Writing an Entire Novel in a Mindmap

I know what the usual suspects are for writing a novel:

  • Scrivener
  • Microsoft Word
  • Google Docs
  • Evernote
  • Microsoft Excel

But there might be a better option for you if any of the following characteristics apply to you or your story:

  • you think non-linearly and jump around your story as you write
  • you tend to lose track of your plot points
  • you need a way to stay in flow state without worrying about the mess that results
  • your story has complicated subplots
  • you prefer working on a fast, fluid and responsive app that you can quickly navigate using your keyboard
  • you would like access to your work while on the go
  • you love the option of having a full-screen experience so you can focus
  • you want something that’s easy to use from the get-go and doesn’t require a steep learning curve that results in a huge up-front time investment
  • you want something beautiful that’s also easy to customize and have it exactly how you want it

If any of the above is true for you, then the best app you can work on as a writer might just be a mind mapping app. Not just for plotting, but for actually writing the entire novel.

Allow me to explain.

Disclaimer: My recommendation is XMind.net, which unfortunately is a paid app, with a yearly subscription fee of $59.99 USD. This is, however, not a sponsored post nor is the link an affiliate link. It isn’t necessary that you get the same app. If you find a free alternative, please feel free to leave it in the comments below for everyone. I wouldn’t mind switching over to something that’s free and works just as well. The only reason I recommend it is because this is the only mind map I have experience on. My testing of different mind maps occurred several years back and this was the best one I found at the time, that I ended up sticking with. It does its job super well, so I haven’t found a reason to look for another.

Is it worth it?

Yes.

Truth is, I had originally downloaded XMind when it had first come out and was a free service. I upgraded to a paid plan just to have access to some of my old maps for stories that I still wanted to write one day. Until recently, however, (i.e., around 2 weeks ago), I hadn’t actually opened the app in over a year.

When I had…the fact that it was the answer to all my prayers still hadn’t hit me right away. Thinking back, I don’t think I had struggled enough for me to see its full potential.

Eventually after a particularly frustrating writing session and a full half-year of not writing even when I had the time to, I was forced to question why. I realized it was because I had no easy way to write. A lot of my stories became unwieldy. I kept switching between programs because not one program covered all my needs and that created duplicate effort and wasted time. Which made the process even more cumbersome and frustrating.

The problem wasn’t writing, the problem was writing and then having a hard time organizing everything that was written, while also not having access to all the information across all devices. A simple word document couldn’t help me organize and Scrivener was too clunky, with no mobile app available for Androids.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that XMind was actually the ideal program for writing. It solves all the issues I was facing with other writing apps.

Why You Should Use a Mind Mapping Software to Write Your Entire Novel

Ease of Use

From the start, XMind was always easy to use. Fast with a super simple interface and the use of arrow keys to navigate (though you can use your mouse as well). And you didn’t need to know much to begin work on it right away.

All you really needed to know were the following common keyboard shortcuts:

  1. Enter = After you’ve finished writing in a node, hitting enter ‘submits’ it and selects the node
  2. Enter again = Creates a topic (or ‘node’) on the same level
  3. Tab = Creates a Subtopic, in the next level ‘down’ or over (depending on the type of chart you chose)
  4. Arrow Keys = used to jump from node to node, quick and fast navigation around the entire map
  5. Ctrl + Backspace = delete selected node, shifting subtopics over to the node above it

Compare this with what you might experience with Scrivener. Sure you can utilize the basic features and just get going, but then you feel like you’re wasting the program’s potential if you’re not utilizing all its capabilities. On the other hand, just getting to know Scrivener is a huge time investment that takes away from your writing.

Other drawbacks of Scrivener:

  1. It moves super slow and feels clunky.
  2. On a PC, you don’t have the ability to rearrange index cards in freeform, so you can’t visualize your story exactly how you want to see it.
  3. If you’re working on a PC, a lot of features available to Mac users are not available for PC users or there is a wait of several years before it gets rolled out (for example, titles appearing in full screen mode).
  4. There are so many modules (e.g., the binder, inspector, editor, outline view, corkboard view, etc.) that you may need to be in and switch between, that learning all the keyboard shortcuts are a task in and of itself. Another time suck.
  5. Requires duplicate effort to write out summary of scene in the inspector and then if you would like to glance at it while writing in full screen, you would need to manually copy & paste it into the scene itself.
  6. There is no mobile app for Androids.

Customizable

Though initially it wasn’t the prettiest of apps (it was free when it first came out and I guess you get what you pay for…), nowadays it sports a beautiful and fluid minimalistic interface.

You can also easily create a custom theme. Having the ability to do that is Godsend and being able to do it FAST is even more amazing. Sometimes when I’m working on a program or app, I find having one theme that I absolutely love to look at all the time makes it easier for me to come back to my work. It acts as a trigger to start the work and the uniformity provides freedom to be creative. The fact that you have it exactly how you like it also saves you time in constantly having to tweak things.

Optimal Organization

If you’re like me, then when you’re in the flow, you can get swept up in your story and write blurbs that are meant to appear in different parts of your story (i.e., you work all over the place).

Previously, when I wrote on Scrivener, it was hard for me to move around. I would think of something in the current scene that I knew I would have to lay the seed for in prior scenes. Essentially there’s only two levels of organization in Scrivener. Notes summary (i.e., the synopsis of the scene) and the text itself. You can do more, but then you wouldn’t have line of sight into everything. For example, you can nestle index cards into index cards. So you might have Act 1 and then index cards within Act 1 for all the scenes. But then when you go to review all the cards, you won’t see them all lined up together. You would have to go into each Act to see its respective scenes. You could view this within Outliner mode, but it’s slow and hard to edit. You also have to come out of the editor to see the different views. Which takes you out of the story and interrupts your flow.

On XMind, you can write an entire scene within a node or over several nodes. When you think of something you have to plant earlier on, you just have to scroll up, write it in, then move back down again to your scene. Once you’ve completed your scene, you can go back and insert a node before it to summarize for easy reference later.

Once you have a collection of scenes around the same plot point, you can either summarize them using the Summary feature or create a node before them and place it all under that one common node. This makes it easier for you to reference later because now instead of having to reread all the scenes to get a footing in your story, you have a quick summary of what’s going on. Then you can quickly go into the individual scenes just by moving to the right and either start editing or writing. All without having to switch screens.

You stay focused and at the same time, can move easily and organize as you go. Or you can organize after you’re done writing because moving things around after is super fast and easy.

And you never lose track of your story because if you’ve been going through and placing a summary node in front of your blocks of text, you can always readily have a bird’s eye view of your story.

Screenshot of mind map on current work in progress. It illustrates how the first nodes are summary nodes like, "goes on vacation with them" and "her mother sees picture" and the second level nodes are either a deeper summary or the first write up of actual scenes.

Accessibility

XMind can be accessed on a PC & Android. It’s fluid and easy to use on BOTH devices, which makes it easy for me to write whenever, wherever without wasted time or effort. Before if I wrote on Word, I would have to come back and take the time out of my writing session to not just do a quick copy & paste into Scrivener but because of the way I write (i.e., again, all over the place), I would have to separate the bits and pieces into its respective places. As well, when I was out and about, my work wasn’t available for me to reference and so there was a greater likelihood of discrepancies. With XMind, this is no longer a problem. I can do mind dumps on the go and organize right away. When it’s time for my weekend sessions, everything is already in its place and I just have to move the story along instead of wasting time fixing everything.

Zen Mode for Focus

This is gold. You have the option to go full screen. I know Scrivener allows for that, but as mentioned previously, it doesn’t show the Note titles nor the synopsis while you’re in full-screen mode. You just have a large document in front of you that you type into. If you wanted to review your notes, you would have to come out of that screen and lose your focus in the process.

But if you prefer being able to see it all, zoom in and out of the story and move around in it at will, all WITHOUT coming out of your flow state, then XMind is the better option for you.

Other Things to Consider

How to Determine Word Count

This is a bit of a work around because I don’t believe normal people set out to write their entire novel in a mind map, but I like to think I’m ‘special’. Although you can’t obtain word count on XMind with a click of a button, you can export it into a word document to get the word count.

If you’re someone who writes toward a word count rather than by time, this might take a bit getting used to. One option would be to determine how long it usually takes you to hit your word count and then set a timer for that amount of time. After the timer rings, export it into word to see if you’ve hit your mark.

What to Do After You’ve Finished Your Story

To me finishing means you’ve plugged all the holes and everything is in its rightful place in the story. At this point, I would export the story.

There would be some formatting work that would need to be done, but everything written out on the map would appear in the Word document. Word of caution: Everything except what’s written out in the ‘Notes’ feature on XMind gets exported. Just a heads up in case you write things in notes that you wanted to include in your manuscript.


What program do you use to write your story? Have you found one that works exactly like your brain does? Share it in the comments below!


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