After more than thirty years teaching writing and a career of over fifty years as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few things. Students come to you eager to discover how they can develop their craft. They want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to get started, how to establish a schedule, how to proceed. They want all the technical details of how to write dialogue, character, plot. They also want to know about practical matters: how many hours do you write a day, where do you write, do you use a typewriter, computer, pen and paper? Where do you get your material? All salient matters, important matters to do with the craft of writing.
And yet– underneath it all is a question that rarely gets asked, but one that all of these writers, neophytes and veterans, are compulsively pondering: how can I earn a living? How can I build a career? How can I become successful?
It’s something that those of us who have been at this writing game for a while, who have somehow survived, also endlessly ponder. Yesterday’s success is often prelude to today’s failure. How does one succeed as a writer? How does one maintain that success?
As I’ve said many times—it’s been a sort of mantra: there’s good news and bad news. Bad news—it’s hard to write well. Good news—it doesn’t matter. We can all look around at the market place: the mountain of turkeys is astounding, how they sell even more astounding. There are those who we kindly call authors who are possessed of virtually no talent, no craft, no sense of even minimal competency and they’re earning Croesus bucks. I don’t have to tell you. It’s all around us. “Fifty Shades of Gray” — the fastest selling paperback in the history of publishing. The series to date has sold over a hundred million copies. Salman Rushdie commented that he had never read anything so badly written that got published. Published it was and sales are in tsunami proportions. As I said, the good news on a certain level is that it doesn’t matter to success if you write well or execrably.
Jeffrey Archer, a writer with a varied career, has had his share of best-sellers: his books have sold something like 350 million copies worldwide. He’s also been a British Member of Parliament, a charity fund-raiser, an art gallery owner, an entrepreneur of dubious probity, and a jailbird who was sentenced to prison for four years for perjury. (Ringo Starr once commented that Archer was the kind of bloke who would bottle your piss and sell it.) This is certainly a man qualified to speak about literary success.
And speak he did and cogently, I think. It should be said here that I have never read his stuff, have no idea how good it is. It has sold prodigiously. It has been said that the books have needed extensive external editing to make them readable. Whatever is done they are obviously readable and they sell. I heard him on a television interview show and he spoke of a writer’s career. And he made compelling sense. To paraphrase: “If a writer has talent and ambition—and by that I mean an ability to work hard and persevere relentlessly– he can be a King. If he (or she) has no talent but ambition, he can be a Prince. If he has talent and no ambition, he’ll be a pauper.” Well and good and essentially true with a few caveats.
If a writer has talent and pushes himself to the utmost, works harder at his craft and career than anybody in the history of literary affairs, he will most likely succeed. If he has no talent, but works at a killing pace, he has a chance to succeed. If he has talent, but is a lazy galoot, he will most likely fail. However, there is something else that must enter the equation and sadly we have nothing to do with it. And it is probably the single most important component to literary success.
I asked Mardik Martin, Scorcese’s confidant and often screenwriter— he wrote “Mean Streets”, “Raging Bull”, “New York, New York”—he and I taught screenwriting at the same time in USC’s cinema school—what he felt was the most important factor in a writer’s success—I asked him this after years of students pulling me aside, often embarrassed, questioning me about how one became successful. Mardik didn’t hesitate. “Luck,” he said, “Just luck,” and went on to tell the story of his success.
He’s of Armenian descent, but was raised in Iraq. His father was a wealthy merchant and he sent Mardik to the United States to get a business education at NYU. No sooner had Mardik entered school than there was a revolution in Iraq, socialists took over—this preceded, I believe, Saddam Hussein— and Mardik’s father lost all of his wealth.
Mardik had to drop out of school and take a menial job as a bus boy. Since he no longer had a student visa, he lived in fear that he would be discovered working illegally and deported. He continued to hang around NYU and he made friends with Martin Scorcese. And it was this lucky confluence of events—revolution in Iraq, father losing everything, Mardik having to drop out of business school, meeting Scorcese, that was responsible for his sensational, meteoric career as a screenwriter. Yes, he had talent, yes, he no doubt worked hard, but if luck hadn’t intervened he might still be working as a busboy, or perhaps he would have risen to a waiter or maitre ‘d; or he might have even been deported. Luck.
I tell students they must do all the other things, that is work hard, develop their craft, trust in their talent, network with like minds, persevere. And pray for luck…
A quick personal illustration about luck. My first novel, “The Quarterback”, was written in 1960. I tried and tried to get it published. Nothing. At last I decided to leave New York and see what I could do in Los Angeles. I went to my then agent and asked her for all of my work—I would be re-settling in California. She gave me my plays and screenplays and stories, but my novel was not there. I panicked. This was in the days before computers and copying machines. When you wrote something you made a carbon copy of it and my agent had the last copy of my novel and she couldn’t find it!
I became hysterical, ranted, raved. The agent was shaken. She tried to calm me. “Don’t worry, we’ll find it.” She called the next day to say that the novel had been submitted to Dell Publishing… three years earlier! She had not heard from them. I screamed that the novel had been to Dell eight years earlier and had been rejected. I had never forgotten the rejection. George Sentman, the managing editor of Dell at that time wrote, “Undoubtedly you are a writer with something to offer. I suspect you will make it big some day, and I hope soon—but not here at Dell with ‘The Quarterback…’” Bitter pill to swallow. Not here at Dell! My first novel, damned with faint praise, brutally rejected. And now some years later my agent had submitted “The Quarterback” again to Dell and the manuscript—the only one!—had been lost!
My agent quieted me. She would get to Dell and get the manuscript. I didn’t hear from her for a few days. And then one afternoon, as I returned to my apartment, there was a telegram in my door. It was from the agent: these were the days before answering machines and she had been calling me with no answer and she finally sent me a telegram: “They found your manuscript.” This was followed by a note from Bob Able, now the senior editor at Dell. “David. I’ve been trying to reach you by phone. Call me. We wanna buy your book. Okay?”
And how did it all happen? What lucky genie was frolicking through my life? My agent had called Dell. Bob Able had just taken over as senior editor. He told the agent he would look for my book and he rummaged around and way back in the corner of an obscure closet, covered in dust and dubious detritus was my poor manuscript. He prepared to send it back to the agent and on a whim decided to read the first page. He couldn’t put it down. He read the whole book in one sitting and decided it would be his first purchase for Dell.
“The Quarterback” was a watershed event for my career. It was my first significant sale. It came out to glowing reviews and was awarded a spot on The New York Times Christmas list for sports fiction. After that things moved more easily for me. I still worked hard. I was still ambitious. I still had, I believe, talent. And good luck continued to follow me—not the luck that “Fifty Shades of Gray” met, nor the luck that Jeffrey Archer encountered—though his was balanced by a bad genie who ended up sending him to prison for four years… but luck good enough to bring me sufficient success. Not overwhelming, best-seller success, but luck enough to provide me with a good life.
Does this help anyone? Have I revealed any secret to unlocking the gates to success? Probably not. But it should give writers some direction. And a bright ray of hope. You can be brutally untalented. You can be the laziest soul on the planet. Yet with luck you can become spectacularly successful. Remember Pliny the Elder’s admonition: “Nulla dies sine linea,” “Not a day without a line.” And so I wish all of you, writers young and old, struggling, just getting by, keep at it. Keep persevering. And the best of luck…