Betsy Lerner (2002) An Editor’s Advice to Writers: The Forest for the Trees.

Betsy Lerner has won a stack of awards. Since the publication of her book over twenty years ago, there’s more wood, more forest, more trees. She tells us this book is not a book about how to write. Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, one of my favourites, is listed in her bibliography. Rather, Lerner’s book is about pattern recognition. How writers can’t really see what they (we or I) write, but engage in magical thinking. To ad lib William Blackstone, it is far better if ten gifted writers go unpublished that I suffer the same indignity. A loss is twice as painful as a gain, but the latter is not twice as sweet, perhaps even soured by other’s success.

Pick your pattern. What kind of writer are you? I don’t consider myself a writer. Writing being a verb rather than a noun, I’m a writer, now, when typing. In other words, I’m ‘The Ambivalent Writer’.

Here I am here.

‘When I entered the business, I believed that writers were exalted beings.’

Ambivalent writers ‘have a new idea almost every day for a writing project’.

Lerner’s advice it pretty simple here. I’d already worked that one out. Shut up and write. Don’t talk about it, blabbing on about your research and what you’ve read and what you plan to do. Do it.

‘Most writers have very little choice in what they write about.’

Find your lodestar. Start drilling down. This fits with my notion that most authors write much the same book again and again. If I got it right, I could retire happy.

But Lerner is quick to point out, writing is a calling and a profession. Publication does not make you happy. And there is no finishing line. We’re not going to write Catcher in the Rye and shut up shop. Far more likely we stop writing because we can longer stand that sense of failure and inability to get published, to be recognised, to be the kind of person we imagine ourselves to be. When a writer stops writing, the publishing world does not mourn your passing, or pause. You are forgotten before you’re remembered.   

‘The Natural’ writer is the real thing. I’m not the real thing. Lerner gives the example of Robert Redford in the film, The Way We Were. I think Barbara Streisand was in the same film. She’s got a big nose. I’ve got a big nose. Maybe I’m a natural after all.

‘equal we are not.’

‘What does this really mean to the struggling writer?’

We can follow the moron’s moron, Trump rule: I know poor people exist, but I don’t know them personally. Therefore, they may exist hypothetically as potential billionaires. A correlation exists between being a multi-millionaire as a child and billionaire as an adult.

Lerner suggests there is a correlation between writing as a child and continuing to write as an adult and becoming a published (and successful) author. I sure fail that test. I’m not a natural, even though I have a big nose.

But she has a word of warning for such child prodigies. Burn bright. Burn out. The industry is insatiable. For every rising star, black holes suck up all money and rights.

Here I am here again, popping up. The late bloomer section. She gives the example of Frank McCourt.

‘Most editors will agree that the work of reviewing a manuscript feels like slow death.’

Especially, if it’s your own. Get used to ‘silence, solitude, and rejection’.

What kind of silence do you share? The Wicked Child hooks his family on the line and reels them in word for word. Philip Roth tore up his Jewish faith, his Jewish upbringing, and created character so real he seemed to blaspheme. But few could agree what they were arguing about and those that did agree argued the other side were wrong.

Gordon Lish is served up like a gorgon. As an editor he claimed credit for among others, the head of Raymond Carver. As a deal maker, he out trumped Trump in The Art of the Deal. A father figure that is not a father, but demands loyalty and subservience of the would-be-writer, like those that broke their oath to the Godfather, and ‘will swim with the fishes’.

The second part of her book gives an overview of the publishing industry. ‘Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication,’ and ends not with ‘The Book,’ but ‘Publishing’. Most of us know the difference between the two now. Self-Publishing is where most of the trees go now. But it’s all here if you want to have a look. Read on.