Behind the Scenes of a Longstanding Writing Routine

The core of a productive writing life is a solid writing routine, and this one has served me well for years.  Step behind the curtain and find out what goes into this longstanding writing routine. | Something Delicious

Have you ever noticed that writers have a tendency to waffle on about writing routines?

Firstly, let me be clear that I love waffles, especially the ones from West Coast Waffles, or, better yet, the best one I ever ate at Suite 88, a chocolatier in Montreal.

As you might imagine, waffling on is one of the most positive associations I could make with writing routines, and for good reason: a well-established writing routine is AMAZING.

Why is it amazing, you ask?

How could it possibly be as amazing as a perfectly cooked waffle, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside?

A writing routine is amazing because it makes writing easier.

The road to writing bliss is paved with distractions, writer’s block, and Big Life Occurrences. The steadier and simpler your routine, the easier it will be to hold onto and the more it will feel like a relief, not a chore, when you sit down to write.

I’ve used this particular writing routine for years now, with little tweaks here and there, and I still love it. Sure, we get a little cross with each other now and again, but what dynamic doesn’t have its ups and downs?

Now, settle in with some waffles (a cookie will do, in a pinch) and let’s look at this writing routine.

Before writing ...

The first order of business when a writing session is on the horizon? Gather supplies! For me, this usually means my laptop, bullet journal, pen, noise-cancelling headset, and something to drink. If I’m heading out to a library or coffee shop, I’ll also bring along my laptop charger, just in case.

Speaking of being out at a library or coffee shop to write, if you haven’t tried it all that often, make sure to visit the restroom and put your order in before finding a place to sit, unless you’re there with a friend. It’s a royal pain to realise you need to tinkle just as you’ve gotten settled and unpacked everything.

Before sitting down to write, I like to stretch a little if I’m feeling stiff, usually some arm circles and downward facing dog. That way I’m not too wriggly during my writing session. If I’ve walked to a writing destination away from home, that takes the place of any stretching.

The last thing I do before beginning to write is pop my headset on and queue up some music, white noise, or both. My white noise of choice is usually Rainy Mood. As for music, I tend to bop around between playlists on Spotify. The Outlander soundtracks have been recent favourites.

While writing ...

I mostly write solo, other than the occasional writing sprint on Twitter, so at this point it’s just a matter of getting myself up to speed on where I’m heading today. I freeze up like a fennec fox in the Arctic when staring down a blank page, so I usually write “point to point.”

Writing point-to-point is something I adopted from Rachel Aaron’s must-read post, How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Here’s a little of what she has to say:

“If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you're writing before you write it. I'm not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. […] If the scene you're sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That's it. No words lost, no time wasted.”

That’s exactly what I do in my work-in-progress, either when I get stuck (so at least I’m still writing) or a little bit at the very end of the writing session, so I know my next heading from the moment I first open up the document. I always sketch it out in bullet points, so then, when I start writing, I’m literally writing … you guessed it! From point to point.

As soon as I’ve fleshed out one point, I delete it and move on to the next one (taking care not to also remove the freshly drafted passages), unless I’m on a roll, in which case I’ll sometimes get a few points in before bothering to delete the batch. It’s immensely satisfying to look back and see the hundreds or thousands of words you’ve crafted from just a few sparse points!

The bullet points don’t have to be fancy. I sometimes start from a very “zoomed out” view:

  • A. shares what happened at community centre
  • fight ensues between L. and A., about how V. gave her an incredible opportunity and A. basically threw it in her face
  • the sisters part on difficult terms

And then, if I’m stuck, zoom in with slightly more detailed bullet points:

  • A. looks for ingredients in fridge while sharing what happened at community centre
  • L.’s emotions change from relief to confusion and frustration
  • dad has left the room at this point, temporarily - where to? why?

Which ultimately get turned into a properly drafted scene, with real paragraphs and character development and hopefully a little bit of tension.

Writing this way takes the pressure off needing to write beautifully from the get-go, which in turn makes it easier for me to feel out where the scene needs to go and where the characters are leading me, because I’m not busy thinking, “Okay, sure, this argument is important, but exactly which senses and metaphors should I be using here to depict the connection between the memories and the current state of affairs when it comes to what they’re cooking?”

After writing ...

As my writing session comes to a close, I write a quick bullet-form list of whatever comes to mind for what should happen next: any dialogue snippets, interactions, major events, and so on. This, in combination with any bullet points I add on brainstorming days (as opposed to drafting days), becomes the rough outline I use for writing point-to-point, like we just talked about in the “while writing” section.

Finally, if I remember (and I usually do … phew!), I send myself an email with the latest version of the rough draft as an attachment, assign it to the ‘Writing’ label (I use Gmail), and then delete the email I sent myself last time. It’s a quick and dirty backup method, so I don’t mind doing it every time, even if I’m writing every day.

And in the end ...

The biggest thing I’d like to incorporate into my writing routine in the future is a more robust backup system, but that’s less of a daily thing and more of a weekly/monthly occurrence, so this writing routine will stay pretty much intact for the foreseeable future.

So long as I stick closely to this writing routine, I can write anywhere from a couple hundred words (on an iffy day) to a couple thousand (on a stellar day) within an hour or two. I’ve had the occasional fruitful writing marathon, but for the most part I’m tapped out after a couple hours, so I don’t push past that marker unless I’m on a roll.

At this point, I can recognize the signs of lag: drifting more easily to Riverdale music videos, getting increasingly sluggish about translating words from my head to the page, things like that. That’s when I need to stop. Otherwise I’m just wasting time and burning myself out. I need time to process what I’ve written and shift gears for the next bit, and I can’t do that if I’m worn out from the day’s writing session.

Even if things are frustrating in the moment (wayward characters, plot tangles, and so on), I still want writing sessions to feel like a positive experience overall. Not pushing past the point of creative fatigue is one of the best ways I've found to keep things flowing in the long term, and that's one of the things we all aim for, right? ^_^

That's the gist of my writing routine, but I'd love to carry on the conversation in the comments below!  What does your writing routine look like?  Are there any changes you'd like to make or things you'd like to incorporate in the future?

If your writing routine has gotten a little stale and you're feeling a need to reconnect with your creative soul, you might love the post Seven Ways to Court Your Muse!

How to Develop Your Writing Voice

"Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that's a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you'll never know. That's just the truth."

Jackson Maine, A Star is Born

A writer’s voice: hard to pin down, impossible to do without.

One of the easiest ways to describe "voice" as a concept is this: if you were given a stack of, say, fifteen books that you hadn’t read before, by five different authors, and the titles and authors’ names were invisible, you could likely still sort them by author.

Why? Because one of the hallmarks of a skilled author is a distinctive voice. It’s there in the way they form sentences, in the vocabulary they use, in the tone of the story, in the themes they depict and the subject matter they choose.

What seems to be a foregone conclusion is that you can’t force the development of voice. There is no distinct finish line in the distance that you can see coming closer. It’s an evolution that occurs over time, one that can be equal parts frustrating and exciting.

If you’ve been writing for a while, you can usually see this evolution in practice by looking at one of your earliest pieces and one of the ones you’re working on currently. Even if you can’t quite figure out what the difference is, can you feel a shift? There might be more of an ease to your writing, or you may have developed a skill for evocative metaphors, or you might see more of your sense of humour seeping into the words of the narrator. That is an evolution of voice.

Developing your writing voice takes time, diligence, nurturing, and passion, and today we're revisiting your favourite authors to get things started. | Something Delicious

An experiment in voice ...

One of the best ways to develop your writing voice (without overthinking it!) is to undertake an experiment, one that's all the more scrumptious because it involves revisiting some of your favourite authors.

You will need:

  • a few books each from three different authors
  • something to write with, whether it's longhand or electronic
  • a scene you've already written

Have those handy? Let's carry on, then!

Step #1

Read one (just one!) chapter from each book, taking care to read all the chapters from one author before moving to a different author.

Step #2

Without trying to discern exactly what it is, can you feel the difference from author to author? Think about this for a few minutes before moving on to the next step.

Step #3

Choose a chapter from each author and look at them more closely. Jot down any differences you notice. One might have longer stretches of scintillating dialogue, while another has pages of evocative descriptions. One might have more white space on the page, another more densely-packed paragraphs. One might convey theme in a subtle, barely there manner, while another might put it out there in the very first line.

Have a look at the other books and see if those differences carry through. Chances are you’ll start to see common threads between an author’s works. That’s a clear glimpse at their voice.

Step #4

Pull out a scene of your own. It doesn’t have to be long, just a few pages. Now, making sure to keep the original scene somewhere, rewrite it in the voice of one of the other authors. Don’t worry if this feels a wee bit awkward: start with just one thing (longer, more detailed descriptions, for example) and go from there, going line by line through your scene until you’ve reached the end. Try it again with another author’s voice, and so on until you’ve reached the end.

Step #5

Read back over the “new” scenes you’ve written. Better yet, read them out loud. How does the tone of the scene change? How does the pacing vary? Are there any you’re particularly drawn to?

This isn’t an invitation to imitate another author’s voice permanently, of course. Besides that nasty little plagiarism problem, the world needs the gift of your unique voice!

If a certain writing technique or style made creative sparks fly, however, consider incorporating it into your writing more often. Who knows? Once you’ve experimented with it and made it your own, it might be one of the most memorable aspects of your own voice.

If you give this experiment a try, feel free to share in the comments which authors you used and any of the discoveries you made.  I'd love to cheer you on in this latest step of your writing journey!

Developing your writing voice takes time, diligence, nurturing, and passion, and I know you can do it!  What's more, today is an amazing day - the best of days! - to embark on this journey, one word at a time.  The more you write, the more you'll come to know and appreciate your own voice, and that's one of the greatest creative gifts you can bring into the world.

Let's get writing, shall we? ;)

This post first appeared in Letters from the Burrow and appears here in expanded form.  Not everything makes its way from the Burrow to the blog, so if you'd like to hear more of this advice in the future, you can find your way to the door right here!

Other resources for developing your writing voice ...

Does the idea of developing your voice still feel a little too tricksy to grasp?  I've rounded up some excellent articles to give you another perspective.  Give them a read-through, starting with the excerpts from each, and see what you think!

The Balance Careers

"The term "voice" in fiction writing has two very different meanings: [...] the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or [...] the characteristic speech and thought patterns of the narrator of a work of fiction."

Writer's Digest

"You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?"


"I like to think of a writer's voice as their stamp. Every time they write a new novel, that book is stamped with their personal brand of awesome. This stamp allows writers to build recognition and praise for their work, likely snowballing their success with each new novel they publish."

Fiction Notes

"You’re convinced, you need a stronger voice. Where do you start? It’s a dual pathway, one of learning conventions and then breaking them. Yes, you need to know conventional grammar rules. You need to be able to write a compound, complex sentence of 100+ words and correctly punctuate it. But then, you need to find the more expressive ways of saying that same thing."

The Write Practice

"A writer who sees the world the same as everyone else has either lost their voice or never found it in the first place."

How to Create Detail Clusters

Have you ever looked back on a scene you’ve written and wondered why it feels a bit ... generic?

You’ve developed amazing characters. You’ve crafted a fascinating plot. It flows, but something is missing.

The missing ingredient might just be detail.

Let’s look at a paragraph from Barbara Delinsky’s Sweet Salt Air, first with the details stripped out, and then in its original form:

"The fog couldn’t dull the colours of the boats. Nor could the smell of the sea overpower that of the restaurant. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier in her sight."

It’s decent, right? It flows. There’s movement. It’s somewhat descriptive. Now, let’s look at the original:

"The hovering fog couldn’t dull the reds and blues of the boats. Nor could the smell of seaweed overpower that of the Chowder House grill. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while with agonizing precision and a grinding of gears, the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier front and center in her sight."

Suddenly you’re right there, on the ferry, seeing the island of Quinnipeague come into view off the bow. You can feel that sense of anticipation and familiarity twirling around in the protagonist’s mind.

What a difference a few details make.

If you tend to see scenes in brilliant detail in your mind’s eye but struggle to get that same vision onto the page, detail clusters might just be your new best friend. These scrumptious morsels are easy and fun to create. Incorporating details into your writing becomes far less painstaking with detail clusters at your side.

Let’s meet these helpful critters, shall we?

Infusing your story with details helps move it from being a good story to a great one.  By collecting details in clusters ahead of time, you'll always have the perfect inspiration to hand.  Read more about these precious storytelling gems in this blog post! | Something Delicious

What is a detail cluster? 

A detail cluster is a collection of details, customized to suit your work-in-progress and preferred genre, along a certain theme. To give you an idea, the detail cluster for Alice, my current protagonist, includes things like cosy sweaters, a phoenix tattoo, and fluff "gifted" from her cat.

You could create detail clusters for:

  • each of the seasons: 
    1. crisp leaves in autumn 
    2. a snowfall's hush in winter 
    3. the scent of spring's cherry blossoms 
    4. the sound of a lawnmower in summer 
  • historical periods: 
    1. typical foods for nobility in 16th century France 
    2. flight maneuvers used during World War Two 
  • character development: 
    1. nervous habits 
    2. jobs and careers 
    3. distinctive physical characteristics 

This is something you can add to over time, so narrow things down to just one set of detail clusters for now. These can be specific to one story or useful to your writing process in general.

If you want to create detail clusters for your characters, for example, you might have one each for your protagonist, antagonist, and main supporting characters.

As another example, if you're writing a series with a lawyer as your protagonist, you might have detail clusters for the names of legal documents, the crimes they typically defend, and Latin terminology they sprinkle into their speech in court.

What other detail clusters could you create?

How to organize detail clusters

As with any reference material for writing, you’ll want to keep detail clusters easy to access.

To keep them handy, you could add them to a bullet journal, a story binder, Google Drive, index cards (easy to keep in a handbag, backpack, or purse), Trello, or Scrivener.

It may take some experimentation to figure out how and where to keep your detail clusters. So far I prefer keeping the clusters together as much as possible (rather than, for example, adding the detail cluster for my current protagonist to the other information I have about her). I may need to access different detail clusters at the same time, and rather than flipping from section to section, trying to find all the different ones, it’s easier to have them in one spot. That way, whether I want to use them as a writing prompt or to spice up a scene (we’ll talk below about different ways to use them) it’s easy to find whatever I need.

Even if you are keeping your detail clusters together in one spot, you may want to create some separation within that spot for ease of reference. Clusters for each of the seasons might want to share a page, for example, or clusters developed from research for a historical fiction novel.

If you decide to group clusters this way, try this method to decide how much space to allocate for each:

1. Start on a fresh page.

2. Add a heading that makes sense for all these clusters.

3. Decide whether to write them in a list format or more like a cloud. The former is more predictable space-wise, while the latter can feel a bit less restrictive.

4. If you think you’ll want to add any decorative elements, leave a bit of extra space around your list-to-be, but don’t add any decoration yet. You don’t want your cluster to be curtailed prematurely for fear of running into the edge of the world’s cutest doodled frame.

5. Beginning with one cluster, add as many details as you’d like. Be sure to leave a bit of spare room at the end for a few more details to be added over time. If you end up needing more space in the future, you can make a “Part 2” version of these clusters.

6. If you want to add any decorative elements, like a cute border, now is the time to do it.

7. Measure how much space was taken up by the first cluster, including the extra space at the end and any decorative bits. This is the amount of space to allocate for a similar type of cluster.

How to populate detail clusters

You can find the details to populate your clusters just about anywhere. The only rule is to keep the details short and comprehensible.

The “comprehensible” bit is especially important when you’re writing about something new to you: if you’re writing about a criminal lawyer in Canada, for example, don’t put R. v. Jordan in a “cases they might reference” detail cluster unless you’ll remember (or have an easy reference elsewhere) that it relates to whether an accused has been tried within a reasonable time frame.

The best place to begin is your own mind. Write down what you know. Write down what comes to mind as you’re recording what you know. Then, and only then, move on to other sources of inspiration, such as:

  • reading a book or magazine 
  • watching TV or a movie 
  • playing a video game 
  • doing research for your work-in-progress 
  • everyday observations of the world around you, especially if you engage all your senses 
  • trying something new (as extensive as a new hobby or as simple as a new recipe) 
  • character development exercises 
  • asking a friend (they don’t have to be a writer) about one of their passions 
  • browsing Pinterest 

How to use detail clusters 

Now that you have these scrumptious clusters of detail at hand, what next? You could get up to all sorts of mischief. Here are a few ideas to light that creative fire:

1. Combine details into a writing prompt.

If you're at a loss for what to write next, take a few of the details from your clusters and write them at the top of a page. This works on paper or electronically.

From there, tease out a bit of writing from those details. It doesn't have to be an entire scene (although it could be). Start by creating a moment in time.

For example, say I wrote "phoenix tattoo + muffin tin + howling wind" at the top of my page: a character detail (my protagonist), a story detail (kitchen cosiness is a central part of this story), and a seasonal detail. I could roughly spin that out into something like this:

"While the wind crashed against the windows, making clear that it, too, would like a muffin if only it had a mouth, Alice carried on arranging the tiny morsels of carroty goodness on a plate. Red-and-gold painted feathers skirted the rim of the plate. It didn't feel like that long ago that she'd first seen it in the shop window, let alone brought it home and added it to her collection. She'd needed the fire in her life; needed the reminder that she, too, could rise from the ashes and live brightly again. That same reminder was permanently etched in her shoulder in exquisite detail by countless tiny pinpricks."

As a writing prompt, this serves a few different purposes. I could use that now as the jumping off point for a scene; delve into what came up as a form of character development (how far does that phoenix collection span? has she shared the deeper meaning with anyone else?); or simply let it be and move onto writing the story itself, now that my creative spirit is feeling a little lighter and warmed up.

2. Use and expand on a detail to show a character's state of mind.

If one of the details is a family photo with pride of place on your protagonist’s bedside table, imagine the different emotional states conveyed by your protagonist:

  • throwing it across the room 
  • brushing fingertips over the faces beneath the glass 
  • turning it facedown on the bedside table or putting it in a drawer 

3. Use a detail as a prop to add variety to scenes.

This is similar to the last idea, but rather than the detail being a key part of the scene, it weaves seamlessly into the background of the scene.

Say, for example, you have a character who wears glasses most of the time. If a scene takes place on a cold winter’s day and the frames of the glasses are metal, they’ll lay a freezing stripe across the bridge of the character’s nose. The character might slip their glasses off and use them to gesture when explaining something.

This isn’t something you want to overdo, but repetition of details here and there make for a more consistent, believable world. Dive into your detail clusters and pick out a few that can be revisited throughout the story.

However you choose to use them, detail clusters open up oodles of possibilities for vivid storytelling. They’re also one of the least overwhelming ways to liven up lackluster writing.

You don’t have to create a galaxy of clusters to enjoy the benefits, either. Start with one and see how it goes!

If you have any questions or would like to share one of your fledgling clusters, leave a note in the comments below. I’d love to see what you come up with!

If you enjoyed this post, these ones might spark a few creative fires, too: The Art of Transmogrifying Character Notes and Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers.

How to Nurture the Heart of a Story

As writers, we’re not just writing monologues about the joy of a perfect pie crust. We’re also trying to convey abstract concepts - like love and hope and despair - to our readers, so they can truly understand the heart of the story and feel its truth.

What is the heart of a story, though?

The heart of a story is the greatest foundation you’ll have in writing. It provides strength. Without it, your story will meander and struggle to find its way. Think of it like a map that can be used to find your way home whenever you feel lost.

It may be strong, but the heart of a story won’t thrive on its own. It needs you to nurture it. To nurture it, you need to know what it is; focus on what you’re trying to create; realize how to protect it; and give it room to breathe.

A grand task, to be sure, and I know you’re up for it!

The heart of your story is one of the most important things to know when writing a novel.  Let's talk about how to nurture and protect this crucial piece of the storytelling puzzle.

What is the heart of the story?

To unearth the heart of a story you’re writing, you need to take a good look at what you already know.

If you can remember, start at the very beginning: what was it that inspired you to write this story in the first place? Was it an article in the local newspaper? Was it a historical figure? Was it a quote? Was it a classic novel? What was it about this nugget of inspiration that lured you in?

Assuming your story hasn’t strayed too far from the original inspiration, this could be exactly where you find the heart of your story. I just finished reading a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a book called Jane of Austin by Hillary Manton Lodge (who has one of the best author websites I’ve seen). From a reader’s perspective, I would say the heart of Jane of Austin is the bond between the three sisters and how they’re navigating major upheaval in their lives, just like in Sense and Sensibility.

If you can’t recall the genesis of your story or it’s wandered far afield, the heart of it may lie elsewhere. Look to your main characters, setting, plot, and theme.

What does everything in the story revolve around?

What matters the most?

Is the story essentially a love note to Paris? Does the story revolve around the main character’s love of weaving, both the actual craft and a metaphorical weaving of connections between people?

The heart of a story could be a few things, not just one, but it will be more potent the more you narrow it down. Think of an onion: the papery outer layer is okay for broth, but you’re not about to stir-fry it. The stiff-and-slimy layer that comes next can be edible, but it’s still not the best of the best. Keep peeling back layers, and you’ll get to the heart of the onion, where it’s sweetest and smoothest.

If you’re really struggling to narrow down the heart of your story to just one thing, try taking each aspect of story craft (characters, setting, theme, and so on) and figure out the heart of each aspect.

Who or what most represents the heart of your story in each of these areas?

In the Harry Potter series, for example, the heart of the characters (to my mind) is Harry himself. He’s extraordinary in his ordinariness and, when it comes right down to it, he’s just a kindhearted, athletic teenage guy with a good heart who would do just about anything for the people he cares about. The heart of the setting might be the feeling of home and coziness that pervades the most memorable settings, like Hogwarts and the Burrow. The heart of the theme could be the power of love.

Interestingly, though, when we look at it like that, we start to see how things relate and what pops out most of all. I’d say that the power of love is present in all of those things. It’s why Harry is extraordinary in his ordinariness; it’s why he can triumph over evil; it’s why he has something to fight for; it’s why those places feel like home.

Once you find the heart of your story (wherever and however you discover it) write it down somewhere you can find it easily. This could be on an index card that gets taped up above your desk; an image created in Canva or Paint as wallpaper for your computer; or a page in your bullet journal.

Focus on creation, not avoidance

In reading Danielle Laporte’s Desire Map, I was struck by the idea that, if you focus too hard on what you don’t want, you’re siphoning attention and energy from what you do desire.

Think about it this way: there are an infinite number of possibilities in the world. If you spend too much time thinking about what kind of story you don’t want to write, you’ll exhaust yourself by trying to cover an infinite number of bases, when what you should be focusing on are the specific possibilities you want to bring into being with your story, to show its heart to the world in the best possible way.

For example, if you think, “I don’t want to write a cliched love story,” you’ll busy yourself thinking of all the cliches you despise, looking up lists on Pinterest, and watching every vaguely romantic movie on Netflix to make sure you don’t create what you’re resisting … but that’s exactly where your energy is going. You may not write a cliched love story, but you’re also unlikely to write any story at all, at that rate. After all, you’ve barely made a dent in that Netflix queue!

Instead, you could be thinking, “I want to write a love story about a couple already dating when the story begins, with a shared passion for something crafty that adds to their bond and chemistry.”

Can you feel the possibilities percolating? Now you can brainstorm what that crafty passion is, how they explore it, and what triumphs and obstacles it could provide for their relationship. All your efforts will go in the right direction, because you’re focusing on the heart of the story, not every other heart in the world that doesn’t catch your fancy.

Fiercely protect the heart of the story

No matter how sure we feel of the heart of our story at the outset, we’re bound to come up against resistance, unless we isolate ourselves from the world completely (and the world, in this case, includes every book, TV show, movie, and song).

Someone will doubt the heart of the story. Someone will suggest that it’s not quite right, or that it’s not as good as it could be, or that it’s dull, or that it’s not snazzy enough.

That someone could even be you.

While there is a time for flexibility (and we’ll talk about that in a moment), your story needs you to be strong. It needs you to be wary of outside influences, trying to cast aspersions on the brightness and strength of its heart. It needs you to believe in it.

This story came to you, not to anyone else, because you are the right one to bring it to life. Honour that whenever you feel doubt, from someone else or from yourself. Your story may shift and change in some respects, but the heart … the heart stays true.

There is one case where a second look is merited, and that’s when you’re made aware that you’ve been insensitive or disrespectful (to a minority, for example). Once you’re aware, you can’t use your duty to the heart of your story as a way to minimize these implications. Instead, that’s the time to realize the heart of your story may not be as pure as you think; take a good look at it, with people more knowledgeable about the slight than yourself; and decide if it’s worth reworking or needs to be set aside.

Leave a little breathing room

Now that we’ve driven home your sworn duty to protect the heart of your story, let’s talk about the need to be okay if it changes.

I know, I know, but hear me out.

If an invisible muse is tiptoeing across your skin, making you ponder the possibilities when it comes to the heart of your story, that’s not necessarily something you should be resisting. Protecting something doesn’t mean stifling it, after all.

The reason we spoke so strongly about the need to protect the heart of your story is because sudden, 180-degree changes are rarely for the best. They often come about from a feeling of insecurity or, dare I say, boredom. If there are changes to be made, you need to carry them out from a place of strength, not uncertainty.

The key is to make sure, as much as you can, that the change is happening organically and isn’t being forced. One of the best ways to do this is with some bounded experimentation.

You need to experiment with a sense of freedom and play, not angst or pressure. To do this, don’t dump all the old stuff you have, no matter how enticing the new. This way, if you realize this is just a fling, not a long-term love affair, you can pick up where you left off.

Give yourself a span of time to audition these new ideas and see if this is really where the heart of the story lies now. Write down (just like we did earlier) what you imagine this heart to look like, and then do some brainstorming. Write a few scenes. Have a chat with a character or two.

There are three likely outcomes to this trial-by-brainstorm:

Outcome #1 - It feels right and is the best direction for the story to move in. If this is the case, archive the bits of your writing materials that are no longer relevant (something we talk about in Decluttering for Writers), and start the next phase of the adventure with your story.

Outcome #2 - Something isn’t clicking. Nothing is clicking, in fact, not the way it did before. Spending time with these newfangled notions has helped you realize that the heart of your story was already exactly where it needed to be. Keep any notes from this experimentation that might be helpful (for this story or a different project) and let the rest go.

Outcome #3 - This isn’t working, but going back to the way things were doesn’t feel like the right path, either. If you no longer feel a connection to the heart of a story, it may be time to let it go. You don’t need to get rid of everything (in fact, I’d advise holding onto it, at least for now, in a spot where it won’t be on your mind all the time) but you need to set the story free. Give it a puff of air in your mind’s eye to send it on its way, like a dandelion gone to seed, its wishes swirling in the wind, so it can find its way to a creative soul who’s waiting to meet a story just like it… or maybe, just maybe, it will find its way back to you in the future.

The more deeply rooted the heart of your story, the more scrumptious it will be, so I hope you feel more confident in your ability to connect with it now! If things still feel a bit misty, narrow your focus to the first step: discovering the heart of your story. You can even try looking at some of your favourite books and where their heartbeat emanates from. It doesn’t have to be the same as what the author had in mind; this is just to get your wheels turning. Sometimes it’s less pressure when it’s not your own story, so it helps to break the ice.

Don’t feel the need to perfect any of this, either. While major changes to the heart of a story should make you hesitate, acknowledging that it’s not actually what you thought it was in the first place is a different matter altogether. No harm done in coming to a better and better understanding over time!

In the story I’m working on right now, the heart of it is the healing power of food, both physically and mentally, though I sometimes feel it might actually be the main character, a gifted chef who touches lives through sharing her talent. Whenever I’m unsure if something fits the story or what to write next, I can return to the heart of the story and use that as my first line of inquiry: does this ring true or does it stray too far from the heart?  While it's not the answer to everything, having something I can come back to, somewhere to ground myself, makes a big difference in navigating the tangled web of storytelling.

How about you, creative soul? What’s the heart of your story?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Seven Ways to Court Your Muse.