowToThinkSideways writing class (affiliate link, because I 100% believe in her courses, and will happily tell you, at great length, exactly why).

I’ve seen people recommend MindMapping for generating blog ideas, getting past writer’s block, solving problems (including plot and character problems), defining your goals, and learning secret things about yourself.

How can one tool do all of that?

Because it’s not really a tool, but more of a technique for prying loose bits of change out of the pockets of your brain.


I learn better with examples, so let’s look at two mind-maps I’ve done recently.

For the first one, I wanted to come up with some blog post ideas. I’d been on a blogpost drought lately and just asking myself “hey, what are some things I can post about” resulted with “NOTHING. NOTHING INTERESTING EVER HAPPENS TO US! Why do we even HAVE a blog?! ARG!”

(My muse can be a bit of a drama queen. Ignore her, and let’s move on with the mindmapping)

I wrote down “Blog Posts” in a circle in the middle of a page, then drew little circles around it with my main blog categories. “Gaming”, “Real Life”, “Blogging”, “Writing”.

As I wrote down the words, random ideas floated to the surface. I quickly scribbled them down and circled them, adding notes if I thought of a quick detail that I didn’t want to lose. I didn’t focus on any one idea for very long, though, and I didn’t try and smother any ideas. If “cookies” floated to the top, then by golly I was gonna write down “cookies”.

At the end of the process, I’d managed to fill an entire page with blog ideas.

An entire page.

“Why do we even HAVE a blog?” turned into an entire page of blog ideas.

Example the Second

So, my second mindmap was to get some plotting ideas for a short story I wanted to write.

See, I have the Taven world that Steven and I have been working on since my freshman year of college. On one of those continents, we have factions of people. One of those factions is known as Killer Perfect, and they are a guild of assassins. One of the other factions of people are known as Fallen, and they tend to rule the cities. What would happen, I wonder, if  a Killer Perfect were sent on a mission to assassinate a Fallen?

What could go wrong? What could go right? What would be a great twist at the end?

The answer to those questions would drive the story, and the problem was that I was coming up with too many answers. I didn’t know which one would fit the story I would want to write.

So I mindmapped. This mindmap was much looser than the one for the blog posts, because I didn’t have a category structure already mapped out. I just did some free word associations, and asked a few questions.

IMPORTANT : I WROTE down the questions I was asking myself. Mentally asking questions to myself/muse/brain/whatever seems to net me sullen, useless responses, if any. Communicating with myself through paper and pen has been most useful. YMMV.

My muse tends to reply to me in sounds and images (Clearly, I need to write a blog post Muse communication, because I sound like a lunatic right now) so this mind map has some quotes on it, like “Why are we here? Not to make money.” and “You go before the sword.” which are things that make sense to me, I hadn’t intended on putting in the story, and which, once they occurred to me, immediately burrowed their way into the fabric of the story I wanted to weave.  I also ended up with the phrase, “sword-marked” and did some quick scribbles to try and figure out what I meant by that.

This is what I needed – signposts along the way to help me pin down a story that, honestly, isn’t a STORY yet because there was no plot. There was only a concept and a piece of a world, like an archaeologist finding a shard of pottery and making up stories about how it got broken.

Mind Mapping Tools

Many people (Holly Lisle included) mind map using software. Free and paid mind-mapping software is available for windows, mac, ipad … you name it.

I’ve installed a few freebies and you know what I found? There’s something about the act of writing on paper that opens doors in my brain that typing just doesn’t find.

Notebooks are my friend, despite some lingering guilt over tree death.


What about you? Anyone tried mindmapping and loved it? Hated it? Have a favorite tool you’d like to recommend?

If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to give it a go. It can feel pretty silly at first, but I’ve answered problems using mindmapping that seemed insurmountable before I began. I’d dance around in public wearing a chicken suit if I thought it’d give me the same results as mindmapping. This, at least, has a bit more decorum to it. :D



  • krizzlybear January 3, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I fully embrace brainstorming, and while mindmapping seems like the kind of thing that’s up my alley, I’m more comfortable with typing than I am with my own handwriting. It seems like blasphemy when I say that, but I’ve gotten regrettably bad with my penmanship, at least on an efficiency level. I write too slow when I want to be legible, and I can’t write legibly when I want to be quick.

    It’s the reason why I’ve come to embrace freewriting to get tap into my ideas and inner-thought processes. It’s the best keyboard-centric method for me.

    I could try some sort of mindmapping software, but the nature of mindmmapping in general seems to require a certain amount of mouseclicking, which naturally impedes the idea of getting ideas onto paper quickly. Freewriting is better at getting ideas into words quickly, even though it might not be in an organized fashion.

    • Tami January 3, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Aha! You are in luck! Every single piece of free mindmapping software has had keyboard shortcuts that aren’t a pain to memorize. No mouseclicking should interfere with a flurry of typing activity!

  • brad-o January 4, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    I really liked using FreeMind, but what I need is some kind of portable whiteboard of infinite size. It’s like an infinite bag of holding, but with whiteboards. To be fair, I don’t really “mind map” in the traditional sense on a whiteboard. It’s more of a brain dump I guess. I’m considering painting the whole interior of my house with whiteboard paint. Assuming Brook divorces me over it, I’ll be the awesomest crazy person EVER! (My wife just leaned over my shoulder and pointed out I will not get to keep the house when she divorces me. I’ll have to keep a secret stash of paint.)

    • Tami January 5, 2012 at 11:37 am

      You could probably stay married and still get a single wall done.

      Just as a thought. *grin*

      (I could totally see Brook loving a whiteboard wall)

  • Faith January 4, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    I think this is how I deal with everything. I sat down today to decide what I’m doing over the summer, and I basically mind mapped it…I have ALWAYS thought better on paper :)

    • Tami January 5, 2012 at 11:37 am

      I’m having to convince myself that I think better on paper, but it’s definitely true. Even if I feel silly ‘talking to myself’ or wasting paper, it’s amazing how much clarity I get with good ol pen and paper.

    • willydd3 January 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      I use electronics for almost everything! I’ve been a techie geek since it was invented. I was an early adopter (and early breaker – different story) of the Palm Pilot and even though that particular experiment went awry, I’ve always loved gadgets. Today there are too many gadgets and too little money, so I’ve fallen behind the curve a great deal, but that is not the point either. (my first game machine was an Atari 800 – look it up! I learned how to program on that thing. Ahhh, Basic, I still think in Basic, but I probably shouldn’t admit that.)

      My fairly mundane point is that I can only brainstorm on paper, which seems incongruent. I’ve tried MindMapper, which is good software, but it doesn’t work for me.

      Funny though, to compare my brainstorming papers against Tami’s. Hers are random, creative, and pretty to look at, while mine end up being bulleted lists. (Could I get any more boring?)

      However, the process works for me, and it recently helped me start the climb out of the ridiculous plot-hole I’ve created for my novel. Speaking of which, the Taven Deadliner is chastising me right now!

      • Tami January 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

        *laugh* I often have to restrain myself from bulleted lists. True story! Learning how to mind map was actually a lengthy process for me, and not an easy one. I think it was worthwhile though.

        (Also, the “pretty” shoots out the window over time. You should SEE how hideous that first mindmap is today. All sorts of notes and scribbles)

        If I get back to it, I think I’ll add in a “nagging” feature to Deadliner. *grin*