The longer I have worked as an editor, the more I’ve had the pleasure of watching writers develop over the course of many novels. David Seaburn has just released his fourth novel, which is his second published by Savant Books. Every story has its own requirements for revision, and as David tells us here, sometimes the only thing that will cheer a writer up during that phase is reading Kafka.
This is David’s second interview here, and I hope you’ll find his words on revision and marketing helpful, and that you’ll check out his new novel.
1. Tell us about Chimney Bluffs.
Chimney Bluffs is a story about how relationships can help people who have suffered tragic losses go on with life, when going on seems like the last thing they want to do. When their four-year-old son dies suddenly, Mitch and Kate’s grief overwhelms them. Conflicted and torn by their loss, they decide to leap together from a cliff at Chimney Bluffs State Park. When the couple is found by two park rangers, Clancy and Bobby, Kate is still very much alive. The story focuses on the grief process and the healing friendship that develops between Kate, Clancy (who at first damns her for what he assumes she did—killed her son), and Bobby, a young man with a life-changing loss in his background, as well.
2. Your inspiration was a true story. What was that story, and how did you feel you needed to adjust reality to make it fit in the bounds of a novel?
When I was almost done with my third novel, Charlie No Face (which you also very skillfully edited in its first draft), I started thinking about my next project, something I like to do before I finish writing a novel for fear of never being able to do it again. I came across an online story about a couple in England who had devoted their lives, including giving up their jobs, to making sure their son, who was disabled, had the best quality of life possible. Their son, though, was struck unexpectedly by a life-threatening illness and died in a matter of days. They took their son home and a day later, after he had died, they drove to a famous cliff and leaped to their deaths.
As if that wasn’t horrific enough, the couple carried two sacks with them; one had their son; the other had his favorite toys. It was the sacks and what was in them that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I thought about the story for weeks and wondered: How did the couple come to this decision? What would have happened if one of the parents had survived? I wrote Chimney Bluffs to wrestle with those questions.
3. You do a great job of keeping your fans in the loop with periodic, interesting, non-annoying e-mail updates. (A feat!) I was able to keep tabs on your research process for Chimney Bluffs, which I enjoyed because I was living in Maine at the time. How do you know when you’re done researching?
Before I started writing the story, there were several things I needed to research. I read every article that was published online about the couple in England, although, in the end, I didn’t use as many details about their story as one might think. But learning about that family drew me into their circumstance in a way that helped me draw my own conclusions about how I wanted to tell what, in the end, is a different story altogether.
I changed the location of the story to Chimney Bluffs State Park on Lake Ontario, about an hour and a half from where I live. I had been their once, but went back several times to get a good descriptive feel for the terrain, and to find the spot for the key action of the novel. I then did extensive research on how the bluffs had been formed during the ice age when the area was covered by a two-mile-thick glacier that eventually formed the lake as well as the otherworldy bluffs. Most of this shows up in a single paragraph early in the novel, but was worth doing. I also took the pictures which were used on the front and back covers.
Further I had to learn about bacterial meningitis, symptomatology in children, treatment, prognosis, and all the medical language associated with it.
Of course, during this time I was writing sketches of the characters so that I could introduce them and their backstories in a meaningful way.
If I recall correctly, this took me a few months. I was able to start writing, though, even while I was doing research since some of what I needed to research wasn’t going to appear until much later in the novel.
4. I’ve had the honor of editing early drafts of both Chimney Bluffs and your 2011 novel, Charlie No Face. You made some deep revisions to Chimney Bluffs since I last saw it, and my clients might like to know how you went about the process of getting your head around a substantive list of to-dos back from an editor and turning them into a draft that works.
And I’ve had the honor of being the recipient of your editing on both books. From you, I learned not only how to improve the stories, but how to write better, period.
As for how I got my head around your feedback, I followed a very precise and well-considered process. First, I tried to figure out why you were being so mean, why you seemed to hate me and everything I stood for. Second, I embraced a period of severe self-doubt, not only about writing, but about everything I did, why I breathed in when I should be breathing out, why I brushed my teeth up and down instead of sideways, everything. This was followed closely by a time of self-loathing in which the only thing that could cheer me up was reading Kafka.
Having completed this early cleansing phase, I then moved on to other things. I reread several times all of your feedback and looked over again and again the passages you had noted that illustrated the problems I had to address. I also bought and read some of the books you recommended. I then made a list of what I felt were the most important criticisms you had made, and then lumped them into categories. These included: eliminating much of backstory material, introducing elements of the story earlier to create movement, introducing more dialogue to give the narrative life, etc. This included eliminating about 60,000 precious little words that I had come to love, even though they didn’t advance my story very well.
Then I started re-constructing sequences of the narrative and also re-writing much of the story. One of the most valuable pieces of feedback that you offered was the insight that the basic premise—Why did they do it? What would have happened if one parent had survived?—encouraged me to give answers and explanations. You said I should rethink the basic premise, which I did: Through relationships one can survive tragic loss and experience healing. The first premise encouraged me to tell. The new premise encouraged me to show. Throughout your feedback, you emphasized the importance of showing (creating movement, action) over telling (explaining, teaching). I think that was the key to revising the story.
5. I have many clients who bear the lion’s share of publicity efforts for their books. Is there anything you found that works particularly well, especially while you balance life’s other demands?
I find this the most daunting part of writing. I like my publisher very much—Savant Books and Publications—but like most small, independent publishing houses they don’t have the money to mount expensive marketing and promotion campaigns for their books. They do provide many useful suggestions and ideas, but it is up to me to carry them out. The first thing I had to learn was not to be embarrassed saying, “Hey, you ought to read my book. It’s good.” If you don’t believe in your work, no one else will.
One of the most time consuming and yet valuable suggestions my publisher made when I wrote Charlie No Face, was to create a list of 1,000 people I could e-mail about my new book. This took a long time, because I assumed I didn’t know 1,000 people, but in the end, I developed an excellent list that became the backbone of my marketing approach.
I also have a newsletter through authorsden.com, which has about three hundred readers (selected by me). This is a great vehicle for keeping people in the loop about what I am doing, what is coming up, how my writing is progressing, etc.
Of course I have a website, a must, at www.davidbseaburn.com. This is free through Yola. I designed it using their basic templates.
I contact local and regional newspapers and columnists. I developed an angle regarding both of my Savant books that makes them interesting to a broader readership. With Charlie No Face, it was bullying, and with Chimney Bluffs, it will be loss and grief. For example, Charlie is being used in our local school curriculum for ninth graders and is being considered by other school districts.
I do many readings—libraries, retired teachers, churches, book stores. In the beginning, I approach these groups, but soon others approach me. One book store, Lift Bridge Book Shop, has championed each of my novels, so I always have a book release party there.
I will go to any book club that will have me! This is often the most interesting experience I have around my books. One club cooked all the foods that appeared in Charlie No Face as part of the event.
This, of course, isn’t everything I do, but it gives you an idea of what is involved. I learned that the more contacts I make, the more unanticipated opportunities arise. Some days I sit for five to six hours at my computer working on promotion. Whew!
6. What’s next?
I am actually well into my fifth novel. The working title is “More More Time.” The basic premise is that how we address the issue of time may be the most important thing we can do to live meaningfully. This is the first novel that I have written that wrestles with issues that are relevant to my own stage of life. In the first chapter, the lead character, a cantankerous sixty-two-year-old high school history teacher with an obsession about Lincoln, falls down his basement steps. Soon thereafter he starts hearing this phrase: endingworldendingworldendingworld. In very different ways each of the characters in this story will be addressing the issue of time whether they are aware of it or not.
At this writing, I am about one hundred and fifty pages into the story and hope to be done by spring 2013.
Thank you, David! Visit his website at www.davidbseaburn.com for more about Chimney Bluffs and his other books.