Authors: George Saunders on Revision

Last night I discovered this video of George Saunders giving a talk at Google.  I guess Google hosts these talks by authors, musicians, artist, etc.  I was pretty intrigued since I hadn’t seen him speak in public (with the exception of an appearance on the Colbert Report.)  With my favorite authors, there’s always this fear around seeing their personas: what if the guy is a total dick?  Or awkward and stiff?  Boring even.  Not warranted.  Saunders gave a great reading of “Escape from Spiderhead” and had a lot of interesting (and funny) things to say.

Saunders revises in this obsessive, iterative style, just reading the story again and again, making small or large tweaks here and there, until the thing is done.  This process can take a very long time.  Obviously, there’s nothing too earth shattering about this.  Most writers do some form of iterative revision.  What I found interesting, though, is what he pays attention to during that revision: sentences and words first off.  Does this sentence actually do anything? Is it interesting?  No?  Delete.  For example, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” was, at one point, almost two hundred pages long.  Quoi?  Did you say two hundred pages long?  Yup.  Now it’s, what, a twelve page story?  Saunders spent ten years with this story, going through this obsessive, iterative revision process, ultimately chopping a hundred and sixty plus pages.  What I loved about this anecdote is that it showed me in no uncertain terms the work, the time, the patience, and the dedication involved for those of us who actually want to be able to call ourselves writers.  

The other thing Saunders pays attention to is his imaginary reader, whom he describes as being intelligent and skeptical.  Obviously he wants to win this person over.  So as he writes and revises, he gauges what he’s reading with this imaginary meter–on one side of the meter, it shows he’s doing really well.  On the other side, it shows he’s doing poorly.  He tries to always keep it on the “doing well” side.  If he reads a sentence or passage and finds the meter slipping to the “doing poorly” side, he stops and tries to figure out what’s going on.  Then he fixes it.  I thought this was a really valuable insight into the revision process.  I’ve caught myself many times, sensing that I hadn’t done well in a given passage or scene, but just kind of ignoring it, or glossing over it.  This isn’t going to fly.  And that’s why it sometimes takes ten years.  You have to fix everything–no dead spots allowed.

This talk gave me a lot to think about.  It’s well worth fifty minutes of your time.  And I am really looking forward to hearing George Saunders’s voice in my head the next time I read “Escape From Spiderhead.”


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