A Writer’s Notebook: story cycles

Today’s exercise is visual. And it’s a mess. But I’ll just share with you what I’ve done, and then I’ll explain how and why I did it. All you need to know up front is that these are stories, mostly in collections, and the names of characters.

I do this kind of thing all the time, and I’ve written about it before. But the other day I discovered an app for my MacBook that creates “mind maps.” You might also know them as “clustering exercises,” which is why I went ahead and downloaded the app — I love the clustering exercise, and I thought it might not only be a great way to brainstorm new story ideas on my computer but also to illustrate the exercise in my classroom: my freshman essay writers love clustering, or mind-mapping.

The app is called MindNode. I downloaded the free version, MindNode Lite, but I’m enjoying this thing so much I’ll probably pay for the pro version soon. Anyway, to test out the app without investing too much in a new project (I have revisions to work on), I decided to use it for the thing that first leapt to mind when I saw the app: creating a “map” of how my stories connect.

I connect stories all the time. In fact, I make no secret of my (ridiculous) plan to connect everything I ever write, at least one story or book to another, eventually. It’s an ongoing project, and some work is more tightly connected than other work — and there are still plenty of stories drifting alone out there — but it becomes a useful writing exercise in itself, since, if I ever get stuck on a project, I can try to imagine it in relationship to something else I’ve already written.

Still, I’ve come a long way. The images above look tangled and convoluted already, but believe me, I’m just getting started with this MindNode program. All I’ve put into the character map so far are the stories of three collections — a book-length story cycle and two chapbooks — plus a couple of free-floating stories I thought of while I was piecing it all together.

The close-up is of the first five stories from my story cycle, Strangers Die Every Day, which contain some of the densest character overlaps. “A Few May Remember” and “Summerplace,” plus an as-yet unpublished story, “Curl Up and Burn,” have some of the most points of interconnection, but that’s also because they’re the longest three stories in the book. Also, one of these stories, another unpublished piece called “Have Love, Will Hurt,” ties into a trilogy of stories to become a separate chapbook, and one of the stand-alone stories, “Bathe in the Doggone Sin,” gets a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference in “A Few May Remember” — the drunk neighbors in “AFMR” are the main characters in “BitDS.”

And so on, and so on.

Anything to keep the fiction interesting, even if I’m the only one who knows what’s going on…. 🙂

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