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by Dara Marks and Deb Norton

Manuscript MountainSo, after weeks, months, or even years, you have finally completed your first draft. Congratulations! Crack open the champagne, throw a party, fly to Paris! However you choose to celebrate, I’m sure you deserve it. Writing is hard work; you are literally blazing a trail into the uncharted wilds of the human imagination. This is why getting to “The End” can feel like you’ve just clawed your way to the top of Mt. Everest.

Of course, this isn’t the case, and in the back of your mind you know the terrible truth—you’ve only just made it to the first base camp. But celebrate anyway because the really arduous, death-defying work of the rewrite still lies ahead and it will most assuredly leave you too pooped to party by the time you reach the summit.

To help chart the course for your rewrite, here are a few navigational tools that will help you negotiate the rugged terrain that lies ahead:

1. Choose your Sherpa wisely:

It’s essential to get feedback before you begin the rewrite so that you can gauge what is working and what isn’t. But be very careful to whom you give your precious work, especially in the early rewrites. I use the word “precious” because at this stage your writing is essentially a newborn creation. Just as you wouldn’t put an infant into the hands of ruthless critics, you shouldn’t allow anyone to pass harsh judgment on your fledgling manuscript. There’s plenty of time before your writing goes out into the world to have it scrupulously critiqued. But in the first phase of rewriting, it’s more important to get help in the discovery process of determining what your story is really about and what it’s struggling to become. These determinations will give you the most essential guidance for moving your work forward.

2. Don’t stray too far from the path:

No matter how confusing, convoluted, or even incoherent some of the story elements are in your first draft, they need to be respected as the authentic grounds on which the story wants to be established. There’s a real temptation for writers to solve story problems in the rewrite by simply abandoning material and creating whole new storylines. While that is occasionally the best option, more often than not, struggling with your original work yields a much stronger story. In fact, it is often the struggle itself that will strengthen the plot and give you greater insight into the deep nature of your story’s underlying themes.

3. Ready, Set… DON’T Go!:

There’s a profound misconception that great art always pops out of great artists fully formed. As a result of this falsehood, it can be easy to believe that if your creation shows any early signs of ineptness or mediocrity, it’s of no value. This simply isn’t true. All creative work begins at the intuitive level because by its very definition a creation is the birth of something that never existed in its form before. So intuiting is the only way that story can first engage a writer’s attention. But, this is merely an invitation to come in and look around. Examining what you see inside the story after completing your first draft is where value and meaning are discovered. This process of discovery is the only way into a deeper, more conscious level of writing, and this takes time. It is the honesty with which you are willing to address what you discover inside the story that will lead you toward the summit of meaningful and original self-expression. So, don’t just jump off into the rewrite. While a first draft needs spontaneity, the rewrite demands thoughtfulness, introspection, and time to incubate.



The more you understand the thematic value that is trying to find expression in your story, the greater your potential for a strong and dynamic rewrite. While a theme is sometimes obvious to a writer, too often it’s the one element that gets completely obscured by the rigors of laying out the plot in the first draft. For most writers, theme can be tough to get at. But even if you already have a sense of your theme, a deeper exploration will start you off on a firmer footing with your rewrite. This simple timed exercise can yield amazing results:

  1. Find a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Prepare yourself with pen, paper, and a timer. (Write by hand – no computer!)
  3. Ask yourself this simple question: After your film, novel or stage play has been produced and is now playing to packed houses, or after your readers have just finished the final riveting pages of your manuscript, what would you most like them to be thinking and talking about?
  4. If you already have an answer, write a brief statement expressing what you believe your story is really about: e.g., Love conquers all. War is hell. We are our bother’s keeper. Etc. (Note: Don’t worry about being right; the truth always finds its way to the surface.)
  5. Close your eyes for a few moments and take several deep, calming breaths.
  6. Open your eyes and set your timer for 10 minutes.
  7. Press start and begin writing anything that comes in response to the question. Do not lift your pen from the paper or stop writing until the buzzer goes off. No matter what, keep your pen moving.
  8. When the timer sounds, stop writing and take a few more deep breaths.
  9. Read what you have written. Underline words or phrases that jump out at you, take you by surprise, or even anger and frustrate you.

Especially in the latter part of this writing exercise, when your handwriting is getting sloppy and the sentences are choppy and incomplete, you will probably find some surprising thoughts. Use these thoughts as portals to peer into your story and discover the thematic value that is trying to call your attention.


Deb-Dara_FemHeriocWant to learn more about how to identify and strengthen the theme of your story? Apply now for Dara and Deb’s Master Class, “Inside Story,” and spend a week in retreat while you work with them to develop a natural story structure that reflects the truth of the human experience.

Explore Dara’s innovative method for structuring a story that is designed to help writers stay focused on the heart and soul of their work while also unifying plot, character, and theme.

Put what you learn into practice with Deb’s writing exercises that will effortlessly take you into the depths of your own narrative, making your stories more powerful, meaningful and, of course, marketable.



About the Authors:

DaraMarks_sqDara Marks, Ph.D. is a leading international script consultant, seminar leader, and author of one of the top selling books on creative writing, Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. She has specialized in the analysis of the modern screenplay for the past three decades, and Creative Screenwriting Magazine has consistently rated her one of the top script consultants in Hollywood. Dara has worked for most major Hollywood studios and her advice has been sought on a variety of films and television projects. Her groundbreaking work in this field continues to help writers engage more deeply and effectively in the creative writing process. Currently, Dara has joined with Deb Norton to lead seminars world-wide. She is also is an adjunct professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara.


DebNorton_sqDeb Norton is a writer, actress, teacher and the former Artistic Director of Theater 150 in Ojai, California. After graduating from the masters acting program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, she spent an eventful ten years dutifully pursuing her acting career before her desire for a deeper connection to story was awakened and she began to pen her own plays and screenplays. She is currently working on the book version of her popular Unleash your Genius writing workshop.





Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


Dara Marks and Deb Norton
About Dara Marks and Deb Norton


  • Julie Christine
    1:04 PM - 11 September, 2014

    Oh, this could not have come at a better time. I’m in the middle of combing through the first draft of my second novel. After a first pass read-through, I’m cleaning and straightening before I share and contemplate a rewrite. You’ve provided me a way forward and an understanding of the questions to ask my beta readers and myself as I move to the next steps. The writing exercise is brilliant. Thank you. I feel my mind breathing again.

  • susan imhoff bird
    10:14 AM - 12 October, 2014

    thank you for this excellent exercise—having just this weekend decided my first draft really is done, I needed help firming up that decision and preparing myself for the next phase. you all have a beautiful way of providing what I need.

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