Stuff You Should Know About Writing

Susan Wiggs is one of the keynote speakers at PPWC2019, and she graciously shares this post with us about her writing process.


I have the worst work habits. Sometimes I look at the pile of books I’ve written and I wonder how they got there. One reason this body of work has eked out of me (sorry about that visual) is that I have a friend like Sheila. Writer friends keep me accountable.

The actual process of composing a book is not pretty. The best way to describe it is “word-by-word.” You put down a word. Then you cross it out. Then write a few more. Stare out the window. Wonder if the can opener needs cleaning. Wonder if someone’s having a hissy fit on a social network. Wonder why you thought this was a good idea for a novel in the first place. Call a friend. Call Sheila and disrupt her day.

Sometimes you have to go to Bali to clear your head and get some serious thinking done:

Clear your head in Bali.
My brain works better in Bali.

I write my first draft in longhand. In a Clairefontaine notebook with a fountain pen loaded with peacock blue ink. Not because I’m quirky but because I think in longhand. And I’m left-handed so ordinary pens smear my hand as it drags across the page, but Skrip peacock blue on Clairefontaine paper does not.

The first awful draft.

So now what, you ask? After I bleed blue all over the page, I realize there is no backup copy. If I happen to step out for a while, the house might burn down and the only existing manuscript will go up in flames, like Jo’s novel in Little Women. (I didn’t cry when Beth died. I cried when Amy burned the manuscript.) Sometimes I keep the notebook in the freezer, like Tess does with her notes in The Apple Orchard. I figure that’s the last thing that will burn if the house is reduced to rubble.

Eventually, I fill the notebook with about 100,000 words that loosely resemble a novel. Then I have to type the thing up. I can’t use a typist because I tend to revise as I transcribe. Dragon Naturally Speaking voice dictation software works really well for me, provided the dogs don’t go off on me when someone comes to the door. When that happens, here’s what appears on my screen: hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep hep.

Oh, and here’s something. I don’t use Word. I know, I’m awful, but my very first writing software was WordPerfect and my brain is stuck with it. I have to have Reveal Codes and anyone who knows WordPerfect knows why. Please, Word, figure out Reveal Codes! F3! Save my sanity!

Then I print the thing out and my writers’ group has a meeting about it. I’ve been in some writing group or other since 1986 and I don’t intend stopping. Magic happens in a writers’ group–critiquing and brainstorming and commiserating and celebrating. My current group consists not only of the fabulous Sheila Roberts, but also Lois Faye DyerAnjali BanerjeeElsa Watson and Kate Breslin. We read and talk about each other’s work and I adore these women and I would pledge them my first born child but she already has a kid of her own.

My group sometimes meets at a quaint waterfront bakery in a small town, or in Sheila’s incredible waterfront condo. Writing tip: Baked goods make the brain work better.

Moving right along…I rewrite the book a couple of times. At various stages, it looks something like this:

Revisions are not pretty.
Revisions are not pretty.

…but you get to buy lots of colorful office supplies, so that’s something.

…and then I send it to my literary agent and editor. We have long deep talks about every aspect of the novel. Sometimes we get together in person and they are smart and kind and supportive and motivating and I thank God they are in my life.

Susan Wiggs at her wedding.
They came to my wedding. We did no work that weekend.

And then I put on the Sweater of Immovable Deadlines and rewrite that sucker again.

And at some point my editor says we’re good to go, and my agent says yippee, let’s send that girl her advance check…


Susan Wiggs is an international #1 New York Times best-selling, award-winning author of more than fifty novels. Her work has been translated into two-dozen languages. She is a three-time winner of the RITA Award, the highest honor given for a work of romantic fiction. Wiggs has been featured in national and international media, including NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Her most recent novel is Between You and Me (William Morrow). Susan’s life is all about family, friends…and fiction. She lives at the water’s edge on an island in Puget Sound, and in good weather, she commutes to her writers’ group in a 21-foot motorboat.

Her latest releases include: Between You & Me, Family Tree, and Summer at Willow Lake book club edition.

Available for pre-order: Map of the Heart in paperback, and
Between You & Me in hardcover.