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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My Head Is Spinning

So it looks like we have 27 people taking the Betsy Lerner 30 day challenge. I don’t know about you, but I’m PUMPED. Here’s what happened to me setting out on this “journey.” I got up early to get some editing done. The whole time I kept telling myself to do my writing. Take the half hour. And then I did it. I literally looked at my watch and started. The first fifteen minutes were brutal. The second fifteen flew by. It was amazing. I had to stop because of “work.” But I’m feeling it.

What was your Day #1 like?

Chapter Two I Think I Fell in Love with You

So I just completed a workout regimen. Thirty minutes of exercise for thirty days. I’m not even going to talk about how svelt I am, or how much sand is running through this hourglass body of mine. Instead, I want to challenge all of us nutcakes who read this blog to write for thirty minutes every day for 30 days or until Thanksgiving. Every day. Thirty minutes.

Who’s in?

Words are Flowing Out Like Endless Rain Into a Paper Cup

If you write every day, is it prayer? A form of prayer. Or squid ink? Or a strand of floss on the bathroom floor. If you write every day, do you go to heaven or hell or Graham Green’s desk. He wrote a page every day. Think about it. I still say write by hand, still believe it’s a form of prayer, contact between the pen and page, pressing down, your singular handwriting, your hand. If you write every day you will get better. There may be a sentence you’ve yet to write that wants your blood. Are you prepared to give it? And what would you steal? A kidney? A phrase? A shade of blue? What if you wrote every day and found a wee pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or three pieces of coal or an Abyssinian cat. What if your sentences choked you to death, or cradled your head, or played Gin Rummy waiting for the ultimate discard? What if you wrote an unrecognized masterpiece, or the emperor’s new clothes were Gucci?

How often do you write and what’s your excuse?

Go Easy on Me, Baby

Sometimes I think of my clients as babies in a nursery. At any given moment, a few will be sleeping, a few will be fitful, and a few will be screaming their heads off. And it’s my job to soothe them, calm them, and reassure them. The screaming usually happens when the rejections are piling up, or in the months before publication when anxiety is highest, or at some point after publication when it feels like: is that all? Some clients are screaming inside, but it isn’t in them to make a fuss. Something about the whole process makes them feel ashamed and small. Others act as if they are impervious to disappointment. Operative word is “act.” It may take some writers months or years, but eventually the baby will scream its head off. One writer, two years after his book bombed, told me that he’s wasn’t bitter. A blind man could see he was extremely bitter. As a writer, bitterness if your god-given right. I could recite chapter and verse what went wrong with all three of the books I wrote. Can I remember anything good that happened? Not as vividly.

What kind of baby are you?

What Do You Get When You Fall in Love

Let me be very clear: publishing = pain. Or as Saint Teresa of Avila famously said, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” It’s painful because you believe that getting published is the culmination of your dreams, the apotheosis of your desires, the time for you to finally take your place at the table. I think I’m fortunate in that I was still naive when I went to graduate school for poetry. I pretty much believed that only dead people wrote books. Getting a poem in a lit mag was giddy-making. I couldn’t imagine a book. I gave up all things poetic and went to work in publishing where I became the cynical little monster that I am today. When I published my first book, it was a self-help book. Far from Mount Olympus. I wrote to hundreds of writers conferences and writing programs and set up tons of speaking engagement mostly at my own expense. I did that for 2-3 years until I burned out. It wasn’t the worst experience at all. Some people do have a good experience, but in my role as an agent over the last thirty plus years, I’ve mopped up so many tears, visited so many rehabs and looney bins, I’ve pretended that a bad review didn’t matter, I’ve spun reasons for no one showing up to your reading, no reviews, no book sales, no prizes, no ads, I’ve talked about personal satisfaction and accomplishment and getting back on the horse. Have you tried therapy, medication, yoga, volunteer work? Writing is hard. Breaking in is almost impossible. Getting published is a kick in the head. Enjoy!

What is your unanswered prayer?

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

I want to go out on a limb and respond to some of the comments that expressed frustration with publishing and my comments about credentials and so forth. First, I really do get the pain associated with being on the margins or feeling marginalized. As most of you know, I’ve been knocking my head against the Hollywood sign for decades. And I’m fairly certain I will go to my grave without any of my scripts being made, I’ll never be in a writer’s room, and certainly never collect my Oscar for which I have many speeches prepared. I always tell myself I’m going to quit and yet I keep writing. That is my choice. Most people break through by working in the industry and working their way up. I didn’t do that. It’s a disadvantage. So be it.

If you don’t get an MFA, work in journalism, attend writer’s conferences, publish in literary magazines, pitch essays, etc. then you are at a disadvantage. Think of it this way. You pick up two books in the store. One has blurbs on the back, one by a writer you admire. The other is blank. The first book has an advantage at the cash register. If I get two submissions in a day and one writer has a writing prize and a couple of publications and the other has nothing, the first submission has an advantage. It’s also true that the title will grab me as well as the first line and paragraph. All the credentials and referrals are not going to get your work accepted if it sucks, but it will probably get looked at first. But tons of crap gets published, you cry. Yes, this is also true. How do we explain in? My mother always said, that’s what makes horse racing. To each his own. There’s no accounting for taste.

When I was an editor, a project was brought up at the editorial meeting. It sounded amazing and we all read it for the following meeting. I was out that week, but the following meeting I asked, “Whatever happened with that treacly piece of shit?” I was told that the editor acquired it for a tidy sum. Awkward! I invoked my mother’s horse racing metaphor. Well, that treacly piece of shit sold millions of copies and spurred a cottage industry of similar books.

Quit if you must. Quit if you can.

Tell me your dreams.

It Felt Good to Get Out of the Rain

I’m a huge believer in BRIEF query letters. In the first place, what I really want to do is read the pages. It’s all in the pages. I don’t want to wade through a two-page single spaced letter telling me what the book is about. What I want to learn from the cover letter is the following:

title: I’ve said this a hundred times, but a great title gets you more than halfway there.

Brief description that focuses on themes, possibly mentions influences, mentions an unusual setting or very specific world (a sideshow, a grist mill, a molecular lab, the oompah loompahs, a blind optician, you get the idea).

Credentials are super important. Where have you published, studied, worked, fellowships, prizes, major social media following, etc. Who do you know? Who might endorse your book? If you don’t have any of these, then just say:

This is my first novel. Many thanks for reading.

But I would like to make the point that you should be working on getting credentials, especially publishing credentials. Send out chapters that can be stand alone stories. Write essays and try to place them. Try to get yourself to a writers conference and connect with your teachers. When I pitch a book, the first or one of the first things an editor will ask me is where has the writer published, who are they. It’s better to say that you published a story in the Paris Review or that your first collection of stories won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, or that you have an MFA from Syracuse and studied with Mary Karr, you get the idea.

Let me know if this is helpful. How can I help?

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself


First, I would go with “Dear Betsy Lerner” for the salutation. It’s professional, pure and simple.

Next: Your opening gambit. This is your first line. It’s crucial that it makes the agent want to read more. Here are some approaches I’ve seen.

Dear Betsy Lerner:

I am a big fan of your book The Forest for the Trees and a regular reader of your blog.


I met you at the Miami Book Fair where you gave a talk on memoir.


Do you like cheese? I’ve worked at gourmet cheese shop in Wisconsin for the last ten years and have written a memoir called “Put Your Faith in Cheeses.”


Amanda doesn’t know what’s good for her.


I’ve written a 130,264 word fictional novel.


I am a fan of the late Elizabeth Wurtzel who I know you worked with. I’ve written a memoir about depression that I think you might like.

Let me know what you think of these approaches, or better yet leave a first line and I’ll critique it. Be brave!

I See That Ice is Slowly Melting

I’m back and we’re going to attack the query letter piece by piece, bite by bite. Today, The salutation:

Dear Betsy:

Dear Betsy Lerner:

Dear Betsy (if I may):

Dear Literary Agent:

Hi Betsy:

Dear Ms. Lerner

Which do you choose and why?

Anybody Could Be That Guy

When I started out in publishing, I learned that one of my favorite books was found in the slush pile, Ordinary People by Judith Guest. More recently, the Twilight series was found in the slush. I’ve always kept my eye on the slush, though most of what passes through are projects that are not right for me (fiction specifically, self-help, business, global politics). I also get a lot queries that people assume are right for me: psychology, memoir, mental illness, family crap, etc. In all fairness, I worked on a lot of those book and was even called The Pain and Suffering Editor. At some point, I found myself more interested in stuff outside myself. That point was probably when I went on Lithium. LOL. I never get stuff I really want to see: science, history, narrative on-fiction, investigative journalism. Today, I received a wonderful query. I’ll keep you posted if the pages are as good as the letter/title/author’s credentials. Eternal springs hope.

Do you know how to write an effective query letter?