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How Do You SOlve a Problem Like Maria

I’ve spent thirty years as an editor and now agent talking writers off the ledge. That’s what we do. And it’s never more intense than in the two months before publication when anything and nothing can happen. When all your hopes and dreams could fill a dirigible floating over the city. Your fears and anxieties florid and deranged.


HOw do I talk people off the ledge. First, I remind them their book is awesome, how much work it took, their dedication, their craft, how worthwhile it is even before a single copy is sold. Then I tell them stories the way you tell children stories to keep the bogey man away or stories to make them feel hopeful, about little trains that could. Or little books that grew up into mighty oaks. I get them thinking about their next book, about their inner life as a writer, about the long distance race. If all this fails, I suggest, they go shopping, to the movies, mani/pedi, hit the gym, start tutoring kids. If you’re in therapy: stay. If you’re not: start.

When I try to talk myself off the ledge, I realize something very scary. I am the ledge. Any advice?



It’s Hard to Get By Just Upon a Smile

Let’s go back to basics. Query letters. Here are ten opening lines from letters I’ve received or concocted.

Dear Betsy: I am a huge fan of your blog and The Forest for the Trees, which I recommend to everyone I know.

Dear Ms. Lerner: Your agency website says that you like the hard to categorize.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I have written a fiction novel of 130,000 words called The Lost Letter.

Dear Betsy Lerner: Have you ever been afraid, really afraid?

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am a Harvard graduate and a Buddhist.

Dear Ms. Lerner: I am a survivor.

Dear Betsy (if I may):  I was about to give up writing until I read your book — I am the wicked child.

Dear Miss Lerner: Part memoir, part travelogue, this is the story of my return to Los Angeles.

Dear Betsy: My novel, The Launching of Fawn Roth, is about a young woman a lot like Lena Dunham.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am writing to you because of  your personal interest in mental illness.

If you were an agent, which one would you respond to?

Anyone want to float their opener?

Either We Lovin’ Or I’ll See You Tomorrow

Dear Betsy Lerner:
I have three short questions:
#1.  If I have sent my entire manuscript, or the required excerpts–Chapter 1, etc., to an agent via email, per his or her request, and I haven’t heard back yet…how long should I wait before sending a followup?
#2.  If I receive a positive rejection via email from an agent who has read my work, should I send them a thank you for having read it?  It feels like that’s just good manners.
#3.  If I sent an email query to my absolute number 1 choice for an agent following his/her instructions to a T, and didn’t hear back, even automatically, should I try again?
Dear Three Questions:  These aren’t really questions so much as matters to midrash as great biblical scholars have done for years not unlike: Can I wear white after Labor Day and if so under what circumstances? If I bring a baby gift to a shower, do I need to send another when the baby is born?  Do I tip the hairdresser if she owns the shop? In other words, these are questions of protocol and what makes them interesting is that they can be endlessly debated. All writers sweat submission protocol as they should–it’s that fraught moment when you are testing your work against the market, albeit the agent market. And unless you’ve been writing for magazines, you are probably new and terrified.  It’s like being fourteen and wondering if you’ll know how to kiss right. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules,  But since you asked:
1. I would follow up in three weeks.
2. I’m always in favor of good manners, especially if the agent has given you real feedback.
3. Yes, try again. Always try for for what you want.
Your thoughts, advice, experiences??

how bout me not blaming you for everything

Betsy, After posting a blog entry about my struggle with the acknowledgments page for my debut story collection, I’ve been wondering what might be construed of as tacky or overkilL  I bet you have some good stories about author acknowledgments — the good, the bad, the excessive, the embarrassing, the heartfelt, the beautiful. Any thoughts or stories you’d like to share?

I actually think acknowledgments are gross and if you can leave them off entirely, please do so. The worst is when they they go on for pages and thank everyone including the nursemaid who wiped your ass. They are like the folded up pieces of paper tucked into Judith Lieber bags or tuxedo pockets of academy award nominees. I say thank no one. Kill no one. Swap saliva with no one. And if you absolutely have to thank someone, do it in under a paragraph and try to keep it to people who funded you like the Guggy’s or the National Endowment or the Yadooo foundation for sandwiches and fucking in the woods of Saratoga. Remember: you writ it yourself and you are the god of your page. Fuck editors, fuck agents, fuck reading groups, spouses, first teachers, mentors and especially cats There is a special place in hell for people who thank their cats and dogs and ocelots.

Who do you have to thank vs. who do you want to thank?

Try Now We Can Only Lose

Dear Betsy Lerner:

I have recently completed a 108,000 word novel entitled, The Ascension of Rochelle Epstein. It’s a cross between Jennifer Weiner and Woody Allen if he got a period. Briefly, Rochelle is an overweight (and yes I read Food and Loathing and loved it) high school science teacher. When her mother takes ill and is hospitalized, she finds herself falling in love with the young priest who comes to offer daily prayers for the infirm. This will surely kill her mother if it doesn’t kill Rochelle first!

About me: I have a BA in Science and a Masters from Berkeley in Chemical Engineering. I have been an avid reader my whole life. I belong to two book groups, one for contemporary fiction, the other for classics. I would be grateful for your consideration and any feedback you might offer.


As a way to talk about how to write an effective query letter, I thought I would post this one and ask you what you think. What I’d like to know is:

1) If you were an agent would you invite the writer to send the manuscript?

2) Please explain, if you care to,  why you would invite or why you would decline.

If this is interesting, I can devote the week to query letters or I can get back to my regularly scheduled programming wherein I give voice to self-loathing, anguish, and contempt both within and towards publishing.

Guest Blogger #5 – August

I spent a few days thinking of ways to mortify Betsy in this space, but I don’t have a copy of her updated book, and I don’t have the patience to click on every link in her blogroll looking for things to hate. I considered writing about how your publishing ‘team’—your agent and editor and publisher—functions like a family, more specifically a family in which your publisher fucks you under the stairs while your editor pretends not to notice.

Instead, however, in an effort to be helpful, here’s some shit writers don’t need to care about:

Query Letters

If you can’t write a good query letter, you can’t write. They’re business letters—that’s a lower form of writing than Tea Party signs. Describe the book. Either your description sounds like money to that particular agent, or you get a form letter.

Still having trouble with your query letter? Try this easy tip: take up scrapbooking.


Before you have an agent, your goal is finding an agent, not making agents’ lives easier. Screw agents’ lives. The only reason they have lives is that after they clawed from the grave, they hungered for 15% instead of blood.

Worrying about guidelines is bullshit. If they like what you’ve got, they’ll ask for more. If they like that, they’ll want to represent you, and you’ll slavishly agree. That’s the nature of the relationship.

Worrying about wasting their time is bullshit. Agents are hip-deep and sinking, dealing every day with the desperate, the manic, and the spittle-flecked; and those are their –clients-. Don’t worry about alienating them. This is a group of people who one day looked at writers and thought, I want to represent them. They’re not gonna remember your half-assed crazy.

Just remember that this relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, so never reveal your true self.

The State of the Book

Is publishing in decline? Yes.

In other news, you’re fat and lazy, a talentless hack. Nothing will change any of that. Publishing is in the shitter. Our goal is to swirl around as long as possible before we’re flushed. We’re not gonna reverse the direction of spin here.

Will e-readers revolutionize publishing? Sure, because an influx of semi-literate control freaks is what every industry needs. Our problem isn’t the shortage of digital formats, it’s the shortage of customers.

The one thing that distinguishes people in publishing is that instead of faking expertise about corrugated paper products or commercial real estate, we fake  expertise about books. We’re nothing special. There’s the same proportion of assbaggery in publishing as in the Solid Waste Association of North America. The difference is one group pushes a product that’s full of crap, and you know the end of this sentence.

People are idiots. People in publishing are, largely, people. We’re working in a crazily dysfunctional industry, and when by some miracle a book actually sells, we desperately try to reverse-engineer the success. But that only works when luck isn’t a determining factor. You can’t reverse-engineer a coin toss. Why is Lethem more popular than Everett? No reason at all. Why did Harry Potter sell more than 3,000 copies? No reason at all.

None of that matters. Franzen doesn’t matter and Vargas Llosa doesn’t matter. Gish Jen and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t matter and I don’t matter and you don’t matter. Editors, agents, readers, the state of publishing, the technology of reading, the insulting advances and print runs and jacket copy, the blogging, the twitting, the social media, the self-promotion: doesn’t matter.

I’m trying to write this like a comment without worrying where it’s going, but I think where it’s going is here: the first step is admitting that we’re powerless over everything but the writing. And the second step is coming to believe that the best way to deal with all those distractions is to hate them.

What do you care about as a writer, that you shouldn’t? What do you not care about, that you should?

First You Love Me Then You Hate Me

Dear Betsy,
I signed on with a prominent New York agent to represent my debut novel, but in the end she wasn’t able to sell it.
(She only tried selling to some of the big houses.) Despite the fact that most of the editors wrote glowing reports about my novel, they were hesitant to take a chance on it in this difficult market. My agent and I have now parted ways. Is it a waste of time searching for a new agent? Will I be considered “tainted goods”? I would really appreciate some sage advice. I am not sure how to proceed.

Thanks so much!

Dear Tainted:

I’m afraid it’s over. Not all aspiring writers understand that when you make a submission to Joe Blow at Random House,  that he speaks for Random House. If he rejects it, you do not have the opportunity to try his colleague Jane Blow down the hall. You get exactly one chance at every house. When we make up a submission list, we think long and hard about which editor to send it to because you only get this one shot. So a new agent will not be able to resubmit for you if your agent basically covered the waterfront. Your parenthetical about your agent only going to big houses — that’s appropriate and what most agents do. You, however, can try small presses and should. Look at Tinkers. You need to find a new agent when you have a new work. Why did you guys break up? It sounds like you had a lot of close calls and much reason to think the next book might sell. I hope you’re back on the mule. Thanks for writing.

Commenters: can we have some  spectacularly nasty stories about break-ups with editors and agents to get us through the night?

Revved Up Like a Deuce

Dear Betsy,

I thought I’d throw a real question your way. If you’ve already answered it elsewhere, please forgive me.

When dealing with agents, publishers, etc., how do we not be dicks?  I don’t mean the kind who are intentionally that way, but dick-ness born of insecurity and desperation. The thought of getting published (what to speak of writing) is so frightening, so freighted, it brings to the fore (am I getting too alliterative?) all one’s defenses. It’s as if we unconsciously decide, “I’m not going to let them reject me so easily. I’m not going to let them see how scared I am. I’m going to preemptively reject them first by being a dick, and so, if they do somehow accept me, I’ll know it’s because they really, really want me.” For those of us who haven’t gone through years of therapy to overcome (or just become aware of) this kind of thinking, is there a code of publishing etiquette to which we can strictly hew? A chart which we can tape to the bathroom mirror? You can argue that it’s just a matter of being a decent human being, but dicks seemingly get published all the time. Or do they become dicks after they get published?


Dear Gentle Person:

If you are wondering about being a dick, pretty good chance that you’re not one. Isn’t that part of the definition of being a dick, a sort of willful disregard for other people’s feelings?  But more interesting to me is the question of whether being a dick helps or hurts. Tucker Max’s forthcoming book is called Assholes Finish First. I’ve always craved a little of that swagger to be honest. But I’ve also noted at every publishing house I’ve ever worked for that once you were deemed a dick, people did very little to advance your career. Of course, some would say publishers do precious little to advance your career regardless of your personality, zodiac sign, or the number of times you bring warm scones to the office.

The only authors from whom dick-head behavior is tolerated are those who  make the company a barge of money. I’ve always heard John Gray was a major dickhead (Men are from Scroto, Women are from Clito); I’ve always heard Tuesdays with Morrie was a dickwad among dickwads. But these are rumors. I’ve also heard Mary Higgins Clark is a sweetheart. I know John Grisham is a gentleman. I believe Stephen King to be a really cool dude.

Is there a code? Well, yes and no. I mean you can’t be a total asshole and expect people to work with you. You can’t show up without an appointment and demand an audience. You can’t bombard with calls or email. You can’t rent a Mercedes and hire a couple of hookers on your reading tour and submit the charges. Those days are long gone.

Look, there is never any excuse for being a dick. I once had dinner with some famous people and after some drinks the conversation got around to whether any of them ever played the “do you know who I am” card. It was hysterical. They all had done it, but only once or twice they swore. (That’s like me telling me my mom I only tried pot once or twice.) But they were ashamed. They knew they were being dickheads. I also met a lawyer once who told me that he was very good at what he did (divorce law), and almost always won. I asked him what his secret was. “I can be a real prick, ” he said.

Here’s the deal: you probably have to be at least a bit of a prick to be a writer. Probably getting published brings it out a little more. And big success can certainly fan some dickheaded flames. Thing is, it’s probably okay to be a bit of a dick. Just try not to be a douche.

C’mon everyone, talk to me. What’s the biggest dickheaded thing you ever did in relation to your writing?

More, More, More How Do You Like It, How Do You Like It

Cougar I

Highlight of my day: a fuzzy faced man-boy at Starbucks took my order. I asked if he could grind the pound of coffee I was buying. He said, “How would you like me to grind it?” I said, “I would like you grind it really hard.” No, I said, “for press.” And he said, “French Press?” And I said, “yes.” And he said, “Nice.”  Yes, I’m not above a little cougarity once in a while. And yes, a little validation for my coffee method goes a long way.

Cougar II

Low point of my day: I had the kind of conversation today with a publisher that makes you want to pull all the books off your shelves, make an enormous pile in the middle of the floor and light a match. Then you can strip off all your clothes and dance around the fire until it, too, consumes you.

Cougar III

Medium point of the day: I finally got started writing those damn letters asking friends and acquaintances for help promoting the book. Why do they all sound like barf on melba toast? Is the phony banter completely transparent or partially? Should I not be offering lap dances? Could I possibly be this perky? IDK.

P.S.  Thanks so much for all the great ideas and invitations that came through after my brazen bid for help with self-promotion. I also got some exciting emails and invites through my askbetsy box. Thank you thank you thank you.

p.s.s Cougar III is for you — you know who are.

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Away for holiday weekend. In laws, then my husband’s old friends from college newspaper. I am always a bit nostalgic around these people, that is if you can be nostalgic for something you didn’t have. In my case, that would be college friends. I did have some, but I blew through them pretty quickly mostly because I didn’t have a clue who I was, and basically walked up to people like the little bird in the P.D. Eastman book and asked, “Are you my mother?

I digress. What this post is about is people walking up to me and asking, in five simple words, words that feel like a switch blade to the jugular, a rope around the neck, a hot coal to the foot, the ginormous wheel of the M5 bus threatening to pull you under as it wheezes down Fifth Avenue and leaves you crushed among the spectacular debris along a Manhattan curb where just ten feet away a man coats a hotdog with mustard and hands it to a dad from Montclair who has just seen the Temple of Dendur and has already forgotten all about it.

But I digress. Five simple words: What are you working on? Variations: So, what are you working on? Working on anything new? Anything ever happen with that screenplay? Weren’t you working on something for tv? How do you get ideas? When do you have time to write? Still keeping at it? Wasn’t your sister writing something for tv? What happened to that?

How does it make you feel, you know, being asked in polite company, what you’re working on?