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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?

And Four White Mice Will Never Be Four White Horses

94140BLNI got a nibble on my screenplay. It’s just a nibble. One of the producers has written back. Has to show it to producing partner. He said he liked it. Said it had promise. Promise!  And that was all. I’m not going to go crazy, not going to start dieting for the Oscars or put a down payment on my Porsche. A big producer took me through a summer of rewrites on my first script and then showed it to the one actor he had in mind for the lead, Kevin Kleine, who declined. Game over. Cinderella story gone in an email. I promised not to get bitter. Better to have loved and been swiftly dropped than never to have been swiftly dropped at all. I’m sober. I’m not casting the movie. There isn’t a director’s chair with my name on it, a baseball cap with the name of the movie on it, a baseball jacket with the name of the movie on the back and my name in gold thread stiched into the front. None of it. Fuck me dead.

What is your fantasy?

It’s a Wonder That You Still Know How to Breathe


Every question every writer has ever asked me about how long they should wait to contact an editor or agent who is considering his work  may now spit in my kasha. And every writer who has asked my advice regarding how to write a cover letter may drop a shovelful of dirt of my grave. I am in Jewish limbo which I believe is like standing on line at Katz’s and not knowing if the pastrami will hold out. Every pore on my face has been scrutinized, every blister on my foot calling out for more torture. One minute I am polishing my acceptance speech and the next I can’t seem to take another step without an infusion of peanut m&m’s.  I’m throwing food from my high chair, I’m trying on clothes in a dressing room that is one hundred degrees and nothing fucking fits, and manically thanking the Starbucks guy working the register as if he were a long lost friend. Please don’t say it’s the journey that counts. Please don’t talk about the “process.” And don’t give me any credit for finishing and getting it out there. What’s so special about special dinners? There is only thing I feel remotely good about is that I’ve started a new project so the screenplay is looking more like a piece of toast with the face of Jesus carved into it.

How sick does it get?

Tell Me Lies Later, Come and See Me

Last week when I came into the office, I found a query letter on my desk with a post-it note from one of our interns. It said, “I don’t think this is very good, but I’d feel terrible rejecting it.” The letter was from a woman whose daughter was schizophrenic and had been in and out of hospitals her whole life.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I used to be known as the pain and suffering editor. Mental illness? Show it to Lerner? Physical impairment? Show it to Lerner? Death row? Bulimia? Stuttering? Sexual Dysfunction? See what Lerner thinks. Lerner thinks if the writing sucks, no one is going to want to read it.

Dear __________________: I am very sorry to learn about your personal tragedy. It takes great courage to write about it with such candor. That said, I’m not convinced you’ve found the universal chord in your story — at least not yet. I hope others feel they can help you place your memoir. Many thanks for the chance to consider your work. Sincerely, Betsy Lerner

What kind of letter would you write?

The Trick You Said Was Never Play the Game Too Long

Choose me!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a writer letting me know that another agent had offered him representation. The agent wanted an answer by the end of day Friday. I was way behind the eight ball having not yet received the proposal. Plus, the other agent had put a clock on the process.

Anyhoo, I spent a few hours reading and rereading the proposal because I really liked the writing, thought the idea was saleable, terrific title, but I also felt it needed some work. It needed to be more intense, to build more, in order to pay off. I called the writer, we spoke for close to an hour about my editorial concerns. Then about marketing, platform, etc. He seemed to click with my ideas. I hung up thinking we had a great conversation; I hoped to get the client.

Next day, email arrives. Turns out he had a half dozen offers of representation. It boiled down to me and someone else (you say that to all the girls). He explains that he went with the other person for reasons largely intangible. In other words, I was a great lay but smell you later. I want to reply with two words: big mistake.

Instead I say, write the best book you can. I say, you’ve got a lot of talent. I wish him well and I actually mean it. That said,  I ask if I may know the identity of the victorious agent so that I may take out my voodoo doll. Writer gamely tells me. Readers, I was so hoping for it to be an agent I loathe, which is sort of like looking for a haystack in a haystack. But alas, it was one of the smartest and loveliest agents in the biz.

I put my pins away.

When You Think You’ve Had Too Much of This Life

Hi Betsy,

I know I already wrote you, but I just had to share. It’s the kind of feedback (below) that makes me want to punch an agent in the face and slit my wrist.

“Thanks for sending this my way. It’s a terrific concept. Well written and very funny.

However, in the end, I just didn’t fall in love with it as much as I would have hoped.”

Is it me? Or is that not the most condescending way to reject someone? I’ve heard the same thing from guys I’ve dated. Aaaaaaaarg!


Dear Dejected:

You may have joined this blog only recently and are not aware of the Asshole File. This is a file I created (and, yes, I have a label-maker) when I became an agent and found myself on the receiving end of many editorial rejections. I needed, quite literally, a place to put these missives, some masturbatory, some sadistic, some just plain stupid. So when someone says, you give good head but I’m not in love, I just say yeah, whatevs.

There is a famous book called Getting to Yes. I’ve never read it but I felt the title was help enough. Being an agent is all about getting to yes. I haven’t put a letter in the A-hole file for a couple of years, not because there haven’t been worthy letters, but because they no longer bother me. Some of the best books I’ve worked on (critically and commercially) were rejected by more people than I care to count. Believe in your work, stay in the game, don’t quit, and especially don’t give a shit when someone says they’re not in love.

If you can improve your work, improve it. If you would benefit from workshopping, hiring an editor, etc. do it. This is your CAREER, your LIFE, YOUR LOVE. Do everything you can, but don’t take these letters too seriously unless they have SPECIFIC comments. Don’t kid yourself that it’s a close call. It ain’t. All the flattery in the world followed by any of publishing’s euphemisms for no (not right for our list, not my cup of chai latte, didn’t fall in love, should be a magazine article, etc.) is meaningless.

One guy I dated, upon breaking up with me, announced that he was only really interested in my father’s lumber yard. Any good rejection stories out there?

So Tired, Tired of Waiting, Tired of Waiting For You

We’ve all been there, waiting for someone to read our work. A friend, a classmate, a teacher, a producer, an editor, an agent, a critic. The worst part, possibly worse than the verdict, is not knowing when it will arrive. A day, a week , a month, longer, like never. How well do you cope with waiting? I know I sometimes like to delay gratification, or stave off rejection with a healthy dose of denial and magical thinking (i.e. no news is good news, or at least not bad news yet.) I know a lot of my readers here on the blog drink (I’m not judging). One writer offered the following rant, which I reproduce here anonymously in all its beautiful despair:

“Waiting is to publishing like foreplay is to porn: a necessary interval which precedes the money shot. As in porn, it’s usually glossed over—for everyone, that is, but the author, who, as far as waiting goes, is pretty singularly hung out to dry. The agent? She has another twenty or thirty people to care about, and she already suffers from compassion-fatigue as it is. The editor? From a scheduling point of view he or she is usually on some corporate version of life-support, too overtaxed, overworked and overextended to think straight. It’s the author, that fragile reed, who passes his days eating his nails to the quick, aggressively advancing the onset of happy hour, and fighting recreationally with his wife and kids while he waits and waits for the dime to drop.

First, he waits for years to write the damn book. Then he waits for the response to his manuscript. Then he waits for the editor to gather support if he likes it, and for another editor at another house to give judgement if he doesn’t. Then if he’s lucky enough to have a book taken, he waits a year for it to be published. Then he waits for months for the reviews. During this time, he suddenly remembers the Monty Python skit about the father who found his son so boring he began to pretend he was French, and he wonders if he could pretend to be someone else to get away from it all. In the meantime, waiting, he grows old. He wears his trousers rolled.”

How do you fare?

You’re Leaving There Too Soon

Thanks so much for all the great comments yesterday.

Some of you may remember that before I moved house in June, I sent out ten copies of my script, Sugar Mountain, to indie producers and George Clooney. Much silence. Fast forward to the third week in August. 

Cell phone rings. A woman with a British accent introduces herself. Her name is the same as Lear’s youngest daughter. As a result, I ascribe great character to her; how could a woman with that name speak anything but  truth?

 Indeed, she has called to say that my script has gotten great coverage and that the top people at the production company would be reading it that weekend. She would be back in touch in two weeks. I did what any sane, seasoned writer would do: I started drafting my Oscar speech. 

You know what happens next: they never get in touch. I send a friendly email, like hey, have you had  chance to read that script, you know the one with the great coverage?? No answer. Fortunately, I know how to go fuck myself.

Now it’s November, I finally, I start my new script. Then, I impulsively shoot off an email to  Lear’s  true daughter. I ask if she has any feedback for me, and if she would be interested in my new script, Loneliness 2.0, which I  lie and say is weeks away from being finished. Here is her reply (yes, a reply!):

HI Betsy–

So the news on Sugar Mountain is that we think it is unusually good, and I want to encourage you with that. It is and truly engaging story with intricate and well-developed characters. The trouble is we don’t think we can take it on as the story’s themes do not resonate with enough of the team here, and we feel we would not do it justice if that is the case. We also have a very full slate which we are struggling to get into production. Anyway we are very pleased to have come across your work, and we would be prepared to read more.  Re. Loneliness 2.0, please could you send a one paragraph description of the story. We’ll take it from there.

I wonder what you make of this little exchange.I feel kind of jerked around since it seems like they were never going to get back to me. How do you all handle it? I guess I should be grateful they got back at all. I never heard from the other eight, or Clooney for that matter.

The One That Got Away

When the venerable editor and publisher Robert Giroux died last year, his NYT obituary listed some of the illustrious writers he worked with  including Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Equally interesting to me were stories about the ones who got away.  One of these writers brought in his manuscript on teletype paper pasted together into a roll of 120 feet long and demanded that no changes be made. Giroux would not agree and Kerouac walked out, On the Road with him. Giroux had also courted a new short story writer whose work had appeared in The New Yorker. When it came time to offer on his first novel, the brass at his company said it wasn’t right for them: adios Catcher in the Rye.

With this is mind, I surveyed some of New York’s top editors asking if they would divulge which books got away, either because they didn’t recognize their value (either commercial or literary) when they saw it, or because the deciders said nay. Friends, the results:

“My saddest loss was the three day auction of the Steig Larsson trilogy which I was sure I was about to land,” writes one editor. He goes on to say they lost the book to Sonny (that’s Sonny Mehta, publisher of Knopf, and known pistachio nosher). “If you’re going to lose it might as well be Sonny.”

NOTE: Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there was no publishing house people would rather lose to or win from more than Knopf. I worked for a publisher who actually defaced a jacket with a ball point pen because she was so frustrated with the art director. “Well, what do you want?” the art director screamed back.  “I want Knopf jackets!” the publisher yelled. “Can you make a Knopf jacket?”

Then there’s the so-called  beauty contest, that is when two publishers make the same bid and the author chooses the publisher/editor she prefers. One editor writes in, “I wish I had acquired The Physick Book of Deliverace Dane. Our offer was identical to the acquiring publisher, but the author went with the other house. ” That’s always a great feeling, like standing in line at your camp social, or for that matter sitting on a bar stool at 3:00 a.m., and not getting picked, not that that’s ever happened to me.

“I passed on Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.” another editor shares. Years later she approached Sittenfeld for a blurb on a debut novel and praised Prep in the letter. Sittenfeld wrote back saying she’d be glad to read the novel, but did the editor remember that she had turned down Prep?  Ouch. P.S. She never got the endorsement.

Another editor is still smarting over her boss’ refusal to let her bid on Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces. (What’s with that spelling of  Kevin??) The book immediately hit the list  and the editor shares how she relished the “oh-so-immature-yet satisfying feeling of I-told-you-so.”  (Disappointing, but not exactly Holden Caulfield.)

Another editor admitted that she cried over losing  The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And also regrets not getting a shot at Edgar Sawtelle and Olive Kittredge. (Note to self:  post a list of novels that are titled with the character’s name? Have a contest? Too nerdy?)

Another editor confessed: “I turned down Guernsey even though I thought it was a very commercial idea because it was stiffly told. Of course then it was rewritten and the rest is history.” And another, “I passed on Shopaholic because I had a current bestseller and thought I didn’t need another one. Ha.” (Funny, no matter what I have, I always want another.)

In the If-You-Don’t-Have’Anything-Nice-To-Say-Don’t-Say-Anything-At-All department, one editor addmitted to having passed on Cold Mountain. But she didn’t just decline, “I airily declared to the agent that I grew  up on a Civil War battlefield and that if I didn’t believe it, noone would.” Thanks for sharing.

And then there’s the horse. Everyone wished they had published The Biscuit.  For two years, all editors said when asked what kind of books they want to publish was Seabiscuit. One editor wrote in to say that she offered, “Except, I told the agent is was worth $50,000.” What are the odds that the book would’ve wound up on the NYT Bestseller list for 23 weeks? And be made into a feature film starring the incredibly sexy Jeff Bridges and be nominated for an Oscar?

And last, our annual “The One That Got Away Award” goes to the editor who claimed he “turned down James Patterson’s first novel Along Came a Spider because it was so poorly, sketchily written even though it was pacey, as the Brits say. MISTAKE!” Hey, you don’t get the prize for nothing.

Full disclosure: When I was an editor, I turned down The Liar’s Club. I just didn’t believe her.

FAQ: When Will I Be Loved

I received this letter in my askbetsy box: Dear Ms. Lerner, I’m a writer and blogger, and I’m doing my best to promote my work, get an agent, and move to the next level. Can you tell me why it’s so hard to market and sell a literary novel these days, especially for a nobody like me? I think that writer’s today needs fan’s of their work, people who will fight for them no matter what, but how do you get that to happen?
I’ve had several conversations on my blog about this very issue, if you’d like to check it out. But for someone who has been writing for ten years, building an audience, shaping his work, getting footholds in the literary ezine market… what advice, besides “don’t give up” or “you just have to get lucky” would you give a writer trying to break in for the first time, in this economic climate. Go to graduate school in Iowa, sell a kidney to get into Yaddo, pay a huge fee to go to Breadloaf?

In other words, who do you have to blow around here?

Dear Writer: You’re tired of hearing “don’t give up.” Okay, try this:  give up. Walk away. Get out while  you’re young cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run. Did I say run? Run like the wind.

I could tell you all the economic reasons why it’s so hard to publish literary fiction. I could tell you about a novel I sent to 32 publishers and couldn’t sell and truly believe it to be the best work of fiction I’ve had the good fortune to work on. That and a token. It’s not hard, it’s nigh impossible. Ask any local bookseller what people are buying, if they’re buying.

Your anguish, frustration, and pain are very real to me. Much of an agent’s work is picking up the pieces (it’s often just as shattering to be published, but that’s a little like telling a single person who wants to get married what a bummer being married can be). But, you know, ten years isn’t really that long. You have to practice the piano longer than that to get to Carnegie Hall.

Is it all about fancy conferences and connections? No, not really. Mostly no. It’s more about luck if you ask me. And since you’re asking, you create your luck. And you’re doing that with your blog, the zine world, etc. Another writer, sitting under a rock, would marvel at your literary life. Everything you’re doing is right.

You may feel that the light is permanently yellow, but it will change. It always does.