Tagged: revising

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 63: A Gift On Every Page


What are you giving the reader on every page?

Let’s revisit that idea of giving, as we considered in the writing experiment last week, where we reappropriated appropriation as an act of giving.

For this week’s writing experiment: As an exercise in revising and drafting, print off a copy of your manuscript in a format different from the one in which it was originally composed. I suggest, for example, a bookish typeface such as Baskerville or Garamond, single-spaced and justified, and when it comes to printing put two pages on a sheet of A4/letter paper – see the sample below. Check your page settings for how to do this: you might have to fiddle around, and, e.g., play with the margins. And, unlike me in this case, remember to add page numbers, else things could get confusing. I think this was 11pt Baskerville.


Defamiliarised, your writing will look and feel different when you read through it this time.

Take a block (or blocks) of time to sit down with a pen or pencil, and read through your work.

At the top of every page, make a note of the gift you are giving the reader on that page.

Your offering can vary: sometimes it’s dramatic stakes (tension in a scene), sometimes it’s narrative stakes (plot point and tension within the bigger story), sometimes it’s a fresh insight into character, or a quiet interlude that gives us an emotion, or a lovely bit of sensory detail of setting, or some poetry in the prose, or a powerful symbol working its magic, or some clarifying perception of the world.

If you can’t identify anything in particular, 1. stop being negative about yourself, and 2. simply find the strongest word on the page, and rewrite that at the top as your gift: maybe, later, you can give some thought to the deeper meaning of that word.

Also, don’t be tempted to note more than one gift on each page. Each page might have a number of offerings, but it can help to identify what’s most important. This might give you some thought about whether some items might recede, or even be pruned. Writing can get too clotted, just as it can feel too thin.

Don’t rush. Read in a leisurely manner. It can even help to read aloud. Otherwise, avoid making further marks on the pages; this is an exercise in focus and restraint about your skills in the arts of giving.

Once you are done, collate your gifts into a list:


… and so on for every page of the book.

Put this to one side for a couple of days, then come back and see what work you need to do. You might annotate your list further, e.g., noting where you have too many gifts, or too few. There might be some evening out to do in the pacing.

You can extend this further, e.g., thinking about the gift in every paragraph. But I think every page works fine.

And at the end, ask yourself: what is the gift this book is giving as a whole?

Happy Christmas! (That lovely rose above was a gift that came this morning. Flora makes such lovely gifts. Maybe think about your own writing as a flower too?)

Words Away Salon, 19 September 2016


Last night I was very happy to take part in the inaugural Words Away literary salon run by Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin. It was a super evening: a great turnout, with a lovely, engaged crowd of writers, and the Teahouse Theatre is a wonderful venue for this sort of event too. Also, Vauxhall is so easy to get to from so many places, and we were a very short walk from the tube.

The subject under discussion was self-editing, which as Emma pointed out is a useful term (and something of a recent coinage) that brings clarity to this idea that to edit ourselves we need to put ourselves in a special frame of mind.

I emphasised the idea of working free from attachment. I mentioned that super quote that I believe comes from Terry Pratchett (and I paraphrase): writing the first draft is just the writer telling herself the story. It’s good to give yourself room to step back (and especially away from the computer) to ask yourself what this book can be. Has your intention shifted? I suggested practical ideas such as printing off your manuscript in different formats in order to defamiliarise your own words. It’s also helpful to do exercises outside of the book itself, or using some of your content knowing that this writing is not going into your baby (and in fact sometimes it will end up in the book after all). Be free in your writing at this stage.

I often describe these early stages of editing developmental editing, and I discuss this in more detail in this post on structural editing. Sometimes input from other readers or agents or editors can lead to doubts, and it makes sense to be reflective: this post on working with feedback might give you some pointers.

In practical terms, the natural speaking voice is, I believe, the greatest asset to any piece of writing, so learn to trust it. Here is a link describing a workshop on voice I led in the past (it includes links to further exercises on voice too). And I heartily recommend I Remember exercises as very easy and accessible ways to work with voice in your own writing.

I do like some narration in my storytelling, and here is a link to a subtle bit of narrating to be sampled at the start of My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Tweaks for the art and craft of narrating are often essential during revising,

This salon was titled ‘Make Your Novel Shine’, and I do think there is a great value to decluttering our minds of words and letting symbolic thinking (or maybe I should say symbolic feeling?) guide us through revising. For example, think about the idea of a light shining its way through your book like a torch, or maybe be guided by the image of a prism reflecting light in and off its many facets. Something else I suggested was thinking about writing as giving, and the gift you give your readers on every page. Such ways of working can force us to go a little deeper, and perhaps discover unexpected treasures that belong in the writing in some way or other.

In addition, here are the pages from this site for craft and revising and tips on self-editing (used for the booklet we gave our yesterday). And Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog has TONS of resources for writers too (pay special attention to psychic distance). In addition, a special mention for the excellent and very successful online course on self-editing your novel run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

Thanks again to Kellie and Emma for having me along. Forthcoming salons will have speakers talking about character (17 October), plot and story (14 November), and historical fiction (5 December). Hope to see you there.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 60: Word Power


This is an exercise to help with revising, but it could also be used in other contexts. It builds on Friday Writing Experiment No. 9: A Word.

* Take some key word from a piece you are working on and do some rooting around in the history of that word, e.g., at Etymonline.com.

E.g., let’s say you are writing a story about a witch – let’s take a look at magic. One bit of this Etymonline definition that I take away is the following:

to be able, to have power (see machine)

So: really think about the relevance of your finding to your piece of writing. In this case, how does your writing embody, feel, think, bring to life (in this case) this idea of having power or ability? And how are various aspects of craft working with this idea, and how might they be developed within the work?

* Set a timer for five minutes, and write these thoughts out in your notebook by hand, e.g., for the words magic/ability/power: Magic is important to me/my book as … The idea of ability can be embodied in my book through … My characters show their powers by … I have found magic in my world/family in …

You might event want to copy out the definition first: see which words excite you as you write them down. You can also do this with a passage of your own writing. Which words sizzle as you write them?

* Continue to reflect on this definition further, and see what else you might need to bring out in your drafting and revising.

* Most of all: how are you giving the reader something of this definition in the writing? Writing is always an act of giving. Writing is a gift to someone else.

Further note: Don’t worry too much about the precise origins of a word. Sometimes they will have direct correspondences with the place or time you are writing about, and that sort of synchronicity has a magic of its own. The goddess is looking down on you! But, too, sometimes word histories can come from entirely different places, and unless you are writing about a particular context using particular constraints that doesn’t really matter. What matters is making the writing you are doing in the here and now relevant and powerful.

(If you are writing fiction, especially, your duty is to use your imagination rather than labour some other form of truth that might never be proven anyway.)

New Pages Of Resources On Self-Editing And Revising



I’m tidying up my site (bear with me! one day maybe I shall understand how drop-down menus work their magic …). I’ve just added a couple of extra pages:

* Suggestions For Self-Editing – practical tips on drafting and revising
* Revising: A Craft Checklist – thinking about techniques that bring your writing to life

The text is adapted from handouts I often give to clients or share in workshops. I am sure the content of those pages might change in due course.

The Resources page includes lots of other recommendations and links to further guidance on writing, publishing, and the writer’s life.

If you have any of your own ideas for other resources that are useful for writers, please add your own suggestions in a post below.