How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take To Make a Story?

April 13, 2017

“…I slowly make up the story, and rewrite it several times, and each time I rewrite it, I get new ideas, and change the old ideas around. ~ Louis Sachar

So this past weekend I rewrote one of my picture books for what felt like the zillionth time. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s at least the fourth distinct version—meaning a version that is very different from any of the others, not just a revision. I went so far as to start with a blank screen, writing a new opening and not pulling anything in from the previous version until halfway through the story. 

I thought back to each epiphany I had, each “ah ha” moment that made me believe that this version was, at last, the version.

Yet here I am again.

How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take?

I don’t know. What I do know is that with each lightbulb that went off, I had a fun experience. Each of those Eureka! moments was a thrill and each one made me believe that I’d finally hit on the direction or character or format that would take me across the finish line.

And it did take me across at least once—long enough for my agent and I to get excited about a particular version back in 2015 and submit that version to publishers. We came close with one or two, but ultimately they passed. I reviewed their sparse comments and got back to work, revising off and on over the next year and a half in between other projects.

What Does It Mean?

After this latest experiment—switching from an all-dialogue story to a traditional narrative—I stopped asking that question. Getting new ideas, having a new direction—that’s all part of the glorious mystery that is writing. Switching gears, believing that yes, at last, this is the one, is just part of the process—at least for me.

Do I have that niggling voice that points out that I’ve been working on this story in some way, shape or form for over two years?


Do I have that other niggling voice saying that I could go on like this for another two years?


Do I listen to these voices?

Not anymore.

I used to think it was some kind of failing—what’s wrong with me that I can’t just stick with a story and keep going with it? Why do I keep coming up with new approaches, new endings, new characters even?

But then I realized that each lightbulb, each epiphany, tells me my imagination is firing. It shows me I’ve still “got it,” even if I’m not sure what “it” is in that moment. Joy and possibility are enough to keep me going.

I may not know how many lightbulbs it takes to finish a story, but I do trust that I’ll know when that last bulb lights up and I have that sense that this latest version of the story is finished…for now.