Stephen West


Rewriting Is Not So Easy

THE STORY SO FAR: Based on some positive feedback on Aeropolis from an editor, I decided to rewrite it to make it less middle grade and more young adult. Since the feedback was along the lines of “the protagonist comes across as too young in his reactions etc” I thought it would be a simple matter to go through the manuscript, rewriting Joseph’s thoughts and actions to make him more mature. So I worked out how his attitude to various characters would change, and started working through it. At first things went well, but as I got further into the plot, I began to feel more and more that the new Joseph would simply not do the things he was supposed to do in service of the plot. By the time I got about halfway it was obvious that it just wasn’t working anymore.

I started making some small tweaks to the plot, doing a basic outline in Word and trying to move things in a more character-driven direction. But the more I tried to do this, the more it seemed to me that my plot was a hastily cobbled-together series of somewhat random events, which kind of worked when Joseph was a fairly passive child-like character just reacting to things that happened to him. But now that I was trying to make the plot more character-driven, this passive reaction dynamic just got in the way. I managed to force the re-outline to a certain point, but beyond that I had no more ideas.

So I decided to take a break from Aeropolis for a while, using the time to read about plots and plotting. Very helpful in this regard was Kidlit, and I also took courage from Chuck Wendig’s frank account of his journey in writing his debut Blackbirds. I’d been reading David Hewson’s Writing: A User Manual, and I also picked up Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. I also expanded my research into Howard Hughes, German history, and Zeppelins. (I even spent some time sketching Aeropolis, working out its actual dimensions, volume of lift gas etc, and even creating Aeropolis using Google Sketchup!)

The result of all this was something akin to brain overload: I went back to the outline, ideas buzzing in my head, and started on an increasingly rapid round of changes, each one more radical than the last. After a while I felt that things were spinning out of control: it seemed, by the end of this process, that I needed to pitch the entire thing in the bin, and start again from scratch. A dispiriting thought, when you started the process thinking you had a completed novel that simply required some rewriting.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Most writers do not sell their first novels. The learning curve on the first one is so steep that many see it as some form of boot camp, a training ground that gets them up to the required standard for the subsequent novels. I realised that a writing career cannot be based on a single book, that writing is a journey and not a destination, and that all the work I put into Aeropolis would only be wasted if I carried on flogging a dead horse; giving it up might seem like a waste but in reality I would carry all that I had learned into the next project.

Once I came to terms with actually moving on from Aeropolis, and even got some good ideas for my next book, a strange thing happened. An insight came to me, a fairly small shift in emphasis, just bringing a certain character into the story much earlier, and changing his relationship to Joseph, and things suddenly seemed to fall into place. The plot started to work, to flow, with a believable character arc for Joseph to follow, and subsequent events fitting in nicely. Best of all there was now inbuilt tension between Joseph and the other main characters, something I had been striving to create, but which had been feeling false and forced. It all works very well now, at least in outline.

So now I have an outline of what I believe will be a much better story. It will still be a substantial rewrite, but at least some of the scenes from earlier drafts can still be included if they are slightly modified. I need to crack on and get it written so that I can see if finally I can fulfil that flash of inspiration from all those years ago.


Rewriting Aeropolis Some More

I was lucky enough to be invited to submit Aeropolis to a publisher who doesn’t normally accept submissions from un-agented writers, and my initial partial submission resulted in a request for the entire manuscript! This all happened really quickly, and if that wasn’t enough, I heard from their editor in December.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an acceptance. But it was the most positive feedback that you can imagine, short of actual acceptance. The editor said some very nice things about my writing (I just love it when people do that!) and is prepared to look at anything I write in the future, including a rewrite of Aeropolis, because…

Well, here we get to the less positive bit. She felt that Aeropolis as it stands is not a true young adult (YA) novel, because of the way I had written the lead character Joseph: he comes across as much younger. (Interestingly one of my beta readers now says she missed the part where I give his age, and simply assumed throughout that he was much younger than a teenager!) This is not in itself problematic, except that this particular publisher only does YA, not middle grade.

So I have the choice of trying to find a middle-grade publisher, or rewriting to take advantage of the incredibly valuable opportunity that an “open door” with an editor represents. Since the manuscript is out there already, being considered (I hope!) by various agents, in some sense I am already trying to find another publisher. So how can it harm me to hedge my bets and start the rewrite? It will be a good experience in any event, responding to editorial feedback, and an exercise in technical skill.

So I thought when I started the process. But now that I am actually into the nuts and bolts of the rewriting process, I’m having a lot of fun doing it as well! There is something pleasing about going back to a scene and looking at it from a new angle, trying something different, exercising the awesome authorial power to go for something radically different.

Of course there will be difficult points, hard choices, struggles to make it work. But I’m really happy just to be writing again!

Rewriting Aeropolis

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing what I hope will be a final rewrite for Aeropolis. I know that all writing is rewriting, that writing is when we make the stuff but rewriting is when we make it good... but still. Every page of the printout is covered with revisions. I often think “How did I not see that?” I’m very glad I followed David Hewson’s advice to print it all out and read it through. As he says, there’s something about seeing it in a different format -- paper instead of on-screen -- that helps you to pick up problems.

My aim is to get finished in time to submit Aeropolis to a contest. I’m not certain that contests are a good idea, but even if I don’t actually submit it, the deadline is serving as a useful spur to get the darn thing finished. Once it’s done, I’ll decide what to do with it!

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