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.