The Five Stages of Rewrites


Hi folks! It’s me, Misty! No, not finished with the rewrite of Kestrel’s Dance yet, but a good ways along and the end in sight, so it’s time to come back to Magical Words. I’ve missed you!

Today I wanted to tell you about the five stages of rewrites. When a writer is told she has to rewrite the novel she struggled and slaved over for months (or sometimes years), she tends to go through a series of recognizable behaviors. If you are a writer (or if you’re lucky enough to have one in the house), you’ll eventually have to experience these behaviors. So to help you out, I’ve decided to lay them out for you, so you’ll know what you’re feeling when it’s your turn.

Moments or days after notice of the necessary rewrite has been received, the writer will put on her best feather boa and drink lime daiquiris while she reminds everyone that no, the editor didn’t really want a rewrite, this was all a mistake. “My book is perfect,” she says, “and obviously my editor meant to send that email to Nora Roberts. I’ll just wait a few days, until she realizes her mistake. She’ll send roses.” This never happens, of course, because editors never make mistakes. And I’m not saying that just because my editor might be looking.

Once it becomes clear that an apology email isn’t coming, not to mention roses, and the writer’s feather boa is drooping, the writer may rage around the house, howling to the sky that there was nothing at all wrong with that book, it was fine the way it was, and who does that editor think she is anyway, telling me I have to rewrite a single word of my wonderful….uh, sorry. What I meant to say is that the writer will, at first, not want to accept that anything she wrote is anything but perfect. This stage is temporary, fortunately for the writer’s poor husband, who, if he’s smart, will duck when things start flying through the air and nod his head at whatever the writer says, no matter how crazy it sounds. And bring home chocolate on a very regular basis. Daily is good.

The writer, sated on a diet of chocolate and adrenaline, has reached a quieter place, from which she begins asking God/the universe/the Flying Spaghetti Monster for help. “I’ll finish this rewrite if you’ll just make this book debut on the NYT bestseller list. I’m not asking for the #1 spot. I’m not greedy. Somewhere in the top 12 will do fine. Do we have a deal?”
Of course it never works like that, but somehow demanding that the Almighty take a hand in the madness that is rewriting a novel makes it seem less crazy.

This stage occurs when the writer comes to the realization that God/the universe/the Flying Spaghetti Monster is far too busy seeing to world hunger and the birth of shiny new stars in galaxies eleventy-three light years away to bother with where one little writer’s book places on any list at all. If God/the universe/His Noodliness can’t help, that leaves all the work to the writer. But we got into this game so we could get rich and spend our weekends at science fiction conventions or partying in Monaco with J K Rowling, not so we could *gulp* work hard. “What’s the point?” the writer moans. “No one will read the new version. My editor (who never makes mistakes) will realize how terrible I am and delete my email from her contact list. I might as well quit now, and start a new career as a circus trapeze dancer.” The writer’s husband, who at this point should have finished repairing the dry wall that suffered during the Anger stage, would be wise to make a stop at the Godiva store every couple of days.

At last, the writer comes to understand that the rewrite must happen. And suddenly, things become clear. The story begins to fall into place, words start appearing on the pages and maybe the editor hasn’t lost the writer’s email address after all. The writer, her eyes no longer clouded by self-doubt and worry, will notice that the story she wrote the first time is actually getting better with every word she adds (or takes away) and all those suggestions the editor offered were pretty good after all. The NYT bestseller list still isn’t a given, but it’s looking a little more possible with every changed paragraph. The rewrite is no longer the enemy, but an exciting adventure.

It couldn’t hurt for the husband to keep that chocolate coming, just in case.


14 comments to The Five Stages of Rewrites

  • At this stage in the game I’d just be happy to get feedback. Actual editorial requests would have me doing back-flips…if my back would let me do them, that is…

  • Misty, Only with my first two rewrites did I go through all the stages of ReWrite Insantiy. After the rwrite letter for book two, I skipped to anger. After book six I slid neatly into depression. Now I just sigh and get to work. LOTS of work. But it took a lot of years to reach this stage.

    Good luck! I’m about halfway through my own. We need to do tea.

  • Welcome back, Misty!

    They just opened a Godiva store up here, at the supermall down the street, when previously Godiva chocolate was a treat reserved for annual trips to Seattle. I am *trying* to limit my consumption.

  • Misty: I was, at first, tempted to deny what you’re telling us. Then I got mad. My negotiating skills failed to change things, which made me sad. But then I dried my eyes and realized you are right.
    Thanks for a fun and informative post!

  • Misty,
    I’ll be rereading this tomorrow because that’s when I’m supposed to get my edit letter on my second middle grades adventure. Bizarrely, the day after I’ll be meeting my editor for the first time, so I’d better have moved quickly through the first steps here or it’s going to be a very interesting lunch…

  • AJ — don’t carry an edged weapon into the meeting! 🙂

  • Yay! Misty is back.

    Thanks for the fun and useful post. Right now I’m trying to keep the internal editor from peering over my shoulder too critically so I can pound out this first draft. Then she gets to come out with her red pen. But not yet, or I’ll never actually write anything.

  • Hi all! Managed to get access to the site using my kids’ computer and an old version of IE. My macs can’t get here right now, which is deeply frustrating, and which also explains why I never responded to all those great comments yesterday. Hoping to have all of this figured out soon.

    In the meantime, Misty, I wanted to say that I’ve been through all of this (minus the boas…) and that scotch works nearly as well as chocolate. Ultimately, though, what works best for me is setting aside my sizable ego and embracing the notion that I didn’t get it right the first time and that I might not get it right the second time either. This is a process, and as soon as I accept that my editor is on my side, that this isn’t a fight, but rather a collaborative effort, I do much better. Glad to hear the rewrites are going well. Can’t wait to see the finished product.

  • David SAYS he’s been through all this “minus the boas” but I have the pictures and I’m not afraid to post them.

  • David, scotch would indeed be a delightful replacement for the chocolate. Todd would especially appreciate the mellow attitude I tend to develop after a couple of shots.

    AJ, I recommend you push on through to the bargaining stage in time for your lunch. It’s probably the safest. Acceptance might seem to be, but not with an editor. Who never makes mistakes. 😀

    And hey, those photos of David? I’m sending you a sealed bid.

  • Damn you Brits and your stealthy cameras…. [Shakes fist]

  • AJ, if you decide you need an edged weapon for your meeting, come on over. I’ve got a couple of stage swords lying around the den for an upcoming production of King Lear. You’re welcome to borrow a battle axe for the bargaining phase :).

  • Misty,
    My original comment didn’t stick (probably my fault for leaving the page too soon or something). It sort of went like this, “I have not experienced said process, but hope you can make it through and don’t run out of chocolate. All the best” or something like that.


  • Beatriz

    *poking her head in rather late*

    Two questions: Misty, are you still the “needs chocolate stage?

    AJ– David wasn’t also wearing a kilt, was he? If so, I’ll be sending along my bid in a moment.