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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What Do You Get When You Fall in Love

Let me be very clear: publishing = pain. Or as Saint Teresa of Avila famously said, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” It’s painful because you believe that getting published is the culmination of your dreams, the apotheosis of your desires, the time for you to finally take your place at the table. I think I’m fortunate in that I was still naive when I went to graduate school for poetry. I pretty much believed that only dead people wrote books. Getting a poem in a lit mag was giddy-making. I couldn’t imagine a book. I gave up all things poetic and went to work in publishing where I became the cynical little monster that I am today. When I published my first book, it was a self-help book. Far from Mount Olympus. I wrote to hundreds of writers conferences and writing programs and set up tons of speaking engagement mostly at my own expense. I did that for 2-3 years until I burned out. It wasn’t the worst experience at all. Some people do have a good experience, but in my role as an agent over the last thirty plus years, I’ve mopped up so many tears, visited so many rehabs and looney bins, I’ve pretended that a bad review didn’t matter, I’ve spun reasons for no one showing up to your reading, no reviews, no book sales, no prizes, no ads, I’ve talked about personal satisfaction and accomplishment and getting back on the horse. Have you tried therapy, medication, yoga, volunteer work? Writing is hard. Breaking in is almost impossible. Getting published is a kick in the head. Enjoy!

What is your unanswered prayer?

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

I want to go out on a limb and respond to some of the comments that expressed frustration with publishing and my comments about credentials and so forth. First, I really do get the pain associated with being on the margins or feeling marginalized. As most of you know, I’ve been knocking my head against the Hollywood sign for decades. And I’m fairly certain I will go to my grave without any of my scripts being made, I’ll never be in a writer’s room, and certainly never collect my Oscar for which I have many speeches prepared. I always tell myself I’m going to quit and yet I keep writing. That is my choice. Most people break through by working in the industry and working their way up. I didn’t do that. It’s a disadvantage. So be it.

If you don’t get an MFA, work in journalism, attend writer’s conferences, publish in literary magazines, pitch essays, etc. then you are at a disadvantage. Think of it this way. You pick up two books in the store. One has blurbs on the back, one by a writer you admire. The other is blank. The first book has an advantage at the cash register. If I get two submissions in a day and one writer has a writing prize and a couple of publications and the other has nothing, the first submission has an advantage. It’s also true that the title will grab me as well as the first line and paragraph. All the credentials and referrals are not going to get your work accepted if it sucks, but it will probably get looked at first. But tons of crap gets published, you cry. Yes, this is also true. How do we explain in? My mother always said, that’s what makes horse racing. To each his own. There’s no accounting for taste.

When I was an editor, a project was brought up at the editorial meeting. It sounded amazing and we all read it for the following meeting. I was out that week, but the following meeting I asked, “Whatever happened with that treacly piece of shit?” I was told that the editor acquired it for a tidy sum. Awkward! I invoked my mother’s horse racing metaphor. Well, that treacly piece of shit sold millions of copies and spurred a cottage industry of similar books.

Quit if you must. Quit if you can.

Tell me your dreams.

It Felt Good to Get Out of the Rain

I’m a huge believer in BRIEF query letters. In the first place, what I really want to do is read the pages. It’s all in the pages. I don’t want to wade through a two-page single spaced letter telling me what the book is about. What I want to learn from the cover letter is the following:

title: I’ve said this a hundred times, but a great title gets you more than halfway there.

Brief description that focuses on themes, possibly mentions influences, mentions an unusual setting or very specific world (a sideshow, a grist mill, a molecular lab, the oompah loompahs, a blind optician, you get the idea).

Credentials are super important. Where have you published, studied, worked, fellowships, prizes, major social media following, etc. Who do you know? Who might endorse your book? If you don’t have any of these, then just say:

This is my first novel. Many thanks for reading.

But I would like to make the point that you should be working on getting credentials, especially publishing credentials. Send out chapters that can be stand alone stories. Write essays and try to place them. Try to get yourself to a writers conference and connect with your teachers. When I pitch a book, the first or one of the first things an editor will ask me is where has the writer published, who are they. It’s better to say that you published a story in the Paris Review or that your first collection of stories won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, or that you have an MFA from Syracuse and studied with Mary Karr, you get the idea.

Let me know if this is helpful. How can I help?

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself


First, I would go with “Dear Betsy Lerner” for the salutation. It’s professional, pure and simple.

Next: Your opening gambit. This is your first line. It’s crucial that it makes the agent want to read more. Here are some approaches I’ve seen.

Dear Betsy Lerner:

I am a big fan of your book The Forest for the Trees and a regular reader of your blog.


I met you at the Miami Book Fair where you gave a talk on memoir.


Do you like cheese? I’ve worked at gourmet cheese shop in Wisconsin for the last ten years and have written a memoir called “Put Your Faith in Cheeses.”


Amanda doesn’t know what’s good for her.


I’ve written a 130,264 word fictional novel.


I am a fan of the late Elizabeth Wurtzel who I know you worked with. I’ve written a memoir about depression that I think you might like.

Let me know what you think of these approaches, or better yet leave a first line and I’ll critique it. Be brave!

I See That Ice is Slowly Melting

I’m back and we’re going to attack the query letter piece by piece, bite by bite. Today, The salutation:

Dear Betsy:

Dear Betsy Lerner:

Dear Betsy (if I may):

Dear Literary Agent:

Hi Betsy:

Dear Ms. Lerner

Which do you choose and why?

Anybody Could Be That Guy

When I started out in publishing, I learned that one of my favorite books was found in the slush pile, Ordinary People by Judith Guest. More recently, the Twilight series was found in the slush. I’ve always kept my eye on the slush, though most of what passes through are projects that are not right for me (fiction specifically, self-help, business, global politics). I also get a lot queries that people assume are right for me: psychology, memoir, mental illness, family crap, etc. In all fairness, I worked on a lot of those book and was even called The Pain and Suffering Editor. At some point, I found myself more interested in stuff outside myself. That point was probably when I went on Lithium. LOL. I never get stuff I really want to see: science, history, narrative on-fiction, investigative journalism. Today, I received a wonderful query. I’ll keep you posted if the pages are as good as the letter/title/author’s credentials. Eternal springs hope.

Do you know how to write an effective query letter?

Is This the Beginning or Is This the End

Yesterday, I went to Walgreens and bought a new binder and dividers, yes with the color tabs. I walked out feeling happier than I’ve felt in months. The reason: for me, every new project starts with a binder. Once I commit to a binder, it’s pretty fucking serious. I’ve been thinking about this project for 2-3 years, like an alligator lurking below the swamp line. Blink. Blink. Blink. If all this shit isn’t nerdy enough, I type out the title and tape it to the front of the binder. Have all my binder projects come to fruition? No, of course not. But I don’t recycle binders. They have their place on my floor where a wall of projects, mine and my clients take up residence in a tidy line, some secured with paperweights. (If you ever want to gift me, I love paperweights.) But for now I feel like a second grader sans pigtails, my heart full, my courage restored. Maybe I’m not a piece of shit after all. LOL.

What implements do you need to start a project?

You Take a Piece of Me With You

I get a weekly report of how much time I spend on my phone and it’s horrifying. A lot of that I think, hope, is phone time. And I yak on the phone a lot FOR WORK. The others are spent scrolling. I’m not going to lie. If I were a teenager, I would never do anything else except scroll, pluck my eyebrows and drink kahlua and creme. Then I found out that you can put restrictions on your phone. I gave myself 15 minutes per platorm. When you reach the limit, they ask if you want more time. That’s like asking an alcoholic if he wants another shot. Reader, I blew through my time limits. I used to read in bed before I went to sleep now I watch middle aged couples line dance on Tik Tok. I used to read on the subway, now I scroll through Keanu Reeves pictures on instagram. I used to sit on a park bench and read. Now I listen to podcasts and scroll. I feel I should go to Social Media Rehab. Take away my device, let me sweat it out, kick the covers, all that bullshit. I want my mind back.

What’s your social media drug of choice?


What happens when your skills as a writer fail you? When you can’t get something to say what it needs to say? When the words fail you? When the plot peters out? When your characters are hopelessly two dimensional? What happens when you’ve written more than 150,000 words and you have no idea what your book is about? What does “about” even mean? What happens when you hit a wall and keep hitting it and you start to wonder why you do this writing thing at all? I’m asking for a friend.

Well East Coast Girls are Hip

I’ve been in LA for the last nine days. Why do I love that city so much, every crumbling bungalow and broken neon sign. I love the palms and cypress, a shock of bougainvillea crawling over a cement wall. I love the cars, the traffic, the fumes. I love the lot where my sister’s directing a film, the fridge filled with Popo Gigio and Perrier, the golf cart, the white board, the stars (I didn’t actually see any, but I feel I did). Even the biggest cliche of all, the Hollywood Sign, moves me in a kind of Tarantino way in that I’m both in awe of it and want to torch it. I wish I had brought my cape and leather gloves. I love LA because I’ve been living the dream in my own mind since I was seven years old.

What’s your secret dream?