Betsy Lerner won me over on page seven of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES with these words: “As far as I’m concerned, writers have very little choice in what they write. Nor will I Strunk you over the head with rules about style.” I immediately knew this would be a different kind of how-to book, one more concerned with how people write than what they write. Instead of rules, Lerner discusses two very important things in this book. The first half is about writers’ personalities, and how those personalities intersect with the page. The second half is about the publishing business from an editor’s point of view. It seems like the two topics are incompatible, but it works. THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is a wise guide, helping writers get a clear-eyed look at the whole process, from pen to bookshelf.
According to Lerner, there are six kinds of writers. The ambivalent writer flits from project to project, rarely finishing anything. The natural has tons of talent and writes easily, but unless it’s married to a hearty work ethic, all the ability in the world will not help. The wicked child delights in exposing secrets, especially family secrets. The self-promoter seeks fame through good writing, but can easily seek fame instead of good writing. The neurotic worries about everything; most develop elaborate rituals (called their “process”) to cope with the anxiety. Then there’s the most difficult type of all–the addicted and/or depressed. Alcohol and drug use is legendary among writers, and many live with depression.
Lerner is careful not to condemn writers for any of these behaviors. Neither good nor bad, they simply are. But understanding the pitfalls of each type can help writers avoid the most damaging of aspects of them. One could even learn to thrive within them.
Part two covers the machinations and intrigues of the publishing business. Publishing has changed radically since 2000, when THE FOREST FOR THE TREES was written, yet it’s still relevant for writers who seek a big New York contract. If anything, things are more intense now. So, when Lerner discusses the slowness of agent responses or the fact that real editing has become a luxury, writers should not only pay attention, but read every sentence as if it’s in bold type.
Yet Lerner never takes herself, or her craft, too seriously. Her love for writing and writers shows through on every page. She calls books “the brilliant conspiracy between author and reader.” She also says, “All people write what they know, for God’s sake. It’s the air you breathe.” I’m glad that Lerner wrote what she knew in THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, so that we could all benefit from her eloquence and wisdom.
THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is available here.
rating: 4 stars
This book is best for: intermediate writers
I recommend this book.