Pageonelit.com: In the introduction of THE ART AND
CRAFT OF WRITING AND GETTING PUBLISHED, you say that you ask
writers on a regular basis two questions. May I ask you the same
questions? Why do you write and why do you want to write?"
Michael Seidman: Why I write and why I want to write
are closely entwined; you probably couldn't see light shining
between the two. I write because it is the most effective way
for me to communicate with a large number of people who might
need to see, or want to see, what I have to say. It is also the
most effective way to open lines of communication, especially
these days, with immediate cyberaccess.
I don't necessarily think that my concepts (about writing,
in my non-fiction or about life, in my fiction) are absolutes
and I'm willing to learn. By expressing ideas, pushing buttons,
suggesting whatever I seem to be exploring at the moment, and putting those ideas out there for
consideration, I receive responses in turn and I may learn from
those reactions. I often say that we teach most those things
we most have to learn ourselves; writing very much defines that
interaction for me.
"Seem to be exploring...." Most certainly in both
my fiction and in my essays, the writing is about exploration,
a consideration of ideas, of problems, of concerns and an attempt
to find, by the end of the piece, something that might be an
answer. I feel that most good writing, lasting writing, shares
that: we have a character or an issue and the writing is about
the "why" of it. And, yes, that approach is perfectly
congruent with the idea of writing as a way of offering escape
to the reader. The idea that issues or reality or some such gets
in the way of that is specious.
I guess you might say, then, that I write to find answers
and then to share them with those who are interested."
Pageonelit.com: You bring up many interesting concepts
in THE ART AND CRAFT OF WRITING, but one jumped out at
me. It was that the word processor could be a drawback to our
writing. It can take away from the forward motion of the telling
the story. Could you elaborate here on this and should writers
dim their screens when they sit down to write? Do successful
novelists use this method?
Michael Seidman: I don't know that any novelists, successful
or not, follow that piece of advice; based on the manuscripts
I see every day, though, I'd guess that most don't. The word
processor has put a twist on things, really. When the technology
was first becoming popular, two questions would crop up at conferences
with disgusting regularity: what kind of computer do you use
and what word processor do you use? (Back then WordStar seemed
to have been the w.p. of choice.) But what difference can it
possibly make? It isn't the technology that writes the book;
it's the writer. Still, we allowed the equipment to dictate how
we work, and the work suffers for it.
Why turn off the screen? Well, consider how we work at our
PCs. We type, looking down at notes (if we've made any) but then
looking up at the words forming on the display. (If you're old
enough to have been trained
correctly, you'll remember that when we learned how to type,
the first lesson was to never look at the sheet of paper against
the platen; I wonder if typing teachers--if they exist--still
adhere to that?)
Anyway: we look at the words forming and then, because it's
quick and easy, if we see a typo, we go back up to it and make
the change, all the
while seeing words and sentences even further
back...and changing them. We're not moving forward, toward the
end of the story, but back toward the beginning, correcting on
It's clear to me, based on the empirical evidence offered
by submissions, that far too many people have begun to consider
that--and the concommitant use of the spell and grammar checkers--to
be all that's necessary in the way of revision. Even if they
print out a day's work and mark up the hard copy, they don't
rekey anything, simply put in the corrections. And they lose
one of the most important steps in the writing and revision process.
Remember how we used to write? We'd take the stack of pages,
mark them up, and then have to retype every last one of them.
While retyping, new thoughts would occur, a line or sentence
or word would lead us to a new scene or metaphor...whatever it
was, the writing would inspire writing.
Sure, it takes more time, but any writer who thinks getting
it done sooner is a positive should reconsider her position.
Deadlines, contests, whatever excuses I hear are only that: excuses,
not valid reasons.
If the screen is off, if you're not looking at what you're
writing, but are concentrating on what you're writing (and if
you don't see the difference, well, I will when you submit the
manuscript), and then print at the end of the work session, your
efforts will be entirely on moving
this toward a conclusion. The next time you sit down, you can
see where you stopped, and start from there. Finally, with everything
done, do your revision (and spell checking) on the print out
itself. Only then do you
start making corrections on disk. If you've got what it takes,
you'll retype entirely; at worst, though, you'll make the changes
then, deleting and adding material. And if you're really smart,
you'll print that version out and do it one more time."
Pageonelit.com: You say that the determining title
of an authors book lies in the hands of the publisher. From your
experience, have you seen titles changed before publication routinely?
How do most authors react to the renaming of their book? Can
you share a positive example of a successful book where the original
title was changed?
Michael Seidman: I don't know that I'd say "routinely";
it is done when the editor or publisher thinks there's valid
reason to do so. It may be that another book with a similar (or
identical) title has been or will be released close to your
publication date. It might be
that someone feels that the title doesn't "sound right";
we may have learned from our sales reps that certain words are
now in disfavor with readers. One instance of a title that should
have been changed: I published a book by Robert Randisi (then
working under a pseudonym), titled THE TURNER JOURNALS. It was
an excellent police procedural, set in Brooklyn, and dealing
with a serial killer.
Unfortunately, at about that time, the papers were filled
with stories about a book called THE TURNER DIARIES, which was
a right-wing, militia oriented work. The paperback edition will
be released under Bob's
name...and with a new title. On the flip side, a recently released
academic mystery, THE DEATH OF A CONSTANT LOVER by Lev Raphael,
was submitted under the title, STATE UNIVERSITY OF MURDER. (SUM
is the acronym of the school at which the events take place.)
I think the final title is better (thus the change, with the
author's approval) but I can't
say definitively that it increased sales.
As for others, I really can't say; it's such a minor detail
in the scheme of things that I don't know anyone thinks about
it very much; it certainly isn't a subject of conversation among
editors and agents...unless the
author has been intransigent.
And how do author's feel about it? Well, most understand that
it is the novel that's important, that the title is often nothing
more than a sales handle, a marketing tool. If changing the title
means killing another of your darlings, sobeit. The fact remains
that every contract states that what is being acquired is "tentatively
titled." A writer might try to negotiate his way around
that, but as a writer and as an editor, I'd just as soon concentrate
on what's important--the writing."
Pageonelit.com: You briefly mention the Barnes &
Noble acquisition of Ingram, a major distributor. What are your
thoughts on this deal -- if it does or does not go through? Are
independent bookstores on the out? If a super bookstore also
is a major distributor to other stores, can this have a limiting
effect on the book buyers choices and what will that mean for
Michael Seidman: Lots of independents, in lots
of fields, are struggling. When's the last time you saw a campaign
to boycott Office or Home Depot, CVS drugstores...whatever?
Keep in mind that Ingram is not a super bookstore acting as
a distributor, even if the B&N deal goes through, any more
than the movie studios Bronfman owns are part of a whisky distribution
chain; it is a separate entity under a corporate umbrella. I
don't accept the paranoid fantasy
that B&N is going to look at Ingram's figures to judge how
and what an indie is doing. When you get right down to it, after
all, anyone who's been in the book selling business for more
than three hours can walk into
any bookstore, anywhere in the country, and make a very good
guess at the figures. Any retailer can do that in its field.
I don't think indies such as Tattered Cover or Powell's really
have to worry and, in terms of niche indies, those specializing
in a genre, if the presence of a superstore near them drives
them out of business, they're doing business wrong. The superstores
cannot carry everything (any more than any indie can) and they
don't even attempt to carry all the mysteries or sf titles...or
travel books or anything else. They face the same problem all
retailers confront: there's just so much room on the shelves
and that room doesn't increase. So, they carry what sells best
for them: a local or popular author, bestsellers, books of particular
interest or value...and whatever else strikes the fancy of the
The only instances I've found of the chains dictating what's
going to be published are those times when a publisher is thinking
of investing far too much in a book that's going to have a limited
run: the next Monica tell all, the bio of some movie star whose
name I've already forgotten. I don't know any publisher who goes
in and says I have this manuscript for a novel by John Weaver,
do you think I should but it?
And look at the shelves at the superstores...what can't you
find there? A particular backlist title? Is it available at any
outlet? A new novel? A non-fiction title you just saw reviewed?
They're all there; I walked through one recently, while waiting
for my wife, Lisa, to meet me, and
when she arrived, fifteen minutes later, I had three hundred
dollars worth of new and old titles bundled under my arms. (She
wisely made me put them all back where I found them.)
Admittedly, I don't work in a bookstore these days (and haven't
in about ten years), but I know that an independent that caters
to its customers and carries what they want that may not be carried
elsewhere (a mystery
backlist, whatever), that continues to special order for its
customers, that works, in effect, as a gourmet store down the
block from a Kroeger's or a designer boutique across the strip
mall from K-mart, can be successful.
The writers will continue to be published. The cuts in midlist
have less to do with what the superstores are taking than with
corporate bottom lines dictated by beancounters who think that
a book is equivalent to a
box of cereal; they're both products, yes, but they can't be
sold the same way and the numbers aren't the same. Books aren't
a necessity to most Americans, not in the same way that food
and clothing are.
The chains aren't going to have a discernable impact on new
writers (and publishers and editors who say that they will are,
in my opinion, using the superstores as an excuse, another way
of saying, "I don't know how to
sell this...."); what's going get in their way is reinventing
the wheel with every book they write.
Pageonelit.com: What was the last book you read for
complete pleasure that you really enjoyed and why?
Michael Seidman: Do you also want me to name my favorite
daughter? Okay, come the moment I go off duty for the day, every
book I read is for complete pleasure. There are three titles,
though, that have taken a place on my shelves that is permanent:
Barry Unsworth's THE STONE VIRGIN, a brilliant mystery
(in form, not formula), with history, magic realism, art....
A stunning tale. Next, Helen Dunmore's SPEAKING TO THE DEAD,
another novel with a mystery at its heart but spectacular for
Dunmore's use of the senses as she traces the relationship between
two sisters, their past and present. Finally, a book I finished
last night and will begin rereading in about a month: Annie Dillard's
FOR THE TIME BEING...a wonderfully crafted essay (or piece
of narrative non-fiction) investigating God, prayer, evil, humanity....
The writing is gorgeous, the approach different
and the ideas thought provoking. Because I seem to be spending
more time these days considering the various forms of the essay
in both my writing and reading, concentrating on what Michael
Steinberg calls the fourth genre (that's the
title of a new magazine devoted to creative non-fiction that
Mike edits and in which I have an essay), the Dillard has become
especially important to me.
Of course, this morning I went back to reading Robertson Davies's
THE CORNISH TRILOGY, so my answer may be different next
Pageonelit.com: In your book THE ART AND CRAFT OF
WRITING AND GETTING PUBLISHED, you bring over twenty years
of experience and insight. If a writer would walk away with one
piece of vital advice from the reading of this book -- what would
that be and why?
Michael Seidman: A tough one, John, there are so many
aspects of writing that are important. So, maybe this: What have
you done in the writing of your book or story that makes a difference?
Why should some editor acquire your manuscript rather than any
of the others on his desk, why should a reader buy your book
rather than the one already in her hand. Our choices, as customers,
are almost limitless; what have you done to make us choose you?
If you can't answer that, what have you accomplished?
Pageonelit.com: What does it
take to break out a new author?
Michael Seidman: A better book and a lot of luck. Advertising,
promotion, all that stuff can only put the name out there. But
if there's no word of mouth, if there aren't enough reviews .
. . . I still opt for a book that makes a difference to me as
a reader, on some level. If it does that, fine: I'll buy it.
If I can't see anything in the book to make it in any way different
from the book next to it on the shelf, I don't waste my time
or energy. That's as a reader and as an editor.