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.
Flights of Fantasy