A periodic column written by award-winnning New York editor Michael Seidman
Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side
by Michael Seidman
We know, dont we, that theres no magic bullet, no guaranteed way to make our writing perfect. Whats perfect, or even acceptably right, for one house, lets randomly say St. Martins Press, probably doesnt even begin to approach the needs of, well, lets say Random House.
Complicating matters further (as if they needed to be) is the fact that one of our basic questions has undergone a dire sea-change: Where once we wanted to know of the experts, whats hot?, whats selling?, whats up-and-coming?, these days we want to know, whos buying? Whos even looking at manuscripts?
The answer to that last question really is much simpler than you might expect. Everyone is looking; no one is prepared to stop publishing entirely. Warner Books didnt fold, it went on the auction block, after all. There will be a future. There will be publishers and bookstores, agents and editors, critics and readers (we hope therell be readers; otherwise the rest is moot).
So, we can safely continue to write, knowing that somewhere along the line there will be eyes willing to look at what weve penned, ears to hear what our characters say and pay attention to what we, as writers, have to say. (I hope, after all, that as a writer you have something to say, that your words have some meaning beyond their definitions.)
And that brings us back to the question of perfection. It also brings us back to the idea that there simply isnt a perfect manuscript, or there isnt as long as we discount our journals. But one of your tasks (how are you at multitasking?) is to come as close to that Platonic concept as you can. Writing in a popular genre isnt the answer; it isnt even useful if you dont write better.
Write better. Not follow the guidelines. Not listen for the words hidden in the static of all the editorial comments we hear at conferences or read in the pages of those magazines targeting us. Write better. Hone your craft and (dare I say it?), your art. Write the best book of which youre capable at any moment in time and, if youre not satisfied with it when youre finished with the first draft, seek out help to help you prepare the second. And the third. Write better.
What does that mean, write better? Better than what? Better than the person sitting next to you, at least as well as the person whose slot on a list or space on the bookstore shelves is what youre after. It means always reaching a bit further, not being satisfied with the idea that the manuscript is good and seems to fulfill the guidelines. Most of the manuscripts I see are, at best, mediocre (which only means average). Riddle me this: why should I, or any editor or agent or reader, read your book rather than the one beneath it in the stack, leaning next to it on the shelf? What makes your work outstanding, worth an investment of thousands of dollars by a publisher or twenty-five or seven, ninety five by a reader looking for somethingentertainment, enlightenment, escapewith which to pass the time?
Is it your characters? Your insights, as theyre expressed by the characters or a reliable narrator? Is it the picture you paint with your thousand words and then a thousand more and then and then and then ? Is it the world you create, and then populate and then manipulate? Is it one that the reader can, with only passing suspension of disbelief, believe? Is it your use of the senses, of stimulating the reader by touching the nerves with which we hear and see and feel?
What is it youre trying to accomplish with your writing? To entertain me? But you dont know me, or any of the others who call themselves me or I; you can only hope that you know us, know the readers (and agents and editors are readers, after all) well enough generally that you dont have to worry about the specific. You have to be everyman (which isnt a sexist comment, but a phrase. Thats all, a phrase), you have to entertain yourself first, then. You have to satisfy yourself. Not lie to yourself but honestly and truly satisfy yourself. You have to write better than you can.
And it can be done but well talk about that later.
About Michael Seidman
Michael Seidman, author of FICTION: THE ART AND CRAFT OF WRITING AND GETTING PUBLISHED and THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO EDITING YOUR FICTION has, after forty years as an award-winning editor, turned to working with individuals and several publishing houses as an editorial consultant.