Monday, 10 March 2014

The Heart of the Matter

Well, here I am again. Sorry if that sounds anticlimactic, but after six weeks of not posting, I feel rested and ready to start again.

Actually, I say rested, but I've been keeping pretty busy in other ways. As well as work, family and the Blog Break, I’ve spent the period completely rewriting my Middle Grade novel as a 7-9 book. I wanted to just get on with the rewrite without thinking too much about it, and 45,000 words has become 15,000 with the minimum of pain and anguish. I think it’s a much better book this time around, and for the first time in years I’ve mostly enjoyed the process of writing. Hopefully that’s reflected in the finished work!

Anyway, to get to the point of this blog post, I’ve been musing a lot about “the heart of the story.” This is the emotional core of a novel and something a writer must keep in mind as they rewrite a book, to avoid going off track. In her workbook Novel Metamorphosis, Darcy Pattison asks you to describe the heart of your story using the following question:
Why did you write this story and not a different story? If you had to change everything except one thing – what is that one thing? Write a paragraph that describes the heart of the story FOR YOU:
The heart of the story is a key part of the Novel Inventory, a process of recording what you’ve actually written in your novel, rather than what you think you’ve written. I found the procedural bits of the inventory – describing the plot and emotional arcs of each chapter – to be relatively straightforward. But the heart of the story question really floored me. What was the heart of my story? Why did I write it?

Eventually, painfully, I came up with a couple of sentences that roughly described my two main characters’ emotional arc, and left it at that. I did feel a bit stupid though, and wondered what kind of a writer I was if I couldn’t put my own motivation into words. Luckily, the draft of the Middle Grade novel I was working on that point didn’t involve any critical changes, so my fudged answer didn’t matter.

However, when I came to this most recent rewrite, I agreed with an editor that I would change one of the two main characters from a forty-year-old man to a ten-year-old boy! This blew a hole through the heart of my story, because I had linked it so closely to these characters’ relationship as uncle and niece. I was suddenly adrift without my author’s toolbox, and if I hadn’t set myself such an aggressive writing schedule, I probably would have over-thought the whole book into the ground.

Instead, I just got on with it, and as I did a magical thing happened. The emotional core of the book shifted and grew. It became a story about a girl’s love for her father as well as her friend, while the themes of repression and escape in the original draft came closer to the surface. I found it wonderfully freeing to discard much of what I'd already written, carrying across only those characters and plot points I needed to make the new book work. It was great to feel that anything could be changed in pursuit of the ultimate goal: a story that would satisfy me, the editor and those all-important young readers.

I’m still not sure if I could describe the heart of the story for you in a paragraph, the way that Darcy Pattison wants me to. After all, what if it changes again? Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about this problem by considering the only thing that I can’t change, no matter how many rewrites and age group changes this book goes through. Maybe, the heart of the story is me.



  1. That's some major cutting! I hate trying to do things like this and I'm not sure if that means I'm a crap writer!

    1. Glad it's not just me! It's weird, actually, because I'm normally a very analytical writer and it bothered me I couldn't answer that question properly. But then maybe if I could, I wouldn't have to write a whole book about it?

    2. Maybe you have to write the book to find what is in the heart of you (ooooooh)?

  2. Impressive editing skills there Nick. Well done.
    I often wonder if there are people out there who start off knowing the heart or theme of their story before they start writing. For me, I only seem to discover what that really is when I've finished the first or even second draft.

    1. The novel inventory is intended to be used once the writer has a finished draft. But I'm on draft 5 now, so if I don't know by now, perhaps I never will!
      Joking aside, I think I do subconsciously know where the heart of my story lies, I just find it hard to articulate in a paragraph. It goes to show that the usefulness of writing tools can differ from person to person - I've heard Sara Grant waxing lyrical about the "heart of the story" question and how useful she finds it.

  3. I've always struggled with the heart of the story. It seems impossible to distil the story into that one thing. I've often thought that the problem stems from having a weak plot but perhaps that's not the case. This has given me lots to think about! And well done you for the massive edit! Brave!

  4. Welcome back, Nick - and good job with the edits! Ah yes - "the story is me" ... I talk about that on school visits. I recently figured out the heart of my current WIP but it took a lot of writing and rewriting and looking at the big picture rather than the little picture. Thanks for a thoughtful post.