• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

Count the Headlights on the Highway

Should you know your competitor’s work or avoid it at all costs? Should you sleep with the enemy? When I was working on The Forest for the Trees, there was one book that terrified me and I stayed far away from it. It was everywhere, it was beloved, and duh it was about writing. It had the greatest title, the kind of title that appealed on every level,  and a sublime jacket, the kind of jacket that makes you want to own it, and only suits the book more after you’ve read it. Everyone seemed to have read it and everyone loved the motherfucker. Of course, I’m talking about Bird By Bird. I knew if I read it, I would never write my book. The shadow it cast was too large. I finally read it years later and here’s a newsflash, it’s wonderful. As it turns out, I really didn’t have to worry since Lamott’s book is about writing, and mine is about self-loathing. Phew.

Do you avoid certain books that you fear may steal your thunder,  intimidate you,  influence you too much,  flatten you, or kill you? Or do you read the competition first, bring it on. Or perhaps you feel there’s room for all kinds of voices and you don’t feel competitive about your work or the work of others. Then again, that might be the lobotomy talking.

32 Responses

  1. I just created my own genre of fiction so I don’t worry about anybody else’s. It’s much more creative. “See Proppping up Literary Fiction Sales” at:

  2. I pick up people’s accents in speaking. I don’t want to accidentally write a pastiche. So I typically don’t read a lot while I’m writing. I also don’t write after watching movies, lol.

  3. “the d word. death. we’re all gonna friggin’ die. and screw the market. if there’s any one single enemy to creativity, it’s self-consciousness.”

    Andre Dubos III

  4. I read them all. I’m a “bring it on” gal!

  5. Funny. As I read “Forest for the Trees,” I kept thinking about “Bird by Bird” and why you hadn’t mentioned it at all in your work. Your book IS different and should be celebrated as such – while Lamott writes about writing, you write about editing and publishing. If it makes you feel any better, I keep BOTH of your books on my writing desk and refer to BOTH of them but at different times during my writing sessions. I love them both but in very different ways.

  6. Bird by Bird is wonderful, but The Forest for the Trees was the first book on writing… actually, the first book of any kind… that motivated me, six or or seven years ago, to find out how to contact the author and thank her for writing it. And then, when the author wrote back, I thought, “Now this is one classy woman.” Little did I know… (*wink* or whatever the emoticon is to indicate a wisecrack.)

    I read just about anything while I write and assume I’m going to steal something from someone, as all writers do…

  7. Yeah, I’m really, really worried that Faulkner and James Lee Burke will steal my thunder….hahahahahahahaha. Damn, that felt good.
    Those are authors make you forget to go to the bathroom….now that’s better than a page turner….and save on paper…
    Speaking of which, has anyone read The Thieves of Manhattan yet?
    and don’t miss The Glass Rainbow. If you write fiction, learn from this guy. Learn!!!!!!

  8. When I wrote For the Love of a Devil I initially avoided reading Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. My main reason for avoiding it was that I was afraid that I would read her book and decide that there was no point in writing another retelling up the story of Hosea. I was nearly finished with the first draft of my book when I changed my mind. It surprised me when I read her book because it was very clear that her goals in writing that book were very different than mine. Her effort has been appreciated by many more readers than mine, but while I took great pains to tell my story in such a way that it follows Hosea’s story exactly and has the same theme as the book of Hosea, Francine Rivers pulled a few elements from the book of Hosea avoided others and laid them out in the form of a romance. I don’t know that reading that book prior to writing my own would have changed how I wrote.

    In non-fiction writing, I think it is important to be aware of what other people are saying on the same subject. For one thing, we want to write something new. We don’t want just another book that says the same thing but we want to write a book that fills a gap left by the other books that are out there. Also, quoting from the works of others helps to add authority to what we say. If we can point to another author who is saying close to the same thing that we are then the reader has verifiable proof that we aren’t just running our mouth. If we’re in disagreement with the other author, quoting him and then stating our argument against what he says helps to silence the critics who might otherwise dismiss our words because of what the other author has said.

    Even with fiction, there is value in knowing what other people have written so that our work isn’t just more of the same.

  9. I find it necessary to read other novels while writing my own. I need to escape from the narrow trajectory of my own fictional world and freefloat in other worlds- the more skillfully crafted, the better! And heck, is anyone actually afraid if they expose themselves to another person’s plot they’ll end up with it in their own story, contracted like a virus? That’d have to be a writer with a mighty weak stream of consciousness. . .

  10. I have my favorite authors in my genre. I read their work and marvel at their brilliance. I must admit I sometimes feel a bit envious, perhaps a tad jealous, and, yes, at times intimidated. And in my weak moments despair I can ever come up to their level. But then when those feelings eventually pass (typically within a few minutes) I tell myself I must continue to hone my craft and that with dint of perseverance, a dollop of talent and a lightning bolt of inspiration I too can one day stand poised upon the height of literary success beloved by all. And then I usually wake up. Reality can be a bitch.

  11. I’m intimidated by editors who use the word “motherf*cker” in their posts. I long…no, I DREAM of sending you a few chapters of my latest novel with an ass-kissing cover letter, but I’ve always been intimidated by your work; and shy of my own.

    P.S. I’ve read “Bird by Bird” and I’ve read “The Forest For the Trees.” Your book not only inspired me, but is most certainly my favorite of the ‘writing’ books.

    You have every right to be proud.

    • Am I the only one who reads ‘f*ck’ as ‘ass-fuck,’ the asterisk an iconographic sphincter?

      Which means ‘motherf*cker’ reads ‘ass-fucking your mother,’ which is positively polite compared to how ‘Bird By Bird’ reads.

  12. I must admit–I am a HUGE Lamott fan (not just for Bird by Bird), and I only recently discovered your work here in the blogosphere. You two both have the self-deprication thing down (I hope yours isn’t truly self-loathing). One thing I REALLY appreciate about you is your willingness to engage us here. Thanks! Oh, and I’m definitely a scout-the-competition gal, if there is such a thing as competition in writing. I like to think of it as an individual sport, like running, where it’s just you versus the clock.

  13. Bird by Bird is so West Coast, all about getting in touch with your spiritual lovely writer you-ness. Forest For The Trees is all East Coast, a worldly, wise, snazzy reality check on your wifty precious writer you-ness. And it has a better cover — I love those pencils.

  14. I’m not talented enough to write like anyone else and not smart enough to be deterred by competition. So I’m ok reading everything.

    I liked FFTT because it wasn’t the ol’ how to book. It took things to a different level. I’m tired of reading about how I should write, be a mother, be happy. You know, for when I do all those things. I’m doing them. There comes that point when you have to stop planning and organizing and take the leap. I want advice to help me on the way not pull me back and say ‘whoa… let’s go over this one more time.’

  15. While revising my book, I read the first two pages of “Skinny Legs and All.” Robbins prose took my breath away.

    I couldn’t write for a week.

    • Any writer thant can senda spoon, a plate, a can of beans, and a painted stick walking from Texas to New York, hide in the basement of a cathedral, and stow away on a ship to the Holy Land is my kind of author. Tom Robbins is a God.

  16. I write fiction, and I read my competition. Actually, I read everything — stuff within my genre, stuff fifty thousand miles outside of it, and the stuff in between. I keep a few good novels near my writing desk — if I get stuck on my work-in-progress, I read a few pages of one of my favorite books, and that usually gets me back into the rhythm of my own prose.


    There is this book coming out. Next year.

    It reminds me of my beloved little work-in-progress. The characters, the tone, some aspects of the plot. It has, shall we say, the same aspirations as my manuscript. It will fit in the same narrow place in the genre where mine would fit.

    Sure, I’ve read many an Amazon synopsis that has given me those chills of familiarity with regard to something I’ve written — but when I go and read those books, I see the differences in tone, in outlook, in genre niche.

    But this book next year? Terrifies me.

    I should also note that the author is younger, prettier, and more socially capable than I am. And she doesn’t have to work a day job.

    I can’t help but see her and her book as my direct competition. And I’m torn between wanting e-mail her to wish her luck with her book… or staying far away from her blog and her tweets. Of course, I can’t bring myself to do either. I read everything, and grimace.

  17. I am in the middle of my first novel, and at the heart of the story is a pell-mell love affair that unravels — and then re-strings — all the relationships in its orbit.

    A close friend who’s read a few sections told me that my central plot reminded her of a memoir from a decade or more ago, written by a New York writer who had personally embarked on a similarly messy business with a taboo paramour.

    You can bet your motherloving bippie that I will NOT be reading that book anytime soon, and would prefer not to be in the same ROOM with this book.

    There is even a shoe brand that has the same first name as this author, and when I see any shoes of this label they make me nervous.

    • Having admitted how I prefer to read ‘f*ck,’ I will now refrain from explicating my personal understanding of ‘motherloving bippie.’

  18. I read your books and blog because the prose is not sentimental in the slightest and I really appreciate that motherfucker.

  19. Whenever I talk about my memoir to anyone they mention a book with three words in it’s title and a Julia Roberts movie coming out in the Fall. I, finally, read it and, as I suspected, it made me want to puke. It was kind of like when I was a kid and watched teenagers in love. It was gross, but I knew someday I would be there myself.

    Like it or not, my book does have some of that book’s energy and style. I can’t help it. I’m living in that moment, I’m influenced by by current culture more than makes me comfortable. Honestly, I don’t think I have to read certain books if everyone has read them….they are so steeped in our collective consciousness they’re coming out of our pores. Vampires, anyone?

  20. I read ’em all. If they’re bad, I love it. If they’re good, I hate myself. But reading good stuff makes me a better writer, thereby providing a reason to stop hating myself. I guess.

    I worked at an indie bookstore when TFFTT was published. I loved the book, pushed it, sold a serious lot of them. Way many more than BBB. Can hardly wait for the sequel.

  21. […] ♥ At The Forest For The Trees, Betsy Lerner asks: should you or should you not read your competitors’ books? […]

  22. I read the competition to see what I’m up against.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: