Monday, January 10, 2011

Touching Fire: A Sampling of Wisdom from "The Forest For the Trees" by Betsy Lerner

Betsy Lerner is a partner with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. She used to be an editor. And she says on her blog, “The Forest for the Trees,” that she used to be a poet. I say she’s still a poet. And her book of advice to writers, which shares a title with her blog, brings her wisdom in all of these areas of writing under one roof, which she shares with emerging and experienced writers alike. (I received a free “blogger’s copy” from Heidi Richter at the Penguin Group by clicking on the link on Lerner’s site, which I mentioned in my post on December 10.)

Anyway, I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Lerner’s book (published in 2000, “Revised and Updated for the 21st Century) but it’s a treasure. Twelve chapters—6 on writing and 6 on publishing—are packed with practical advice, humor, psychological guidance, and inspiration, all delivered in the poet’s voice. Her words are so eloquent that I’m almost afraid to comment on them. Instead, I’ll share my favorite morsels (like small plates) from each of the twelve chapters. So, if you’re only interested in certain topics, you can scroll down to those titles on the menu. But once you taste Lerner’s nectar, you’ll want the full entrée, I promise. Okay, here goes.

Part I: Writing

Chapter 1—The Ambivalent Writer


“Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are ridiculous or that your command of the language is insufficient…. If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to your work, then you must keep writing, and by that I mean you are compelled to write…. You must be willing to hone your sentences until they are yours alone. You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal.”

Chapter 2—The Natural


“The world doesn’t fully make sense until the writer has secured his version of it on the page. And the act of writing is strangely more lifelike than life….every person who does serious time with a keyboard is attempting to translate his version of the world into words so that he might be understood…. Your job is to marshal the talent you do have and find people who believe in your work. What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude, and rejection.”

Chapter 3—The Wicked Child


“In author and psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold’s book on the effects of childhood abuse and deprivation, Soul Murder, he posits that ‘Dickens became determined never to suffer such helplessness and misery; the trauma fed an intense ambition.’ Writers are motivated by many things, but it is often some variation on the Dickens theme, some lethal combination of hurt and desire, that keeps a writer in the ring….But writing isn’t about attacking, defending, or proving once and for all that these people are bad, phony, corrupt, or evil. It isn’t even about telling the ‘truth.’ Great writing is meant to crush us, entertain and move us, return us to ourselves with some greater understanding of the world and its workings.”

Chapter 4—The Self Promoter


“All writers are like bomb-throwers, whether they attack with dense academic prose or jazzy riffs of stream-of-consciousness writing. Every writer wants his words to inflame, to reach across that great abyss, also known as the space between people, with his words.”

Chapter 5—The Neurotic


“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…. Writers want love, and they hope that through their work, they will be recognized as gifted. And that is why most writers are so crazy. When a writer gives his editor the pages of his manuscript, or when the book is published, his entire sense of himself is in limbo. Waiting for feedback is like waiting for the results of a biopsy.”

Chapter 6—Touching Fire

“Being a writer or wanting to write is to live in a perpetual state of anxiety, where the chances of failing far outweigh the rate of success…. When the fear becomes overwhelming, when the anxiety nearly takes you out, it may seem that only a gin and tonic can take the terrible edge off…. Writers live inside their heads more than most people…. The creating of art serves a need but doesn’t necessarily fill it…. The person touched with fire becomes the container for all of our own suicidal tendencies, the excess emotions that frighten and weaken us. The person who crosses the line stands in for our collective self-destructive impulses and maybe, for just a little while, sates the savage god….we all, just once, would like to touch fire."

Part II: Publishing

Chapter 7—Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication

“If you’re just starting out, I can tell you that agents and editors do respond to well-written cover letters and to opening sentences that bring a manuscript to life…. And then to send it to the right person…. I recommend sending your work out to a half-dozen agents, unless you have a good referral or contact at an agency or house; otherwise you could spend a year making three or four single submissions…. Mimic the strategy our high school guidance counselors suggested for applying to colleges: make two submissions that are a reach, two that are in range, and two you would consider ‘safety schools.’ Try an agent or two at one of the big firms, a couple at medium-sized agencies, and a couple who are out on their own.”

Chapter 8—Rejection

“No one is as tormented as the rejected writer…. I meet a lot of people at writers’ conferences who exude woundedness. I can tell they have made an attempt to get published and have failed thus far…. All you really need during those long years when rejection may get the better of you is one friend with whom you can share your work, one fellow writer with whom you can have an honest exchange. Just as Wordsworth befriended Coleridge, as Hemingway used Fitzgerald, so did Welty rely on Porter, and Kerouac on Ginsberg—writers need one another…. My advice is to write the book you want to read. Write the book that takes everything you’ve got. Don’t imagine an audience of more than one. Don’t dumb down, and don’t try to outsmart the market…. Write to the very top of your form. When rejection comes, and it will, at least you will know that you did your best work.”

Chapter 9—What Editors Want

“As a junkie craves a fix, an editor gets off on the thrill of finding a new writer or winning an auction…. The art of editing is a dance one engages in with the author to help him achieve the best results…. One of the great thrills for an editor is to have a revision come in that feels transformed. It may be the result of a complete overhaul or of just getting a whole lot of tiny details fine-tuned, but suddenly the writing sings where before it had only hummed…. What most editors truly want is a book they love. No matter how much it may seem otherwise, no matter how many mediocre or just plain bad books get fed into the great machine, most of us are in awe of a brilliant manuscript and will do everything in our power to see that it reaches readers.”

Chapter 10—What Authors Want

“What goes on between a writer and an editor is as mysterious and alchemical as a marriage. Some relationships are terrifically sadistic, abusive, and malcontent, while others are filled with mutual respect, adoration, and appreciation. But what most writers want, it seems to me, is to feel secure. They don’t want surprises. They don’t want to be kept waiting. They want their criticism meted out along with praise…. Most have such deeply ambivalent feelings about what they deserve and how good they are that they are often bouncing between their desire for approval and fear of rejection. Then again, if they didn’t struggle with issues of need, attention, disapproval, isolation, and social life, chances are they wouldn’t be writers…. what writers finally want more than good editing and smart marketing and ten-city tours and two-book contracts and appreciation (make that worship) and lucrative movie deals and hoity prizes are readers. Loyal, avid readers.”

Chapter 11-The Book


“Most first-time authors are woefully unprepared for what to expect when they’re expecting to publish…. Somewhere between the acceptance of a manuscript and actual publication, a great deal happens, or doesn’t happen, that greatly influences how well the book will be received, by both critics and consumers…. One of the most visible ways in which a book reaches its market is through it jacket…. Once the jacket art is under way, the next series of meetings involves marketing, publicity, and sales…. Most people know a good title when they hear one, but as publishing wisdom goes, a good title is one that sold…. After the books are titled and jacketed, the next major meeting in the publishing cycle is called presales…. While all the meetings are going on, the manuscript is also being physically prepared for publication…. the flap copy…. blurbs…. the author photo…. When all is said and done, there’s nothing quite like seeing your book for the first time.”

Chapter 12—Publication


“Unfortunately, for some writers, the experience of publication is a living death, or hell, that offers little or no catharsis. Rather than acknowledging the accomplishment or feeling a degree of mastery over a body of material, the writer seems to have opened a Pandora’s box of anxiety, guilt and shame. Feelings of fraudulence continue to haunt some writers throughout their lives. Some writers I have worked with explain that it took three or four books before they stopped feeling like an imposter, and felt they could actually call themselves writers…. giving readings…. going on tour…. social networking…. publicists. Some writers are freaked out by the prospect of doing online networking; some are so busy scurrying between blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and website that they never get around to writing a new proposal or selling a book. I hate to counsel balance because I don’t think writers can or should lead balanced lives, but you need to be smart about what the web can do for you.”

Lerner's bottom line? Editors and agents are looking for a witty or moving letter or a well-written manuscript. Lerner quotes one of my favorite authors, Michael Cunningham (The Hours), who also teaches creative writing:

"I try to remind my students that most of the editors I know are not opening that envelope hoping to find another story like the ten thousand they've already seen. They're hoping to find something alarming, brilliant, and unprecedented."

2 comments:

c.a. Marks said...

I loved this book. I read it sometime last year and read it in one sitting! I think I even cried. I know, seems silly.

Keetha said...

I have this book and I love her blog - read it every day!