Monday, November 1, 2010

Trust the Process

In her recent post, Revising & Rewriting, Christine Marciniak confirmed once again that writing is re-writing.

Here are more quotations to bring home the point:
“I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” – James Michener

“Rewriting is like scrubbing the basement floor with a toothbrush.” – Pete Murphy

“There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“Writing is rewriting ... If you fall in love with the vision you want of your work and not your words, the rewriting will become easier.” – Nora DeLoach

“To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over.” – John Hersey
I agree with all of the above and Christine. I have written and re-written several novels over the years. I love revision. I would much rather sit down with a printed manuscript and a red pencil than stare at a blank page on the computer screen any day.

But I’m here to tell you, once in a blue moon, inspiration strikes and the story flows onto the page as though you – the writer – are taking dictation. As I mentioned in my post Unlocking the Mystery of Sarah, my soon-to-be released middle grade novel, Letters to Juniper came to me in the voice of Sarah. The writing was driven by inspiration, which is not to say I didn’t have to do research. I most certainly did. Nor did I sit down and write the book in a week. I wasn’t THAT inspired. When I wrote, the words flowed almost effortlessly. It only took six months, the shortest amount of time it has ever taken me to finish a manuscript.

My normal writing process is similar to what Dean Koontz described in a 2003 interview in The Writer magazine. The interviewer asked, “Do you revise as you go along or do you write the entire first draft and then revise?”

Koontz replied, “I cannot move on to Page 2 until Page 1 is as perfect as I can make it. On average I do 20 to 30 drafts of a page, occasionally many more, and then proceed to the next page. At the end of each chapter, I print out and pencil the text a few times, to catch problems I didn't see on the screen. I build a book much the way marine polyps build a coral reef through the accretion of millions of their calcareous skeletons: slowly.”

Oh yeah. That’s me all right – 99.99% of the time anyway. Letters to Juniper was different. Yes, I edited while I wrote, though not as meticulously as usual. I always hesitate to call anything a first draft because of all the editing I do during the writing down process, so I call it a finished draft. Once I have a finished draft, the real writing begins. Revising & Rewriting. For me it usually involves major reconstruction. Except with Letters to Juniper. I edited the manuscript, changed a few things here and there, added depth to scenes, rearranged words, etc. I had no desire to make any revisions. No chapters in the trash can, no new scenes, no deleted characters, nothing like that. I put the manuscript in a drawer for a couple months, then I read it again. I edited it some more, but had no urge to rewrite anything. It was an odd sensation.

The same voice that dictated the story, told me to trust the process. So I passed it around to a half dozen readers. Everyone said they loved it and I should leave it alone. I asked a few more people to read it. Same responses. Several times Letters to Juniper came close to netting me a contract with a major publisher. Little, Brown held onto it for nearly two years. The editors at a small publishing house thought the letters format was all wrong. She wanted me to rewrite it in 3rd person and expand on the FBI standoff.

I read and re-read the editor’s email. I re-read the manuscript. I twisted my brain in knots thinking about it. But it came down to the whole vision thing in the end. My readers had seen it, too. Those I asked didn’t think I should rewrite it. My daughter Ema said, “Don’t you dare change a thing.”

Once a story is written it can take on a life of its own. Letters to Juniper is one of those stories. It breathed on its own from the very beginning. My job was simply to write it down – and trust the process.

I dedicated the publication of Letters to Juniper to Ema.

Peggy Tibbetts

My books

My blogs:
Advice from a Caterpillar
From the Styx


  1. How great! When a story really comes to life that way!

  2. Your post is spot on! Revisions is where the writing takes on its patina. Keep polishing!

    (What perfect timing: I was grumbling to Bev McClure just yesterday about having to revise.)


  3. Hi Peggy. I love it when the process runs smoothy. I edit as I go too. Dean Koontz is one of my favorite authors.

    Hi Darby. Grumbling is good. It lets out the frustration before the story is the way you want it. :)

  4. Unlike you, I don't revise until I have the entire story down and then I re-write rather than revise. I've had one story that required little change and that was the initial book of the Jewels of Earda series. Like your story, the Quest For the White Jewel seemed to just cone naturally and was written in a 72 hour stretch with no sleep and just cheese and crackers and a lot of caffeine. When this happens it's a sort of I can't believe it feeling. But I really love the revision process and making things come alive