Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Just this morning I was listening to an interview on NPR with an author who wrote about Mary Shelley's "Frankstein." Movie clips were played from both the Boris Karloff version and the Mel Brooks version of the "It's alive! It's alive!" scene. Someone mentioned the monster had an "abnormal brain" and everyone started giggling since the "Young Frankenstein" script gave new meaning to “abnormal.” This was "the" movie to see when I was a teenager--I must have seen it about 10 times and all my friends and I all memorized the dialogue.

Creativity is an absolutely fascinating process, and I love being a part of it, as both a writer and an editor. I love watching the ideas for plot and character develop as writers revise, and I love seeing a revised manuscript, when an author has really worked with it to make it come "alive."

Creativity feels good, probably as good as any drug (not that I'm any expert, although I really, really liked the Demerol when I had my appendix out :-) And although revising + creativity feels just as good, revising is one of the toughest parts of writing and one that, for some reason, some people feel is completely optional. I'm always stunned when I come across (usually new) writers who actually brag that they haven't changed a word since they wrote it. "That's just how it came out," they tell me, when asking for my opinion, and without reading a word, I generally have an opinion.

I’ve had a few experiences like that myself when an idea took hold and the writing flowed and I seemed to connect to this inner fount of words; and later, when I read my article or piece of writing over, I felt like I had done a pretty respectable job (bordering on downright fabulous). In fact, when I was a graduate student working on a thesis made up of creative essays, I took one such piece of writing (it was just a scene but I reverently attached it to the greater piece) to my advisor, who, in response to my exuberant "It's alive!" (metaphorically speaking, that is) said without even reading it, "I can see somebody's still too close to her writing."

What? He doubted me? Didn't he think I had any sense of good writing? He certainly burst my lovely bubble. Well, long story short, I did go back and revise the scene. My creative burst had given me some good material to work with, but it was only the draft, the first step in a longer creative process.

Writers often compare to their work to the act of giving birth, and editors compare their role to serving as a midwife in assisting in the work. We've all heard something like this and may even have experienced it. What I would like new writers to know is that even when the childbirth is accomplished, and the baby is declared perfect and healthy, it still needs to be cleaned up before it (excuse me, he or she) is presentable. Imagine leaving that lovely, perfect little baby all slick and icky as you show your latest accomplishment off to everyone. (I'll say it again, ick, but then again, maybe you new mothers would like to weigh in and tell me I'm completely wrong, it's not icky at all. My only experience is with watching kittens get the cleanup treatment from their moms and the kittens looked much better after their first bath).

As I started out saying, being a part of the creation process feels really good. It feels amazing, in fact. Granted, it can also feel grueling (to go back to the childbirth metaphor, not to mention the morning sickness that’s a part of the earlier process). Writing 10 pages, 100 pages, 300 pages—even an imperfect first draft is an accomplishment to be proud of. But like giving birth to a child, the work is really just starting as you the author, or the mother, begin a long, tiring, frustrating, at times, heart-breaking, stimulating and thrilling journey.


Annette Lyon said...

Great post, Valerie. In my opinin, the minute a writer thinks they're too good for feedback or revision, their work is headed down the toilet.

Jennie said...

To paraphrase something a well-known mystery writer once told a new author who objected to making chances in his "baby" (manuscript), "I gave birth to five babies and they all needed changing." Some of us revise as we go, some rip through the basic draft, then revise, but no matter which style writer a person may be, he's only kidding him/herself if he/she thinks that precious manuscript doesn't need revising. The sooner we accept that our editor wants our "baby" to be the best it can be and our publisher wants a martketable product, the sooner we can drop grandiose perceptions of perfection and create a really good story.

Stephanie Black said...

Well said, Val!

I'm one of those strange authors who love revision. I love seeing a book get better and better.

Michele Ashman Bell said...

Great post, Val. I for one, have gone through this process with you and was glad you cared enough about my stories to push me so they could be the very best they could possibly be. Thanks will never be enough.

Cheri J. Crane said...

Wonderful blog, Val. =) Revision is our friend---always.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

Great blog Val! I'm a little late chimming in, but I just wanted to say it's always cool to see with revision how much the story can improve. It just keeps getting better and better. None of my books would have ever made it if it weren't for others caring enough to make it better through rewrites and revision.