Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (New York: Riverhead, 2010) is a more philosophical look at writing and writers than the previous two books I’ve reviewed. Lerner is an award-winning writer who had been both an editor and an agent. She also blogs with a wicked sense of humor.
Forest for the Trees is divided into two parts. Part 1 addresses different types of writers: the natural talent, the self-promoter, the neurotic, to name only three. The labels are self-explanatory. A naturally talented writer still has to work, to be successful, Lerner argues. Her point that natural writers tend to write at an early age had never occurred to me, but I recall in 3rd and 4th grades writing stories about ninjas invading my school. (Not high-brow literature by any stretch, mind you.) The ambivalent writer cannot focus long enough on one project to finish or, at least, finish well before going on to another idea. The neurotic writer, which could be any writer if we’re being honest, struggles with process and may even hire a coach to help them continue to write themselves out of writer’s block.
Part 2 looks at the publishing process, giving the ins and outs of what to expect from agents, editors, and publishing houses. Much of the advice given in my previous two posts is repeated here. One aspect that Lerner deals with better than Germano, Rabiner, and Fortunato is rejection. She offers John Grisham as an example of persistence in the face of rejection. Having visited the Grisham Room at Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library on many occasions, I can attest to how inspiring it is to see that someone such as Grisham has an editor who marks up his pages, urges changes, and offers encouragement. I often mention the Grisham drafts displayed in the Grisham Room to my students to encourage them that even best-selling authors have to edit and revise repeatedly to get it right, and even then the final drafts often need some work.
Lerner captures the life of the writer, which I leave you with: “The writer’s psychology, by its very nature, is one of extensive duality. The writer labors in isolation, yet all that intensive, lonely work is in the service of communicating, is in an attempt to reach another person” (5).