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Forest for Trees | Reviews

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The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers

Betsy Lerner 

Macmillan 2002 288 pages

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers

or click on the book

 

 

 

 

If you’re looking for a book which will give you a blow-by-blow foolproof account of exactly what you need to do in order to attract an editor’s or agent’s attention and sell your book, this is probably not your best bet .’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I particularly commend Pablo Neruda’s comment: ‘For me, writing is like breathing. I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'don’t pin your entire hope for success on memorising its contents and following them slavishly. '

 

 

 

 

It’s interesting that the sub-title of this novel is blazoned huge on the cover, in yellow across a blue background, with the actual title tucked away below in itty-bitty letters of a blue only slightly darker than the background. You know, you could actually miss the book’s title altogether. And there may be a reason for that: call me cynical but isn’t this just the smartest selling ploy you’ve ever seen to convince desperate writers to take those copies from the shelves and comb the book for words of wisdom?

So, before you get too excited, let’s slow down just a little. If you’re looking for a book which will give you a blow-by-blow foolproof account of exactly what you need to do in order to attract an editor’s or agent’s attention and sell your book, this is probably not your best bet. Oh, it will give you lots of advice, but you will have to dig around for it, which may not suit you if you’re urgently worrying about whether including a stamped, addressed envelope for your manuscript’s return is better than sending a disposable manuscript and a stamped, addressed postcard. And in searching for that information, I suspect you may become deeply irritated. Put it down now. It’s not really that kind of book.

You can also read this book as a mildly philosophical memoir about life in publishing, providing some possible insights into the psyche of the writer and the editor and the agent. This also works quite well though in a rather fuzzy, romantic, sentimental kind of way. After years in the business, as editorial assistant, editor and agent, there is no doubt that Betsy Lerner is still in love with the business of publishing, which is good, especially for her authors. Whether we really need to know this much about Betsy Lerner’s love affair with publishing is more debatable. Myself, I read it with my usual general curiosity about the publishing world, with an eye out for a good quotation or a story I’d never heard before. As such, I was satisfied. I particularly commend Pablo Neruda’s comment: ‘For me, writing is like breathing. I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.’

However, if you’re reading it for clues about how to survive as a writer, you may find the book rather less satisfying. Lerner has paid careful attention to the lessons that publishing has taught her. She is sensitive to her writers’ needs, their foibles, their desire for encouragement, praise and affirmation, and makes some attempts to analyse why authors behave as they do in certain cases. This seems to boil down to an inability to get down to work, choosing the wrong form in which to work, or because they hate their parents or vice versa, which is probably all true but would be unlikely to encourage me to change my ways if I were a driven writer.

There are moments when the first half of this book might be more easily approached as a textbook on how to please Betsy Lerner, or how to acquire appropriate authorly behavioural tics. (Please don’t try this at home unless you absolutely feel you must.) Mostly, it taught me that writers’ needs are as individual as the writers themselves, and that it’s a really bad idea to slavishly copy anyone in the hope that a little of their cachet will rub off on you. It’s rarely their ‘process’, i.e. their writing rituals, that’s important so much as what they do during the exercise of those rituals.

The second part of the book seemed to promise more concrete advice, Lerner having said at the beginning that it would describe the publishing process from the editor’s point of view. And so it does, after a fashion. There is no detailed breakdown of the process of getting an agent, making contact with an author. The advice is there but heavily hedged around with anecdote and Lerner’s own experiences. For a book of advice, the pronoun ‘I’ seemed to figure more frequently than I might have expected, and while I am thrilled to read that Lerner has had so few editorial failures, I did grow just a little suspicious after a while. Didn’t anything ever go wrong in this woman’s career?

In the end, the best way to read The Forest for the Trees is less as book of advice, more as a bedside book: treat it as a memoir with some nice quotations, some elderly attributed gossip, some more recent unattributed gossip, some literary anecdotes, oh and some occasional advice for the writer. But don’t pin your entire hope for success on memorising its contents and following them slavishly.

© Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2002 Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

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List price: £12.35
Publisher: Riverhead Books
2010-10-04
Paperback
Sales rank: 54,266