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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.

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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?
NAME WITHHELD
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.

Thank you, NAME WITHHELD

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.

Agents

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?