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Learning to Rewrite

Photobucket [1]Therese here. Today’s guest is debut author Sara J. Henry [2], 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.

Photobucket [3]By 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 [2], her blog [4], and by following her on Twitter [5] and Facebook [6]. You can also read an except of her book HERE [7], on Scribd. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Nina Matthews Photography(away all of Jan) [8]