First, a confession: I am a thinker, not a feeler. My natural instinct is to make lists and figure out plots and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I say things like, “I need to decide what happened.” But heart-writing is all about relinquishing that head-first approach and letting your heart take the lead. Just as exercise and eating well help me feel better, when I make time for heart-writing, I write better, so I’ve come around to embracing this messy magic.
What is Heart-writing?
Heart writing is my name for a specific type of side writing. It’s the practice of creating a meditative space to focus on creating strong emotions in my characters.
As with meditation, heart-writing is worthy of your time, without judgment and without “producing”. It begins with permission to play. Your heart-writing space may be a computer file (mine usually is), a notebook, or scraps of paper–whatever lets you enter a flow of energy from your subconscious. I generally turn to heart-writing for story creation and to get unstuck.
Heart-writing for Story Creation
There are no “rules” for heart-writing; your sense of energy is your best guide. This is not the time to worry about a scene or plot point. Let all of that go, close your eyes, and search for a spark of energy. It may be an image that tugs at your imagination, or a strong feeling. It could be wondering what happened to this character before this story? Then, go with it. Write nonsense, write something that seems unrelated to your story but comes with strong feelings and emotions. Nobody’s looking at this, it’s just you and the spark. Jump around and follow the energy. Have fun.
I scanned my WIP Journal where I’ve been heart-writing and here’s what I see: snippets of dialogue, something my daughter said that I thought was interesting, a riff on sea-urchins (do they belong in the story? Maybe not.), a childhood memory triggered by the riff, a scene sketch where I mashed up the old memory and a character until it petered out on the page, then a series of questions that quickly transitions into a Q&A with my main character followed by a playful experiment about what might happen to her in a particular scene, then another memory (this one darker) and then a sentence that surprised me. It’s a messy, unformatted jumble of thoughts and moments, but that surprising sentence was the one that gave me goosebumps. It was my subconscious rising through the jumble and waving a flag: this is important! It became the first line of my novel.
Heart writing is all about filling your subconscious with material to work with. Occasionally, I’ll move a few lines from my heart-writing journal to my WIP, but mostly, I’m just exploring the deepest, strongest emotions of my story. I’m laying the emotional groundwork for my story.
Later, when I’m actually drafting, I’ll occasionally return to my WIP journal to scan for nuggets. I may notice something in that jumble that gives me some insight, like a character’s hobby that ends up being key to a plot twist, but the real purpose of heart-writing is to practice letting your heart lead.
Heart-Writing to get Unstuck
Before I started heart-writing, when I got stuck, I’d force myself to “push through”. This resulted in dry scenes that didn’t add to the story. I’ve learned to let go of that head-first instinct and to return to heart-writing to discover where the story wants to go.
I recently read a friend’s scene, and I was getting mixed signals about how the two girls were interacting. When the writer said her main character was jealous of the other girl, I suggested she write another scene, unrelated to her plotline, where her main character was jealous in a different context. She did, and discovered why her character was jealous–-a surprising emotional twist. When she rewrote the original scene, it was much more emotionally engaging. If she’d made lists of reasons for the feeling, instead of exploring the jealousy through a scene, I’m guessing the revision would not have had the same impact.
The key part of the exercise was connecting to a strong feeling in a scene that was not part of her story. This matters because it reduces the expectations of “writing” (a head-task) and focuses on the emotion (a heart-task). Heart-writing exercises are most helpful at getting us unstuck when they are tailored to our characters, and it’s only one element of side writing. There are many good resources on side writing, and you can use them to generate questions and prompts specific to your work. The goal isn’t to write polished prose, but to make that emotional connection to the character and to let them show you your story’s heart.
I’ve provided a few prompts and resources below. Try creating your own heart-writing journal and prompts. A strong emotional connection to your characters can be the difference between ordinary and extraordinary writing.
If a character’s motives aren’t clear, get curious about another time they felt the same emotion and write those scenes.
What is your main character hiding from other characters? Expose their secret or shame in a scene. What do you learn?
If a secondary character feels predictable, write a series of scenes from their perspective that other characters wouldn’t know about, each time focusing on a strong emotion (something contrary to how they’re normally perceived). Did they do something unexpected?
Flip a character’s main trait (popular kid is disliked; villain is the victim; nice kid is cruel; honest kid steals) and write that scene from their perspective. How does that influence their actions?
What is the obvious outcome of a scene from your story? Write that outcome and then write what happens next (push yourself past the obvious). How does each character feel now?
Karen Krossing’s kidlitcraft.com post Interviewing your Character with side writing with specific examples.
Louise Hawe’s kidlitcraft.com post Asking the Right Questions delves into the difference between side writing and freewriting.
Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience is an in-depth guide to emotions and a great resource for digging deeper into the emotional lives of your characters.
Mary Jane has been a member of SCBWI since 2014 and is currently writing a historical fiction mystery. She graduated from VCFA in January 2020. Visit her at www.maryjanenirdlinger.com and follow her on Twitter: @MJNwrites