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Books for Writers: "The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers," by Betsy Lerner


In her lengthy career, Betsy Lerner has been an MFA student, an award-winning poet, a book editor at major publishing houses, and a literary agent. So in her wonderfully insightful book about writers and the business in which they struggle, she provides a myriad of wise and knowledgeable perspectives. Whether you are working on your first novel or your fifth, you'll read Lerner's book and think, She's writing about me.

You may not think so on every page, especially if you have an oversize ego. Lerner shares a wealth of anecdotes and opinions about the essential makeup of writers, not all of them flattering. (Words such as "neurotic" and "insecure" come up a lot.) But, because of her obvious love of writers and books, even the brutally honest stuff doesn't come across as insulting. After all, how insulting can it be to be compared to Philip Roth? Her observations are simply honest, and deeply affectionate. Lerner's stories about the enthusiasm she has felt over the years for particular writers and projects, and for the world of books in general, is infectious.

"The Forest for the Trees" is not a long book, but it covers a lot of territory. The book's first half speaks mainly to the process and the personality of the writer... This is the part that'll make you think she's writing about, or to, you. The chapters are peppered liberally with quotes from Roth, John Updike, Edith Wharton, and dozens of others about what inspired them to begin writing and what prevents them from stopping; about their process; about how they deal with criticism. All writers are different, but you'll identify with much of what you read, whether it's William Styron's comment that "I certainly don't [enjoy writing]. I get a fine warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started every day"; or the story that Hemingway always needed twenty sharpened pencils on his desk before starting to write. (Gore Vidal's less romantic variation: "First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me.")

In the book's second half, Lerner turns to more practical matters, pulling back the curtain on what, even if you've been published, may be a world of mystery to you: the publishing house (and, by extension, booksellers, reviewers, etc.). She provides wisdom on dealing with your agent and/or publishers ("Don't make the mistake of writing to publishers in what I call a proposal voice; this isn't a grant you're applying for"). She demystifies what goes on at sales meetings and what makes for a good author/editor relationship. ("Call before sending chunks of manuscript... It's like having out-of-town guests show up uninvited for the weekend.") She explains the importance of the book publicist.

What struck me about "The Forest for the Trees" is that it's not only helpful, not only insightful, but also an engrossing and entertaining read. Lerner is witty and big-hearted, literate without being snobbish, brutally honest without discouraging writers from pursuing a career. It's a book that belongs on the shelves of every writer and every editor (I first read it in a manuscript editing class). I always say that writers should do all the research they can into the book industry before approaching it. This book is a source of knowledge on the book industry, the people who work within it, and, perhaps most important, on the inner life of any writer who ever sat down in front of a blank screen.

Submitted by:

Lisa Silverman

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York's most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded http://www.BeYourOwnEditor.com in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.





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