Learning to Rewrite

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is debut author Sara J. Henry, whose novel, Learning to Swim, about what happens to a woman after she dives into Lake Champlain to rescue a boy flung from a ferry and ends up in the middle of a kidnapping scenario, has already garnered significant praise.

A compelling plot, a pervading sense of foreboding, well-constructed characters. – Kirkus Review

Henry proves herself to be a smooth and compelling storyteller. And her lead is highly appealing: an athletic, fiercely independent young woman who, like crime-fiction author Gillian Flynn’s feisty females, is capable of making delightfully acerbic observations. -Booklist

[A] fascinating premise…this book is worth your time. -RT Magazine Book Reviews

We’re happy Sara’s with us today to tell us a little about her journey, and how she learned the importance of reworking a draft. Enjoy!

How Learning to Rewrite Transformed Me as a Writer

Most people tell you you should just toss away your first novel. And maybe I should have – but I had characters I loved and a set-up and ending I loved, and chapters I knew were good.

But the middle of the book was a mess. I hadn’t plotted it out completely, and I’d written fast, because if I knew if I slowed down I’d convince myself I couldn’t write a novel at all. What I did was shovel in pretty much every cliched scene imaginable, from a variety of genres.

My friend Meg Waite Clayton politely pointed out that I’d essentially left out one of the central characters, the six-year-old boy this book opens with. She didn’t mention that several other characters were little more than cardboard cutouts, but I knew it.

So the novel lived in the computer equivalent of a drawer for a very long time. Periodically I’d look at it and sort of prod it, like poking a sleeping tiger. I’d stick in a new scene or two and try to fix what wasn’t working. But the fact was that while I knew how to edit, I had no idea how to rewrite. I simply couldn’t envision the characters doing anything other than what they were doing, and I had trouble getting inside the heads of some of them.

I went off to a writing conference Meg urged me to apply for, and this novel got a lot of attention. But I knew I had to rewrite the middle.

When I saw a Craigslist ad for a family in Australia wanting to house-swap for five weeks, I jumped at it. I’d always wanted to go to Australia, and between adventures surely I could find time to write. A few weeks before my flight, I snapped my fifth right metatarsal – the sort of break where the nurses call everyone over to admire the X-ray. The next day a surgeon pinned the bone back together. Yes, you can fly, he said (neglecting to mention how much agony I’d be in), so off I went, with crutches and a clunky black boot-cast.

It doesn’t often rain in Australia, but it started raining the day after I arrived. There I was in a house outside Sydney, with limited internet and limited television (basically Judge Judy and Australian versions of bad U.S. programs), knowing not a soul other than a writer across the bay I’d spoken to once, and so cold I spent most of the time huddled under the covers in bed. And my foot hurt – a lot.

It was the perfect time to learn to rewrite.

Slowly, laboriously, I tore apart the middle of my book. I took out chapters. I forced myself to reenvision characters. I tried to get inside the head of the small boy who’s integral to this book, and the characters I’d given short shrift. I thought through plot intricacies and why each character did what they did. And once I could get around, I journeyed via crutches-train-ferry-crutches to meet with the writer across the bay, Michael Robotham, who made me talk about my book, and somehow his taking it seriously made me take it more seriously.

Somewhere in there I realized that, for better or for worse, I was a writer, that this was what I did – and that I had to fix this book as best I could, whether it would ever be publishable or not.

PhotobucketBy the time I came home five weeks later, I had a workable draft. After more revising and tweaking, it was ready to go, and it found an agent and publisher much faster than I could have ever dreamed.

Instead of rewriting this novel I could have done what one person suggested – write a second book, then come back to this one. But I don’t think I would have learned what I needed to. Forcing myself to fix the flaws in this novel stretched me farther and made me a better writer than I had thought possible. You don’t learn to be a good carpenter by building several bad houses – you learn by building a good one.

Learning to rewrite transformed me as a writer.

And now whenever I get stuck, I think of that five weeks in Australia, and I just keep going.

Sara, thanks for a great post! Readers, you can learn more about Sara on her website, her blog, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. You can also read an except of her book HERE, on Scribd. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Nina Matthews Photography(away all of Jan)



  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Five weeks away from distractions sounds like a gift from heaven. Do you think you could have done the rewriting without the change in venue? Or does rewriting to such an extent require some suspension of daily routine?

  2. says

    Thank you for sharing this post. This is I think one of the most inspirational posts I’ve read on this blog, and that is saying something since I never leave here without a positive experience.

    What I find most appealing about this is that this is one of the hardest things unpublished writers go through. We can all come up with ideas, and at least personally, I find writing a first draft is not impossible. It’s going past that first draft, moulding it into something that shows the vision one actually started with, that’s the difficult bit. But we can get there. That’s what I am teaching myself now.

  3. says

    It takes a lot of courage, and faith, to dismantle a manuscript, and put it back together. (Thank goodness for a huge hard drive on the laptop so I can save every single version. LOL) But you’re right — it’s the best way to learn how to create a good story. And it’s a skill you’ll take with you to every manuscript after that.

  4. says

    I’m struggling through some revisions right now, and this post is hugely inspiring. I loved your Australian story! And congratulations on staying the course.

  5. says

    What a great post Sara! Rewriting has definitely been my struggle as of late. I find it difficult to be tough with myself about what is working or not in my manuscript. There’s a fear in me that carving out sections will cause the whole structure to fall leaving me to doubt my original idea. I think this is why I’ve been treading slowly with my WIP as of late. But I am inspired to give it another go…thank you!

  6. says

    I’m in that place right now. It has its moments, but seems to be more of the “roll your sleeves up and get in there” kind of work. Nice to read about someone else who has struggled with the same kind of issues, persevered and succeeded. Thanks.

  7. says

    I’m in the middle of doing what I think is going to be the last round of rewrites (I’m too much of a perfectionist, so there have been many) on the first book in a seven book series I’ve written. They can be some of the most frustrating things. Being a part of a writing group that takes the book seriously really helps me to take it seriously as well. I wish I could take a 5 week trip anywhere to give me that solid break where all I do is rewrite. When you were writing your first novel, then rewriting it, did you have a regular full time job? I’m curious because I’m trying to figure out how you worked out the 5 week vacation from work to write. It sounds fabulous. Thanks for such a great post.

  8. says

    Sara, your post gives me much to think about. I am one of those people who has problems with big-picture revising. I tend to work on smaller things, and to shove a story in a drawer thinking there’s just nothing else I know of to do with it. Your story is inspiring! Thank you for showing me what it is possible with a lot of hard work and believing in yourself and your story.

  9. says

    Amen. Seriously. I finished my first novel when I was 20, and about a year and a half later, rewrote it. Rewriting gave me the perspective I needed about my own work–the ability to detach from my story and allow myself to cut out things I’d written. It made it much easier to write the next book.

  10. says

    Wonderful post. :) My very first novel has undergone so many rewrites I’ve lost count. But I refuse to give up on it, even though I’ve completed other novels in the meantime. Like you said about yours, I see too much in there worth saving.

  11. says

    Those are some great insights, and that fascinating backstory makes me all the more eager to read this book (my copy is supposed to arrive on Wednesday – yay!).

    This is a really helpful post for me, because rewriting is hard for me, since I hate to tear down something I’ve put a bunch of work into building (even if I know deep down that it’s not very *well* built).

    One approach I had success with was to go back and write a completely separate version of a troublesome chapter, and then put them both away for a while, comfortable knowing that I hadn’t destroyed anything. When I re-read both versions after some time away from them, it was immediately clear which one worked. It was the rewrite, of course. But I needed to be sure, and just hadn’t been comfortable bringing in the wrecking ball on the old draft.

  12. says

    Perri – just remember – if it isn’t difficult, you may not be doing it right! :-)

    Jeanne – I might not have been able to do it without the broken foot! I was truly learning to write by rewriting, and nothing has ever been harder. Without Australia and the broken foot … the manuscript had been around so long and was in such a muddle, yes, I think I would have needed some break in routine to tackle it … even if just a weekend away at a friend’s cabin or a Motel 6 somewhere.

    Dolly – yes, way too many writers seem to think you just write a novel and wham, it’s done. For most first novels, this just isn’t the case … very few people can have a novel roll off their fingertips ready to sell. I am a living example of … nothing is impossible! I just had to decide I was going to do it, no matter what.

  13. says

    Thank you so much for this. I’m facing the same problems… I know how to write, I know how to edit… But the rewrite just doesn’t work. Like I don’t know how to do it. I want to, but I just keep procrastinating…

  14. says

    Donna – absolutely. But, hey, make sure you have some of those versions backed up somewhere besides your hard drive … hard drives always fail, eventually.

    Cathy – thank you! Seriously, it seemed hopeless, and not until I decided I was going to do my best to make the book work whether or not it was ever salable, did I start to make real progress.

    Nancy – there were times when I thought my book would never all go back together … I likened it to throwing puzzle pieces up in the air and trying to put it together without knowing if you had the right pieces. Have faith in yourself. (PS – I save the stuff I cut in another file just in case I want it later – and it makes it much easier to cut when you aren’t actually erasing.)

  15. Judith schara caldwell says

    I’ve always felt discouraged by the advice to write a first novel and put it away in a drawer while you start on a second one that will (magically) be better than the first. Like you, my original concept was good, I knew the ending, the characters were multi-dimensional, etc. I hated the idea of throwing it in the trash.

    I think what the writing pundits really mean is this: you learn more as you go along and , although usually not said, as you STUDY your craft. That does not mean the original story was all bad. Study, get lots of critical input, revise your narrative if necessary, fine tune it, do ten versions if you have to. I think its all about process… and if at the end you decide the original concept no longer works, then start another. I like the analogy about the carpenter. learning to build a good house.(not a lot of bad ones)
    Early on , I read a quote from Wm. Dietrich that struck me as wisdom to live by;
    There are no great writers, only great re-writers…
    Don’t give up
    Work hard
    Nourish joy

  16. VicK says

    ‘You don’t learn to be a good carpenter by building several bad houses – you learn by building a good one.’

    Brilliant quote. I need to stick it up on my computer, so whenever I think about quitting this novel that everyone seems to think is so great and I hate so passionately, I remember that I’m building, finally, the good house.

  17. says

    Right on, Judith. Throughout reading the post as well as the comments, I was saying to myself, who said that comment about re-writing being writing???

    Like many of us here, I’ve just started writing for the first time. Real stuff, that is. Stuff I like, which means something to me. Still working through the first draft, one of the approaches I decided on was doing some heavy duty outlining of events before I started the nitty gritty.

    And I’m glad I did, because getting the words down thus far really hasn’t bee much of a challenge. I’m also convinced that I’ll probably need more of them with the re-write. Cool thing about that, however is I feel confident that once I have the skeleton in place, I’ll be able to really start putting flesh on its bones.

    Not sure why I’ve never taken writing more seriously before, but have to say that it’s a blast so far. And I’m quite grateful for sites like WU and all the great guest posts you all get for us newbies. Makes easing into a life of wordsmithing just a little easier. Thanks!

  18. says

    Jonathan, oh, yeah, there definitely are times it’s just plain hard work – good luck!

    Christina, I was a freelance editor and copyeditor for years, so I could pretty much work anywhere – but to finish the book, I saved up enough money to take time off, because there just wasn’t enough creative energy left over otherwise.

    Andrea, I had huge trouble with big-picture revising, but a good third of my book needed major surgery, so I didn’t have an option! I felt bad about this manuscript for years, because I knew parts of it were good but had no idea how to go about fixing it … I finally had to roll up my sleeves and just learn by doing it.

  19. says

    Lauren, Lydia – great.

    Keith – hope you like it! What made it easier was that I deleted very little – I just made a new copy of the file and saved the cut parts in a file labeled “cut material” – one scene I dearly loved but it just didn’t work … and recently adapted it to use in Book 2.

    I’ll also point out that one stab at rewriting was just dreadful – I rewrote passages in a jaunty tone that didn’t work for this manuscript at all …

    One thing that also helped was working on the book in parts – I would just pull out the entire troublesome section (say, 1/3 of the book) and work on just that one file – for some reason, that made it more manageable.

  20. says

    Luthien, Hannah, hang in there.

    Judith, I’m convinced if I had gone on to write the second book (and I did start, about 5,000 words to get into a writing conference … but I VASTLY rewrote it this year!) I just would have written another book that was good in parts but just didn’t work.

    Vick, thanks!

    James, welcome to writing!

  21. says

    You make a very good point about the difference between editing and rewriting. I hadn’t thought of the two as that different before reading this post, but they are in fact two very different processes. The difference between someone who can rewrite and someone who can’t is the difference between someone who can write a book and someone who can’t.

    Great story!

  22. says

    This is great, I understand the problem with rewriting when I first wrote my short stories.

    And Sarah sheds a bright light on us with regards to re-writing.

  23. says

    Thanks for an inspiring post. It took me so long to write my first novel (finally finished!) that good people advised me to set it aside and start something else. But I knew I had something good, and if I didn’t learn how to write a book on a subject I was passionate about, how would any other story be a better way to learn?

    Over the different drafts and rewrites I got braver and I got better. Now I have the book I wanted to write.

    I’m seeing your book everywhere today, Sara, and I read the first chapter online. Wow. I can’t wait to read the rest! Congratulations.

  24. says

    Nina, you rock! (Apparently I love everyone who likes my book.) Remember that it is a series … (that isn’t a sales pitch; just some people prefer to know that).

    Petrea, fantastic. I’ve known people who wrote eight or nine (unpublished) books – but didn’t solve their original problem … whether plotting or characterization … I firmly believe you need to learn to fix what’s wrong with a book instead of willy-nilly just trying again. Of course a fresh set of characters and plot is more exciting to run off with, but chances are good that writers will encounter the same problems they did with all the other unpublished novels.

    Aga, thanks. I will note that my second novel did not require NEARLY as much rewriting, thanks in part to the skills I acquired during the first novel.

    Julile, yes, I am a crackerjack editor, but that IS very different from rewriting.

    And I’d like to point out that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never ever worn pink sneakers.

    Although maybe I should try some.

  25. says

    Thank goodness for kind authors who help others work their fear through. And thank you for this post. I have plans for my first book, which needs substantial revision, so this is encouraging.

  26. says

    I’m so glad you posted this – this is exactly the problem I’ve faced with my first novel, and why I haven’t been able to forget it and just use it as a learning doorstop.

    I’ve never seen tools for rewriting anywhere…revising, yes, and I’ve gotten better at that. But even 5 years in the digital drawer hasn’t given me the distance I need to see this book from the 100,000 foot level, and rewrite it.

    I’d love a second post on any tools you could give us for where to start (besides going to Austrailia with a broken bone-I want this book published, but not sure I’m up for that level of commitment.)


  27. says

    Aw! Excellent post. Thank you. I’m currently revisiting and revising my first ms. So, a lot of what you said fits exactly where I am right now. Inspiring.

  28. says

    Thanks for this!!!!!

    I was just starting to second guess myself for pulling my first manuscript (adventure/suspense novel aimed at women) out of the metaphorical computer drawer. Tomorrow I have blocked off a few hours to start re-writing in earnest.

    No more staring at the screen and moving commas around for me.

  29. says

    Great post! I’m about to start the revision process of my first novel, so your message is timely for me. I couldn’t agree more with your carpenter quote! How can we learn from our mistakes if we can’t learn to decipher what they are and fix them?

    Good luck with your debut novel. The cover is inticing and the premise sounds fascinating. I’ll have to pick it up. :)

  30. says

    Jan, you will want to tear your hair out and throw your manuscript out – but keep at it.

    Laura, here are some tiny tidbits for things I use to reboot when I can’t hie off to Australia:
    (1) Read your work aloud. Actually I do this now routinely with my WIP: read chapters to a friend over the phone.
    (2) Change the font. Oddly, just changing the font to something dramatically can jump start me when I feel stuck.
    (3) Set a timer, turn off the internet, work as hard as you can for 15 or 30 minutes. You’ll be amazed what you can do.

    Margo, nothing was ever as difficult in my life – or as rewarding. I think the moral of the story is that hard work really does pay off … really hard work!

    Mari, I tell people not to write if they have any choice – but if the story and the characters stick with you, you likely need to figure out a way to tell their story.

    Heather – thanks! You can click through to reach the first chapter in a PDF. Hope you like it.

  31. says

    Encouraging words. I’m just now peeking into an early work–my second novel, I think, but it’s really a novella–and haven’t read a word of it in about 6 years.

    But, just a couple of days after I opened the file and read the first two or three pages (and then stopped because I was occupied with another project), the characters started popping into my mind, and they had just as much life and were just as interesting to me as they were years ago.

    So I’m actually really looking forward to seeing if I can apply 6 years of learning about writing novels to this toddler of a novel and see if I can bring it to a publishable level.

    I am, however, going to do my utmost to avoid breaking my foot.

  32. says

    Ray, yes, I would not recommend the breaking the foot thing. On bad weather days it feels like someone else’s foot attached to the end of my leg. But it’s my nature that unfortunately sometimes it takes something like this to slow me down to refocus. So if you can benefit from my mishap, great! (If I’d had any common sense, probably I would have abandoned my novel long ago – but I couldn’t let it go. Or maybe it couldn’t let me go.) Go for it.



  1. […] Sarah Henry pointed out that part of being a writer is forcing yourself to fix the flaws in your text, because it’ll strengthen yourself. That really sits with me at the moment, because it’s easy to dream about how easy it is to just write something magical and amazing, spending my days working in my world. No one does that. I write in business lingo for work, but just because fiction is a passion, doesn’t mean it’s not work. It doesn’t feel like work when I write fiction, but it is. Same amount of dedication and nit picking goes into it. […]