THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is about writing, publishing and what makes writers tick. This blog is dedicated to the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gather here. I post less frequently now, but hopefully with as much vitriol. Please join in! Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives.

    If I’ve learned one thing about writers, it’s this: we really are all alone. Thanks for reading. Love, Betsy

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If You Leave Me Now You Take Away the Biggest Part of You

Sometimes when I’m wrestling with a sentence or a paragraph or a phrase that proves elusive, I tell myself to fight for it. Don’t just let it go because you can’t make it better or grasp it or transform it in the moment. When do you fight and when do you throw in the towel. Or give it a few days and see if it yields. It’s like sitting in traffic.

How do you break through?

My Clothes My Hair My Face

I was getting groceries today at Fairway, a big supermarket on the upper west side of NYC. It’s sort of sprawling and chaotic. I didn’t realize that there was a line for the check out. A woman called out Ma’am. Then louder her voice a wall of sublime irritation. I immediately apologized and turned to find the line. Reader, this should have been sufficient, but she stared me down. I apologized again but she couldn’t let it go and said, What are you blind? On the walk back to my apartment, my honor challenged, I replayed the scene and thought of all the witty rejoinders I might have leveled at the women in the pink mohair beret and oatmeal vest.

I hate when that happens.

It’s Getting to the Point When I’m No Fun Anymore

I am so in my head. For the last three weeks, I’ve gone through my manuscript on paper, filled half a notebook with rewritten and new scenes, did a chronological timeline for accuracy, a map for major characters, I’ve weighed chopping a key chapter in two. I’ve gone back and forth between dividing the book in two or three parts. I’ve identified the phrases I need to word search for repetition, I’ve thought of more possible titles, I’ve got a list of things I need to research a little more. I’ve done index cards on my bulletin board, moved them around like checkers, and revised the first four chapters.

Do you like any of these titles:

The Most of It

Just for One Day

Lemon Tree

Shred Sisters

It’s Raining Men

Dear All: I want to celebrate a new collection of stories, A New Race of Men From Heaven, by my wonderful client, Chaitali Sen. I gave a talk at Hunter College many years ago and invited the students to send me their work. Many, many years later, I received an extremely polite note from one of the attendees. Was my invitation still good? I’ve worked with Chaiti since then. I RARELY work with fiction, but every now and then you’re thoroughly seduced. Congrats, Chaiti, lurker and friend.

“The stories in A New Race of Men from Heaven move elegantly between the ache of loneliness and the grace of connection, however fleeting.” 
—Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections 

“A New Race of Men from Heaven is a beautiful and moving story collection that shows us not only what it means to be an immigrant, regardless of where that journey may have started or happens to end, but also holds up a mirror to all the pain and joy that comes with being alive and engaged in the world today. Chaitali Sen knows her characters so intimately, knows what they yearn for, knows what keeps them up at night, knows what they are hiding from those closest to them and even from themselves, knows where they’re most vulnerable, knows where they need healing. She will break your heart in so many ways.” 
—Oscar Cásares, author of Where We Come From 

“These are wonderful stories—Chaitali Sen’s characters are such dear human beings: mysterious and lovable, irritable and alive. Each story is beautiful but together they are even better, about the anxieties and amnesias of our time, how strange and essential we are to each other. Above all they are truly surprising, in the way of life itself.”
—Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Souvenir Museum

“Chaitali Sen knows how to achieve that miraculous density that only comes from real mastery of the short story form. These stories are singularities: whole lives and selves and minds have been made, breathtakingly, to fit inside them. I felt these characters’ love and yearning in my bones. This is a brilliant collection.” 
—Clare Beams, author of The Illness Lesson 

“Almost every story here is a study in restraint, Sen’s considerable talent evident in her ability to wring meaning from the smallest details. Quiet, emotionally gripping stories.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

But Everyone Knew Her as Nancy

When I wrote poetry, I loved revising. It’s was almost spiritual, certainly obsessive, intense, all consuming, counting the beats on my fingers, the breaks, looking for loopholes and chutes, for a current of air. No, that’s not right. A lot of smoking, a lot of bathrobe. A lot Chinese Food. Typing on onion paper. White out! Titles always came easily to me. How many letters? What’s the word for? Rilke, Rimbaud, Roethke. I’m trying to find the thread. Trying to push it without pushing it. Is that the key?

Can you manufacture emotion?

It’s a Barnum and Bailey World Just as Phony as It Can Be

Our office is moving and going paperless. I spent the day purging old files. So many notes and cards and letters and contracts and editorial letters and royalty statements and reviews. So much love and heartbreak. So many dreams realized and dashed. Everything we tried to do to break through. I’ve been in the front row to meteoric rises and ships that slipped beneath the waves. Everything was always so intense, striving, conniving, negotiating and tiptoeing. More bees with honey! Long editorial letters and pressed flowers. Postcards from the edge. Thank you notes. A poem from someone I used to know. Drafts of a book ten years in the making. And one file I couldn’t let go of. A writer I lost to the savage gods.

Who do you miss?

Hold Me Like You’ll Never Let Me Go

photo: bags of love

I’m almost two weeks into my hiatus and I can’t seem to stop doing my agenting work. Some stuff is unavoidable, but some of this is on me. I can’t step away from the car. I need to be needed. I’m love to sink deep into my work and I love a good distraction. I’ve wondered my whole life why I didn’t pursue writing, why I put others work before my own, living on second hand smoke, nose pressed up to the bakery glass. Part of the answer is I love editing the way some people love crossword puzzles. I love being part of creating books, thinking of titles and jackets and how to promote them. I also needed a job. Health insurance. I needed to stop worrying about me. I loved the publishing community, my peeps. I can’t believe I’ve lasted this long. Writing is also a bitch.

What’s your work/writing ratio?

Life’s Candy and the Sun’s a Ball of Butter

I got a rejection letter last week for a piece I wrote. It trafficked in all the usual words and phrases: unfortunately, alas, not quite right, best of luck. How many thousands of times as an editor and agent have I written the same words to writers seeking publication. Not cynically exactly, but that awful couched language. Not our cup of tea, the penny didn’t drop, not for our list. Go fuck yourself, they seem to say, and fuck your mother while you’re at it. It’s what you do with that information that ultimately matters. Revise, try again, tell yourself at least you had it in you to try. It’s true but feels like weak soup as you take your morning walk, stopping at a statue you’ve seen a million times but never seem to have noticed.

What do you tell yourself?

Just Like Me They Long to Be Close to You


How many times have you heard show don’t tell? What exactly does it mean? One writer I worked with described making scenes three dimensional. A glowing net that sweeps the skies. A cage filled with birds. The locking limbs inside a kaleidoscope, the tiny glass bells beneath the branch. What if I said tell, tell, tell.

Are you Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchette?

Picture Yourself on a Boat in a River

Day two of the big revise. Worked for four hours. Did pilates (yes, you heard that right). Did more work. Went to a late afternoon movie about a woman who goes off her Lithium. No idea why that would speak to me. I’ve never plugged a movie in all these years of posting, but I urge you see Empire of Light. I was so deeply pulled in. So moved. Olivia Colman is my spirit animal.

Got any movie recs?