The five stages of grief (and rewriting)

When you finish the first (or foundation) draft of your creative work – be it novel, novella, epic poem or installation artwork – it’s the best feeling in the world.

It follows, then, that getting negative feedback on that draft from critics you trust, and the realisation that you have to go back to that beautiful work of creative brilliance and *sigh* revise it – that must be the worst feeling in the world.

(It’s not, of course, but please excuse the comic exaggeration and don’t write me angry letters.)

As we (the royal and collective we) struggle to deal with these feelings, it’s worth considering the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground-breaking analysis of the stages of editing. Oh sure, she dressed it up as something more general, but if you can read between the lines you can see what she was really talking about.

So if you’ve recently shown someone you trusted your brand new body of work, and they’ve come back telling you that the whole last third of it doesn’t work, the protagonist’s motivation doesn’t make sense and a couple of supporting characters have no reason to exist… and I’m obviously just talking off the top of my head here… then consider the Five Stages of Grief as your guide to the emotions you may feel during the process of re-writing.


What? No! No, the draft is fine! There are no problems here! The plot is complex and twisty, but it totally makes sense – it’s just that the reader didn’t have enough sense to understand it. Your protagonist’s motivations are equally complex, but they make him a deep and multifaceted character, propelled by nuanced drives. And the supporting characters play subtle yet vital roles that make the story richer and more satisfying. It’s fine! Everything’s fine!

…oh god.


God-damnit! All the work you put into this thing and it’s crap! You’re so mad you could punch a manatee right in the mouth! Mad at your book for not being perfect but instead being a bucket full of garbage. Mad at your alpha reader for being such an inconsiderate bastard as to cruelly point out its flaws. Mad at your loved ones for not supporting you more. Mad at yourself for not being perfect. Angry at God because WHY DIDN’T YOU STOP ME GOD



Okay. Okay. You can fix this. You don’t need to do a massive rewrite – you can do spot fixes! Yeah! Rather than rewrite the entire last third of the book, you can just tweak a couple of scenes. Change some minor plot points to spack-fill over the gaps. Hey, maybe those scenes can give those supporting characters something to do! And look, if you do a quick pass through the whole book and cut out every second adverb, that’s almost exactly the same as a re-write, right? You can meet this thing halfway and come to a convenient agreement!

This is totally going to work.


This isn’t working. This is fucked. FUCKED. You have wasted six weeks/months/years of your life on this book and it is a giant pile of shit. You have failed yourself, you have failed your friends, you have failed literature and language. Look at all the things that would need to change to make this book work. This is a Sisyphean task, and the boulder on your shoulders smells like failure and poop.

There’s no point. This is hopeless. There’s nothing left you can do.


Almost. There’s nothing left you can do but what needs to be done.


Open the file, hit the keyboard and fix the damn draft.

This is normal. This is what every writer does. This is quite possibly exactly what I am currently going through on Obituarist II, down to the uncanny resemblance to what my alpha readers have told me.

Accept it. Embrace it. Work through it as fast as you need to. Maybe take some notes on the things that occurred to you when you were bargaining and/or feeling depressed. And then write your way back to daylight.

As it happens, writing my way back to daylight is going to take a little while, so Obituarist II won’t be out before Christmas. But look for it come January 2015! Buy it for friends and relatives who have received Kindles and Kobos and similar things! Just wait a little bit longer for me!

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