Writing Book Review – The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

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Another oldie but goodie is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. Its good less so for technical advice but strong on how to deal with the roller coaster ride that is writing from the point of view of an experienced editor.

Lerner helps you sort out what kind of writer you are, and therefore what strategies you might need to invoke to get that manuscript finished, how to deal with rejection and has some practical advice for what editors are looking for and what publishing is like for authors. It’s done with compassion and humour.

Key take outs:

  • Editors see themselves as de facto therapists in that their ‘author presents a set of symptoms as clearly as a patient visiting a doctor…When an editor works with an author they cannot help seeing into the medicine cabinet of their soul.’
  • She has many great quotes, including this one from Don DeLillo: ‘The writer has lost a great deal of influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way?…This is the perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead centre of things…The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.’
  • I’m not alone, there are other writers out there like me. Writing is hard for many people and that’s normal. Phew!

Score: 8/10 Reassuring

The First Draft

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Do you let your first draft rip never looking back, or do you rewrite as you go meaning your first draft is a partial rewrite? Maybe you find it impossible not to constantly go back to earlier writing, interrupting your progress and flow?

Do you wonder how bad your first draft can be? Is it OK if it’s cringeworthy rubbish, or does that mean you’re a talentless writer?

  1. How bad can your first draft be?
    First drafts are often really, really bad. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All first drafts of anything are shit‘. I find great comfort and relief in this. When I reread my first draft, it’s little more than a basic plot outline using simple words. I just need to get something down, a structure of events, that I can build on. Often there’s no flourish, sumptuous description, depth or complexity and there’s plenty of cliché, redundancy and repetition etc.. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know this is perfectly normal.
  2. How first draft is a first draft?
    Depending on my writing flow, I sometimes finish a section or chapter, then go back and improve the words before writing the next part of my story. This draft is by no means final. That comes much later after a lot more work when I also look at structural and other matters. But I want my work to have some substance before I move on. Here’s why…
  3. Fixing the words – what am I really trying to say?
    Fixing the words it the best part of writing for me. It’s what makes me want to write, and brings excitement and joy to a challenging process. I also find it — as often happens to be the case in life — the most difficult part of writing. You know, yin and yang, growth comes from challenge etc..

    I’ve long thought that when rewriting or editing the key question to ask yourself is, What am I really trying to say? I watched an interview with author Sophie McManus in which she confirmed this. She went on to say that when a writer redrafts, they’re responding to technical questions about how to improve a sentence. It’s only then that the writer discovers the real meaning of what they’re writing because this is when they’re forced to ask what they really mean to say. In particular, this requires a focus on nouns and verbs, which I’ve posted about before.

  4. Creating versus rewriting and editing
    In this post here I talked about how you can’t create in editor mode because these processes use different parts of the brain that are not connected. But this doesn’t mean you can’t switch from one to the other, if it works for you. Perhaps you’re able to create in the morning or create on one day and rewrite in the afternoon or the next day. It’s OK too to get your first draft done in one hit before even rereading what you’ve written. You’ll know what’s best for you.
  5. Continual redrafting
    It’s critical, however, that you don’t get stuck in continual redraft mode, perfecting your words before you even get to the end.  This is an endless loop that can delay your project significantly.

    Seek perfection later. There’s a reason for this. It’s only when you have a complete plot with an ending that you can fix the sentences so that each one helps build your story in that direction. How will you know what’s missing or redundant, how will you know which words are most apt if you haven’t written the ending yet? Even if you think know your ending, there will be changes along the way that will impact your words. Trust your creative process.

  6. Just write it, confident or not
    You don’t have to feel confident as you write your first draft. Getting something down on the page is a start. Remember, you can’t rewrite or edit a blank page. Don’t let fear of writing poorly or going down a dead-end path hold you back.

    When you’re ready to rewrite, keep working on the language until it gets to the point where you’re saying something in a style or voice that knows its purpose, even if you don’t consciously know at first what your story is truly about. Ironically, through technique, writers create meaning, beauty and art.

 

 

How to get your writing mojo back

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Perhaps you’re disappointed at not being published, or you self-published but the sales weren’t great, or you’ve been plugging away for so long without ‘success’ that you’re having doubts about this writing thing, or the words that come out on the page aren’t the ones you feel inside, or you’ve simply lost sight of why you’re writing.

The result is that you can’t seem to find your enthusiasm for writing anymore. It used to excite you to sit down at a blank page, it was fun. But now all you feel is dread. You start avoiding it or you procrastinate or you talk yourself out of it. Maybe you’ve given up entirely, or if you do manage to force yourself to write it feels like a chore, another obligation in your long list for the day.

What’s happened to make you feel this way?

Writing has become a negative experience

Whatever the reason, the end result is that writing makes you feel bad. Most likely, you’ve also lost confidence in yourself and your writing along the way. So why would you write if that’s how it makes you feel?

You need to get back to what you enjoy about writing to shift it back into a positive experience. Here are some ideas on how to do this.

  1. Let go of your expectations
    Did you set some goals, perhaps secretly, such as a deadline for when you’d finish your book, or when you’d have an agent or get published, or when you’d win your first writing prize, or when you’d be able to write like James Joyce?

    If you did and you haven’t met your goal, then no wonder you feel like a failure. You’ve set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Need I remind you that writing is hard, really hard.

    Let go or detach from your goals and become zen about your writing. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the writing or the process rather than focusing on the outcome. The result is a side benefit, not the primary aim of writing. Loving doing your best writing is the only true goal. See what happens.

  1. Revisit the reasons why you write
    There were reasons why you first stepped onto the unpredictable path of being a writer. What were they? Write them down. Do they still apply? If not, are there new reasons? Write them down on the other side of the page. Be honest with yourself, but be careful push aside those doubting voices that counteract everything positive you come up with.

    On the other hand, if you’ve dug deep and can’t find any reasons why you should continue to write, perhaps it is time to give it up. But if that thought fills you with horror and a list of ‘buts I can’t because…’, then you have your answer. Read your list of why you want to write every time you meet the blank page, and watch your self-belief slowly return.

  2. Stop the negative self talk
    We all do it. It’s a fact that around eighty per cent of our thoughts are negative for reasons of survival. But how can we expect to create when we’re in a negative, fearful state of mind? Putting it simply, we can’t. The brain doesn’t work that way.

    When we write, we’re not in a life or death situation. So next time that doubting, fearful, critical voice tells you something bad about you and your writing, try acknowledging what it has to say, thanking it for its concern and then telling it you’re not going to follow its advice today as there really isn’t any need. Then get on with your work. Remember, you control your thoughts. Don’t let them take control of you.

  1. Get help
    Join a writing group (one that’s supportive and is going to give you positive, constructive feedback), hire an editor, read a writing book, work with a trusted fellow writer or beta reader, or do a course to help you get some perspective about what’s working and what could be improved in your work. There’s a lot of free and paid advice out there. Use it to keep moving forward. We all like to be challenged. We all need to grow. And believe it or not, we all like the rewards of hard work. Create a growth mindset, not a reward mindset.
  1. Create a positive writing environment
    I’ve talked about how to create a writing routine here. Schedule quality time, meditate or walk beforehand, go to your favourite writing place (physically and/or mentally) etc. so that you feel optimistic and excited about writing. In other words, make your writing experience as enjoyable as possible by setting yourself up for success. By doing that you’re showing yourself some respect and taking yourself seriously.

    This seems like a lot of hard work for something you once believed would flow easily from you via some muse. For most of us such a muse is a myth. The muse is really you delving deep into yourself without fear of consequence or expectation of reward and creating (more on how to do that here). Set up the best writing environment possible and you might be surprised at what turns up on your page.

  2. Perseverance – breakdown, breakthrough, breakout
    I heard Beatte Chelette talk recently about the challenges she faced before succeeding in business. (I do that a lot, listen to inspiring people to keep my enthusiasm fire stoked and remind me how much hard work is involved.) This involved a lot of failing. She said ‘success’ has a pattern: Breakdown, breakthrough, breakout.

    Perhaps you’re at breakdown, at crisis point? Perhaps a breakthrough is just around the corner. Success (meaning growth) depends on perseverance, which is resilience in the face of failure and adversity. If you give up now, you may never know. You have a choice. Over to you and the best of luck.