The longest journey begins with a spread sheet about ducks

My plan for the book has started to take shape. I’ve got a spread sheet going now. It has ducks in it. It has other livestock in it too, but sheep are just too silly to talk about when discussing writing techniques. Chickens are too self-important, horses too serious. Don’t even mention turkeys. Ducks it is.

White Duck Portrait

Ducks: the basis of all good fiction.

There are thorns in the spread sheet too, but that goes without saying.

A book of a few hundred pages needs some sort of structure and planning, but I cannot, under any circumstances, bring myself to do one of those horrible spider diagrams. I think they are called mind maps. I hate them with every fibre of my being.

At some point near the beginning of my education, all of my future teachers got together in a room and decided that mind maps were the only route to controlled creativity. From that day on, almost every time I was required to produce a piece of creative writing, I was also required to produce a mind map, supposedly as a way of forcing me (and my fellow scholars) to think through what I was about to produce. It simply doesn’t work like that.

We all grow up with stories of one kind or another. If you have proper parents, who read to you, and more importantly talk to you, you start to think in stories very early on. Even if you are unlucky enough to have no parents at all, someone will hopefully talk to you at some stage, and a huge part of talking to each other is made up of stories. They don’t have to be good stories.

We have all wasted cumulative years of our lives listening to the wrong sort of people regaling us the fascinating tales of the time they found the last piece in their world-beating paper-clip collection, or how they thought they had lost their favourite toupee, when all the time it was on top of their heads. But they are all the same. They all have a beginning, middle and an end. They all build up to a climax, and wind down to a conclusion. Stories are linear because our lives are linear. And we are all instinctive storytellers.

And then some guy called Tony Buzan came up with mind maps. Supposedly up until then, all great literature, and philosophy, and science, and history was just fluke. A million Shakespeares tapped away at a million typewriters for a million years before Romeo and Juliet could meet prior to killing themselves. But Tony sorted that out for us. Now our thoughts are organised! We have learned to sit down and plan. We write down our central idea in the centre of the page, and, magically, shoots of thought appear, blossoming, petal by beautiful petal, into the beautiful flower that is our story. Or not.

What actually used to happen, certainly for me, and I suspect for everyone else, was that you would think of your entire story first. Then you would write it down. Then, as the last few minutes of the allocated time wound down, you would finally get round to drawing up your “plan”. You would draw a big, bold circle in the middle of a blank page, and then desperately read over your completed story looking for a big, bold word to put in it. A line would be drawn, confidently leading off to the top left hand corner of the page, where another circle would appear. This would be filled with as many words as you could string together from your opening paragraph. Another line would appear. It couldn’t go straight upward, because too many words had escaped from the first circle, and were starting to march off across the page, but the idea would be there. A circle would be attached to it. Words from your second paragraph would go in there- fewer this time, because you were unnerved by what had happened with the first circle, but still too many to fit within their assigned space. A small, sorry line would then meander up to the top right. There would only be space for one word in this one, but you were getting marks for this, so damn, you would make it a good one. And so on.

By the time you got to the bottom left, a jagged little line would lead off to the last unblemished piece of blank paper, where a tiny, misshapen circle would sit, barely containing the word “conclusion”. No matter how little space I could find, the teachers would always find enough room to write, in angry red “BUT WHAT IS YOUR CONCLUSION?” Read the story, you demented freak! The words are all there! At the end! Where they belong!

This is not a map of anyone’s mind. If the inside of your head looks like this, you need to be institutionalised.

Mind Map

Tony Buzan’s mind, from above. (photo credit: Wikipedia)

detail of Heironymous Bosch painting

Everyone else’s (Photo credit: spacestation)

The inside of your head is like an oven. Shove in a bunch of ideas and leave them for a while to cook. You don’t have to understand what happens in there to enjoy the meal that comes out at the end.

And so I’m sticking with my spread sheet. It’s filled with blocks that magically stretch to fit the ideas they need to contain. They follow each other the way a story does, left to right, top to bottom.

And you can put ducks in them. And sheep. And chickens, and horses. I’m still not sure about turkeys, though.

5 thoughts on “The longest journey begins with a spread sheet about ducks

  1. I wish I could comment with a picture, because Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch 22 looks startlingly like a spreadsheet and absolutely nothing like a mind map. It is handwritten and a thing of great beauty though, which a spreadsheet isn’t. You are in good company.

    • 23thorns says:

      What do you mean a spreadsheet is not a thing of beauty? You can use a different background colour for each cell, and while Heller might have had his strengths, I’ll wager he couldn’t whip up a piechart if his life depended on it!

      • Aaaah…now pie charts and bar graphs, they are indeed things of great beauty. And the sort function. It actually fills me with joy too, now that I think about it.

  2. Perhaps that’s why after I finish my morning run, my brain is bubbling with dialogue and plot ideas. My head is an oven. Explains my hyperhidrosis.

    Just kidding. I only sweat profusely while engaged in physical activity. Or attempting to outline using a mind map.

    • 23thorns says:

      I used to have the same problem. I’ve solved it by never using mind-maps and never running anywhere. It’s not that I am lazy, mind you- it’s just that here in Africa if a predator sees you running, it identifies you as fleeing prey, and will immediately attack.
      At least that’s my story, and i’m sticking with it!

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