Friday, April 18, 2014

The Agony of Rewriting

When I was at the 2000 Maui Writer’s Conference, I attended several classes conducted by successful literary agents on the writing and publishing process.  One theme kept recurring in all the talks: “If your manuscript is accepted by an agent, expect to have to rewrite it several times before submission to publishers.”  Many in the classes were alarmed at this revelation. Having studied James Michener’s Advice to Beginning Authors, I was not one of them. Michener did not consider himself a good writer, but he felt that he was an excellent rewriter.  He considered the secret to his runaway success to be his ability to pare and prune his drafts of extraneous material.

I was fortunate to come away from the conference with acceptance of my manuscript of Fall Eagle One by a very reputable literary agency. I quickly discovered that the instructors at Maui were right on target. Following initial discussions with the agent assigned to me, He recommended that I work with a private editor to rewrite my manuscript. The editor he recommended, Ed Stackler of Stackler Editorial Agency (, first read my manuscript and gave it a thorough critique.  Ed is an excellent editor. He pointed out many weaknesses, including some main characters, that needed correcting, not the least of which was my tendency to over-explain just about everything. 
I am a product of my education. My first two degrees were in civil engineering. All engineers have a passion to understand how things work.  Many also are natural teachers who hunger to explain what they know to those around them.  For example, after I thoroughly researched the German system of defenses against the Royal Air Force’s nightly bombings, I thought my readers would like to know the exact details. Many of my carefully crafted descriptions bore Ed’s notation, “Excessive exposition-does not move the story forward.” That last phrase became a mantra for my editing and rewriting: “If it doesn’t move the story forward, cut or severely compress it.”

Such rewriting is easier said than done, and it can be painful. I think all authors view their work as parents view their children.  Discarding hours of hard research and writing takes great self-discipline. It hurt, for instance, to discard my careful description of Berlin’s massive flak tower/air raid shelters.  But after careful consideration, I had to agree with Ed’s comments. I cut one page to two sentences.  This process includes a careful balancing act. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the reader needs to be able to mentally visualize the story.  Or as the British say, “Put in the picture.” Sensory notations—how the scene looks, smells, tastes, etc.—are  necessary elements.  One needs the readers to feel that, “They are there.”  But always in the background must loom that question, "Does it move the story forward?”

Even more painful can be modifying or eliminating characters. After two or three rewrites, Ed kept questioning one of my major characters—Hermann Goering’s technical adjutant, who devises the scheme upon which the plot rests.  Ed felt he was “a cold fish,” and that he needed major change.  I was surprised by his proposal. I had based the character on an actual Luftwaffe officer who served on Goering’s staff.  But by then, I had come to completely trust Ed’s judgment.  I went back to basic research and soon discovered another actual person upon whom to base my character.  Thus was born perhaps the best character in Fall Eagle One: Major Siegfried von Rall, a swashbuckling frontline bomber commander rated as, “the best pilot in the Luftwaffe.”  Along with Siegfried came my strongest female characters: his mother, a Prussian countess, and his love interest, a woman physician.  Following this last rewrite, both Ed and my agent pronounced the novel ready to shop to publishers. 

Unfortunately, all our work fell on deaf ears at that time.  We were shopping the book in early months of 2002.  We soon learned that publishers were not ready to print a book about aircraft attacking the continental U.S. that soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Fall Eagle One had to be set aside for a more propitious time.

The story has a happy ending.  The Amazon Kindle version of Fall Eagle One went live in November 2011, and the paperback version on followed the next January.  The book was chosen as a Semifinalist in the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Books of 2012. It sold in the upper 1-2 percent of Kindle sales throughout 2013, and sales remain strong.  The book currently has 61 customer reviews on with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 Stars. Thirty-seven of the reviews are 5-Star. The latest calls it, “One of the best WW2 books ever.” Hard work does pay off.  
Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.   

Photo: Lord van Tasm at German Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons

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