March 2000

Guides to opening veins

By Betsy Lerner
By Judy Reeves
Review by
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"Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." Gene Fowler penned this observation, and most writers published and hopeful would agree with him.

Each time a new book hits the market that can help the aspiring writer, this is cause for rejoicing. One of them just might be the tool that puts that hard-working scribbler into print.

This month there are two worth noting: The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner and A Writer's Book of Days: A Spiritual Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves. Both are worth picking up, for very different reasons.

While each offers practical advice, the Reeves book has holistic insights into the creative process. Let's look at the inspirational first, for many writers need encouragement more than practical advice.

A Writer's Book of Days is a guide of prompts to get you going. Reeves is a cheerleader who writes, I found that it's easier to begin the writing when a prompt is supplied. The book, truly a book of days for writers, contains a writing-practice topic for every day of the year, such as for January 13, After midnight ; December 26, Write about something sacred ; and April 12, Dubious intentions. Many writers have the best intentions upon sitting down, but feel they lack something to write about. Reeves directs that desire to write by offering daily topics daily, and then encouraging the writer to take them wherever their own personal response leads. Just write! Make mistakes who cares when you're practicing your writing? She offers lots of writing tips in an easy-to-use format, and includes many quotes from other writers, including this one from Natalie Goldberg: Don't just put in your time. That is not enough. You have to make a great effort. Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for writing practice. Developing a writing habit and a writing style is what's important. Not talking about it.

Betsy Lerner's book, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, takes a different approach. She's a veteran editor and publishing insider, and when she writes about the relationship between publishers and writers, the reader feels privileged, as though forbidden secrets were being divulged on how to get published.

She believes that the best editors must work with the writer, not just the writing, much as Maxwell Perkins did with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. In fact the title of this book, The Forest for the Trees, comes from a Perkins quote as he was writing to Marcia Davenport.

Lerner's book is not a how-to-write book. Instead she offers advice from the all-important editor's perspective on how to finish a project when all looks hopeless, on what to do when your neuroses get in the way, on how to break through a between-projects stall. The first half of the book addresses The Writer, The Writing. It's broken into chapters such as The Ambivalent Writer, The Natural, The Wicked Child, The Self-Promoter, and The Neurotic. The second half of the book deals with the publishing process, including up-to-date answers to the questions that all writers have about the interaction between themselves and publishers and agents. She discusses the recent mergers of publishing conglomerates; online bookselling, downloading books from the Net, and more. Lerner is good because she can see what the writer sees, and moves from there to what the author needs to see. She understands delusion. Her book encourages clear-sightedness when writers deal with publishers.

So, all you writers out there, finish reading about other writers' success, and go to work. One day at a time. Every day. Write. Write. Write.

And read good books about writing.

George Cowmeadow Bauman is the co-owner of Acorn Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio.

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