I first read pages of Sara J. Henry's debut novel more than ten years ago, well before I'd sold my own first novel. She is one of the most persistent writers I've ever met. And I couldn't be more delighted to be celebrating the release of Learning to Swim this week! Lisa Unger calls Sara's first novel - the same novel I read pages of all those years ago - “emotional, intense, and engrossing” and Daniel Woodrell says, "From the grabber beginning to the heartfelt conclusion ... an auspicious debut." She gives me far more credit than I'm due in her post about how it came to be published, but her story will certainly inspire you to keep writing and putting your work out there. It's a lovely post. - Meg
At a book conference last fall, another writer challenged me to arm wrestle. I have to explain that odd things happen when you get authors together. I also have to explain that I have very little upper-body strength and should have lost this contest in a few seconds. But I arm-wrestled that much stronger writer within a few inches of victory before we called it a stand-off. Afterward he looked at me in amazement and said, “You shouldn’t have been able to do that – but you were so determined.”
And I said, “Yes, that’s how I finished my novel.”
Sheer, dumb determination – and not stopping when common sense would have said to.
I started this novel years ago while in a writers’ group with Meg and her husband, Mac, when we all lived in Nashville. Then I began meeting weekly with Mac, exchanging chapters of our novels-in-progress. Because I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, I kept churning out chapters.
So then I had a novel. Parts of it were very good. Parts weren’t. Meg and Mac each gave me comments that I still have – very astute comments, dead on. The problem was I had no idea how to rewrite. I couldn’t imagine the characters doing anything they weren’t already doing, and when I made a stab at changing things, it didn’t work. A friend showed it to several publishers, who basically said Promising, but the middle falls down.
Years passed, as they do. The Claytons moved; I moved. Meg had me send my manuscript to her then-agent, who basically said Promising, but the middle falls down. I took another stab at fixing it, to no avail. Then Meg suggested I apply to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I went, and I didn’t write for a year afterward (that’s another story). But doggedly, perhaps stupidly, I went back the following year.
And that’s when everything changed. An agent pulled me aside and said This is very good, how far along is it? and I said, Oh, it’s done, but the middle needs reworking.
In a fairy tale I would have gone home and rewritten immediately, but life intervened. Then shortly before leaving for a five-week houseswap in Australia, I snapped a bone in my right foot and had surgery the next day. So off I went, on crutches and in a boot-cast, and there, in a town just outside Sydney where I knew no one, in cold and rainy weather with a painful healing foot, I made myself learn to rewrite. I cut chunks and moved things, reimagined characters, and reworked the plot. Slowly, it began to take shape. And during that process I realized This is what I do, and that I had to fix this book even if it never got published. And that was when I truly became a writer.
Back home, life got in the way again, but then I made myself take time off to work on the book. While I watched my savings dwindle, I revised and polished and revised again. My friend Jamie Ford urged me to send the manuscript to agents, but I knew it wasn’t ready. Then, with money and time running out, I sent it off—still not quite ready, but close.
And, as it turned out, close enough.
This time, the fairy tale came true. Requests flowed in, agents made offers, the book sold and I had a two-book deal. This week I finished writing the second book, a sequel, and this week Learning to Swim, my first novel, was released.
And my friends Meg and Mac are largely to blame for all this – for having reached out to me at just the right time. - Sara