Forest For The Trees


By Pattie Beaven

Am I writing this post to procrastinate writing my book? Maybe. Anything’s possible. But from the first paragraph of longtime editor Betsy Lerner’s advice book for writers, The Forest for the Trees, I knew this book would touch on some pertinent and poignant subjects for ambitious writers.

Within the first paragraph, Lerner asks her readers if they can relate so a series of questions. One of them truly resonated with me because it’s been happening more and more frequently with friends. She asked “Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What is it to them?” YES! I am getting so sick and tired of well-meaning folks asking me about my book. I want to tell them, “I’ll finish it when I finish it”. I knew right at that moment I needed this book in my life, and I devoured it within a week. It was delicious.

Within the first chapter, also, was one of the most poignant quotes I’ve read about writing. And I’m trying to use it to mold how I write. “The desire for success and the fear of failure run along the same continuum.” Woah! I know Lerner didn’t necessarily mean to go so deep, but this is good shit. As a longtime practitioner of operant conditioning, I picked up instantly on how statement shows there’s a fine  line between positive reinforcement and punishment. The desire for success is a positive reinforcement mentality. The fear of failure is a punishing mentality. So subtle, but the difference can mean someone who is geared for success and someone who is only struggling to push back defeat.

No one sits down to write something that will be a colossal failure. No one even sits down (and spends their energy and time) to write something that will be a modest success. The question is, how much do you let your fantasies circumscribe your work, and how much do they fuel your ambition? How big are your daydreams? If you dream big, then write big. You have work to do.

The great thing about The Forest for the Trees is how Lerner weaves other authors, even famous and well-known authors, methods for writing and shares these tips with her readers. I’m again amazed at how it’s so easy to fall into the negative punishing mindset, but several writers have some interesting feedback.

Charles Ludlam used a principle of operant conditioning in his writing. He always stopped writing in the middle of a scene, even when the work was going well. “If you quit while the going is good, you are more inclined to rush back the next day”. That’s some positive motivation. How does this relate to training and shaping? Most animal trainers, when teaching an animal a new behavior, will stop the training session while the animal is ahead. Because training is a game where the animal always wins. So, instead of pushing the animal to do more, trainers will stop while the animal is having fun and understanding what is expected, give their reinforcement, and leave the animal alone. This method often motivates the animal to participate in future sessions. Because it’s always fun. Quit while you’re ahead is some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard.

Other writers have a notion to set aside writing time. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else. This is an interesting concept incorporating the Least Reinforcing Scenario, or LRS, used in animal training. It is also the one deceptive tactic many shows employ to entice their animals to perform, but it is still focused on positive reinforcement. Most shows have a back area and a stage area. The back area is where the animals spend most of their time, and is full of fun, enriching, and stimulating items. The stage area is typically pretty bare and boring in comparison. When the animal is brought out for the show, they have a choice in whether or not they wish to participate. The animals are not starved, or withheld any food. But their other choice besides performing is to do nothing. If they choose to participate in the show, it is a lot of fun for them, and I mean A LOT of fun for them. They get interactions, treats, lots of attention, fun activities, and even a reaction from the audience. If they choose not to participate, well, then they get to hang around a boring stage.

Creating that kind of setting for writing takes some serious commitment and dedication. With today’s social media craze, and emails, and the thousands of other distractions we encounter on a daily basis, letting yourself be reinforced and escape boredom by writing is actually harder than it sounds. I mean, in the thirty minutes I’ve been writing this, I’ve checked Facebook twice, got a text from an old friend I haven’t heard from in months, and loved on my kitties. But that method does make writing incredibly rewarding, because you get to do something besides nothing.

Lerner is also careful to warn against being too harsh on yourself. “Judging one’s own writing is like looking in a mirror. What you tell yourself about what you see in the reflection has far more to do with how you feel about yourself that day than with how you actually look.”

As writers, we are going to deal with rejection quite a lot. It’s going to happen. Doesn’t matter how much you fantasize about an agent thinking your manuscript is the next Eat, Pray, Love, or Marley and Me, or Harry Potter.  Because even those authors dealt with rejection. But Lerner still gives some solid words of wisdom about this part of the writing process too.

Before attempting to publish a book, you can do a number of things that will help make your work more rejection-proof

  • For non-fiction, try placing op-ed pieces on your topic, publishing a magazine piece, or a series of articles
  • Get a regular column in a local newspaper
  • Get an advanced degree and publish in professional journals in your field
  • Offer classes to gain a local following
  • Blog your freaking head off

Sometimes a title alone will distinguish your book from the rest of the pack. A catchy, clearly targeted title can make a project almost irresistible.  A nonfiction title that includes its own hook or conveys the concept in the nanosecond it takes to digest is a great title. Think The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, and Fast Food Nation. Or What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Finally, Lerner sends us off with these final words of advice. “Keep in mind writing is a long distance race, not a sprint. The same kind of hubris that can cripple a runner who doesn’t properly train can also derail a writer from reaching his goal”. Ultimately, though, you should write the book you want to read. Go in this craft for the long haul, know what you want to achieve, and then by all means, tiger, go out there and grab your dreams by the horns.

You’ve got this.



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