A periodic column written by award-winnning New York editor Michael Seidman

Stet #3

Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side

by Michael Seidman

December 2003

There’s an approach I try to convince those aspiring to first publication to try. It sounds strange to most, particularly those who grew up with computers and word processors, rather than on IBM Selectrics or Underwood manuals: Re-key your manuscript, I advise. After you’ve edited on the hardcopy, rather than just search and replace, rekey. It takes a while longer, but the results are amazing. Some listen.

A few too many years ago, I was speaking at a critique group meeting and one of the members complained about my never requesting submissions from the members, so why was I invited back time and again. I explained that I thought it was more important to teach, to sit and edit manuscripts with them, that the submission requests would come later-after they’d learned how to write. The person complaining about my approach said, “I know how to write; I need to learn how to sell.” Apparently, she hasn’t.

Rekey? That takes so much time. It’s counterproductive and counter intuitive: I have a word processing program so that I don’t have to do that. Is it any less counterproductive to send out manuscript after rejected manuscript? Just because you get them out more quickly doesn’t mean you’re going to sell any sooner.

For those of us old enough to remember the early days of word processing, another memory lingers: that of the writers in the generation before saying: “I write words, I don’t process them.” (We can argue the semantics of that at some other time.) It is because of what is lost when we don’t retype that they felt that way. The writing process is a strange and wonderous thing: as you type, even if you’re copying something, you find yourself re-visioning and creating new scenes and dialogue and action. You are really rewriting. It doesn’t matter how many changes you penciled on the manuscript itself, it is when you’re at the keyboard that material is born. Search and replace doesn’t accomplish that; it doesn’t free the imagination.

Every editor, every agent, and every successful writer has been approached by someone at a party or a conference, someone who complains about how the editors and agents treat them, about how you have to know someone, about how they do everything right but none of us on the other side of the process will give them a chance, give them a shot. Every editor, every agent, and every successful writer will, at best, nod in commiseration; we will also forget you and the comments before either of us is out of the room.

Good writing (defined for this moment as writing that will be sold) is not a matter of knowing the guidelines; it is not a matter of studying one or another of the books that promise to teach all you have to know about writing a mystery or romance, that tell you that you will learn how to write a bestseller. It is not a matter of studying the arcs and scenes and or anything else in your favorite writers’ books and doing the same thing: you can’t do the same thing because your view, what you see and what you have to say (even in the most basic of entertainment novels there are things you say) is different, it is personal…it is you.

And the you is in how you express what you want to say. One of the leading causes of rejection, even of novels that fulfill all the guidelines, is the fact that they’re boring. They do not resonate. They are flat. You may have a scene and sequel in place but if the reader doesn’t care, reading stops. Simply because there is a murder doesn’t mean the reader cares enough about the victim to want to arrive at a solution. Just because a woman is (or is not) in love with a man doesn’t mean we’ll care about what happens. You have to make us care, you have to engage and maintain our interest.

You do that with language. While I have nothing against those so-called five dollar words, language doesn’t mean using the OED; it does mean making the thesaurus an essential volume; when the same words appear time and again, always used in the same manner to describe something, nothing gets described.

Manuscripts otherwise good fail not because we don’t have the right contacts but because too many of us don’t have the right words. We have a rich ore of language to mine…dig for it.

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About Michael Seidman

MICHAEL SEIDMAN is an editorial consultant working with individuals and publishers. He can be reached at mseidman@aol.com.