Being a writer sometimes feels like a cross between an archaeologist, a nurse, and a sanitation engineer.
To find the heart of your story, you have to be willing to write shit. A lot of it. Take a purgative if you need to, and get ready. In my experience the heart is formed during the first weeks of logorrhea. Stock up on toilet paper and your favorite form of liquid hydration, then commit yourself to the purge. Give it a month.
I wrote the first draft of Looking for Redfeather in 2007 during the month of November — National Novel Writing Month. After thirty days I had a fresh hot dump of words that frankly stank — but i was aware of a beating heart somewhere in the muck. Over the next few years I put my waders on and began to dig into the rich fetid dung heap, looking for the life in the story.
My past experience as a nurse helped prepare me for this crappy job. See, I’m not afraid of organic waste; producing it is part of the business of living as well as the business of writing. I approached the re-writing of my first draft with a will and although sometimes I had to hold my breath, I did find the heart of my story somewhere within the steaming hot mess of words. Or rather, I found the three beating hearts of Ramie, Chas and LaRoux, the teenaged protagonists who go looking for Redfeather in Chas’s dead step-grandfather’s vintage Cadillac. Looking for Redfeather is my 21st century homage to Jack Kerouac and his quest for life On the Road.
It helps to write fast and furiously in that first draft. You can’t construct a beating heart in an outline, you have to discover it in your subconsciousness. The heart is what drives your story and without it your words, no matter how well thought out or meticulously outlined, are dead on the page.
A good time to outline is AFTER the initial dump. AFTER you’ve found the heart and washed it off a bit. There it sits, pink and pulsating, in your gloved hands. NOW you can plan the bones — the structure — of the story and do some other needed surgical interventions. At least, this has become my process. Hearing the heartbeat, then feeling it quiver in my hands gives me incentive to finish the story.
So how do you recognize the heart of your story?
After you have purged, let the pile of words cool off for a few days, weeks, or even months. During this time your subconscious mind will likely still be working on it, if its any good. After a vacation read it again with fresh eyes, highlighting the parts that make your own heart jump. These are the living sentences, paragraphs, or scenes, that bring your words to life. They probably still need some work, but they have potential.
Be careful not to flush the heart of your story when you revise. Don’t workshop or talk too much about your characters while in this vulnerable stage or you may lose the urge to write it at all. Who but a nurse understands the similarities between elimination and story gestation? Both are very intimate processes necessary for life.
Here’s your discharge instructions in a nutshell:
1. Prepare yourself. Set aside a block of time (30 days is ideal) to dump your heart out onto the page or screen. Make the intention, then shut the door and do your business.
2. Don’t go back, don’t edit, don’t flush anything yet. Never mind the disgusting noises and smells — they’re part of the process. But don’t share them at this point — keep the door closed.
3. When you’ve finished, leave the mess. Then go back with fresh eyes and wade through the pages, looking and listening for those parts that jump off the page. Highlight them and build on them.
4. Don’t erase your first draft. instead, keep it in a separate file and let it drive your re-write. Nobody ever has to see it but you!
Looking for Redfeather is available in paperback and electronic format from your favorite purveyor of literature. To be released soon as an audiobook, read by Aaron Landon!