In her recent memoir, The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner carefully explores the lessons she’s learned about life through the game of bridge. Joining her mother’s bridge group helped her not only grow closer to her mother, but also gain an understanding of her childhood and past. Bridge isn’t the only teacher in Learner’s life. Here, Lerner shares the valuable lessons she learned about writing a book from her work as an agent.
Being an has agent taught me a lot about writing, of course, much of it being what you shouldn’t do.
1) Do not send your work out until it’s as close to perfect as you can make it. Too many writers think that an editor will fix it, or that they’ve gotten away with something when they know the work needed another draft.
2) Do not be lazy about coming up with a great title. Titles are first way to hook a reader. A generic title is a lost opportunity to interest a reader.
3) Do not send out pages with typos, spelling errors, or grammatical mistakes. As my mother fondly says, “You only make a first impression once.”
4) Do not assume that readers care! You need to earn their trust, or grab them by the neck, or make them feel privileged to be in your world. Everyone has a million other things to do. Make every page count.
5) Writers are bonkers. They basically live in their heads for a huge part of their days. They need care, feeding, and reality checks. When a writer asks, “Am I nuts?” the answer is pretty much always yes.
6) Take a long view. Few writing careers were made on one book. Even Harper Lee had another novel tucked away after all. If writers are serious about writing, then they must look at it as a long distance race. It’s takes time to write. It’s takes decades to hone your craft.
7) Be your own best advocate. Writers can’t be complacent or shy in today’s world. You need to get connected to readers through any and all social media. You need to place articles, give talks, run workshops. It sounds antithetical to writing, but it’s become a critical component of getting your voice heard. Some writers have single-handedly launched their careers through the internet. It’s powerful!
8) Need is at the heart of any project. Writers work alone. Many prefer to be alone. But the need to connect is what drives them.
9) I have always seen and loved the immense sensitivity in writers: their ability to see, to empathize, to remain curious and fascinated by the world around them. Maybe the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in being an agent is a new way of looking at the world.
Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees and Food and Loathing. She is a recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and the Tony Godwin Prize for Editors, and was selected as one of PEN’s Emerging Writers. Lerner is a partner with the literary agency Dunow, Carlson & Lerner and resides in New Haven, Connecticut.