A Revision Checklist

This was the week I said goodbye to George Saunders and his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I’ve learned so much from him that I worry it will be impossible to sum up, but I have to try. So here goes. My top lessons from Saunders over the semester so far:

  • An initial complication must arrive quickly and, if it is in any way predictable, be dealt with quickly, so the story can find a new route to explore.
  • Stories do two things: create an expectation and respond to that expectation (134). A pattern is the easiest way to create an expectation.
  • Readers notice patterns, and the more an object, action, or line is repeated, the more they will expect it to mean something—to lead somewhere by the end.
    • Still, each repetition must vary the pattern in a way that points to the ultimate meaning.
  • Descriptions must always strike a tone, echoing the mood of the story or the character, as “a little poem that adjusts our understanding of the story” (28).
  • If a character has been ruminating on something (“nobody likes me” or “Marya adores me, and I don’t know how to get her off my back”), it’s great to show that reality in action to help the reader understand whether this character’s perspective is reliable (for example, Marya is the local barista, and when he orders coffee, it becomes plain to us—though not to the character—that she loathes him).
  • Readers always read characters “against” each other; be conscious of the juxtapositions you’re creating. They’re just as necessary as plot in order to create meaning.
  • Saunders argues that all stories are a unit for the transfer of emotional energy, which must be fully delivered to the reader by the end.
  • The reader pulls along a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing,” and by the end of the story, all those things need to add up, to be of a piece. Otherwise, readers feel cheated, and the story seems inefficient (disorganized, messy).
  • “The whole experience of reading fiction might be understood as a series of ‘establishings’, stabilizations, and alterations” (88).
  • Saunders claims that a story becomes a story when the main character encounters something that changes them. They may not take the lesson, their life may not change, but it’s nonetheless a point of no return.
  • Pacing (or plotting) is really all about choosing the next meaningful event, and to do that, you may have to leap forward in time. And to choose the next meaningful event, you must have as specific a character as possible: “in specificity lies nascent plot” (142).
  • Escalation requires that no beats are repeated (153).
  • Causality is what sets good stories apart. Not only do beats escalate, but also each beat causes the next. This facilitates both energy transference and the creation of meaning.
  • To show that a character’s mind has changed (or is changing), show them performing a habitual behavior that we’ve seen before, but this time that behavior has an utterly different effect on them.
  • Reading is less effortful when we’re told things—even thoughts—matter-of-factly and what we’re being told “strikes the reader as true” of the world and human behavior (219).
  • Writers have three ways to convince a reader that their world is real:
    • Verisimilitude (defamiliarization)
    • Sequence of events (we believe things really do happen that way)
    • Psychological physics (this is how people really behave)
  • In stories with bizarre, surreal, or magical events, meaning is made not by the event itself but by characters’ responses to it.
  • For both narration and character choices, it’s important to remember Saunders’ tenet: “I think, therefore I am wrong.” Characters inevitably mishear and misinterpret, which leads them to behave in ways that worsen their plight.
  • Digressions can also simply add fun and joy to the story when unimportant details are shared with “strange, happy confidence” (300).
  • Voice itself can be the key to a story as long as:
    • Its energy remains high.
    • It continues to sound like itself.
    • It escalates by confronting new things that it must expand itself to absorb.
    • It selects objects on which you have strong opinions.
    • It isn’t distracted by “knowing-in-advance” or “an original conception” of structure, theme, and ending (308).
  • When making revisions, use the question “Does this delight me?” as a guide (310). Always notice your own line-by-line reaction to what you’ve written, trust that reaction, and change the text accordingly. The real goal is “getting better at hearing that voice and acting on its behalf” (345).
  • Contradictions within characters invite the reader to entertain multiple perspectives at once, seeing how each character—and their unique ideology—can be both correct and incorrect all at once.
    • ALWAYS prevent stories from becoming “a one-dimensional position paper” through self-complication (335).
  • What distinguishes masterpieces is that they are “highly organized systems” (344) with:
    • “a tight, escalatory pattern.”
    • Causation that “is more pronounced and intentional.”
  • Each time we introduce a new feature of a character (or town, etc.), it must be used later in the story.
  • When realistically the effect of an experience might not unfold for years or decades, we must condense things by making it more urgent—accidents, impending death, etc.
  • While reading, ask yourself:
    • What do I know so far?
    • What am I curious about? (“Curiosity is a form of caring” -14)
    • Where do I think it’s headed?
    • What repetitions and variations do I noticed?
    • How do brief scenes and descriptions advance the story, shift the tone, or adjust our understanding?
    • What juxtapositions does the author create? What do they convey/what feelings do they create?
    • Is it a story yet? Why/why not?
    • What stood out as I read, and how are they woven together by the end?


Featured Photo by Kateryna Babaieva


Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: