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The Writer's Bookshelf: The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Today's edition of The Writer's Bookshelf is from author Marian Pereira. Enjoy!
 Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees is many things—an editor’s advice to writers (it says so on the cover!), a memoir of working in a publishing house, and a slice of history. I enjoyed reading it, because I love learning about what it’s like on the other side of the desk, but there are plenty of sound tips for writers as well.

My version of the book was published in 2000—partly because I haunt used book stores—but there’s a revised and updated version that came out in 2010, and the book is available on the Kindle as well. A lot of the fears and problems that writers had a decade and a half ago are still the same. If you’re concerned that a good editor at a major house is likely to stifle your voice or request too many changes, this book will help. It explains why determination is so important in publishing, and why agents sometimes find it easier to sell a debut novel than a midlister’s book.

And I loved the fact that even back in 2000, she mentioned “so much industry instability”. Some things never change.

 Betsy Lerner has worked as both an editor and an agent, but like all of us, she was new and inexperienced once. So much so that when a literary agent asked her to deal with a slush pile manuscript, she read it thoroughly and compiled a four-page report on the manuscript despite knowing it was unpublishable. The agent took one look at the report and said four words: “Did you like it?”

 “I lost my publishing virginity that day,” she writes ruefully.

 Another favorite part of mine was the unsolicited gifts she got along with manuscripts or queries. Nothing will ever beat the banana that Jane Smith received, but Lerner got “baby booties… a pair of dice, a five-dollar bill.” No, I don’t know what those were about either.

As Lerner says, this isn’t a book about how to write. It’s more of a step back to look at the bigger picture of publishing, and the many ways writers interact with their publishers: sometimes funny, sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing (like the brilliant author with the heroin addiction). It’s an insight into how the people on the other side of the desk think, whether those people are literary agents or publicists. If she had included a chapter about cover artists as well, the book would have been perfect.

It's also peppered with memorable anecdotes and quotes about writing and publishing, such as this one about Flannery O’Connor:

When asked whether she thought writing programs in universities actually discouraged young writers, she replied, “Not enough of them.”

For writers who are curious about trade publishing, this is an entertaining, easy-to-read combination of memoir, self-help book and insider look into a business I find fascinating. It’s a long book, but that’s all the more to read. And here’s another four-word quote that I think is excellent advice: “Good writing creates luck.”

The Forest for the Trees is available on Amazon in paperback.
Bio : Marian Perera has three fantasy romances released by Samhain Publishing, with four more due in 2015 from both Samhain and Loose Id. She blogs about writing, publishing and her favorite genres at, tweets as @MDPerera and has excerpts from her novels at She collects books and swords, grows tomatoes, loves writing and reads everything.
Flights of Fantasy
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Publishing Pulse for December 12, 2014

New At QueryTracker:

Since the last Publising Pulse, we've added one agent profile and updated twenty four. That's a lot of motion in the industry, so please make sure you double-check every agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page before sending your query.

If you're a QueryTracker premium member, then you can be notified whenever an agent or publisher profile is added or updated. If you're not a premium member, you can just check for yourself.

Publishing News:

Always changing is social media. In fact, Facebook is making some changes that may harm authors who use FB for marketing.

Amazon has listed its bestselling books for 2014. Buying off that list is kind of mutually reinforcing, no? Whatever. People liked those books. May we all sell as many. Meanwhile, the NY Times talks about the best book covers of 2014. My thought? Most of those covers would be death in a handbasket for genre fiction. The actual best book cover for a book is the cover that sells a million books.  I don't care if it's artful as long as it moves the product.

In case you weren't sure Neil Gaiman was amazing, he can recite Jabberwocky from memory.

A judge has ruled that you can send books to UK prisons. Apparently they're not dangerous after all.

Microsoft pulled out of its partnership with Nook.

Scholastic recalled a Geronimo Stilton book after it came to light that a map in the book completely erased the State of Israel.

Around the Blogosphere:

Agent Victoria Marini discusses working with a small press.

Identifying your unique brand.

Remember we talked about making an audiobook? Well, now it's time to market your audiobook.

And since we're talking about marketing, more tips for marketing bliss. Tell me that title itself isn't good marketing.

Eight things one author has learned about publishing a second book.

DBW has a survey out, and JA Konrath dissects the hell out of it. Takeaway: read the article and don't take the survey.

Literary Quote of the Week:

"All my life, I've been frightened at the moment I sit down to write." -Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Thanks for stopping by, and keep sending those queries! Oh, and buy someone special all the QT blog members' books for Christmas. Maybe yourself.

Jane Lebak is the author of An Arrow In Flight . She has four kids, four books in print, two cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, but if you want to make her rich and famous, please contact Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 
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The Battle Between Manipulation and Believability

What are two of the best ways to kick a reader out of your story? Write a story that tries to manipulate the reader or test the boundaries of believability.

A few summers ago, I took my kids to see the newest Winnie the Pooh movie. At one point in the movie *spoiler alert*, all of the friends (minus Piglet and Tigger) fell into a deep pit. Their only hope of escape was Piglet. At one point my seven year old asked (loudly), “Why doesn’t Owl fly out?” This echoed what everyone else in the theatre was thinking. A few minutes later, Owl did exactly that. He flew up and gave Piglet a motivational speech so Piglet would brave the scary woods and search for Christopher Robin. Owl then flew back into the pit to face the shocked expressions of his friends. Only they weren’t shocked that Owl flew out of the pit. They were shocked at what he had said to Piglet. The friends applauded and the audience laughed.

So why didn’t the audience have a problem with the scene in the Winnie the Pooh movie? Because from the beginning of the movie, it was made clear that the animal friends lacked for intelligence. Due to the sequence of events that happened between the opening of the movie and Owl flying out of the pit, we could easily believe that none of the friends would question why Owl didn’t just fly out and get help. The audience didn’t feel manipulated.

Now contrast this to a book I recently read. In it, the hero and heroine got close to “doing it” several times. But each time they came close to going all the way, they were interrupted by either the phone or the doorbell. The first two times was believable. By the fifth time, half way into the story, I felt manipulated and annoyed. More so after the great build up for the sex scene that I expected to rival all others (maybe even Fifty Shades of Gray) turned out to be nothing more than a fade to black scene. Talk about a major let down.

To avoid the issue of lack of believability, always ask yourself: “Have I given enough set up to the story so my readers are able to believe this event can happen this way?” If you’re not sure if it is feasible, ask someone who knows the answer. For example, if your protagonist is caught with drugs in his school locker, ask a police officer what would really happen to the character. Don’t make things up and hope for the best. And avoid overusing plot devices that will leave your reader feeling manipulated and frustrated. Either of these could result in your reader quitting the book prematurely, never picking up another of your books, and/or telling her friends how bad the book was. If you’ve sent the manuscript to an agent or editor, you’ve increased your chance of receiving a rejection instead of an offer. But if you’ve used the plot devices in a believable and unique way, you’ll increase the chance of an offer.

Has lack of believability or the feeling of being manipulated thrown you out of a story?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes New Adult and adult contemporary romances. In her spare time, she’s a photographer, loves hanging out on Pinterest, and can be found at her blog/website. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance TELL ME WHEN and LET ME KNOW (Carina Press, HQN) are now available.

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Guest Post: Beyond the Basic Questions for “The Agent Call”

Writers who want to take the path of traditional publishing all dream of that magic phone call when an agent offers to take them on as a client. It’s the first of many magical moments en route to seeing your book on a shelf in an actual bookstore.

For me, that phone call happened less than two years ago, and COMPULSION, the first book in my YA Southern Gothic romance trilogy came out from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse on October 28th.

The two years between “the call” and publication have been a steep learning curve, and there isn’t nearly as much written about any aspect of that period as there is about the process of learning to write a book or craft an effective query letter. Even the questions authors suggest you ask during “the call” don’t go far enough. I have constantly come across terms and issues that are unfamiliar and that I have no idea how to handle.

Having come through these two years, I’d like to share what I’ve gleaned and put that knowledge in the form of additional questions to consider asking a prospective agent. Some of these are questions that I asked myself, some are questions I’ve since heard were asked by other authors, and some are questions that, having gone through the process, I believe would have helped me to manage expectations, smoothed communication, and resulted in less uncertainty on my part.

The Basic Questions

These are the defaults. You’ll find them suggested by almost every author, and you must force yourself to be your own advocate and ask them when the call actually happens. Not all agents will feel comfortable giving you details, and you will want to factor how they respond and communicate in general into your own decision process.

•    What do you like best about my manuscript?

•    What do you like the least?

•    How much editorial feedback do you like to provide?

•    Do you think the manuscript ready to submit to publishers, or does it need revisions before submission?

•    How extensive are the revisions you envision, and specifically what kind of changes are we talking about?

•    Did you have particular editors in mind for submission as you read?

•    What publishing houses do you think would be a good fit and why?

•    Where do you see this book positioned on a publisher’s list? Lead title, mid-list, etc.

•    What authors or books do you think are comparable and where do you see this positioned in a bookstore or categorized on Amazon?

•    Who do you see buying this book at a bookstore or online? How would you describe those people as a category?

•    How many editors do you envision sending it to in the first round of submissions?

•    What does your standard submission packet include and what is your submission process

•    How many rounds of submission are you willing to do before you consider a project “dead”?

•    Are you interested in representing only this project or do you want to represent future work with a career perspective?

•    Is there any work of mine, genre, age range, etc., that you would not be able to handle?

•    What sort of a path would you like to see with my career? How many books per year, what type of books, etc.?

•    Do you use a written agent-client contract?

•    How does your agency handle digital rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary potentials?

•    How often do you provide updates on submission status?

•    Do you send copies of the editor’s responses?

•    Do you prefer to correspond by email or phone, and how often do you like to touch base verbally?

•    What sorts of things do you want to hear from me about and at what stage would you want to be involved in a new project?

•    What would be your ideal client relationship?

•    What is your standard agency royalty percentage?

•    How, and how often, is money distributed by your agency?

•    What would happen if you decided to leave the agency? Would I be able to stay with you, or would I be assigned another agent?

•    What are your standard termination provisions if either of us decide the relationship isn’t working?

Beyond the Basics

Initially, I thought the above was more than comprehensive. But there’s a great deal to working with an agent beyond the initial submission, and listening to author friends and meeting other authors since I embarked on the publication process, I have discovered that managing expectations for all concerned would have been much easier with additional information up front. The answers we get up front should provide us with a basic foundation of information. Without that, it’s too easy to spend time floundering and wishing for knowledge.

To that end, here are some additional things you might ask your agent and consider:

•    How involved do you expect to be in the editorial process once the book is purchased by a publisher? Do you ask for updates and gauge satisfaction from both author and agent?

•    How would you handle editorial differences of opinion between an editor and author?

•    How would you handle differences of opinion on titles or covers, etc?

•    How and when do you explain the various stages of the publication process or do you leave that to a publisher?

•    How would you handle a request for help if I need additional information, education, or intervention in the publishing process?

•    What do you see as the agent’s role when it comes to marketing or publicity decisions, mine or those of the publisher, and to changes or shifts in marketing or publicity plans for the book?

•    How do you handle foreign and subsidiary rights?

•    What do you see as your role, if any, if the publisher retains subsidiary rights, and what do you see as your role or process for checking/advocating for those rights?

•    If the book sells as part of a multi-book contract, what role do you expect to play in the editorial process for subsequent books?

•    How far in advance of the contractual submission deadline do you want/expect/need to receive subsequent contracted manuscripts?

•    At what point do you want to consider additional work to be submitted for “option” books or outside of an initial contract?

•    What sort of timeline do you envision needing before getting back to me when I submit future projects for potential submission?

•    How would you envision handling the situation if I love a project that you did not feel was salable or that you couldn’t market enthusiastically?


Martina Boone was born in Prague and spoke several languages before learning English. She fell in love with words and never stopped delighting in them. She's the author of COMPULSION, book one in the Southern Gothic trilogy from Simon and Schuster, Simon Pulse. COMPULSION is an RT Book Reviews ‘Top Pick’ Fall 2014 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance, and a Goodreads Best Book of the Month and YA Best Book of the Month, described by Booklist as a “compelling mystery about feuding families and buried secrets, not to mention a steamy romance.” Publishers Weekly calls it an “impressive start to the Heirs of Watson Island series.”

Martina is also the founder of, a Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers site, the free monthly First Five Pages Workshop and, a site devoted to encouraging literacy and all things YA Series by creating an intersection of different fandoms.
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New QueryTracker Sneak Peek

The new QueryTracker should be going live around February of 2015, and I'd like to show you just a few of the new features that it will include.

There's a lot more new to show you, but it is the holidays after all and I don't want to keep you. There will be more sneak peeks coming soon.

And if there is anything you'd like to see added to QueryTracker, there's still time to make suggestions. Just add any ideas you may have in the comments below.

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Publishing Pulse for November 21, 2014

New At QueryTracker:

Since the last Publising Pulse, we've added four agent profiles and updated fourteen, including two who appear not to be agenting any longer. That's a lot of motion in the industry, so please make sure you double-check every agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page before sending your query.

If you're a QueryTracker premium member, then you can be notified whenever an agent or publisher profile is added or updated. If you're not a premium member, you can just check for yourself.

Publishing News:

This year's National Book Awards sounds like it was a rather … interesting event, with racist jokes (later apologized for on twitter) and an impassioned speech by Ursula K. LeGuin.  Also, awards were given out.

Bono is going to star in a comic book. Because why wouldn't he?

Simon and Schuster has made changes to their library ebook program, removing the requirement to "buy it now."

If you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books, their author RA Montgomery has passed away at age 78. May perpetual light shine upon him.

Oh, and bringing an end to the fun and games we've all been having on the sidelines, while authors lose revenue or else take bitter sides against one another, Amazon and Hachette have reached an agreement.   If you want some commentary about this (and who doesn't?) I recommend Hugh Howey's take.

Amazon updated the look of the author pages. I can't link to that -- just go take a look. (If you can't think of an author offhand, you can take a look at mine.)

Around the Blogosphere:

Smashwords wants you to know that ebook publishing only gets more difficult from here on out, but they have tips to help you succeed.

Goodreads compiled an infographic about reading trends by sex, and how often women read women and men read men.

Agent Janet Reid gives a newly-agented writer advice on mistakes not to make as a client.

New Republic features an essay from a writer either stunned or embittered by the notion that agents are searching for projects that make money. I recommend reading this because once the literary agent community finds it, they're going to start dissecting it on Twitter, and you should know what they're talking about.

Personal news:

This week saw publication of my novel, An Arrow In Flight, so my previous novel, Seven Archangels: Annihilation will be free until the end of today, and my Christmas novella The Boys Upstairs is now listed at $.99. If you love these blog posts, surely you'll love my books too. Right? Right.

Literary Quote of the Week:

"Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back." -Babe Ruth

Thanks for stopping by, and keep sending those queries!

Jane Lebak is the author of An Arrow In Flight . She has four kids, four books in print, two cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, but if you want to make her rich and famous, please contact Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 
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Conquering the Cliche

Editor's note: I'm nose-deep in edits of my latest project... and I'm finding myself in need of some of my own advice. Enjoy the reposting of a much-needed lesson!

Whether a plotter or a pantser, a novice or a pro, every writer will eventually do the same exact thing—and that's stare at the screen, fingers poised over keyboard, planning a character's next move.

How you handle your character's next move will set you apart from the rest of the writing masses. Genre matters not; length matters not. What matters is whether or not that next move is a cliché.

A cliché is any expression, idea, or element that has been overused to the point of losing its original intent or effect. There are the obvious clichés, namely those turns of phrase that get used over and over (whoops, that was cliché).

They are comparisons and references and descriptions that are so overused that they render the very language empty and boring.

While clichés are most often recognized as those annoying catch phrases, they can also relate to larger things like character and dialog and plot. Clichés are wicked little buggers that weaken our writing and writers should do their best to find them—and fix them.

Do The Unexpected

Clichés are often found hiding in plain sight (another cliché) whenever we let our characters act naturally—and these are the clichés that doom us to failure (probably cliché).

By acting naturally, I refer to the character doing what feels perfectly natural to us. I like to call it "First Response Syndrome", an unhealthy story condition wherein the character acts upon his/her first—and therefore natural—response to a situation or stimulus.

When a character does exactly what we expect them to do, remember this—every other reader on the planet (cliché) is expecting them to do it, too. And that's kinda boring.

Say your character is waiting for a bus that doesn't seem to be slowing down for her stop.
  • The natural response is to let her wait safely on the curb so she doesn't get flattened.
  • The unexpected action would be if the woman takes off her shoe and throws it at the bus, cracking the windshield. That's more interesting.
  • More interesting, still, would be if the character jumped into the middle of the street and made the bus driver slam on the brakes (technically a cliché but you know what I mean).
Do the unexpected.

Of course, there's a difference between unexpected and ridiculous. You wouldn't have an arthritic ninety-year old grandma jump into the street to stop traffic. (Unless, of course, we only thought she was a ninety-year old grandma but was instead an escaped acrobat who's on the lam (cliché) and wearing a disguise. That is so not cliché.)

But, as I said—ridiculous is not a good thing and you don't want to pull the reader out of the story. You just want to keep them on the edge of their seat (cliché).

Actions aren't the only things that can be cliché in this fashion. Dialog can be cliché, too, even when it doesn't contain any overused expressions. Any character who says what we expect them to say suffers from First Response Syndrome and is in dire need (cliché) of a rewrite. Don't allow your teen protagonist to be a carbon-copy (cliché) of every other teen you know. Forbid your villain the pleasure of twisting his mustache and howling his favorite mu-hahaha laugh (no matter how cool it sounds, it's cliché.)

Breaking The Habit

It takes effort to break a bad habit (cliché) like writing in cliché. However, the story will reap the rewards (cliché) if you can train yourself to spot them and fix them by doing the unexpected.

For instance, doing the unexpected may cause your character to come to a realization about themselves or someone else. An unexpected response may lead to heightened emotions. An unexpected response may tell the reader something about a character's makeup that would otherwise take pages of description—in short, an unexpected response would show a quality that the writer might otherwise be compelled to tell.

Try this exercise: select a portion of your manuscript and print it out. Using a highlighter, mark everything that seems it might be cliché—look for those expressions that are done to death (cliché), scour your dialog for trite or dull responses, and mark off every reaction to a stimulus.

Then, evaluate each instance of highlighted text. Think of a different way to write over those overused phrases. Add color to dialog using emotion and fresh language. Make your character do the exact opposite of their original response.
Do any of the rewrites heighten tension? Make the character seem more interesting? Take the story in a new direction? If it's more interesting to you as the writer, it's going to be more interesting to the reader, as well.

What a lot of us fail to realize is that sometimes our stories get rejected not because our writing is bad but because our work is clichéd. Good isn't acceptable anymore—our work has to be great.

Our characters need dialog that is fresh and original and our characters have to be ready to do the unexpected. Thinking past the first response will add an element of surprise and excitement to your work—and a reader who has to keep reading to find out what happens next is the reader that stayed hooked.

A hooked reader—that's not a cliché... because that never gets old.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press). Her paranormal romance WORDS THAT BIND (The Wild Rose Press) is now available.
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