This week I’m counting down my Top 5 How To Write Books Books, based on a decade’s worth of reading every title in the genre I could get my hands on and using this as a method for getting absolutely nothing done.
In at No. 2, we have The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by writer/editor/agent extraordinaire, Betsy Lerner.
It is not an exaggeration to say this book changed my life.
Well, maybe it is an exaggeration. A very slight one.
About a year ago – you may recalling me mentioning this before, about 37 times – I was working in the depths of administrative hell, spending my days thinking of ways I could maim my boss with my stapler and my nights crying myself to sleep in a wasteland of abandoned ambition. I felt like I was walking around in a cloud of gloom, doom and self-pity, living in a place where dreams went to die and they only serve decaf coffee.
Instant decaf coffee, at that.
Yes, life was a laugh a minute and it wasn’t just because my job was to deflect the flaming balls of feces that my boss at the time insisted on putting into canons all over town, pointing them in my direction and then lighting their fuses, or because the only thing I knew for sure I wanted to do with my life (well, other than be skinny and live in this place) wasn’t happening. It was because I had begun to think there was something seriously wrong with me.
Yes, I thought I was having an attack of the crazies.
Now it wasn’t like I was hearing more than one voice in my head or seeing dead people. I was just carrying the suspicion that I wasn’t how I was supposed to be. (How was I supposed to be? I haven’t a clue. I just felt that whatever it was, I wasn’t it.) I made my friends through school, work and travel; I didn’t know any other writers. Therefore I didn’t know that some of the things only writers did were not of the lunacy variety but in fact necessary to get the job done.
There was a library almost next door to where I worked and I went there at lunchtimes, hoping to collect some joy from their musty pages. One day I happened upon The Forest for the Trees and, unsure whether or not I needed to read yet another How To Write A Book Book, started reading the first chapter.
Right from the the first paragraph, it was like a sucker punch to the gut.
“Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you… never actually get going?…Do you begin sentences in your head… sentences so crisp and suggestive they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down?…Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed?…Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What’s it to them?…Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went? How it is that some no-talent you went to high school with is being published everywhere you look?… For the ambivalent writer…the inner monologue drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit… The ambivalent writer is often so preoccupied with greatness, both desiring it and believing that every sentence he commits to paper has to last for eternity, that he can’t get started.”
It was like Betsy Lerner had crawled inside my head, á la Being John Malkovich, took a look around, made some notes and then used it to write her book.
Except she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about writers.
And that was just the beginning. To read this book from cover to cover is to spend hours on end with someone who knows the inner workings of your mind and wants to reassure you that you are not alone. The second half of the book is devoted to the nuts and bolts of publication, such as seeking an agent, what editors want and handling rejection.
As Lerner once said in an interview, ‘It’s not really on how to write. It’s how to use your personality and keep your personality; how to use your neuroses and not let them overwhelm you; how to tap into self-promotion.’
The New York Times called it ‘a survival course.’ The Columbia Journalism Review said ‘[Lerner’s] beautifully written book of observations and advice seems to be coming from a friend.’ Author Lucy Grealy said, ‘As a writer reading it, I felt almost a guilty thrill, as if I was reading the notes of my therapist.’
So click on the link below to buy this book now.
Trust me – it’ll be cheaper than therapy.
Click to buy The Forest for the Trees on Amazon.co.uk:
Click here for a review by Martin Arnold of The New York Times.
Join me tomorrow for No. 1 and something VERY special to go along with it!