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I Throw My Hands Up In The Air Sometimes Saying AYO

Letter from Cancun:

So while I was winning every wet t-shirt contest up and down la playa, this 29 year old young writer scores a seven figure book deal for her YA paranormal series. What’s wrong with this picture? It could have been us. We could have entered the feathery serpent’s grasp together, the equinox burning its true face on Chichen Itza where girls in embroidered white dresses danced and boys trembled.

I’m so impressed with Amanda Hocking for self-publishing nine novels. Apparently, she tried  the traditional route, couldn’t find an agent and then said, fuck it, I can just publish these myself. I haven’t been able to find out how she grew her audience (apparently 900,000 copies of nine book sold) and while it’s tempting to imagine that she’s the love child of Laura Albert and Dale Peck,  so far it looks like another garden variety twenty-something out of Minneapolis jacked up on Red Bull has slapped it!

I read three books on vacation: (do you give shit?): Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm, Carrie by Steven King, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (I would have finished but I watched six consecutive episodes on the plane of Two and a Half Men).

Tell me about your week. Did you finish a piece of writing? Start one? Send something out? Get rejected, accepted, in waiting hell? Did you write your own acceptance speech or deliver a death sentence? Did you write for your morning hour, or just before you went to sleep? Did you steal office supplies? Make love to yourself? Eat pie?

Waiting For My New Friends To Come

The other day, a writer asked me what I get out of blogging. Friends, for starters. Deep, abiding friendships with thousands of people I’ll never have to meet or go to their kids’ bar mitzvahs. Nothing puts me in a worse mood than a bar mitzvah. Next, I got my publisher to let me revise my book by showing them how hip, viable, and down I really am. Next, I was approached by a publisher to write a young adult novel. I’ve adapted The Good Earth, set in Beverly Hills, and it’s coming out in 2012. What else? I’ve learned a lot about blogging, social networking, e-book marketing. This is useful in my role as an agent. The biggest plus is it’s taken ten years off my life. Maybe you’ve heard: blogging is the new forty. I haven’t made any money, but I’m doing what I love so I know the money will follow. Right?

What does blogging do you for you? Can you believe blog is even a word? Remember how it sounded the first time you heard it?


What to do, what to do, O Betsy Lerner? I’m a writer with a quandary, seeking your wisdom and experience.

On to the burning issue at hand. My creative nonfiction is finally selling and a total gas to write, while my fiction writing is painful despite a promising plot, characters, and agent interest. I’m tempted to bag the novel in favor of more enjoyable nonfiction endeavors, but worry I will regret it forever if I don’t see the fiction project through.
The details, you ask? Okay, but only because you asked; I hate to impose. 

After my agent was unable to sell my first memoir (blergh), I have done pretty well selling chapters piecemeal to newspapers and magazines on my own this year. I have had a blast seeing my words in print at least once a month in one publication or another and cashing the (small) checks that arrive in the mail. I adore writing creative nonfiction, and often can’t wait to sit down to write when inspiration strikes. It’s a rollicking good time for me, and if the past year has been any indication, I’m pretty damn good at it.
And then there’s the novel. My first fiction, a YA book based on a really compelling true story, and the first 30-40 pages rock, if I do say so myself. I’m a teacher, and this novel is exactly the sort of book I’d love to put in the hands of my strong middle school readers. My lovely agent does not rep YA, so she gave me her blessing to find another agent who does. She, too, rocks. The first chapter and summary are currently in the hands of an agent who asked to see a chapter after one of his clients (an old friend of mine) raved to him about my work. No news yet.
Deep breath.
In your experience, is it worth it for an author to chip away at something that’s painful to execute and outside their comfort zone, or should said author continue to ride a wave of success while it’s got momentum and has the potential to fuel more work? NAME WITHHELD

Dear You: When I was younger, I believed that degree of difficulty was an essential part of any artistic equation as if writing were an Olympic sport and you could gain extra points for level of difficulty on the dismount. Now that I am old and time is running out, I think you should  follow the money, and by that I mean do what you’re good at, succeed, buy a condo. Success tends to breed success. Or it brings opportunity or it buys writing time. In some ways, your story doesn’t compute because you didn’t quit after you failed to sell your memoir. You still pushed it out there and met with success. You also don’t say what makes writing the novel so painful. Perhaps it’s that deeply pleasurable kind of pain, like pushing down on a bruise to make sure it still hurts.

It’s funny. I fancied myself a poet in my youth. I got an MFA in poetry, won a few prizes, got a few poems published, went to tons of readings and bought tons of poetry books. The poetry section is still the first I check out in any store and judge it by its collection. When people ask me why I quit, the answer is: it was too hard, I wasn’t good enough. Though another answer might have been: I wasn’t temperamentally suited to that life. And another: I was a pussy. Or, I quit when it got too hard. Or, Keats. Or, my brain stopped thinking like a poet’s. Did I think I was going to write an advice book? NO. Did I think I was going to work on my fifth screenplay? NO. Did I think I was going to write a memoir. NO NO NO. Did I think I was going to write a tv sitcom? NO. What is the point? I don’t know. Except I think writers ultimately write what they can. I wanted to be Anne Sexton, I wound up Erma Bombeck. You write what you write. You are what you eat. There are no career moves at the end of the day. Just you. And the shrimp special.

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?