Monday, August 19, 2013

The forest for the trees: An editor’s advice to writers

By Betsy Lerner

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

As I begin this review I have just read Lerner’s "Introduction," and Chapter 1, "The Ambivalent Writer." I like to get my thoughts down in writing so I don’t forget them as I read on. As an active writer myself, I identified closely with the thoughts Lerner expressed in both of these sections. I am contemplating giving talks at the local libraries on writing, and Lerner offers so many answers to questions I have not even been asked: How do you deal with the fear? How should I start? How do I keep going? What is the process of writing like?

I loved her last paragraph in Chapter 1 for its deep insight: "Writers take note: your struggle to produce a piece of writing of interest and value means nothing to the reader. The reader doesn’t care what you went through to produce your work. He only cares if the piece succeeds" (p.29). And her last sentences, "You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal" (p. 29). So true, so true!

Having closely read her opening two segments merely whetted my appetite for more. Lerner is an excellent writer, and her experiences as an editor are not just important, but motivating as well. Writers beware: Lerner rocks!

The story about Jodie Foster’s acceptance speech for one of her Academy Awards was truly priceless: "[She] thanked her mother, who, she said, acted as if every drawing she brought home from school were a Picasso. In an ideal world, everyone should be thus encouraged for any creative effort" (p. 32). What terrific advice!

Lerner’s description of and examples regarding "natural talent" were excellent. I have often thought that one’s own judgments about talent — whether one has it or not — should be irrelevant to one’s works or products. That is, why waste time making such assessments? Get on with it. If you want to be a writer, start early, practice often, share your efforts, listen to other’s comments, make changes, and be persistent. These are my views as a writer, not those of Lerner.

I have always enjoyed reading about (or reading directly) other writers viewpoints, and one of the great parts of Lerner’s book — and she does it throughout the book — is quote other writers. Lerner is incredibly well-connected and well-read, as you might expect from an editor. But, it adds a great deal of credibility for her and to what she is discussing. It just makes you feel secure in what she is talking about and confident about her advice. It is, coincidentally, like having an editor looking over your shoulder!

After discussing a number of writing rituals by a variety of authors, Lerner arrives at this conclusion (with which I totally agree): "I don’t think a writer, or any artist for that matter, should need a whip other than the one inside that drives him to create. The more you indulge in any neurotic notions about a set of necessary conditions that will enable you to write, the colder the trail will get. The problem is, none of this is writing. It’s stalling" (p. 97). What a terrific insight!

With respect to a writing routine or gaining a structure that will support active writing, what Lerner says is especially important, if not a law: "Developing a successful formula for getting pages written can make a crucial difference" (p. 99). As a writer with a structure, I would claim that it not just makes a difference, it is a doctrine, a canon, or even a commandment.

Lerner divides her book into two parts, the first on writing, and the second part is on publishing. I thought her comments on writing were, for the most part, accurate and informative — even though, I have to admit, that throughout all my years of writing, I have never used alcohol, drugs, voodoo, therapy, or writing coaches to stimulate my writing. That is why I admired Lerner’s emphasis that writing is a personal experience that demands commitment, discipline, Lerner writes: "the essential truth of all great writing: it brooks no provisions" (p. 96).

Lerner’s ideas on how to write a query letter, how to handle agents, an agent’s responsibilities, how to handle rejection, what editors look for, and what authors want. She accurately conveys the thoughts of all those involved in the publishing business, and one thing readers will quickly understand from reading this book — Lerner knows what she is talking about. If you want the basics, and if you want a precise examination of the entire process, this is a very worthwhile book.

Not to diminish the hopes and dreams of potential writers, what Lerner writes in her chapter entitled "The Book" is worth considering: "What most writers don’t understand but learn all too quickly and painfully, is that landing a contract and being published do not guarantee the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams" (p. 232). She continues by expanding on this thought, but you get the idea here about how direct and honest she is. If an honest approach scares you, or if accuracy about the entire publishing process simply generates more fear, then this book is not for you.

For all writers, whether just starting out or already engaged in the process, this book is a "must read." For those on the outside, who do not want to or intend to be a writer, this book would be an good selection if you want to understand what writing and publishing is all about. I loved this book.













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