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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?



They Say as a Child I Appeared a Little Bit Wild


tumblr_m5agp4ws751rxiaoto1_500Someone recently asked me if I felt anxious about the book coming out because it is so personal. Get to know me. I’m anxious because it might not sell. I’m anxious because the New York Times might say mean things, or worse say nothing at all. I’m anxious because if I fail it’s not only in front of my friends and family, but the publishing profession where I work. I’m anxious because I’m not in therapy and I probably should be. I’m anxious because I don’t feel like myself, meaning I feel a little hopeful and that is just not part of the package.  I’m anxious because it’s all out of my hands now with the exception of boosting Facebook pages and going up and down Fifth avenue in the sandwich boards I’ve made with the Queen of Hearts on both sides.

What makes you anxious about getting your work out there? What’s your worst fear?

If I See You At All

CONGRATULATIONS To my most G client, William Todd Schultz on the publication of his new biography of Elliott Smith, TORMENT SAINT.

Here’s a spotify list: http://open.spotify.com/user/meg.ernst/playlist/6fpTyvd96SC2ZZ4pXUtYnk

Please tell every Elliott Smith fan you know. Or people interested in the Portland indie music scene. Or understanding the tragic lives of young, gifted artists who didn’t make it. Todd has also written books about two of my favorite artists, Diane Arbus and Truman Capote. Brilliant psychological portraits that don’t attempt to explain a person’s life or choices, but brings you in as close as possible to understanding the forces and obsessions that compelled each artist to do their work, and how their work failed to save them.

October 3, 2013,

Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times

Ten years ago this November singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, then 34, died in an Echo Park bungalow from two knife stabs to the chest. According to William Todd Schultz’s “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith,” a clear-eyed and devastating new biography of the gifted and troubled artist, his death, likely a suicide, was inevitable. The only questions were how and when. read more…


What’s the saddest song you know?

In My Own Little Corner In My Own Little Chair

Okay, fuck the query letter. But before I take my pre-holiday dive into depression, weight gain,  and the return of the winter rash between my big and second toe, I have to tell you something, Nation. Tonight, from 6:45-8:30, I was in the GREEN ROOM of the Colbert Report. I was there, of course, with Patti Smith. Mr. Colbert is too big of a pussy to have me on his show and take me up on my challenge to eat through an interview. But the laugh is on him, because I ate through his green room: raspberries, blackberries, pineapple slices as thin a permanent paper. There were six kinds of cheeses, crackers, prunes (though maybe just large olives), and a HUGE JAR of m&m’s. Yes, folks, this is LIVING.

When he came to meet Patti before the show, he was super polite. Amped, but polite. Whoa, they pile the make-up on. A dog called Elvis was running around, very cute little Benji style dog. The lady said it was a rescue dog. I always feel a little shitty when people say they have a rescue dog and it’s not just because I paid a small fortune for a cockapoo to be shipped from Ohio. Or maybe it is. Did I mention that we got totally GIFTED with SWAG. Yes, that adorable woman running around Manhattan with a cap emblazoned with “C” is me. I’m never going to take it off. Patti did great, by the way. It’s on tonight, Monday, if you’re up.

Well, my carriage has turned back into a pumpkin. My footman a big fat rat. What is your craziest fantasy of success as a writer?

And the Dreams that You Dare to Dream Really Do Come True

Dearest darling readers of this blog: it’s up! The revised and updated edition of The Forest for the Trees on Amazon. Shit, this is really, finally, happening. I even got a nice, encouraging note from my publisher, you know, the great and powerful Oz! My intern is clacking addresses into a label maker file. The guy helping me with marketing has made a fabulous e-card and is designing a brochure. My publicist is sending out the books and talking to folks. My editor gave me 11 pages of notes for the revision, so if you like the changes, blame her! I’m pushing myself on to people (just today got a MFA prof to invite me to his class), and have written letters to anyone who has ever so much as sneered at me. I’m working on a piece for Modern Love and it SUCkS. I’m working on something for Publishing Perspectives. Most important, I’m working really hard to get down to my fighting weight and fit into the Nanette Lepore dress I bought a size too small on a great sale this summer at Bloomingdales.

What are you doing for your book?

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.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Sweet Darlin’

My new look

One of my back to school projects involves trying to promote the revised edition of The Forest for the Trees which is coming out in early October. Here’s what I’m doing:

  • Writing personal letters to every bookseller and person in the media I know
  • Sending an e-card the publisher created to the heads of writing programs, writing conferences, writing/agenting bloggers
  • Supposedly setting up a Facebook fan page
  • Sending a finished book to writing program directors in the tri-state area with the hope of getting speaking gigs
  • Writing a spec essay for Modern Love (I have a rough draft)

THe publisher is also doing a big mailing and some giveaways. I’m going to do some giveaways from my blog, but I have to figure out a contest of some sort.  I’m also supposed to tweet more, but  I’m hoping Twitter falls off the earth before I get around to composing any more 90 character salvos from the dark side.

I devote a whole chapter in Forest for the Trees to self-saboteurs to self-promoters. When I first published the book I was a SS. Now, I’m happy to report that I’m a card carrying SP. So if anybody out there has any thoughts about how I can turn Forest For the Trees into THe HElp, let me know. ALSO, if you can get your local reading groups, colleges, brownie troops or kennel clubs to invite me to read, talk, video chat or lap dance, please let me know as well. THanks!

Or just tell us what’s been effective for you promoting your work.

I Saw the Movie and I Read the Book

Is that going to be on the exam?

Please take moment, treat yourself to a good laugh, and watch this hilarious book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s new novel Super Sad True Love Story:


Now, please take out your number two pencil and answer the following questions:

  1. Do you have the new “skill set” for becoming an author?
  2. Have you fully grasped the new technology as the “game changer” for marketing books?
  3. Define the meaning of the word “whore.”
  4. True or false: we are guilty of fetishizing all things Russian: vodka, matryoshka dolls, novelists
  5. The durability of Jay McInerney. Comment.
  6. Mary Gaitskill.
  7. Gary Shteyngart: brilliant buffoon or pretty poseur?

I’m thinking of making a trailer for the revised Forest for the Trees due out in October. I think I’ll start by visiting authors’ graves. Then, I’ll interview James Franco and compare notes about our experience as MFA students. I bet we feel exactly the same way. Then I’ll download something. Then I’ll ask James Franco to join me and August in the hot tub. Would it be too much to ask him to recite The Most of It by Robert Frost? Then we’ll go on a publishing lunch date and pretend to enjoy it. Then we’ll marvel at our iPads. Then we’ll end at Yale where James Franco is teaching. And then we’ll kiss.

What’s gonna be on your book trailer?

Will You Still Feed Me?

Dear Betsy Lerner, [This letter has been edited down and names removed.]

I’m a 67 yr old woman with a funny, “country” novel I wrote most of 20 or more years ago…I’ve had a career of near misses. Recognition, readings, but only a box of scenes. The divorce and recovery from abusive marriage, illness—there went 10 years or so.

Finally a year ago the MS was ready to send out—and so far, no takers. I should begin by saying I burned through two agents, in the ’90s, both of whom wanted massive changes. Agent X fell in love with the MS, she could even quote from Mama—the character who takes over the book, really—but didn’t want the work of trying to sell it. Literary fiction is a bummer to “package,” I guess. I also no longer have the smashing literary contacts I had twenty years ago. In fact, I’m pretty isolated. Queried 25 agents in the past year (I have an assistant to do the grunt work) — Agent Y and Agent Z requested a full, I gather that’s supposed to be encouraging. My question is, someone with work like this (sample below,) should I be approaching acquiring editors as well? I’m just hell bent on publishing this thing before I croak.
Thank you so much, and for your lovely book as well,
Name Withheld

Dear Writer:
I’m posting your letter because it is similar to seventy-five percent of the letters I receive. I’m going to go through your letter point by point and I’m not going to sugar coat it.

1) You’re asking for advice about what to do, but you really want me to consider the novel. (She follows letter with a pitch and sample pages.) Fair enough. Except, I mostly handle non-fiction. And a “funny, country” novel is not an appealing way to pitch your book. Does country mean that it has a rural setting? Southern? Funny meaning it’s a comic? Like P.G. Wodehouse, or funny like Carl Hiassen? Or Fannie Flagg? If you want to interest me, or most agents, then you need to come up with a better opening line. We’ve talked about this on the blog and here is a perfect example. You could have interested me with a quirky and specific sentence, but instead, you lose me. You should have had me at hello.

2. The near misses we can all relate to. The difficulty in your life very real.

3. It’s not clear if you were writing all that time. Is the book is twenty years old or did it take twenty years to write? I am never eager to read a book that is twenty years old. It sounds stale. If anything say that you worked on it, on and off, for twenty years. We assume rightly or wrongly that an artist gets better over time. I don’t want to see your finger painting; I want to see your masterpiece.

4. Burning through agents makes you sound difficult even if that isn’t necessarily the case.

5.The agent who loved it but didn’t take it on sounds false to me. You might be misinterpreting her meaning because in my experience you take something on when you fall in love. And we’ve talked about this, too, the use of “in love” or “not in love” when talking to books. Some people here feel it’s unprofessional to cast responses in terms of love. Others like it. For me, passion drives everything so I’m okay with saying you love something. I think the real aggravation comes when someone praises a book and then says, but, um, no, not in love. The reason I don’t trust your reading of this agent’s response is because when you are in love, you want to take your clothes off. I know a lot of writers who read more into rejection letters (positively and negatively) than they should. In the end, what difference does it make; it was a no. This post is about getting to yes. People are not interested in close calls, per se, unless they are really exciting.

6. It’s awesome that you have an assistant do the grunt work. I know of a writer who had his assistant send his novel out over thirty times before it got accepted. Yes, it’s famous by now, Mr. John Grisham.

7. The two requests for full manuscripts are extremely encouraging. Is that two out of 25? I often tell people it’s a numbers game. If you get a 10-20% rate of request to send your full from your query: keep going. That’s really encouraging. If the rate is lower than that, work on your letter. If they read the full and pass, you need to get your ass into a writer’s workshop or hire an outside editor to critique and help you with a revision. Some writers don’t want to spend the money (it’s a lot less than an MFA, and it’s a professional investment is how I see it. Think of your writing as a business and make smart investments, and I’m not talking about your computer. Can you buy yourself some time, or feedback — and this can be free from a writer’s group, can you afford Breadloaf or another conference).

8. As for the bucket list: you can go to publishers directly, especially Southern presses might make sense such as Algonquin. You can self-publish. There is nothing to stop you.

Whoa, I apologize for long-winded post. Everyone has their writing and then they have their publishing story. I hope it’s helpful to hear about one case history. Of course, I’m dying to hear yours.

All Because There Was No Driver On the Top

I’ve known authors over the years who balk at boiling down their book to a few sentences. “I”m not good at it,” they cry. I’m sympathetic; it’s extremely difficult to do, and may be impossible when you are in the middle of it. It takes time to figure out what a book is really about, as they are often about so many things. But it’s critical if you want to hook someone. Just imagine yourself at a party. You discover someone writes. You ask, what is your book about? They reply with a five minute plot description. I would guess that by the end of thirty seconds you find yourself wishing you were never born. Now imagine the writer responding, “It’s about a woman who kills her therapist.”

Can you you give me one sentence about your book?