The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice

Reading books on writing is a little like panning for gold. Most of what we read washes away, some of it is interesting to consider but doesn’t necessarily gel and then occasionally we find a gem.

Unlike gold, one woman’s gem doesn’t necessarily guarantee universal approval and when I recall the books I thought were fantastic ten years ago, I realise now how far I have moved on, now those same inspirational pages from yesteryear elicit nothing more than nostalgic fondness, no longer capturing the thinking place I am at today.

I remember with absolute clarity coming across Dorothea Brande’s 1934 classic ‘Becoming a Writer’ during the period I enrolled in my first creative writing class with writers Maggie Hamand and Henrietta Soames at the Groucho Club in London and how it seemed to speak to me and contain all the questions and doubts I had at the time. There is definitely gold in this book for someone starting out on the writing path, though I have given my volume wings and allowed its pages an airing by passing it on rather than let it languish on the shelf unread.

‘The Forest for the Trees’ was recommended on writer Sandra Gulland’s blog and I’d just finished reading the Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, so I jumped in and bought it on impulse. Divided into two sections Writing and Publishing, is a little misleading, the first half reading more like a psychological analysis of writer behaviours, who are the ambivalent, the natural, the wicked child, the self-promoter, the neurotic or touching fire, along with numerous anecdotes to validate these suppositions. Whilst I have no doubt, the author has come across each of these stereotypes, I found the labelling patronising and found myself wondering about the hidden majority who don’t fit so clearly into these headings – or do I just need to get out more to meet these people? Tell me writers, do you identify with one of these labels?

The frequent references to Truman Capote created a distance that was difficult to bridge and too many of the examples seemed like exceptions; I admit I was searching for the paragraph that I could identify with, an example of someone who seemed like an ordinary person, the kind that might convince the reader that to write successfully and be published is possible. It’s the cult of the celebrity factor again, with hindsight one can look back and select anecdotes about writers who were the exception rather than the rule. Disillusioned, I blame my market research background where the anecdote has little credibility and witnessing the propensity of politicians and tabloids to use them in the place of verifiable evidence.

The main message in the second half was: be respectful and patient with your editor and publicist, they’re all juggling multiple balls, you don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes, if you did, you’d leave us to get on with the job. This debate is likely to continue with the advent of electronic publishing and the industry having to redefine its role and prove its value, however I found this section more insightful and it did highlight many of the strengths and weaknesses of the publishing process.

If you are looking for a tongue in cheek attempt at writer’s psychological profiles, interesting and funny anecdotes and an inside look at one editor’s career path, then this will entertain. We can also learn much about the industry by keeping up with writer’s blogs and online communities, which without a doubt reflect the situation of writers today, whether persevering towards it or already succeeding to be published.

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13 thoughts on “The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice

  1. I’ve read so many books on writing over the years and have forgotten most of them, though I’ll always remember Dorothea’s aphorism about exercising the writing muscle, if you don’t it’ll wither away. Otherwise the most enjoyable, and probably the best, was Stephen King On Writing, even if he doesn’t heed a lot of his own advice, namely to keep things short.

    • ‘On Writing’ was definitely a ‘perfect timing’ book for me, I loved that it was short and therefore to the point; that book introduced to me to the imposition of a word count and I discovered my fifth gear in writing and pace, I will ever be grateful to this small gem of a book for that.

  2. Like so much else in life, we might be alike in a few things in our writing approach and style and not alike in other ways. Some writers swear by outlines before they scribble a word, and others (like Sue Monk Kidd, Susanne Pari and me!) have no clue what the next paragraph or sentence will bring.

    We might find snippets of value in each opinion or guide on writing, and the snippets might be different for each us. If I tried to absorb a whole book, where 90% of it didn’t register, I’d be hopeless in writing. If I retain the nuggets that click in my mind, more likely my writing shines up some.

  3. Thanks for your response, Claire. Though I have a pretty full bucket, always looking for ways to top it off. Some of the people at my reunion I hadn’t seen since high school. Two of those I connected with like I never did in the past. Others have been friends all through the years. Good times.

    I agree with Victoria on Stephen King’s On Writing. Great autobiography.

  4. Claire, I will admit that I’m not a fan of reading books on writing. The crowd gasps. What I do instead, is what you mention, read writer’s blogs, and try to interact with those familiar with the writing and publishing world. I feel that most of these people provide me with a sense of how they’re doing things and it helps to have different perspectives. In any case, now that I’ve read your post, I am intrigued with “The Forest for the Trees.” I shall have to check it out! :)

    • That’s an apt description of the past and the present, today we can obtain almost instant feedback and a variety of points of view through interacting with writers and I agree, whether its in person or online, it’s invaluable.

  5. You are the only other writer I have run across that mentioned Dorothea – I LOVED that book. It was like suddenly understanding everything I was as a writer. I have to go finish reading the post now, I just had to tell you this.

    • I’m sure that’s why it is a classic that is still being read – so wonderful to hear you had a similar experience and definitely, be very careful what you read while feeling fragile, I made the mistake of reading a favourite author after finishing writing my first novel, for me the worst thing I could have done.

  6. Given my current state of mind, I think I have to wait to read this book. I am at the end of almost final edits, and in such a freakishly fragile state of mind, which is so opposite of my normal person. I don’t want to know anything else about the complexity of publishing, I might turn to writing letters to my dead ancestors instead of finishing the book at hand.

  7. Claire,

    I’m so glad you found my blog on my book on Stella Adler, which led me to yours on book on writing. I love that you review this special niche. It made me nostalgic about all the books on writing that really helped. They were never the ones that proposed to tell you how to write, but wrote about the business (ie. treating your editor nice.) I loved Carolyn See’s book, which was much about etiquette — not so dissimilar to how we operate in the blogosphere, reading and commenting on each others’ work with gratitude.

  8. Pingback: Stet, an Editor’s Life Diana Athill | Word by Word

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