Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Heart of Your Story

About three years ago, I participated in a summer-long workshop on novel revision, taught by author and terrific writing teacher Joni Sensel, offered through Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Among the dozens of helpful revision tools she provided, Joni led us in an exercise on finding the heart of our stories - those elements that are so essential to the work that we would not, could not change them, because if we did, we'd be writing different stories all together. No matter who asked, or why - an agent, editor, publisher, pitch doctor, critique group, your mother, your best friend - you had to hang on to the heart of the story.

Knowing what made it your story, the story you wanted and needed to tell, meant you'd say "no" to any pressure to change those elements.

But only them - and this was equally important. Anything else is fair game. No matter where the feedback or suggestion comes from, if it makes the story better, you do it. As a result of Joni's class, for example, I realized I had two characters in my novel who served the same purpose, story-wise. I loved both. But the story didn't need both. Making them into a single character helped everything else in the novel work better.

So we worked on discerning the difference between the essential, the heart of the story, and everything else. Sometimes it's obvious. Other times, it isn't. Our egos tend to blur the lines of distinction and tell us "everything" we've written is essential. Most of the time, our egos are wrong.

Now, as I'm promoting my first novel and preparing my second manuscript for the rounds and rounds of editing that precede publication, it strikes me the practice Joni taught us about finding the heart of our stories is also tremendously useful for other aspects of our work as authors. Not just the construction of the story itself, but also how we market and promote our work, connect with readers, and participate in the community of authors.

If we focus on what is essential about ourselves as writers, we can let the rest go. Follow all the suggestions and feedback we get, as long as they don't compromise the heart of who we are as writers. We can give our own writerly selves the same care we give our stories: protect the heart.

It's probably a good lesson for life, too. Learn what is essential, stay true to the heart of who you are as a human being. Be willing to let go of everything else. Let the ego step aside. Move forward from the heart of our own stories.

Elizabeth Fountain is the author of An Alien's Guide to World Domination, available from BURST Books and on Amazon. Her second novel, You, Jane, will be published in spring 2014 and is about learning how to write our own happy endings. 
Author blog: Point No Point
Author Facebook page: Elizabeth Fountain, Author


linda_rettstatt said...

Great post. I had the experience once of submitting a book for consideration. An editor for the publishing house replied to my query by stating she loved my story, but had a few suggestions. She proceeded to change the entire story line--the characters professions, their motivations, etc. She effectively removed the heart of the story I had to tell. She said if I made those changes, she would likely contract the story. I declined the offer, pointing out that if I made those changes, it was no longer my story but hers. We have to know where to stand firm out of respect for our work and when we can afford to make changes that only improve rather than take away from the story.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

So true, Linda. I belong to a critique that can get off course this way. Too many cooks spoil the broth. They tend to make the sory sound liketheir own.

The reader will trust the writer if the writer stays true to his or her theme, heart, focus.

Liz Fountain said...

Linda, I admire your decision to hold on to your story, even with the lure of a book contract tempting you. And Julie, I love the idea of trust between the reader and writer. Well said!


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, with some editors you don't have the option to decline their suggestions. That's when you can sleep at night trying to figure how to maintain the core essential and meet the editors request. Leads to a ton of conflict.

Liz Fountain said...

Big Mike, that sounds like one of the most difficult dilemmas a writer might face. Other than ulcers and insomnia, any ideas of how to work through it?

Jude Johnson said...

Good information to remember, Liz. Thanks for a great post.


Liz Fountain said...

Thank you, Jude!