Updated: Apr 19, 2022
This past month I read The Forest for the Trees, An Editor's Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner. It was recommended to me by #BookTok and had a lot of controversy around its Goodreads reviews. Here's why...
For one, it's not a book that offers advice on the mechanics, that is the nuts and bolts, of editing a manuscript. There's nothing on grammar or pacing. No sage advice on genre, sagging middles or creating synopses. Instead, it's an insider's view of the publishing machine that few authors get to see.
Betsy Lerner is an editor and has been for a long time. She's worked with countless authors and editors. She writes in an observational way talking us through encounters with the strange author creature first hand. Then she walks the reader through the process of what a publishing house does to choose a book. It's fascinating even for someone whose been in the business for a long time. Her humor is biting at times, which is why, I think, there have been mixed reviews from authors. I'll explain.
The first part of the book is titled Writing and consists of six chapters, each highlighting Lerner's firsthand experience with different types of writers and their foibles. THIS is the part that people are upset about.
For one, it's essentially a sorting hat for the most generalized versions of writer 'personalities,' most of which can be taken as unflattering. I thought they were funny and, having known and worked with many authors, pretty spot on. She talks about The Ambivalent Writer, The Natural, The Wicked Child, The Self-Promoter, The Neurotic, and Touching Fire. To give you an example, the last author type is a chapter about the issue of addiction and mental health in the art industries, begins with the line, "The only place you're likely to find more alcoholics than at an AA meeting is a writing program." A good number of reviewers took exception to this and I can see why. Is it true? I have no idea.
There is sage advice in each of those chapters, however. From learning how to 'sit with' an idea to understanding which writing process would bring out your best work. The first part of the book has a lot to offer.
Part Two is called, Publishing and it is incredibly helpful. If you are offended by Part One, at least read the second half of the book. You'll be glad you did.
Lerner walks the reader through the acquisition process through the eyes of the editor. She talks about the importance of your query and how it really does set the stage for who you are as an author. Lerner says, "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. In fact, a cover letter usually announces the writer's facility with words or lack thereof." So...pretty important.
Lerner gives advice on knowing who you're submitting to and doing the homework to make sure you personalize your query or proposal. Don't simply address it, 'Dear Agent.' Also, choose a title! Apparently, a lot of people don't, leaving it up to the publisher. Your title suggests genre, an understanding of reader expectations, and that you put thought into how to market it. It's important.
The market analysis of your proposal is also essential, as is knowing what the publisher's other books are like. She offers suggestions for effective books to use such as, How to Think Like an Editor by Susan Rabiner, to help with refining your query. I found her chapters on the agent/author relationship insightful. She talks about how trust and the kind of input or interaction you're looking for out of your agent is an important part of deciding who to query.
The last part of the book covers the fight. Acquisitions editors are champions of your book. They want it to be selected, published, to be successful. We tend to think of publishing professionals as keepers of keys to a kingdom we long to enter. It almost seems like a gauntlet. Lerner's book shows us how we are not making that journey alone. It was an encouraging, witty, read and I highly recommend it.
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