Hello, Writing Friends!

Welcome to my new series, Best Books About Writing! I scoured the internet to dig up the very best of them, and believe me, it has given me much food for thought. Here is the first installment of the series:

Title: The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers.

Author: Betsy Lerner

Purpose: To help authors to understand which work style they follow and to make the publishing process clearer. 

Audience: Writers trying to understand their workstyle, writers unfamiliar with the publishing business, new editors

Publication Information: Riverhead Books, 2010, 304 p.

My first book in the Best Books for Writers Series, The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner, provides valuable insight into different types of writers and information about important aspects in publishing, such as how to get an agent, what a rejection letter really means, etc. With so many useful topics, it’s easy to see why Lerner’s book is considered a classic guide for writers.  This short book contains much more information than I can outline here.

Part one outlines the types of writers Lerner has encountered during her years in the publishing industry. Each type has its own section along with suggestions about how they could optimize their work style. Perhaps you will recognize yourself among these types:

·        The Ambivalent Writer— This writer starts something new every day but has trouble completing a project. Rather than choosing a topic meaningful to them, this writer often creates what they think will sell. Lerner suggests that they find their own form and subject, writing “People who try to figure out what’s hot and re-create it are as delusional as you can get” (p. 25) and that they confuse “procrastination with research” (p. 26).

·        The Natural Writer— This type of writer began writing in their childhood, because they have “it,” that magical talent that sets them apart. In addition to the fact that “the natural” will have a hard time when critics and readers start to judge their work, she explains that “early success can mean early obsolescence” (p. 44). As a remedy to this type of pressure, she recommends Natural Writers locate their tribe and write for the people who appreciate their work.

·        The Wicked Child— This author “lifts the veil” on their community and exposes their secrets to outsiders. Most successful writers have their parents’ support, but this often requires them to create “yet another well-behaved manuscript that will be seen and not heard”(p. 63). She suggests the best way for the “wicked child” to work is to stick to their artistic vision and give up trying to please people. She explains that whether they hate it or love it, both attitudes will ultimately benefit the author.

·        The Self-Promoter—She explains that among many authors, self promotion is considered a dirty thing, and it causes other writers to wonder “Why not me?” (p. 77). The short answer to the “Why not me?” question is because they may not be promoting their work. She explains that we writers simply must self-promote and that it is a myth that good texts need no promotion.

·        The Neurotic Writer—Lerner explains that mental illnesses not only affect an author’s artistic work, but they may also affect the way they set themselves up to write. The “neurotic writer” can become obsessively ritualistic about their writing process and all the hoops they must jump through before they can produce text. She explains, “I’ve come to look at neurotic behavior as a necessary component of a writer’s arsenal, the necessary defenses to screen out the rest of the world so that the ballet inside his head can begin to take shape” (p. 101). 

·        The Writer Who Touches Fire— This type of writer lives life as if it was one long party, but unfortunately, the work problems persist even after a trip to rehab. According to Lerner, the need for drugs calms the anxiety that all writers feel. She admits that as an editor, she often felt a tug-of-war between caring for the writer as a person vs. pushing them to complete their masterpiece (p. 131).

The second half of the book is about publishing, and even though The Forest for the Trees originally came out many years ago, much of its content still rings true. She includes chapters about the following publishing challenges:

·        How to find an agent—This section includes tips for writing a cover letter and narrowing down the search for an agent. Lerner also discusses practical things like how to submit a manuscript and what to expect during the process of obtaining an agent.

·        How to accept rejection—She explains that not all rejection letters are equal. For example, a personal note, even if it is scribbled in the margin of a form letter, is a very good sign. The personal touch really means, “Revise and resubmit!” Most importantly, she reminds us not to take the rejection letters personally.

·        How to understand what editors want— This section helps the reader to see the submission process from the editor’s perspective. Lerner explains that ultimately, editors want to find talent and share it with the world. She also emphasizes the importance of staying true to your vision in a time when editors seem to request more and more changes.

·        How to understand what authors want—This chapter urges editors to be thoughtful of authors’ feelings. According to Lerner, writers most appreciate a quick reply (p. 210) and individual attention to their work (p. 212), even if the editor is reviewing 10 other manuscripts at the same time.

·        What is involved in creating the book—This section outlines the process of designing the book itself, selling it to book stores, promoting it, etc. She warns that even if your book is accepted for publication, it doesn’t mean that it will be well received and that everyone will want to talk with you about it. Also, it doesn’t mean that you will like the jacket art and the title the publisher has chosen for it (p. 240, 247).   

·        Why authors should keep working during the publication process—In her opinion, it is best if authors start their new project before the old one comes out. This way, they can avoid getting deflated by critics and allowing that frustration to keep them from producing the next book (p. 260). She points out that for some authors, publication is only another step on the road of anxiety and shame. Publishing cannot heal these feelings, so authors should remember to be realistic about the process (p. 264).

There is a lot of content in this engagingly-written book. It’s definitely worth a look!

If there are any books you think I should review, please drop me a line at dr.zhenya@empowerugroup.com.

Until next time, Friends, keep sharing your Magic with the world, and keep on writing!

Dr. Zhenya