Get Me Rewrite! Or Proust.

I’m now in the midst revising the manuscript of my next book, to address suggestions (and ridicule) by my editor. Me being me, I’m pretty much rewriting the whole thing. I am a compulsive rewriter. From where I sit now I see four complete drafts of the book on my office floor, amounting to several thousand pages, each pile a little shorter than the one before. And these are only the latest iterations.

I enjoy this phase. Reducing a paragraph by two lines, or a chapter by two pages, is somehow deeply satisfying. There is a Proustian element to the process. Now and then I’ll come across a passage that I edited or rewrote previously, and I’ll remember exactly where I was when I did so. I restructured the ending atop a bed in an inn in Mendocino, Calif., three blocks from the roiling sea. I used tape and a scissors that I bought at a local general store. I left the scissors behind after we checked out, as I’ve done in half a dozen hotel rooms, because I always travel with a carry-on bag.

I rewrote a significant portion of the manuscript on a barge on the canals of Burgundy, France, and these passages bring forth recollections of sun, good wine, and scenery moving past at about five miles an hour. There are passages, too, that bring to mind a frosty weekend at Mohonk Mountain House, a gorgeous old Victorian pile in New Paltz, N.Y., where my wife and I retreat from time to time, as, apparently, does Stephen King. If I were inclined to write a horror novel set in an old inn, Mohonk would be the place. I can tell you exactly where I would deposit the bodies.

What amazes me about the rewrite process is that it never ends. There is always a word that can be cut, an adjective or adverb to be excised. On the day I shipped my manuscript I re-read the first fifty pages—aloud—and probably made a hundred little changes. My wife has more clarity on this subject. She reminds me of how it was to be pregnant with our three daughters, and how at some point each time she got to feeling that this baby just had to come out. It is the case however that manuscripts, unlike babies, have a habit of jumping back into the womb, accompanied by a multitude of suggestions, queries, changes, and cuts.

And so, with scissors and tape in hand, and recollections of barges and bedspreads circulating in my mind, I plunge in once again, certain that even after this I will have at least one more opportunity to rewrite it from top to bottom, before shoving it out the door for the last time.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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