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The fourth line, and then the fifth line ...

As you know, I’m on a George Saunders kick at the moment, and this email closes a trilogy inspired by his Swim In A Pond In The Rain. More about all that in a second – but first up, just a word to say that there's some important housekeeping material in the first comment below this post. All important stuff - and you're quite likely to be affected, so do take a look.

Righty-ho. Editing. Writing and editing:-

I want to start with something Saunders says at the very beginning of his work. He says this:

Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring some painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: ‘But what do you like about the story?’ I whined. There was a long pause. And Bill said this: ‘Well, I read a line. And I like it … enough to read the next.’

… I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this idea over the years. I don’t need a big theory of fiction to write it. I don’t have to worry about anything but: Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?

In a way, that’s the whole deal, right? If someone enjoys our writing enough to read it through at a happy canter, we’ve won. Some readers will find more in a book than others. Some people will rank us higher or lower than some other comparable authors. But don’t be fussy. If someone reads our work, line by line, to the end, we’ve done what we came to do.

In the past week or two, I’ve run a self-editing webinar where I live-edited about 1000 words of text, over the space of about an hour. We also spent time, you and I, with that white chairs / green terraces exercise, where we all spent a lot of time trying to find a way to say something simple in about ten words (without, I think, yet finding a completely satisfactory answer.)

Many of you will have felt a little frustrated by the amount of time I’m willing to spend on apparently minor things. (Does whitely work as an adjective? Can Dan talk about his sister standing outside his door, when he doesn’t actually know if she’s standing or not?)

And, just to be clear, I really am willing to spend time on minor things. When I fuss over minutiae on a webinar, I’m not putting on a show simply because I have an hour-long gig to deliver. I’m doing in public what I do all the time in private. The truth, indeed, is worse than you fear. In an hour-long webinar, I’m conscious of the need to entertain and keep moving. At home, with no one watching, I’ll just redo the same damn sentence as long as it takes to make me happy.

So yes: I am picky. And yes: I too subscribe to the Buford Theory of Fiction (BTF): If sentence N is good enough, they’ll read sentence N + 1, and …

According to that theory, micro-blockages in a piece of text can accumulate to lethal effect. If you write a sentence that forces the reader to pause and re-construe the sentence in her head, you’ve created a momentary interruption in the flow. A few such interruptions in the course of a book are perhaps inevitable. But two or three such blockages on a single page? That book is one that the BTF tells you will never be read.

So editing is good for that reason.

But Saunders says – let’s call this the Saunders Theory of Fiction, the STF – that editing is also the process that creates highly organised fiction (or, if you prefer, simply good fiction.) Here is Saunders again:

We can reduce all writing to this: we read a line, have a reaction to it, trust (accept) that reaction, and do something in response, instantaneously, by intuition.

That’s it.

Over and over.

It’s kind of crazy but, in my experience, that’s the whole game: (1) becoming convinced that there is a voice inside you that really, really knows what it likes, and (2) getting better at hearing that voice and acting on its behalf.

(I always like Gore Vidal’s way of saying something similar: ‘Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.’ That’s simple, reliable advice. Just apply it – and boom! Twenty years later, you’ll be a good writer.)

But Saunders presses home a wider point, which is that the repetitious action of read / react / change / re-read ends up building into something that is you, but is also bigger than you. More humane. Funnier. More observant. More insightful. More nuanced. More coherent.

On the one hand, you’re not that funny, that observant, that nuanced – but you can be a bit of all those things, sometimes. So you capture the funny when the funny is there. Four paragraphs later, a phrase floats onto the page that has more deftness, more nuance than the thing you replaced. Your page still isn’t that funny, or that nuanced, but what the hell? You’re only on round #4 of the editing. You’ve got lots more opportunities to find the humane / observant / funny / tender, etc. Each time you adjust the manuscript, the book will have more of you breathing in it, but a better, perfected sort of you.

What’s more, as the book takes shape, your story starts pushing things at you. The decisions you make about sentence 8 on page 197 are informed by the 196 pages you’ve already read and the 112 pages that follow (and whose content you already know.)

An example: my current work in progress is based in a secure psychiatric hospital on the west coast of Wales. The hospital has something of the air of a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself’, but my description of the hospital never quite found a way to make the surrounding ocean feel present and alive. There’s a scene where my character first arrives at the hospital, and I’d already reviewed and rewritten that scene a dozen or more times without finding a way to get the sea in there (or, indeed, realizing that I needed to.) But by the time I’d finished the book and had the whole of it, so to speak, in my hand, I felt precisely what the deficiency was and started – Saunders-like – to scramble towards a solution.

As that process continues, the themes and metaphors of the book will start to take shape and cohere, by themselves. I won’t be thinking, “Gee, need to make more of the sea-as-metaphor.” I’ll just react to sentences and scenes, and go on making my fiddlesome little corrections, until I start to get happy. And, based on past experience, I predict that when I get happy enough to say ‘Finished’, the book will have taken on enough complexity and coherence to be something of value in the world.

That’s all from me, but do remember to take a look immediately below in the comments, because there lurk truffles.

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Comments (23)
  • Can a memoir sit with severely crossed legs?

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    • Memoir sat, legs severely crossed, thinking of the time she'd made love there in wanton abandon.

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      • Personally I abandoned my wanton a while back...

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      • Glad to know I'm not the only one... I too "will just redo the same damn sentence as long as it takes to make me happy". And I too love editing because that's the only way to find your gems and make them shine, and make your story the best it can be.

        Writing is a bit like painting: first you nurse your idea in your head, then you do a rough sketch on the canvas, add bold colours, then comes the details, and even when it is already looking like a finished painting you still add a few more tiny brush strokes, here and there, a sharper detail, a stronger effect. 

        Harry's advice is excellent. If we follow it... Thank you Harry!


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        • "Congratulation Harry", It looks wonderful and am glad that am apart of a writing group of beautiful souls excellent advice.

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          • Harry, you are fabulous .... as is/are (?) Jericho Writers, one of the best clubs I’ve ever belonged to!  I used to be able to write more easily than I do now.  I cared about the structure, the words and the grammar.  However, the more I edit my work and the more I take on board from all your teachings, the more intimidated I become.   I have done at least three major edits (not counting the small ones along the way) and then thrown 300 pages on the floor in tears and frustration.  Recently, I realised that the work I liked best was somewhere in the middle of all of these edits so I’ve picked up the sheaves of paper and girding my loins yet again, am having one final attempt to find the enthusiasm and, indeed, love for my work.  It is all so much harder than I ever would have imagined.❤️

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            • All fun things are hard! And now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever seen a girded loin. Or perhaps I have, but I've never recognised it. Hmm. I wonder if anyone knows a good loin-girding service I could use ...?

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            • I suspect the service may be called Covid ;-) 

              I've really enjoyed this thread. I enjoy all of them but this one is extra useful, particularly at the moment. If you wanted to address another book, Harry, First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran is out there and available from all good bookshops.

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