Whisper of the Heart and the First Draft

Full disclosure: I wrote all these NaNoWriMo posts before November. Actually, as I start this last one, it’s the 10th of October. I might be a little bit overenthusiastic about writing, but I’m not quite keen enough to add another 1500-2000 words to every week in NaNo.

So right now, I’m going to make a prediction. NaNoWriMo is over, and in the past thirty days, I will have watched Whisper of the Heart about ten times.


For those of you not familiar with the title, Whisper of the Heart is a movie from Studio Ghibli. It’s mostly about a preteen girl finding her passion for writing, and learning that it’s OK to put her dreams above the tasks that society expects of her. I can very nearly recite it, because it’s one of the set of movies I watch when I want to inspire myself to write. Despite the issues I have with parts of the movie, and (as to be expected from a Hayao Miyazaki movie) it being whimsical enough to rot teeth, the story packs enough young-writer nostalgia that I love it forever and unconditionally.  I know it well enough that I can write through it without feeling like I’ve missed out, and it’s a great way to get a few hundred words out of me, even after the longest and most tiring of days.


I’m going to go ahead and talk about the ending of the movie, so spoilers ahead, if you can actually spoil anything in this movie. I’m not sure I can spoil a movie where the plot is so blatantly Not The Point, and I mean that in the best way possible.

So over the course of the movie, Tsukushima Shizuku, who used to love reading but can’t seem to find a book that really interests her anymore, decides that she’s going to write a book to see if she has enough talent to pursue it beyond an idle hobby. Despite needing to study for her high school entrance exams, she spends two months doing her own version of NaNoWriMo, and at the end shows the resulting first draft to the old man who runs the antique shop, whom she has become friends with over the course of the movie.


Never in my whole life have I seen a movie more accurately represent the first draft, and the NaNoWriMo process. Shizuku writes for hours on end, the story idea consumes her and she daydreams in class. The story is woven into the real world, so she’ll hear someone say something, it will send her off into imagining the scene, and when we come back to the real world, she’ll be at her desk, still writing. She stays up nearly all night writing and feels like death warmed over the next day. It has one brilliant scene where she finally looks up from her desk to see the sunrise and just resignedly starts crawling over to her bed because where did the night go, and why did I do this on a school night?

I remember doing all of these things. I remember getting in trouble for writing in classes, and I remember jotting notes down in my school diary so I didn’t forget them by the time I got home. I remember staying up until unreasonable hours writing. I still do that, but it’s a little less exciting now. Don’t get me wrong, I still get very excited about writing. But nowadays my excitement is less the excitement of embarking on a new adventure and more the excitement of a scientist studying a brand-new specimen. Still, I remember what that new excitement felt like.


And then she gives her draft to the antique shop owner, and the feelings get just a bit too real. She insists he read it all in one sitting because she’s too nervous to wait, but she refuses to sit in the same room as him while he reads it. When he finally finishes and tells her it’s good, she tells he’s lying, and proceeds to explain everything that’s wrong with the draft. The second half is rushed, she says, the ending doesn’t make sense. He tells her that what she’s saying is true: it’s rough and unpolished. But just because a gem isn’t cut nicely when it’s still inside the rock, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Now, he says, she needs to take her time, and polish the gemstone. Shizuku realises that there’s more work than she thought in writing, and that it will take her years of practice before the gemstone is polished, but having proven to herself that she can work at it, she knows that she will be able to put in those years of practice.

NaNoWriMo is over. Maybe you reached the 50,000 words, or whatever other goal you were pursuing. Maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. I think at the end of a first draft, we’ve all felt a bit like Shizuku at one time or another. It’s done and that’s a relief, and we remember all the times it felt like flying and all the times it felt like it was consuming us. But we also see the flaws of the work – we know all the places where we messed up and all the places it didn’t work because we’ve been living inside this thing for so long. Particularly for the first draft of a first novel, where the writer isn’t sure what to expect going in and doesn’t exactly know how things are going to fall together (or apart).


So congratulations to everyone who did NaNoWriMo this year, for whatever reason and in whatever outcome. You’ve got your gemstone out of the rock. If you won NaNo this year, I salute you. It’s not an easy task and you deserve a reward for making it happen.

Now it’s time to take a step back, and take the time to polish the stone properly. Whisper of the Heart is one of my favourite movies about writing because it doesn’t really tell a story. It tells the start of a story. Shizuku isn’t done at the end, she’s only realised where she needs to start.

And that’s what NaNo is. It’s a month of learning where we need to start. I hope you got something valuable from the experience, as well as a first draft.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go remember how the real world works.


2 thoughts on “Whisper of the Heart and the First Draft

  1. I don’t think I understand Miyazaki films. I tried to watch My Neighbour Totoro once and felt myself slowly becoming more and more … frustrated at the plot not being the point of the story. Because the beginning has the black spot things explained to us and nothing seems to come of it. She meets Totoro and we don’t really get much of an explanation – I think he’s supposed to be like a cat god or something. And then the cat-bus.

    That was kind of the point at which I lost it ( and, to be totally fair, it’s only like thirty minutes into the story ). Why is it a cat-bus? What thematic relevance does it have? Does this living bus serve any greater purpose? Why is she so accepting of this? Why does Totoro need a bus? Wait – why does he have a leaf on his head? Is that supposed to be cute? OK, it’s a little cute. Why do I feel more and more like Hades; a massive killjoy? ( I do believe my criticisms at the time were along the lines of “What the hell is this? Fucking whimsy? Childhood isn’t about freedom and happiness, it’s about having those things denied! Where is the suffering? Where is the twisting of the soul that comes with the realisation that the universe is an uncaring void? Why does this movie try so hard to feel good? It shouldn’t!” *shakes fist* “MIYAZAKI!” ( OK, that might be slightly dramatised ( slightly ) ) ( I imagine the response to that being along the lines of “You got issues, bro” to which I imagine replying “Have you read any of my stories?” ( Oh, I have a dark one coming up at some point in the future – ‘The Glory of War’. I mean, if you thought ‘I’m Going To Be Sick’ was/will be needlessly dark, then … heh, hahaha. HAHAHAHAHAHA. THAT’S NOT EVEN MY FINAL FORM! ( Wait until you see the cover for it – as I said to my mother, “The only thing consistently awesome about my stories are the covers” ) ) ) )

    I guess I’m trying to say that I think I’m utterly incompatible with Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films.

    I can’t help but feel my response has missed the entire point of the blog post.

    I feel a lot of things for childhood and school, but nostalgia isn’t one of them. I do remember writing a short story for English class, it was about an old guy who was injured and went into his mind and realised how much of a monstrous bastard he really was and woke up deciding to change things, but the paramedics decided he had done enough and killed him ( the old guy was a proto-Reggie from The Bleeding Man Season 2 ). It got me a meeting with the school counselor.

    I also wrote another story for a short story competition that was a worsely written Sickness from The Dark Hereafter. I was sent to the counselor again.

    So, while I don’t remember nostalgia for writing stories in school, I do remember needing to explain that my needlessly dark stories weren’t necessarily indicative of homidical or suicidal intentions ( apparently, the fact that both I, and the people around me, were still breathing didn’t make that immediately clear ).

    Oh, uh, I didn’t take part in NaNoWriMo – some people find it enjoyable, I ask “Why wait for November to start writing? Why stop at fifty thousand?” Having said that, I do agree with your advice; writing is only the beginning, the next step is polish ( then the next step is subversive marketing, then the next step is a monopoly, then the next step is world domination, then the next step is a meaningful monologue about the fleeting nature of joy and humanity’s conflation of that with material gain ).

    • That’s entirely fair! I wasn’t a huge fan of Totoro either (and I’ve received dumbfounded stares for this, but Kiki’s Delivery Service doesn’t do much for me either).
      I’d recommend giving Princess Mononoke a shot (it’s much darker, and has an actual plot, though it’s still got Ghibli optimism), but I understand completely if Ghibli movies just Aren’t Your Thing.

      I more have nostalgia for stories written when I was around school age, than stories written for school exactly. Last two years of primary school was when I started my first novel-length project (details redacted to spare me my shame). I remember giving it to a friend of my father’s who worked in the publishing industry, who offered to give me some advice, and upon requesting “moderately brutal” feedback (that is, be honest but don’t shout at me or anything), received the advice “It’s a good idea and I can see some skill in your writing, but your execution is still clumsy and you should work on your writing for a few years before you try and go anywhere with it”.

      I do NaNo mainly for the opportunity to take a break from the projects that I’m editing, and in order to test how fast I can get a first draft down. This year November didn’t play nice, so I didn’t get the wordcount I wanted (though I still ‘won’), but it’s nice for a breath of fresh air. I fully understand why people don’t do NaNo though – it is very arbitrary, and if you don’t find it useful, there’s no point.

      Oh, and you forgot the step “literally viral marketing” – it’s after ‘subversive marketing’ and is a necessary precursor to ‘monopoly’.

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