THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is about writing, publishing and what makes writers tick. This blog is dedicated to the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gather here. I post less frequently now, but hopefully with as much vitriol. Please join in! Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives.

    If I’ve learned one thing about writers, it’s this: we really are all alone. Thanks for reading. Love, Betsy

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I Was Looking for You Are You Gone Gone

Monday was publication day for Patti Smith’s new book, A BOOK OF DAYS. She did a reading and performance at the Great Hall in Cooper Union, the line went around the block on a crisp New York night. Felt really good to be alive. I’ve worked with Patti for 25 years and it’s a privilege to be her Sancho, sidekick, Plus One. A Book of Days is 365 illustrations (plus one for leap year) and captions that capture her idiosyncratic aesthetic, her passions and obsessions. The graves of writers and guitars of rock stars, journal pages and beloved poets. Pinocchio and Kurt Cobain. RayBans and coffee cups. Her Abyssinian runt Cairo. It’s a beauty.

What picture would you use for your day?

When You Were a Young and Callow Fellow

I had coffee today with a baby editor. And by that I mean he has acquired and published exactly one book. I’m guessing he’s 25. I’m 62. You know how you walk around for most of you life and feel like you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing? Not today at coffee. I felt like a life wizard, I felt like I had a hundred years of solitude. I remember when I first started taking agents to lunch when I was a baby editor. God it was painful. They were such assholes. I remember one agent dressing down a waiter and I didn’t have the gumption to say something. I had lunch with a guy who had four bloody mary’s and talked about the one big hit he had twenty years ago. It was always an ordeal. I think I’m nicer. More approachable. Less braggy. Less of a showboat. But who knows? I will say I was glad to be at the end of the road instead of the beginning.

Where are you in your life?

Are There Lilacs in the Heart of Town?

I totally agree that MFA programs and writing groups can be hazardous to your health. I had a nervous breakdown after my first semester. I can’t really blame it on my program. I was an unmedicated breakdown waiting to happen. Still, there’s nothing like the thrill of having your work killed by a thousand cuts. The most important thing you can get from a writing workshop is connecting with an ideal reader. Someone with whom you can exchange pages and be honest and constructive. It may not be the person who “likes” your work the best, but who gets what you’re after and responds. For me, that person was and is Jean Monahan. I’m still reading her poems almost 40 years later, often as her first reader, happily making notations, questioning line breaks, word choices. I love when a poem of hers turns up. As for me, from the moment I graduated I never wrote another poem.

In the Desert You Can Remember Your Name

How do you know your work is ready to submit to agents? If your answer is that your mother loved it or your boyfriend, you are not ready. Don’t trust anyone who either diapered you or has sex with you. They are not objective. What you really need is a writer’s group. Other writers who will read your work and critique it and give you feedback. I wouldn’t be surprised if these groups exist online now. Or a class, again probably also available on line. There are Lo-res MFA programs, writer’s conferences and free-lance editors. I don’t think there is any other way to get solid feedback on your work. It’s also a really good idea to get some publishing credits before approaching agents. When someone tells me that they’ve sent out their manuscript fifty times and no one is interested, they rarely think the problem is with their material. Instead it’s the fault of the agents or the system. I’m going to say this: had I not worked in publishing I’m pretty sure I would never have gotten Forest for the Trees published. I had contacts. I made one phone call and got an agent. So fuck me, yes. But when someone has 50 rejections, even 20, I think they need to stop submitting, get into a workshop and be open to heavily revising their work including the title, query letter and most importantly the text itself. I know it’s hard to put on the brakes, I know it’s difficult to find a good writing group, it feels almost impossible to get writing credits, and harder yet to find an agent. So I ask you this:

What are you willing to do?

It’s Hard to Get by Just Upon a Smile

Two brave souls shared their query letters. I’ve edited both here. They’re still not perfect, but hopefully gives you an idea of how to present your book and your credentials. Would love to hear your thoughts. TO read the originals, go into yesterday’s comments.

In this first letter, I’ve taken out most of the plot and focussed on the historical element, which strikes me as the most interesting part of the project. I like how she refers to comps as “could be shelved beside.” That’s a new one for me.

Dear Betsy Lerner:

The story for Becoming Mamie is inspired by The Maimie Papers: Letters from an Ex-Prostitute, eds. Ruth Rosen and Susan B. Davidson, Feminist Press, 1997. Set in YEAR and PLACE, it traces the life of Maimie as she is pulled into prostitution, pimped by white slavers, and finally establishes a halfway house for homeless girls. I’ve labored to bring historical accuracy to the novel. Major sources include Lost Sisterhood (Prostitution in America 1900-1918) by Ruth Rosen, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott, Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent, and Prostitution and Prejudice by Edward J. Bristow.

BECOMING MAIMIE could be shelved beside Third Daughter by Talia Carner , The Flower Boat Girl by Larry Feign, and The Lives of Diamond Bessie by Jody Hadlock (2022).What makes it unique from these titles?


Dear [agent],

The Year of Least Resistance takes place in 1970s west Texas in America (think Last Picture Show meets Lonesome Dove or some such) Jeff Chorus and Kitty Davidson are teenagers who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. When they give up the baby for adoption, they imagine they can return to innocence. Add one or two more sentences here to close out the themes or the impossibility of turning back the clock.

My short fiction has appeared in such publications as NOON, New York Tyrant, Best Microfiction 2019, Atticus Review, and The Writing Disorder. I published the memoir “High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico” (2012, Outpost 19), and the children’s novel, “Franny & Toby” (2015, Silky Oak Press). I hold a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at El Paso.

You’ll see that I took out a lot extraneous stuff from the bio. Also, don’t do your bio in the third person. It’s stilted. You really want to stick to writing credentials and education if it’s pertinent.. I like how your college ties back to the setting of the book.

Let me know what you think, and thanks so much for sharing your query letters.

I’ll Send You All My Love Every Day in a Letter


Ye olde query letter do’s and don’ts.

Don’t: be too familiar, don’t be cute or funny, don’t be stiff and too formal, don’t tell the whole plot, don’t compare your book to massive bestsellers or prize winners, don’t talk about your process, don’t sent it in with a so-so title.

Do: be courteous and professional, find the right tone/voice that shows you’re a writer (this isn’t a grant application), address the agent as Dear Betsy Lerner, have a great title (the same way a book in a store speaks to you – the title has to do that work). Try to describe a novel in terms of its themes and characters and any other distinguishing features (unusual setting, written from the POV of Cordelia). Reading about plot is deadly, like listening to someone else’s dream. For non-fiction, describe the project. Do include your credentials. Lead with your strong suit (did you win a writing prize, do you have 100,000 tiktok followers, do you work in a bookstore, is your profession interesting/relevant to the book, i.e. are you an expert? Do you have an MFA in writing or a PhD in Medieval studies. Include a comp title or two if you have a good one. Keep it to one page. (for my money, the shorter the better).

My pet peeve at writers’ conferences is when people say: Why do I need a great title if they’re probably going to change it? I’m terrible at query letters. My answer: get credentials, get a good title, get good at querying. These things are completely different than developing your craft as a writer, but this is the business side of things and it requires that you bring your A game. You can’t say, I’m not good at foreplay but I’m a great lay.

If you want to leave your query (or part of it) in the comments, I’ll be happy to give you feedback.

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You

I want to respond to yesterday’s post because I hear the frustration about querying agents. As I see it there are three hurdles: the first is generating a list of appropriate agents, the second is the query letter, and the third is judging the material you’re sending. I’ll address #1 tonight. In my opinion, the best way to target appropriate agents is through the website Publisher’s Marketplace ($25 per month). You can search publishing deals by genre. Let’s say you’ve written a memoir, you can search memoir and you will see a long list of sold memoirs, a brief description of the memoir, and the name of the agent who repped it. You can then google that agent, read about him or her, and see what her submission requirements are on her website. You can pull a very targeted list together. Other ways to get names: ask published friends for referrals, go to writer’s conferences and meet agents, look in the acknowledgment of books you like and see if an agent is thanked.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers send me projects that our outside my area of expertise such as horror, self-help, how-to, erotical, fiction, health & wellness, parenting, etc. It’s a waste of my time, but it is a colossal waste of time for the writer. As I’ve often said, it’s a rejection you don’t need in a landscape pock marked with rejections. You wouldn’t go to a divorce lawyer if you need help with a house closing. You wouldn’t go to an oncologist for congestive heart failure. You see where I’m going with this. Take the time to research the agents you want to target.

How did you find your agent and/or how do you look for one?

Hey There You With the Stars in Your Eyes

I received a query letter today from a man who acknowledged that I don’t handle fiction, but wanted to send his novel for my consideration anyway. He had a feeling that I would love it. Most people who send me fiction clearly haven’t bothered to look at the description of my interests on our agency website. At least this guy went to the trouble of ascertaining my preference before not giving a fuck. This is a multiple choice question: why did the man do this?

a) a victim of magical thinking

b) arrogance in the extreme

c) I’m special; the rules don’t apply to me.

d) my mother thinks I’m beautiful and brilliant

Divert art.com

Tommy Can You Hear Me

Is it the same things if I say I read a book, but I listened to it on audio? If I said I had sex with Keanu Reeves, but I watched Point Break ten times. Is it the same? If I eat four pieces of pizza, can I count it as two on my tracker? I feel that if I’ve listened to a book on tape, I have to come clean and not pretend I read it. Reading is sacred. Difficult, challenging, engaging, intellectually and creatively stimulating. There is nothing interpreting the words for you in a book except your own sense and sensitivity. Your own intellect and imagination. I love audio books but they are baby sauce.

What’s your take on audio books?

Sooner or Later It All Gets Real

When I was younger and people said TGIF I was like WTF. I knew I would never be the type to live for the weekend. If anything, the weekends were my personal nightmare. Am I a workaholic or do I just like to work all the time? Smelling the roses is overrated. If I have no plans on a weekend, I’m thrilled that I can work all weekend. Even the dog is like, can you fucking walk me? Can you take a break? There are people who will tell you that on your deathbed you’ll never wish you spent more days at the office. Blah blah. Work is my church and state. Gorgeous day? Who gives a shit. Friends in from out of town. Duck! Work is easier than life.

What are you doing this weekend?