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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Everyone Knew Her as Nancy

Why does Meghan have to call Harry “H?” And why does he feel the need to call her “M?” And who started it and why couldn’t they keep it to themselves. I don’t refer to my husband as Corn Chip or Bunny or Goose or Mighty Oak. Not on national television. I don’t want to hear it and you don’t want to hear it. I have a friend who calls me Butter. It’s our business. Another calls me Dodo, and another calls me Barts. Okay? No one gives a shit. Lovey dovey affectionate names are PRIVATE. I think this whole “H” thing is going to blow up in their faces. It’s tempting fate. It’s stuck up. You heard it here first.

Do you have a nick name?

A Kiss for Luck and We’re on Our Way

If I may flex, two of my clients’ books are back on the NYT bestseller list. Some think that bestsellers and prizes are shallow and ultimately insignificant. That what matters is the work. The process. The journey. Okay, whatever. I’m in it for the glory, for the gold, the adoration of the masses. I’m looking for prizes and page turners, ribbons and medals. The sound of many hands clapping. Do I need outside forces to confirm my self worth? Fuck, yes.

Where do you get your self-worth?

Just Touch My Cheek Before You Leave Me

It’s 10:00 pm, do you know where your agent is? I want to say for the record that I didn’t even know that agents existed until 1986 when I saw an ad for a PT job at a literary agency and I went for it. I didn’t know that agents were considered scum until I fully entered publishing a few years later and climbed the editorial ladder. And then I became one. Am I shoveling coals in hell? Am I dancing as fast as I can? Did I grow a tail and a pair of brass balls that clang when I walk? When I became an agent, agents said, welcome to the side of angels. Editors asked why I was joining the dark side.

What is this post about?

Just One Day Out of Life

Boylston Historical Society

Drum roll: I signed my new book contract today. Contracts used to come on legal paper and you signed your full name and then it was sent back for counter-signature by the publisher, and then you’d receive the hard copy of your fully executed contract along with a physical check. Now, sadly, it’s all done with Docu-sign and direct deposit. If I had my way, I use a quill pen and wear velvet slippers, doublets and hose. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll Docu-sign to my dying day to have the chance to publish a book. I’m so excited, even old world weary, cynical, jaded, jaundiced, super hater me.

How do you celebrate?

You are the Sun I am the Moon

I want to address the people with writer’s block. Disclaimer: I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in anxiety, depression, fear, an abundance of self-consciousness, rage, dependencies including co-dependence, vitamin deficiency, etc. I also believe that if you write three sentences in a diary every day you’ll work your way out of it. You don’t have to be good or inspired or even have an idea. Just describe what’s outside the window, or your therapy session, or a dialogue between you and Neil Diamond. It takes time and thought to figure our what you want to write, even what you need to write. But you won’t get there by not writing. You can’t afford to have writer’s block. You can’t afford to wait, to have the perfect situation, to have a contract, to have a million people on Tik Tok. You don’t, Virginia, even need a room of your own. Notebook meet pencil.

Do you have writer’s block and how do you get out of it?

photo Boston Globe

Wise Men Say Only Fools Rush In

When I was a young poet (though god help me I never called myself that), I sent my work to literary magazines with the required self- addressed stamped envelope. I typed my little cover letters on onion skin paper and dropped them into mailboxes with a small prayer. I went to the Gotham Book Mart to discover new magazines and the monthly calendar of readings around New York. Sometimes, I’d spring for a new book of poems, get a falafel and find a place to park myself for a half hour or so. Were those the best days of my life? Far fucking from it, but tonight I feel nostalgic for no reason except it’s raining and the house smells of a soup my husband put up a couple hours ago. And I sent something new out.

How do you feel when you send out work?

Is This My Beginning or Is This the End

I recently got together with an old friend. He asked me if I started with the song lyric or the text. I had no idea he was reading the blog and felt weirdly exposed. The thing next that happened was the waitress brought a small plate with three pieces of whole wheat toast. We had both ordered whole wheat toast and it wasn’t immediately clear if it was mine or his or communal whole wheat bread. That goes down as one of the most awkward moments of my fucking life. I actually asked the waitress point blank whose toast it was. Like right in the eyes. I manned up. Normally, I would just sit there and assume the toast was for the other person and sit in the dark. No toast for Betty. Not this time. It turns out the toast was communal. Sidebar: I’ve never seen toast served that way since I visited Amish Country as a surly middle-schooler and was “forced” to eat family style with “strangers.”

Do I start with the lyric or the text?

I Said Be Careful His Bowtie is Really Camera


I’m watching the final episodes of the Sopranos. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can sense it. The tension is building. Almost unbearable. How do you build tension in a piece? A stray cat? A mother pushing a stroller with a kid in a pink snowsuit, a double breasted robin? Do you ask questions? Do you withhold information, give too much? Is it pacing? Tone? Do you drop clues? Deepen your characters? Makes things more complex? Or clearer. Collude with the reader or keep her at arm’s length. Cliffhangers? Clues? A stray cat, a mother pushing a stroller with a kind in a pink snowsuit, a double breasted robin?

How do you build tension?

I’ve Stepped in the Middle of Seven Sad Forests

I’ve been working with Patti Smith for 25 years. I was 36 when we met. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. She was my hero and I was petrified. I would never be cool enough. Her lawyer told me to choose a restaurant and I was nearly paralyzed with the choice. What if she hated it? I chose a place called Nirvana with a nod to Curt Cobain. It was 15 floors up with sweeping views of Central Park. I recall that no one else was there, though that can’t be possible. I can’t recall what we ate. I was astonished at how friendly she was, how interested she was in my pregnancy. She wanted to know the due date – February 12. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, she told me. First Just Kids, then a poetry book Auguries of Innocence, then M Train, Year of the Monkey and now this gorgeous book, A Book of Days. Happy publication, Patti.

If Dreams Were Thunder

L.A. Times

Started with a new assistant today and so far so great. Working with someone who is eager to learn about publishing and is curious and excited to be around a lot of bookcases is so lovely. When I was in graduate school, I answered an ad for an assistant position at a literary agency off of Gramercy Park. The agency was housed in the basement of the couple’s brownstone. It was book-lined, manuscripts were piled everywhere. A bulletin board was fixed with book jackets. I couldn’t believe such a magical place existed and for the first time in my life I believe I found a place where I might actually fit it.

Where do you fit?