In the last of my current series of guest posts from authors with new books out, a big welcome to Drew Gummerson with his thoughts on that most crucial aspect of writing – the editing process.
Certain books, written quickly, are infamous; Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, dashed off while on the bog, written in a cramped hand along the length of a single roll of toilet paper(*), Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, 2 weeks in the making, squashed between Bukowski’s bar brawls and unsuccessful attempts at picking up Women(*), (his next book, 3 days later(*)).
(Sequestered once in hotel room Bukowski refused to appear on same bill as one and only Burroughs, William (now he was editor; cut text with scissors, scatter text across floor, shoot heroin, piece text back together. For many years Burroughs carried pages of Naked Lunch (deconstructed / constructed) gripped with single elastic-band in suitcase across Paris / Tangier / Interzone.(*))
But for most of us, as Morrissey sang, These Things Take Time.
(And I know that I’m the most inept that ever stepped…)
The best advice I ever got about editing came backwards through a crude joke on The Inbetweeners. This crude joke was about having a numb hand and masturbation.
It’s better all round if you no longer feel it’s yours. (**)
When I finished the first draft of Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel I put it away for six months.
It was only then I had the right perspective to be brutal, see what worked / what didn’t. So I could slash and burn. And, I honestly couldn’t remember where it was going.
It was fresh.
And that’s where the real work started.
In this excellent New York Times article, Jenny Offill talks of how she put extracts of her new novel Weather onto poster-boards and it was only, through time, by looking at them, she could ascertain which ones sparkled, which ones weren’t merely clever.
In that first draft it’s all too easy, like Alice falling down her well, to be pleased with yourself. Time gives clear head to tidy up (delete) these sections which don’t sparkle, aren’t clever (I mean, who wrote this shit?).
On twitter Ronan Hession (writer of the wonderful Leonard and the Hungry Paul(**)) gave the Sound Advice of, when editing, to read the chapters in reverse order. This,
“1. Stops you getting distracted by the story.
2. Reveals a lot about flow… if a book reads well backwards it’s a good indication that it reads well forwards.”
Same as putting text away in drawer it is about finding a different way of looking / disrupting gaze.
And of going over and over it.
George Saunders spent 14 years(**) writing his short story The Semplica Girl Diaries
His editing process was to write reams and reams of stuff trying to find the character. It was only by writing in character’s voice that the nuggets of genius that made it into the story came out.
The rest was discarded.
But read what the man himself says, this is George freaking Saunders.
Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel was written on my iPhone, sitting at my kitchen table, most often before I went to work. Just an hour or two.
Having once been an obsessive writer I made a deal (with myself) a number of years ago that I would keep my evenings free for movies, music, books etc etc etc (wine).
In those few hours, like Offill I ended up with many dozens of pieces / fragments / sketches.
The trick was to work on them work on them work on them and, as Saunders suggests, find the heart of what you are trying to say.
(*) – This is not exactly true.
(**) – This is exactly true.
Drew Gummerson is the author of The Lodger and Me and Mickie James. His latest book, Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel, is to be published in November 2020 by Bearded Badger Publishing