Questionable: Pictures and Writing

Deb Blake asked:

I know you’ve talked a lot about your creative process with storyboarding (is that a word?) and collages and such. I don’t tend to use such things, but I’m starting to make Word docs for each novel that include pictures of my protagonists, and other notable stuff (their dogs, cars, motorcycles). Can you talk a little bit about how you create and organize your pictorial “notes”?

I just went back to the draft to this post to reread my answer and realized that I didn’t answer the question Deb asked, I answered the question I thought she asked. So first, here’s the answer to her real question:

I create most of my visual notes by grabbing them off the net, taking pictures with my phone, drawing diagrams by hand or using Curio, and by creating computer collages using Curio, Elements, or Acorn.

I organize my research images, four ways.

I sort them into folders in the book folder on Dropbox.

Pix Folders

I combine them into group images in Curio and Acorn.

I put them into VooDoo Pad docs

And I use book boards on Pinterest.

Screenshot 2014-03-06 20.30.17

What I thought Deb asked was how I used visuals. I have no idea why I thought that, her question is perfectly clear. But since I answered it . . .

I think the most important thing about using visuals in writing is that it’s a much more natural way to think. Those lines of type are not the way we navigate through the world. We don’t experience things in straight lines and words, we see this and then that over there and then that other thing over there and we see relationships between them and make connections and assumptions that we don’t always verbalize. We observe life, we don’t read it (which is one of the reasons that comic books and film are such great delivery systems for story), and we often use those observations to make patterns and then use those patterns to determine what’s going on, what things mean. So when we’re trying to recreate real life, it makes sense to try to observe the fantasy we’re creating so we can see those connections and patterns.

There are limitless ways to use visuals, but the ones I use most often are:

Story Journals:
I do a lot of my note taking these days in visual journals. If I want to see all the scenes in an act, I put them on a page in diagrams, starting at the bottom because I want my scenes to rise in tension and because reversing the way I normally see things helps me see everything more clearly. For example, in trying to figure out the patterns in the first part of Lavender’s Blue, I wrote the protagonists for the scenes, starting at the bottom up, trying to place the main plot in the center and subplots off to the side. What I found as I doodled, though, was that I was actually dividing the scenes into spheres. That is, Liz meets some people in public places (yellow squares with lights around them), some in private spaces (blue houses), and some in the mediating space of her car which is both public and private (red cars). At that point I could see patterns in the first act–three mothers in the blue house scenes, the Cash/Vince foil scenes in the bar–and I could see where I was missing things, like Anemone who in this chunk of story only had one scene even though she was a big motivating force. If I wanted her pushing Liz through the plot, I needed more Anemone, so I added some more red in places.


The second act on the right hand page changed when I compared it to the left: I noticed I had another three mothers group, and I realized that the “Fix it, No” thread in Act One had turned into “Fix It, Yes” in Act Two. And I had completely missed the fact that I had three scenes in Vince’s car toward the end, building to the love scene, so I could rewrite those as an escalating series. The diagrams made it easier to divide both acts into scene sequences, too (see notes in lower right hand corners of pages). I could also go back in and doodle the motifs next to the scenes where they were mentioned (pearls, teddybears, T-shirts, etc.) That way I could see if I was repeating them, escalating their importance so I could pay them off in the last act. It’s about here that I start gluing stuff in, which makes the pages a real mess, but that’s okay, this isn’t art, it’s note taking.


And sometimes just screwing around on the page helps solidify ideas. Because neatness doesn’t count on this stuff and because I knew the act was going to end in Liz getting hit with a rock, when I started the first act notes, I doodled “Rock” at the top of the page (the top because I wanted my scene notes to rise in action from the bottom of the page). Then because it’s just doodling, I wrote “Hard Place” at the bottom (ha, amusing myself) and put the car/first scene there, and then realized that was a scene which was a hard place for Liz to be, thanks to her mom and her aunt. When I did Act Two, “Rock” had to go at the bottom, so I wrote “Hard Place” at the top and damn if that last scene isn’t Liz back in her car in a really hard place thanks to her mom and her aunt. Again, that’s something I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been doodling cars and making dumb visual jokes about Liz being caught between a rock and a hard place

The examples above are in a smooth Bristol journal which will take a lot of abuse–Sharpie doesn’t bleed through this stuff–but you can do this on anything. The key, as in anything visual for writing, is that it’s not artwork, it’s notes. You don’t critique your penmanship when you make notes, so don’t critique your drawing ability or your neatness when you draw notes. (That big grey splotch in the middle is a mistake, not a symbol.)

White Boards
Another way to do note diagramming is to do it on a big white board. If you don’t have the wall space, Home Depot has 2’x4′ sheets of whiteboard that are very portable and the perfect size for diagramming an act, a short story, or a novella (okay, you might need two for a novella).

Or you can go the big board route (the one below was for Agnes and the Hitman, back when I had walls big enough for a whiteboard that size):


The one below isn’t mine, it’s from the original brainstorming for the movie The World’s End via io9:


Or do the scene diagrams in a graphics program. This one was done in Curio:

Act One

Collage is probably my favorite visual crutch, a place to combine images that evoke the book into a single image that captures the book as a whole. I’ve written about collage a lot before, so here’s the Lavender collage in progress and a link to the blog post that talks about collaging a series and the Three Goddess Chat on collaging. See also Picture This: Brainstorming as Prewriting and Inspiration and the website page with the discussion of my collages.


Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is another way to see character relationships, plot and subplot movement, use of motifs, etc. I use Curio software because I’ve had it for years and I like it, but there are any number of programs out there. Even better sometimes is good old pen and paper although it doesn’t give you the luxury of moving things around the way mind mapping software can. I usually end up pasting the finished maps in my journal anyway, just so I can flip to them when I need them.


A cousin to the mind map is the character relationship map, a kind of Venn diagram gone mad. Make a list of all your characters and then make a list of the groups they belong to: family, friends, work, school, whatever. Some of your character will be in more that one group and that’s fine. Then write your protagonist’s name large in the middle of blank page with the antagonist’s name large beneath that (leave some space) and the put the groups around the two names, overlapping when names are shared. It takes some jiggering, but when it’s done you can easily see the push and pull of group identities on the different characters. When I did the first one for Lavender’s Blue, I realized that I had aligned everyone with the protagonist and very few with the antagonist. That’s bad, the power balance should be on the antagonist’s side, so I had to reconfigure the groups and their placement. Once that was done, my protagonist’s life got a lot harder and writing conflict got a lot easier.

Liz Chart

Another visual organizer, linear this time, is a timeline. I’ve just started to use these, experimenting with Aeon Timeline which I like a lot so far, and it gives you a great free trial period which is measured by the number of days you actually use the software. I think it’s for twenty days, which means if you use the software once a week, you’ve got it for twenty weeks. I really like their customer support, too. TikiToki has a free version of its timeline that’s provided as a sample for its paid version.

Keeping It All In One Place
For organizing all of this stuff, I use the journal for the hands-on paper and glue stuff, often printing out the mind maps and diagrams and pasting them in so I can see it all in one place. For online notes, I use VooDoo Pad, my wiki software, a place where I can put everything about my story, including full drafts, in one place with embedded links. You start with a main page/table of contents.


Clicking on any of the titles takes you to a secondary page. “Short Stories” takes me to the list of short stories that are going to make up an episodic fantasy I’m playing around with. Clicking on the title of the first short story takes me to the outline for the story. Clicking on the scene tag in the outline takes me to the rough draft of that scene (that’s a first draft so it’s very bad):

VDP Outline Scene

That image is two different Voodoo Pad windows side by side.

Clicking on Characters on the index page leads to a list of characters. Clicking on a character leads to a page with my notes on that character. Click on “Locations” and you go to a page with a list of locations. Click on one and it leads to a page with my notes and pictures for that location. The pages are pretty much endless so you can get a lot of photos on one page.

And of course it’s a great place to store all those computer diagrams and visual notes.

Liz VooDoo Pad

Visual notetaking like this can help you see your book a lot more clearly because you’re breaking out of linearity and words. I don’t use all of these approaches on every book, each story seems to demand something different, but I always use collage because it’s the easiest way for me to see the book as a whole while I’m still drafting, and I always use some kind of mapping at some point so I can see my story’s parts in relationship to each other.

HOWEVER . . . aside from collecting pictures as I go, I do all of the mapping and diagramming after I’ve written most of a first draft. Write first, then organize what you’ve got. Or not.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

35 thoughts on “Questionable: Pictures and Writing

  1. OH WOW. This is amazing. (That sound you hear in the background is my brain exploding. But it has been that kind of week…like when I was so tired yesterday morning that I somehow accidentally wiped out my entire email program…will definitely be coming back to study this in more detail.)

    Thanks for answering both the question I asked and the question I MEANT to ask too. Clearly, you were just reading my mind. I have never been visual with my writing, but I’ve been inspired by you and Lani, and my main CP, who also uses boards and collages and such. My main issue as a writer (once you get past the extra 347 commas) is character depth. I’m still struggling with adding enough layers, and some of these techniques may be very helpful for that. You rock.

  2. *blinks* Yeah. I’ll be back after I scrape my brain off the floor for this one. LOL. Clearly this should not be looked at without at least 3 cups of coffee.

  3. I must admit, my question after looking at this was – How do you avoid analysis paralysis?

    1. First, you do this AFTER the first draft. Never screw with the first draft, just write it without second guessing it. Any kind of analysis can shut down a first draft.

      Second, nobody does all of this for one book, you’d lose your mind. But I’ve found that different books have different problems, and these are some of the tools I use to fix those problems. The toolbox analogy is a good one: you don’t use all the tools on every project, but they’re all useful to your craft.

      Third, you don’t have to use any of them. Bob uses spreadsheets. I will never use spreadsheets. There are many roads to Oz.

  4. The Picture This article just saved me! I’ve been trying to collage pictures of my book, instead of pictures that evoke my book. And now to go wander around a craft store and work on my book. Somehow, I just don’t think my husband will understand…

  5. Love the Agnes board. I do something similar only with paper & colour-coded stickies on magnetic boards.

    But really it’s the cat at the bottom of the board that I love seeing. Think cat’s make awesome writer muses. Or supervisors. Whichever role they need to play. Cats are versatile like that;)

  6. Jenny, have you ever used Scrivener? I am using for non-fiction writing and like it enough that I wish I had a Mac instead of a Windows computer.

    1. I was going to ask Jenny the Scrivener vs. VoodooPad question. I use Scrivener, but as an application whore I’m drawn to the “Buy Me” page on the VoodooPad website. Why did you switch to VoodooPad from Scrivener?

      1. I didn’t really switch because they’re two different kinds of programs.

        You write in Scrivener. It also has the organizer board for your scenes and the place to put your pictures and all kinds of good stuff to have right there while you’re writing, but it’s not a terrific place to organize huge amounts of text and graphics because it wasn’t designed for that, it was designed as a fantastic environment for writing novels, which it is.

        You organize in VooDoo Pad. You put everything but the kitchen sink in there and you establish links so it’s easy to find what you’ve stashed there.

        To go down to the lowest common denominator, Scrivener is a typewriter and VooDoo Pad is filing cabinet. Of course they’re both much, much, MUCH more, but those are their basic functions.

        1. Thank you for this comparison. Sigh. Now I do want it… I use DevonThinkPro in a way that is similar to what you describe with VooDoo Pad, but it isn’t as pretty and the auto linking you describe is a really smart way to create the connections — almost like mind-mapping apps (so easy and automatic that you can use it to brainstorm).

          1. It’s not nose-bleed expensive. I think it’s about $40 which isn’t pocket-change cheap but isn’t Photoshop break-the-bank expensive, either. I’m pretty sure there’s a free trial. Also there are several free wiki programs out there if you search.

          2. Completely understandable. Try the free programs and the free trial. You may not like them. Positive thinking!

  7. This is great stuff! I am very visual, but I’ve had difficulties using collages. I’m not really a collage person. But the notes! Oh, I am totally a sketch and draw person. Also, I’ve been wanting to learn to use a wiki, so I think I’ll try that. Doing all that info that would fit nicely into a wiki within a notebook isn’t very effective because a notebook is linear and info can get lost. So I can see uses for a lot of this.

    Thank you so much for all of this info and suggestions and ideas! It’s so helpful.

      1. It’s a way of organizing information by putting everything in one document with pages that link to each other. Wikipedia is a huge wiki. There are all kinds of personal wiki software out there, some of it free, so look around, but here’s how it works with Voodoo Pad, which I think is pretty much how they all work.

        You start with an index page and list all the major topics of your book: Character, Story, Setting, Whatever.
        Then you select Character (for example) and hit the “Link” button. That gives you a new page where you can list all your characters. Then you select a character name, hit the “Link” button and it gives you a new page where you can put in any info you want about the character including any placeholder pix, etc. And you gradually do that for everything in your book as you pull it together, including actually scenes if you want to.

        The key to wikis is that those links you establish show up in every document. So no matter what document you’re in, if one of those links shows up, you can click it and go to that page; all your information is linked. It’s a huge cross-filing cabinet.

  8. Fascinating post! I must study it some more, in details. Perhaps something will spring at me to help with my current idea – a novel that only have the beginning and the end, and I don’t know how the heroes achieved that end. Maybe a visual aid will clarify things.

  9. Thank you. I love this. So many ways to get the job done. I try not to use the computer for any of my visuals. I love the hands on of cutting and pasting, and the artbook for doodling and word clouds and other stuff. Makes me feel like a kid again. I use a small white board to map scenes. I wish I had a huge wall for a big one, but I don’t. So I can’t.

    And funny thing, I’d made a collage for the most-difficult-manuscript-in-the-world when I couldn’t get it to go anywhere. I hung it on the wall above the computer while I wrote, revised, etc. etc. When it was finally polished I got the ms. ready to send off to beta readers and noticed that my heroine in the collage has long dark auburn hair instead of short blonde, (I think mentioned only once in the ms.) and my focus with pictures was on the city of London, which really plays only a small part. I’m thinking that might have happened because I’d made the collage before the rough draft was finished. So, thanks for that. I’ll make a new one while awaiting the beta readers comments.

    1. A good substitute for the big white board is getting four of those 2’x4’white boards from Home Depot. They’ll stack in a closet when you’re not using them and lean against the wall when you are. It’s not an elegant solution, but you get the white board space you need to plan.

    1. I’m working on my stand-alone. The past couple of years has been tough on all of us and we haven’t had time, although I think we’re all planning on it.

    1. I love that artist. I talked with her before I used her art to make sure she was okay with it, and she was great. If I/we ever get a book done, I want her.

    2. Me, too. It’s lovely. And delicate while still evoking that wonderful Gorey-esque edge. Perfect.

  10. When I try to view the Three Goddess Chat on Collaging, I’m told that “You do not have permission to preview drafts.”
    Is anyone else having that problem?

      1. This one does, thanks. The one in the paragraph on Collage in the post doesn’t for me.

Comments are closed.