In yet more goodness from July’s Mayborn Conference, we’re happy to post this conversation between Colin Harrison, who is currently senior editor at Scribner, and S.C. “Sam” Gwynne, author of “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which Harrison edited. A first-time book author, Gwynne is also a senior writer at the Dallas Morning News and contributing editor at Texas Monthly. Harrison, who has written five novels, previously spent a dozen years as an editor at Harper’s. In these excerpts from their chat, we find out about the dangers of front running, learn how readers come to resent writers, and watch as Harrison demonstrates his legendary skills on stage.
Gwynne: Actually, the process is really quite simple. I write the book. Colin prints the book. And it goes into bookstores, and everybody comes and buys it. What’s to understand there?
Anyway, today we hope to offer a little bit of a practical look at the way a book gets made, and the gimmick is “The Editor and the Writer.” He sees it, obviously, from a different perspective than I do.
I read this book by Walter Prescott Webb 10 years ago called “The Great Plains.” It had a chapter on the Comanches. It suggested the theory that the Comanches were this great force of nature that existed on the plains that determined the way that American history was done, the way the continent was settled. I thought, “Wow.” I mean, I’m a kid from the Northeast. I know something about the Algonquins and Pequots, and maybe a Wampanoag or two, but not Comanches.
And I went out and did the bibliographic field trip that you have to do. I read 20 books, and I probably reviewed another 100. And indeed, what I found was this incredible litany of stuff that the Comanches were responsible for. Who stopped the Spanish in their northern expansion of empire into North America? The Comanches. Who stopped the French from coming west from Louisiana? The Comanches. It was fear of the Comanches that led the Mexicans to invite white settlers into Texas as a buffer against the Comanches that they dreaded. Of course this sort of backfired on the Mexicans. There were these little annoyances called the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto as well. It was the only place in America where you had a 40-year war along almost a static frontier. It was the longest and most brutal of all the American wars. They account for the invention of the Texas Rangers. They account for the invention of the six-shooter. They were the prototype horse tribe; they were called the greatest light cavalry on earth.
In addition to all this, you have one of the great sagas of the American West, which is the story of little Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine-year-old girl with blond hair, kidnapped about 90 miles south of here. She became one of the tribe, assimilated famously as “the white squaw who would not return.” She married a chief. Her son Quanah Parker became the last of the great Comanche chiefs.
Pretty good material, right? Not bad. So I went out and I wrote a proposal and sent it to a friend of mine from Austin named David McCormick. I sent him this proposal all about the epic sweep of history, and David calls back and he goes, “Well, Sam, there’s probably a book in here somewhere, but you know…” It was one of those conversations, and I thought, “Oh.”
So what I did is I went back – and this is as good a lesson as you can draw from my experience here – and I turned what amounted to a subject into a story. An old editor of mine used to constantly say, “It’s a subject, not a story.” What I had done was I had done a Michener-esque compendium, A to Z, soup to nuts: “Many millions of years ago when there were just amino acids and proteins…” I think it had that feel to it. Colin never saw this version of it.
By the way, in that proposal that I had written, Cindy Ann was certainly there, with Quanah and the Parkers, but it was just kind of a piece that you got to when you got to it. So what I went back and did was say, “OK, I need to write this nice intimate history in the middle of the great history.” What happened then was the proposal that became a book that had parallel narrative, which I didn’t understand at all then. The great epic sweep of history was there, but in the middle of it, this wonderfully intimate tale of the Parker clan. In effect, the structure we ended up with was alternating chapters. Big picture, little picture, big picture, little picture, and then they merge.
Agents love this. They loved that book proposal. By the way, David didn’t end up being my agent. Amy Hughes is my agent, and she works for him. Amy sends it out. I don’t know what agents do, exactly. It’s all black magic, but they sent it out in two waves. As I recall, there may have been two editors, there may have been three, in each wave. The first two waves didn’t produce anything, just some nice notes and rejections. The third stage was Colin. Stage direction: “ENTER Colin [trumpet blares].” This is where Colin and I meet professionally.
Harrison: What happens if you’re sitting in my chair is that you’re getting proposals and manuscripts constantly. There’s just this continuous river that comes to my desk via email. While I’m working on projects – at any given time I might have 25 projects underway – there are these potential new projects that come in. In the course of a year, it might be 400, maybe, and I might buy 10 or 15. So there’s a pressure to look at stuff and come to some kind of initial reaction.
If you’re an editor, not only do you react to the material, you are reacting to your reaction. “How do I feel about this?” Sam’s proposal came in, and I am not someone who is interested in Comanches or the history of the American West, but if something grabs my eye and my spider sense is tingling that there’s a story here, I get interested. So I’m a generalist. And his book came in and it looked fabulous. I think, “Hey, there’s a big story here. There are characters in this story who you can identify with. It’s complex. There’s a female protagonist. There’s the male protagonist. There’s blood. There’s American history. What’s not to like?” At that point, I began a kind of deeper level of scrutiny. It’s not that I have the time to go out and read all the books that ever been written about the Comanches. I can’t do that.
If I’m interested in a book proposal, I’ll call up the agent and I’ll make noises that indicate that I’m interested but in no way committing to them. The first thing that I want to do under these circumstances is talk to the writer. When you’re an editor working with writers, you get into bed with these writers for a period of time. So the first thing I want to know about a writer is “Is the writer crazy?” There are a lot of crazy writers. After that, I want to know if the writer has done his or her homework. What are the conditions under which this book is going to be written? Lots of things like that.
So I got on the phone with Sam and started to chew the fat a little bit. I have ways of asking questions that are about the project and about the writers. I want to sniff around the situation a little bit, too. The fact that Sam was a seasoned magazine writer and editor was fantastic, because I had spent 12 years at a magazine before becoming a book editor, and we knew very quickly through a jargony shorthand how each other had worked in the past – the pressure we had been under to solve structural issues, language issues, and so forth. We were able to accelerate the dialogue a little bit and actually build a kind of trust.
If you think about it, it’s a highly risky endeavor. I’m sitting in my office in New York City. Sam is down here in Texas. There is pressure to make a deal. The deals are usually conducted on an artificial clock, because the agent wants to create intensity and is pounding editors to make an offer. It’s like speed dating or something. The dialog can be very accelerated, but I knew that I wanted to pursue this.
Gwynne: Colin and I talked, and I think that the magazine background helped a lot. We’re really just journalism guys. We’re working stiffs. We do stories and things like that. But in this case, with this particular book, trying to bring this subject, which hadn’t been brought to a national audience since 1974, the issue was perfect for two generalists: Harper’s magazine and Time magazine. We’d worked for large numbers of people. You’re not allowed to digress for 60 pages. You have to get to it quickly. You have to have a nut graf, and you have to move.
Harrison: Anyway, we bought the book, and then that’s the point at which Sam and I really start our relationship. The paperwork and contract follow, it takes months sometimes. “Don’t worry about that; get started.” And what I like to do in a certain sense is to have an organizing conversation.
“All right, here we are – congratulations! Now what?” And we talk about how we’re going to work together. I work with lots of different kinds of writers, and I usually say to writers, “I can work however you like to work.” That doesn’t meanthat’s the way we work eventually. Sometimes you have to be a little more aggressive. I’ve had writers who fall in deep depressions, and I’ve had to grab them, pick them up and shake them a little bit: “Let’s go. What are you doing?” In the case of Sam, we agreed he would get to work and then show me a couple chapters.
Gwynne: By that point, I had decided that I could not be one of these historians who goes out for years and years and years, that squirrels away 18 cubic feet of materials, and when it’s all there, then you start to write. I’ve been writing on deadline for too long. So, the way I wrote the book was to say, “I’m going to research a chapter and then write it, just like I’d write it for a magazine.” That was the start, and I went off and started writing, but Colin in the early going trained me in a certain way.
Harrison: Under these circumstances, what I want is the writer to be writing and to be making progress. When I get the first couple chapters, as in the case of Sam’s book, there are really three important things that I need to do at that point.
I need to make sure Sam feels good about what he’s doing, because the last thing I want to do is to inject some level of anxiety or doubt into him and freeze him up or slow him down. This gets into the relationship between the editor and the writer. It’s very complex, it’s very intimate sometimes and kind of psychologically close. I needed to make sure that Sam knew and felt – felt is the more important aspect of this – that I liked what I saw. That’s No. 1.
No. 2, I needed to register for myself some of the things that I was aware of that the manuscript needed. I took notes on these, but these are things that I would not bring up now.
And No. 3, there were a few things I wanted him to be aware of as he went forward. There were secondary issues. And I knew that from all of his experience that he would listen to what I had to say and could incorporate it quickly, that it wasn’t a big deal to incorporate.
Gwynne: I was given the big picture, but I wasn’t being nickeled and dimed. It was ‘attaboy’ all the way, with a few course corrections.
Harrison: I say this over and over and over again: Writing a book is hard to do. It’s hard to write even a mediocre book. I have tremendous sympathy and empathy for what writers go through. I’ve gone through it myself, and I’ve been around writing long enough that I know how hard it is. I want the writer to feel supported and taken care of and to be feeling very positive about this. I knew Sam was spending enormous amounts of time and energy driving out to small libraries in the middle of nowhere digging through texts and Xeroxing letters from 150 years ago. I knew he was going through all this, and in his mind was this sort of platonic version of the book that he had glimpsed at some point and was trying desperately to assemble and get it there. That’s got to stay in front of the writer; the writer can’t get bogged down in all the other things that an editor gets bogged down in.
One of the things we look for in editing writers is what kind of engine does he have? Is this a writer who works? Writers who work announce themselves without even trying. They turn stuff over quickly, they’re responsive and they get it done. I could tell Sam was getting it done, and if Sam is getting it done, I’m going to be responsive to him and get back to him as fast as I can. I’m going to try to keep the metabolism of the project moving.
Then we started running into some structural issues.
Gwynne: Eventually we did, but some smaller things did come up along the way. In magazines, there’s a kind of breezy tone and diction that’s characterized by short sentences and dashes.
Gwynne: M-dashes and short sentences. The issue of voice was important, too. At one point, you called it the voice of god. You didn’t want the snarky little plebeian voice, you wanted more of a mandarin – I don’t know what the right word is – a kind of high voice of history, an authoritative voice. Sometimes I would really break that plane, and you would point that out. And I got that right away.
Harrison: What else was there?
Gwynne: The front running.
Harrison: Front running is a stock trading term. It comes from when somebody knows a big order, a sell or buy order, is going to come through the market. And you get your own order out in front of it to get ahead of it in order to benefit from the coming big order.
In my job, I am constantly working on structure with writers. One of the things that writers will do, especially in a story that’s complex, is they will front run their own story. This assumes there is a more or less continuous chronological spine through the narrative. Either out of anxiety that they’re not telling the story with enough dynamic energy, or typically out of enthusiasm to get to the good stuff, they will hop ahead and flash forward, and as a result, undercut the material preceding and following that, and also make the reader work too hard.
You want the reader to achieve a level of unconsciousness, really, where the reader has forgotten that he or she is reading and has entered into this world and is having this fabulous experience called “reading Sam’s book.” If the story is getting too complex – there’s probably some brain science about this – if the reader’s ability to engage imaginatively with all the senses is shut down, some kind of supercerebral cortex and has to come into play: “Oh, wait a minute, this goes there, and that goes there. I have to assemble the story because I’m not getting it easily.”
Gwynne: It’s like I got trained. The first half of the book, you saw that; the second half you didn’t see that. The classic example for front running I can give you is where I had this a chapter on Ranald MacKenzie—I call him the anti-Custer. He was actually America’s most successful Indian fighter, but nobody’s ever heard of him. He was obscure in his success, while Custer was famous in failure.
So I started this one chapter, it was this very poetic scene-setting where MacKenzie was dying. it was his obituary in New York, “he died insane and forgotten.” I started the chapter with this, and then had this nice little flashback into the past. But in fact, it was like getting into a book and then you read, “And then they got run over by a truck.” You don’t want to get there yet. You want to find out what happened to Ranald MaKenzie not be told and then flash back, because I just destroyed all the tension. As a writer, I didn’t really see that. That’s pure editing.
Harrison: He got excited about using that material, but he’d forgotten MacKenzie is going to be fighting the Indians. If we’re reading the account of him fighting the Indians and know that he died forgotten in a hotel in New York City, we don’t care. When I’m watching him fighting the Indians, he could be killed at any minute.
Gwynne: It destroyed suspense and tension.
Then we were talking about narrative pacing. At one point, I had this crazy chapter where I had one four-page chapter, and then something like a 92-page chapter. And you said, “In fact, chapters need to be somewhat paced and chopped up into nice chunks.” I remember that, too. My chapters got more orderly and had less of this kind of wild vacillation.
Harrison: One of the things that I think books need to do is — and I’ve come to awareness only recently – books need to teach their readers how to read them. It sounds sort of crazy, but what is a book? A book is a machine of language. It’s a system.
There’s enormous potential complexity in every story and in every way you tell a story. Some stories are so complex that you have to overtly, as a writer, explain to your reader what’s about to happen. Other books don’t have to be so overt, but there needs to be a transaction between the writer and the reader fairly early on, so that the reader can set his or her reading dials. “What kind of attention am I going to have to spend here? Am I having an intellectual experience, a visceral experience?” Or in the case of Sam, both?
What is the cadence of the book, what is the reading cadence of the book? If it’s James Patterson, where there’s three chapters every four pages, that’s one thing. In the case of Sam, there’s an arc, there’s a wheel, there’s a unit, there’s emotional transaction, whatever you want to call it. A chapter takes us from one place to the next, it comes to a stasis of rest, repose, and then begins again. If you mess with that too much, the reader is off balance. It’s like playing tennis, and the balls are sometimes coming at you 100 miles an hour or 10 miles an hour. It gets tiring, and the reader begins to be aware of being tired by the structure of the book and at some level resents the writer.
Gwynne: You mentioned structure. Structural editing – there are people who really need a lot of line editing. I’m not one of those people. I hope you would agree with that.
Harrison: I agree with that.
Gwynne: I’ve been an editor. Editors tend not to need as much line editing, but for me, structural editing is what I need. When I did my due diligence on Colin and I found out who he had edited at Harper’s, we didn’t go into it. I know he wouldn’t call himself legendary, but the people he’s edited sure as hell would.
I just went and lost my train of thought…
Gwynne: Oh, structure. Right! Colin was and is famous as a structural editor.
Here’s an example, in a history, you have this great horizontal sea of facts, and at any moment you can go deep. In my book, the opportunities to dive deep are infinite. Let’s just take Sam Houston, or let’s take the six-shooter, or the Rangers, or the Spanish conquest of North America, or the development of the horse. It just keeps going.
I made two significant structural mistakes. The most significant was at the end of my book. The hero of my books is Quanah Parker, the last great chief of the Comanches. I got to the end of the book, to the reservation period, and I don’t know if this was get-there-it is, or whether I was tired or what, but I kind of ended it pretty quickly. That was an example where I failed to go deep enough.
And the other piece was that I had this big, long essay on the Parker clan early on. And at some point you said it was kind of boring. As soon as you said it, I just took out 10,000 words, because it stopped the narrative cold. It wasn’t that the Parkers were boring; you just couldn’t go there right then. The thing had to move.
As a historian – I don’t know how many other people who write history would agree with me – the whole issue is where you are diving deep. That’s the whole issue. Where along that line do you go down and how far down do you go? Everybody’s been kind of dissing academic historians this weekend, but I would argue that at some point, they just dive, and they go all the way. They do a data dump, which is enormously useful as a researcher, and in research, I love it. But going that deep is too deep for a reader to follow; they’re just going to get lost. So I thought one of the best things about our collaboration was you keeping me at an appropriate level of depth.
Harrison: A book properly written, like Sam’s, has what I call a channel. You want to keep that story moving along that channel, you don’t want to go sideways, you don’t want to stop; you don’t want to go down. I need to make sure that there’s that sense of progression and energy forward. I think about the channel of the book, the channel of the narrative, a lot.