On Wednesday, January 25th, editor, agent, and author Betsy Lerner gave a talk to an audience at Florida Atlantic University. Lerner is the author of Forest from the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and two memoirs–The Bridge Ladies and Food and Loathing. Lerner is one of the most notable professionals in the industry, having been awarded the Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize for her creative work, as well as the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize for Editors Under 35 for her dedicated career. Being both the author of three successful non-fiction books, as well as the editor of market hits such as Prozac Nation, Lerner shared valuable insight on both the art of writing and tips for obtaining an agent and other resources necessary to publish a manuscript.
After a brief, self-deprecating introduction, Lerner treated the audience by reading passages from her most recent memoir: The Bridge Ladies. Inspired by the classic novel The Joy Luck Club, Lerner aimed to preserve the memory of her mother’s bridge club in a similar fashion. While Lerner originally planned to write the memoir as a distant, third person narrator, capturing the essence of each woman, her colleagues insisted she had to insert her voice in some way. Lerner was originally resistant to scale the wall she had built between her and her mother, who have always had a strained relationship. Eventually she gave in to the suggestions, and delved much deeper into the meaning of the bridge ladies she was fascinated with–exploring how the card game served as a bridge between generations which were starkly different. Lerner stated that without a strong voice to drive the narrative, many manuscripts fall flat and fail to capture publishers’ attention. Thus, it is critical for aspiring writers to cultivate a compelling, unique, and honest voice which will leave an impression on readers.
Lerner also explained to the audience how even though her voice came naturally–once she stopped trying to mitigate it so forcefully–the novel underwent four or five revisions. Emphasizing the importance of structure for both fiction and creative non-fiction writing, Lerner asserted that an author must find balance when weaving multiple plot arcs and several themes throughout the narrative; the task is easier said than done.
In addition to speaking about her own creative endeavors, Lerner shared some insight about the publishing industry and the function of a literary agent. She claimed her predominant function was to serve as “damage control,” juggling the different egos of the author, editor, publisher, and critics. Lerner also credited the importance of a “Tip Sheet,” which boils down the essence of a story into one paragraph, then into one line. According to her, having the skill and vision to summarize the purpose and exigency of a work in such a concise manner makes for strong query letters between the author and publisher, as well as advertising platforms and content for the inside of book jacket covers. Lerner also answered questions from the audience, many of whom were aspiring writers in the midst of drafting their own memoirs and creative works. Lerner suggested resources such as Publisher’s Marketplace to search for literary agents, and informed an inquirer that short story collections were easier to sell if the vignettes were interrelated, building a larger narrative. Fans were also granted the chance to speak with her afterwards, as she signed book copies and chatted amiably with admirers.
Betsy Lerner is not only a giant in her field, but an amazingly witty, humorous, and grounded individual passionate about helping others find their voice. While she has just finished her tour, if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend you attend. No matter what stage in the writing process you may find yourself in– whether you need help overcoming any lingering ambivalence towards writing, or desire the secrets to a streamlined revision process–Betsy Lerner has the answers and plenty more.
To learn more about Betsy Lerner, visit her personal blog: https://betsylerner.com/.
Edited by: Sabrina Loftus