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I Thought Love Was Only True in Fairy Tales

Sitting on another late train home opening my mail. All the usual stuff, droves of fan mail, scores of query letters, and then a letter from The Writer Magazine. They want to excerpt five pages from my opus The Forest for the Trees and they will pay $200 clams.

My friends, you may think that this means little to a power agent such as myself. But you would be wrong. Every dime a writer makes from writing is a direct hit to the ego. It’s the ca-ching Samuel Johnson was talking about.Getting paid for writing is like having sex in a bathroom stall at Phoebe’s Bar on the Bowery.

What’s the least amount of money you ever got paid for writing and what was it for?

There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

This just in: Nathan Bransford is quitting agenting. He’s the biggest agent blogger  I know of and he’s trading in his agenting badge for honest work. According to Galley Cat, he plans to continue his blog and forums, etc, but naturally there will changes up ahead. I recommend his blog to many people who ask me for useful advice because it is down to earth, smart, concise, and basically right on target with all the advice. That said, if you are one of his million followers and are in the mood for something a little different, please give my blatantly narcissistic, positively negative, wholly abject, downcast, and embittered blog a try. Ditto for all the people who have been handing out the blogging awards to Bransford.  We have a hugely self-destructive and vaguely suicidal project underway over here and we’d be glad to share some of that glory now that the king is stepping down.

I’m hoping to monetize the misery mid-2011 if at all possible. Can I get blood from this cold stone? Someone suggested I write a book based on the blog. Ha ha, I did it other way round. What a maroon. Anyway, Mr. Bransford, agent and gentleman, we will bid you adieu from the dark side of living off the backs of writers, au revoir to 15% percent commish and enjoy a real salary.  Most of all, thank you for helping me when I was getting started with my project. Your generosity is as infectious as is your love for books and the writing process. I wish you well in your new endeavor. I’m sure your clients will miss you enormously.

Here’s tonight’s question: how hard would you cry if I left? Only kidding. (As if anyone would employ me.)  Here’s tonight’s question: an agent, an editor and a writer walk into a bar. Which one buys the drinks?

Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?

Cher Madame Lerner,

Until July 3rd of this year I never wrote anything but prescriptions albeit good ones like valium and prozac. Since then I have been writing about my recent mid life crisis which involved me walking away from a big career as a psychiatrist in Canada to clean toilets in rural France (seriously). Now every single day someone tells me that my doodles would make a great book. I imagine this falls into the same category as everyone thinking they have good taste, a great sense of humor and excellent driving skills.

My question is this. I have discovered that I love writing beyond all things but I have no idea if I’m any good or ‘marketable’ in any way so how does one test those waters? I know that you likely get a million emails like this every day but if you answer mine I’ll quid pro quo ya with 1 piece of free psychiatric advice. Desperate ploy I know.

Anyway, I really enjoy your blog and thanks for your time.

Regards, (Name Withheld)


Often at writing conferences, when we are talking about the fine art of query letters, people ask me how I like to be addressed. Cher Madame Lerner is how I like to be addressed. I knew I would answer this letter long before the promise of psychiatric advise. Here’s the deal. You are smart to recognize that everyone thinks they are good at driving, etc. You are also in good company: Eat Pray Tampon. Under the Tampon Sun, A Tampon by the Sea. There’s lots of precedent for women doing mid-life, peri-menopausal walkabouts. I think I’m about to embark on one myself. I think I’ll call it Moby Tampon. IDK. All that matters is the writing. And if you evoke that universal feeling of being stifled, of loveless marriage, of desperately craving to change, and hungering for something that might be called spiritual, along with a good Fourme de Montbrison and Pinot Gris, who knows you might have a major bestseller on your hands and a  movie that grosses 44 mil domestic unless Meryl Streep plays you, in which case bump that to 112 mil.

Dude, write your heart out. Delete half of it. Get it into the hands of a writing workshop, class or freelance editor. Work on it more. Repeat. Send it to moi and five other agents. See what happens. If you bottom out, try again. Revise. Start a new project. Revise, etc. Never give up. Self-publish. Just keep writing and developing and living. That’s the most important part.

If you comment today, please leave one free piece of psychiatric advise,  either for me or the other mental patients who hang around this blog. And to to our French wanderer: Thanks for the question and Bon Chance!

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?

Guest Post #4 – Lyn LeJeune

The Well of Loneliness Sits in My Chair

Hi and a Ho kiddies.  While Mama Betsy is gone, we shall play.  First, gather ye ‘round; we’re going to have some fun, fun, fun.

Okay: You’re a writer, I’m a writer.  It’s five in the morning, your neighborhood is asleep except for the guy whose having an affair with the lady down the block and the kids huffing under the magnolia tree and Old Man Needer who has been walking in his sleep since Leno went off the air and he keeps waiting for the national anthem and those planes flying in the air and flags flying…..before the 24/7 became a plague on humanity.  You sit, turn on your computer (if you have a typewriter I admire you; if you are actually writing with a pen or pencil I love you).  You write this sentence and you shuffle for another cup of coffee.  You’re back.  You read and reread your sentence and you continue. . .

He was a busy man; loved his wife, his dogs, his kids.  Then . . .

Finish the sentence in twenty words or less and name your book.  This is a test. Did you think things would be easy with Betsy gone? But this should be fun; this is a practice for the early morning to get the words flowing, the synapses popping.

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 Put a Spell on You*

Ilan is the one on the right. Visiting Auschwitz.

A little known fact about Betsy Lerner is that she rolls with a posse of young men who all worship her. To this day my hottest, youngest ex-boyfriend is always texting me, asking after Lerner. What would Betsy think of this? Will she come to my new girlfriend’s housewarming party? It’s eerie. She just connects with the young men in a way that I think eludes most of us. Or maybe it’s not just guys – she also worked her magic on me when I was a girl of 25, and she’s totally tight now with Yale’s best offering to America, the great publishing intern, Casey Blue. But my favorite of all her boys is Ilan Zechory, the young man pictured at left. He’s happily pre-engaged with a very capable girlfriend, but if I were even five years younger I’d try to show him my vulnerable side. That’s how funny and cool he is. Anyway, now we’re both just happy to be part of the Lerner Posse, and I thought ya’ll would like to hear from him about it.

Ilan, for the folks at home, how did you and Betsy meet? Betsy and I took a screenwriting workshop together at Yale. I was an undergraduate and she was the continuing education lady. During the first couple classes, every time someone said something stupid or bizarre, she’d desperately scan the room to see if anyone had noticed. I noticed, and we bonded. We quickly moved on to pre- and post-class chit chat, snack-sharing, etc.

Do you have other older-than-you woman friends or is Betsy the first? My grandma is the OG killer lunch date, but she’s a shrink, so she tells great stories. Betsy is, however, the first mature woman I can talk to about NSFMom content (nudity, violence, strong sexual content, my “art”). This has been psychologically fortifying. Betsy’s not going to like this answer at all…

I know, but I think it’s cool. She really is so down and gives the very best advice. For me, recently, we were talking about relationships and she said, “You know how everyone always says that you have to love yourself  before you can really love someone else or be loved in return? I’m here to tell you, you don’t.” She always says exactly the right think in the moment. Can you remember a piece of advice that BL gave you that was really good? With me it’s a lot of of “No no, no, it’s NOT shit” type stuff, trying to keep my self-loathing in check. I could look back through my emails and find something more aphoristic. One time she told me “Your twenties just suck…” and that I should hold out for a better decade. That’s a thought that’s sustained me pretty well for the past few years.

Your first job in NYC was with Google, right? Are you writing? What are you doing now? After college I went to L.A. to work as a writing intern for David Milch. After a while L.A. started to make my teeth bleed, so I googled “good job in new york” and ended up with a job at Google in New York. Betsy wrote me a killer recommendation letter littered with false statements. I quit that job at the height of the recession (baller!!), and now I split my time between practicing clinical hypnosis and running Rap Genius, a website that explains the meaning of rap lyrics.

See what I’m saying? Don’t you think Lerner should open a school for wayward youth?

Wonderful Commenters: Besides wanting to hear your favorite Lerner one-liner or advice, what I really wanna know is: have you ever been hypnotized? And what was it like? What does it do? Should we throw Ilan some business? Can I watch?

*Betsy Lerner is on vacation so this post was written by Erin Hosier

Kiss Me and Smile For Me

The Hose

Dearest darling readers of this blog:

I am going on vacation to a place where they don’t have telephones, computers, or any electronics. I’m going to London. In my stead, I put you in the very worthy hands of my friend, colleague and writing collab, Erin Hosier. She has been most famous lately for her scathing blogs about the publishing business, but among her many other talents she is also one half of the cult-y Literary Death Match extravaganza. You are in for some fun. And if she tells you I eat expensive Finnish yogurt, she’s lying.

Love you and leave you, Betsy

p.s. I’ll be back

The Angels Got Together

August 9, 1483 – Sistine Chapel Opens

August 9, 1854 – Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden

August 9, 1922 – Philip Larkin born

August 9, 1936 – Jesse Owen becomes the 1st American to win 4 gold medals

August 9, 1945 – United Stated drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki

August 9, 1960 – Elizabeth Susan Lerner born

August 9, 1969 – Charles Manson and “family” murder Sharon Tate and four others

August 9, 1974 – Richard Nixon becomes first American President to resign from office

August 9, 1995 – Jerry Garcia dies

Hear Me Roar

Dear Betsy:

You went all diatribal on the subject of women’s fiction the other day. What’s up with that? Women’s fiction is just fiction with female main characters. Since men won’t read books about women, unless they’re bimbos, Bond girls, or butt kickers, what else are you going to call books that talk about the lives of the statistical majority of the population?

You called it “Kotex fiction.” So do you hate your own gender?

I’ll go sit in the back now and put on my shit shield. Reading your blog is kinda like going to see Gallagher’s evil twin.

–Name withheld

I always wanted to be someone’s evil twin (Shana? Vivian?), but who is Gallagher?

This is a very serious subject and I do not want to treat it glibly. I’m a feminist. And I love my vag. But I hate the term “women’s fiction” and I hate its evil twin “chick lit.” When my publisher put a pink jacket on my paperback, I wanted to fuckin’ forget the whole thing. It’s not just work with female main characters. There are a million other implications for a book that is called women’s fiction, but the most important one is that it isn’t taken seriously. Toni Morrison doesn’t write women’s fiction. Nor does Lorrie Moore. Or Marilyn Robinson. I know that it’s marketing. I know that it’s publishing. I understand. It’s the air that I breathe. All I’m saying is that I don’t like it. I don’t like query letters that pitch women’s fiction. Or chick lit. I think it’s demeaning. Just say fiction, or literary fiction, or crime fiction in the tradition of Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, and Janet Evanovich. I’ll pick up on the cues.

I love SheWrites. I love Jezebel. I love A Page of One’s own. I love Smith College. And girls’ night out. And Frances McDormand. I love all organizations that help women. But I want to read fiction, and go hear rock and roll, and see art. Not women’s fiction, women’s rock and roll, and women’s art. I have an allergic reaction and I don’t think it’s because I hate myself (and while I do hate myself it’s not for being a slit). I think it’s because I want the nomenclature to reflect parity. You never go to a all male rock show. Male impressionists. Men’s fiction.

I’m sure I haven’t thought deeply enough on all this. And I’m sorry if I went off half cocked (get it?!) the other day. I really want to know what you all think about this “women’s fiction” label. Does it help? Hurt? Matter?

(And if this letter is from the person I offended — I do apologize. I was raised better, though you couldn’t tell from this blog. I’m sorry and thanks for the great question.)