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My Interview With Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency

My interview with super agent Betsy Lerner. Posted on LitStack July 17, 2012:


Betsy Lerner
Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency

Betsy Lerner is a legend. We aren’t joking. Her craft book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers has aided thousands of writers on the ins and outs of our insane industry and how to best focus on what is most important (to us anyway) about writing: that the story must come first.

Betsy worked as an editor for 16 years at major trade publishers including Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin and as an executive editor at Doubleday. She mostly works with nonfiction writers in the areas of science, psychology, history, cultural studies, biography, current events, memoir and the hard-to-categorize. Lerner was the recipient of the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. In addition to The Forest for the Trees, she is the author of Food & Loathing. Her blog on publishing can be found here.

Thanks for chatting with us, Betsy!

LS: Did you read a lot as a kid? If so, did that love of reading influence your decision to seek out a career in publishing? What was your favorite book as a child?

I loved all the Carolyn Haywood Betsy series book because the titles had my name  in it. The budding narcissist. I also loved The Diary of Anne Frank and started keeping diaries as a result.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?

I am actually a nonfiction person. If the writing is great, I put my blue pencil down. It’s a relief.

LS: How has self-publishing and the popularity of the e-book impacted literary agents? Do you believe traditional publishers will have to change the way they function because of self-publishing?

There has always been self-publishing whether in the form of political pamphlets, subversive fiction, comics, etc. I don’t know many people who really love to read e-books, yet the sales are great. Overall, the more books we can sell in any format, the better.

LS: I have to say, The Forest for the Trees for many writers (myself included) has become a writing “bible.” What prompted you to write this book and what do you hope it helps writers to accomplish?

First, thanks. I should have been a psychiatrist but medical school was beyond me. I am first and foremost interested in what makes people tick. Observing writers up close has been Technicolor and I was largely inspired to write about it after working on a book called No Bad Dogs by Barbara Wodehouse. In it she described different kinds of dog behavior (dominant, submissive, dogs who bite, dogs who run away, etc.) and the parallels with writers struck me like lightning.

It took about six years after that to muster the courage. After all, who was I? PLUS, I had clipped every article about writers and publishing, every obit, read tons of writers’ letters and diaries, so I had all this information to draw from. I didn’t have to go out and research. I had a packed accordion file to work with.

LS: What is the greatest lesson you hope writers will take away from The Forest for the Trees

To buy six copies for friends.

LS: Did your years as an editor with some of the major houses in the industry impact your role as an agent? Would you consider yourself an editorial agent?

Yes, I am an editor in agent’s clothing. I love to edit. I have confidence in my editorial work. But I learned working for publishers that you also had to be a great salesperson in order to acquire a book and then to get the publishing house behind it. A booster, an enthusiast, you had to create an aura around a book, get people to read it and hopefully love it and work hard on making it a success. As an agent, I have to bring all of this to bear as I sell books, as I help authors navigate their careers, and it is always renewed by finding wonderful new writers and seeing more seasoned writers get better and better.

LS: What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes debut novelists make?

Novelists are basically insane. The transition from living inside your head to becoming public, whether on a large or small scale, is mind blowing. Don’t quit therapy. Don’t allow the public reaction, positive or negative, to stop you from writing for even one day.

LS: For someone who is seasoned in the industry, are you ever surprised by writers or the buying public?

All the time.

LS: What makes the manuscripts you take on stand out? What are the elements of your “perfect” manuscript?

Pristine prose or voice or funny or a brilliant simile in the first page or a great title or a great character name or authority or what the fuck or whole new world or something intangible but moving or alarming or surprising or terrifying or consoling or titillating or suicidal.

LS: Can you finish this sentence for us? “It would be my dream to represent the next__________.”

Malcolm Gladwell


Why It's Okay To Suck

Writing isn’t easy. From my vantage point, writing isn’t some glamorous little task pulled off with little effort by we brave few who have a tight grasp on proper grammar.

Writing, quite simply, is very hard work.

That notion is exacerbated by the intrinsic self- doubting nature of the writer. We are in a constant flux of self-loathing and doubt while paradoxically thinking our writing is superior to all others. Despite the latter mild exaggeration, sometimes a writer unintentionally blocks herself by letting loose the most devious of our subconscious voices: the Internal Narrator.

This bugger is relentless and often obnoxiously loud.  She is that niggling little voice that questions every line, every comma, every letter and she should be ignored at all cost.

Let me clarify, the Internal Narrator should be ignored whilst writing your FIRST draft.

The problem, I believe, with writing is that many of us tend to forget that the initial stages of a first draft are just that: a FIRST DRAFT.  These are not meant to be manuscripts ready for an agent or publisher’s eyes.  Heck, they might not even be read for your beta’s eyes.

So when your Internal Editor is barking away at you, preventing you from getting out even the smallest bit of decent story, remember that writing your first draft means:

  • You may not have the first dialog tag
  • Your characters may be vapid and identical to that Oh-So-Popular-But-Shallow-Protagonist you just read.
  • You may like any sense of place.
  • You may be gerund-ing up the entire manuscript whilst telling an awful lot and showing very little.

And you know what? That is quite okay and not even the slightest bit ‘not good.’  It is fine, sure, great, for a FIRST DRAFT which, I believe, you should treat as a framework for the sturdy building your book will become.

So if your first draft sucks, let it suck.  Do not be afraid to write bravely. Do not be afraid to suck because in that first draft you will discover much about your characters and the world you’re building. You’ll learn even more about the writer you are becoming.

Oh and about that Internal Editor? Make her keep her mouth shut until after the first draft is complete. Editing is the only place that silly thing is allowed to speak.

Go forth kiddos and suck.


To Ride a Puca Blog Tour: Interview with Heather McCorkle

I'm honored to host my very first blog tour on my brand new site. For this inagural event, I'm pleased to welcome Heather McCorkle, my partner in crime in all things #WritersRoad. Heather is a highly prolific YA writer, publisher, and an individual whose ambitions are limitless.

Heather's latest novel is a YA historical fantasy tale, To Ride a Puca, a precursor, or, perhaps 'ancestor' of her dynamic Spruce Knoll series. Be sure you pick up your copy of Puca and go ahead and grab all her other fabulous novels as well. I hope you'll enjoy my chat with Heather (below) as much as I did.

Congratulations, Heather!


Invaders are coming to take what isn't theirs, again.

Neala wants to stand and fight for her homeland, but as one of the last druids in ancient Ireland, she may be standing alone.

Persecuted, hunted down, forced to live in obscurity, the druids have all but given up. Can the determination of a girl who has barely come into her power bring them together? Or, just when she finally finds her place among her kind, will they end up losing a homeland their very magic is tied to?

This unflinching tale of the end of the time of the druids is filled with hardship, discovery, and love found in the most unexpected of places.



Tee: Most writers elevate to the craft from a habit of compulsive reading as children. Was this the case with you? What were your favorite books growing up? 

Definitely! My favorite books as a teen were fantasy novels by Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman, The Dragonlance Novels. I also loved Stephen King and Peter Straub at that age. 

Tee: Has social networking impacted your career? If so, in what way?

More than I can say. Social networking has given me the courage and strength to keep at it when things were tough. The community of readers and writers online is a fantastic one that never ceases to amaze me with their support and generosity.

Tee: What's the best and worst writing advice you ever received?

The best writing advice I've received is to write from your heart. That is where all great books come from. The worst advice is to write what you know. People always tell me I should write about my 'day' job. I hate my day job with a passion few will ever know and to write about it, about 'what I know' would destroy my soul. 

Tee: Talk if you would about your writer's road. (See what I did there? :)) Did your experience with traditional presses influence you to self publish?

It has been a rough one, as so many are now. I've had two agents and have had three books out on submission to big houses. I discovered that often great books get passed over because the houses don't want them to compete with something they already have out, or that they have 'fulfilled' their list for those types of books for the next few years and just don't have room for another. 

Tee: What made you want to become a publisher yourself?

I personally saw that other publishers were passing up really good books for all the wrong reasons. And I was finding fabulous indie books out there that should have been traditionally published because they were that good. I also wanted to be a part of a new trend of small presses that are embracing change and offering authors much higher royalty rates. That's a change that I feel is long overdue.

Tee: What upcoming titles can we expect from Compass Press?

There are exciting things coming. We have a psychological YA thriller from Christine Fonseca that will blow readers away coming soon, a time travel story from Anne Riley~our newest author~that will be sure to delight readers, and an anthology filled with fabulous authors coming out this winter from which all proceeds will go toward a literacy charity.

Tee: Of all the novels you've written, do you have a favorite? What makes it your favorite?

I do. I'm a bad mother, I know. It's To Ride A Puca. It was written from a place deep in my soul and is unlike anything else I've ever written. It's sad, uplifting, tragic, and inspiring all at the same time.

Tee: How is To Ride a Puca different from the SPRUCE KNOLL novels? What, if any connection is there between the two?

It's a historical fantasy that is actually about some of the ancestors of a few characters in the Spruce Knoll novels. It's much darker than the Spruce Knoll novels and it's a full-fledged fantasy novel.

Tee: What's your biggest aspiration?

My biggest aspiration is for my books to reach and delight a million readers. Hey, go big or go home, right?!

Tee: What's up next for you?

Next you'll see the third and final novel in the Spruce Knoll trilogy, then the fabulous anthology from Compass Press that will contain a short fantasy story from me. Next year another historical is in the works and I'll be diving head first into epic fantasy.  



Painting Stories #18



                                   What I got:

You follow her through the crowd. There are beads under your feet that snap and shoot out across the pavement with each step. They fly over your head and slap you on the cheek, but you do not care, will not let your eyes leave the woman’s black hair and the miniature, red top hat cushioned in her stiff curls as she navigates under awnings and arches. She reminds you of a wasp buzzing in between the clotted masses, surfing around tongue-locked couples and dizzy walking travelers. You think she is, perhaps, as dangerous as that creature, seeking out prey, juicy morsels to penetrate, but at that moment, you see only the freedom she offers.


This Week Has Been Like a Really Bad Country Song, But...

Let's see, first and foremost, I'm off sugar and caffeine. This was completely intentional because, well, time to get my butt back into a single digit size. Choosing this week to begin what I lovingly refer to as the "Bill Phillips Wants Me to Die" workout, was not, perhaps, exactly a great idea. It's been a really stressful week.

You know that old saying you can't choose your family? Well, that was definitely a bit of a slap on the rump for us this week. We've had a suicide, a funeral and, sadly, a brush with the law which is likely not end well. These are "married into" family members, but the impact of those individual choices certainly breaks my heart, particularly when I see the hearts of people I love breaking as well.

So, yeah, stepping onto the strength training train was not exactly a wise decision this week. However, I will say that it has certainly given me an avenue by which my frustrations and stresses can be exhausted.

As a result of said drama I haven't written a thing (not counting LitStack posts) this week. I feel horrible about that, but am looking forward to the perfect excuse to lock myself away this weekend and write until my fingers bleed.

Another plus? I'm down a full inch and seven pounds. Water weight, yes, I'm sure, but hey, it's a start.

Here's hoping that your weekends are bright and blessed and full of very fun and exciting things and not at all similar to the 'country song' week we've experienced here.

Be blessed,