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


Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side

by Michael Seidman

June 2003

We know, don’t we, that there’s no magic bullet, no guaranteed way to make our writing perfect. What’s perfect, or even acceptably right, for one house, let’s randomly say St. Martin’s Press, probably doesn’t even begin to approach the needs of, well, let’s 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, what’s hot?, what’s selling?, what’s up-and-coming?, these days we want to know, who’s buying? Who’s 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 didn’t 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 there’ll 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 we’ve 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 isn’t a perfect manuscript, or there isn’t 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 isn’t the answer; it isn’t even useful if you don’t 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 you’re capable at any moment in time and, if you’re not satisfied with it when you’re 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 you’re 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 something—entertainment, enlightenment, escape—with which to pass the time?

Is it your characters? Your insights, as they’re 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 you’re trying to accomplish with your writing? To entertain me? But you don’t 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 don’t have to worry about the specific. You have to be “everyman” (which isn’t a sexist comment, but a phrase. That’s 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 we’ll 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.