Man Booker and National Book Award winners offer advice on writing

George Saunders and Jesmyn Ward are two of the largest Goliaths in the literary world right now. Saunders, a noted short story master, won the Man Booker for his first ever novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, took home the award again for Sing, Unburied, Sing.

I was lucky enough to interview both of them in 2017. You can read both interviews at Electric Literature and The Millions, respectively. Ward’s writing advice comes from a sub-section of the interview I did for my friends at Writer’s Bone. Here are excerpts from those interviews regarding advice to writers.

Saunders on MFAs, editing, and showmanship

What are some of those showmanship tricks that often see younger writers using?

Saunders: There are a bunch of them and we all tried them. Sometimes it is enacting a super intellectual stance or doing crazy time jumps. It can be almost anything. It manifests in a sort of autopilot. The analogy can be if you go on a date and you’re trying to impress the other person and you talk about how much money you have. The other person will realize you’re not trying to relate but trying to master them with a fact. Or someone who is funny and they tell jokes for three hours. There is a sense of avoidance; you’re not really engaging with the other person as an equal being. I think that reads as condescension or avoidance. It comes in a million different flavors. We’ve all tried it. I would do it if I tried to write a story now. It’s called a “first draft.”

That’s normal; it’s what people do.

In the application process, we will find someone who engages efficiently. It’s not about telling some truth. Often I think it’s about being brave enough to leave your original concepts and ideas at the door. Leave it all behind and write to the energy of what the story is giving. [Finding something engaging] is like that old definition of porn: you know it when you see it. If you read 200 manuscripts, it will jump out at you. I’ll read 15 manuscripts and think, “I don’t know” but then 16 comes and you’re running out to tell your wife and you’re laughing with the story.

You mentioned how all writers try that showmanship and it’s called a first draft. I know you’ve talked about it at length before, but I feel it’s always worth revisiting: how important is revising to you?

Saunders: It’s the whole ball of wax. It’s very liberating because it means you can cough out a shit ball and then start working on it. You don’t have to have that writer’s block mentality. You can just play. You can write something and then revise it until it sits up on its own.

I discovered that approach organically. It’s so nice because it simplifies your writing life. You never have to worry about a “good idea” because you can start with a “bad idea” and turn it into a good one by paying attention to where it’s stupid.

I like revision just as a stress reducer. Because I know what I like and I can find it easier. I’ve noticed from years of doing it that, through this process, the person appearing — the author — is so much better than me. He’s smarter, less dishonest, funnier. It’s an addictive thing to realize that you can squeeze a better version of yourself out through the process.

Ward on exciting student writers, her process, and revision

What excites you in the undergraduate writers you teach at Tulane University?

Ward: The writers who take my courses write across multiple genres. Some are writing YA, fantasy, or surreal literary novels. It just depends on the student. I love it all. What really attracts me to my students work and what makes me appreciate them is the passion that they have. I think that comes out in the work even if the work is not that polished or developed as it could be. That’s what I’m there for. I’m there to help them develop and polish it. Their passion for writing, telling stories, and creating worlds is what attracts me to their work.

Once you get going with a draft for a novel, do you have a set writing process?

Ward: I am a very linear writer. I work from the beginning to the end. I start at the first chapter and end at the last chapter. I don’t revise as I’m going because I feel if I stop to revise the things that I’ve written that I will get bogged down and will never complete the book. So I don’t revise and I just write straight through. I try to write for at least two hours a day for five days a week. Sometimes that is easier. I have two children, so when I have child support for them or when they’re in school is when it’s easier for me to do that. Sometimes I have to patch those hours together. I’ll wake up early and work for an hour then work for an hour later in the day when I have time.

I feel like the more disciplined I am about writing for two hours a day five days a week then the easier it is for me to access my creativity. I think it takes less time to sink into the world and to do the writing I need to do when it’s something I do five days a week. That’s how you write a book: it’s something you work at every day pretty regularly for at least a year if not a year and a half or two years. And that’s considered fast. I know some people take a decade on a book. I understand why.

It’s all about hours of dedication and discipline.

Once you get the draft done, what does your revision process look like? What do you look for?

Ward: The way that I revise is a little weird. I finish the first draft and then I let it sit for a month. I’ll work on other small things during that time and then I go back. I’ll read through the rough draft. Just read and take notes about things that need to be revised, changes that need to be made, things that can be cut or moved around, or whatever. I make a list and go through that list. I’ll concentrate on one thing on the list while reading through the draft. I devote an entire revision to just one aspect or one correction.

If I need to develop a character, then I’ll go through and develop a character throughout a revision. I’ll cross it off the list and go back again to concentrate on another aspect. My list can have 12 or 13 items on it. That list is just things I’ve noticed. If I went into a revision with the aim of correcting all thirteen of those things I feel I would miss something. It’s easier for me to focus on one thing through a revision. I revise twelve or thirteen times before I feel confident enough to show my work to a group of first readers.

First readers are just people that I’ve gone to school with, other writers I met at Stanford or Michigan. I’ll email them a draft and ask for their help. After a couple of months, they’ll give me suggestions and I’ll go back in and revise based on their feedback. That might take six or eight revisions. Once I’ve done that I feel confident enough that I won’t embarrass myself and I’ll send it to my editor.

And then [laughs] we revise for months. I mean, it is definitely a process. I’m the kind of writer who feels nothing is ever perfect when it’s fresh. The first rough draft is never perfect. I actually enjoy revision because writing that first rough draft is difficult. It’s different work because you’re creating this world and characters from nothing. It takes a different literary muscle than going back in and revising.

Revising is more enjoyable and more fun for me. I already have something, so at least I have the security of knowing I have something to work with on the page. Then it’s all about shaping. I enjoy knowing the security of just having to focus on making something better.

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