Monday, September 26, 2016

Maybe You Should Write a Book

In 1977 ex-Fawcett Publications editor Ralph Daigh wrote a how-to book on writing, titled Maybe You Should Write a Book. The first sentence on the front flap of the dust jacket provides his thesis:

If you have ever said, “Someday I am going to write a book,” and have not yet done so, or have written a book as yet unpublished, this is the book for you.

The first twelve chapters were written by Daigh and contain many fascinating inside-baseball facts and tales of the publishing business. The following eighteen chapters were individual essays written by some of the then-famous authors of the period: names such as James Michener, Joyce Carol Oates, Norah Lofts and Louis L’Amour. And, of course, John D MacDonald, who provided many great titles for Daigh back in the early 1950’s. MacDonald’s piece, which was titled “An Author With a Fan Club,” contains JDM’s standard biography, told by himself, which is revealing in and of itself as it contains a few bits of info revealed in few other places. (Such as the revelation that his writing predated “Interlude in India.”) The balance of the essay is an interesting nuts-and-bolts description of how he writes, where he gets his ideas, his rather drastic method of revision, and his approach to both realism and illusion. Long out of print, Maybe You Should Write a Book probably doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of ever being reprinted, so I’ve taken the liberty and transcribed MacDonald’s entry in its entirety. It’s quite educational.

Writing is my trade and my joy and my despair, depending on how well or how poorly it seems to be going at any given moment.

I cannot imagine ever doing anything else.

Yet I had no idea of actually being a writer until I was twenty-nine. I read everything I could reach from the day I learned to read. I thought that to be an author would be the best thing anyone could ever do -- to put down the words for others to read. But I did not think it could ever be me. Not ever.

I wrote things, but it was as if I were imitating a writer, and thus it was a secret vice. It was not until almost half a life had passed that I realized all writers who share this same compulsion, this same dream, have the hidden, guilty suspicion that they are merely giving an imitation of what they hope to become.

Because I had an inner listlessness about what I would do with my life, I responded easily to what my father hoped I would do. I went to the Wharton School of Finance and dropped out after almost two years, worked at small weird jobs in New York City, finally reentered college at Syracuse, got a B.S. in Business Administration, married Dorothy, went to Harvard Business School, received an M.B.A. in Business Administration, sired a son, went to work, got fired with alarming frequency, went into the army for five-and-a-half years and came back from overseas with three months' accumulated leave and a terminal promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

The army had cured me, or partially cured me, of that malady which had gotten me fired so regularly -- a virulent case of Boca Grande (Big Mouth) -- and in the normal course of events I would have fitted myself back into the business world, carefully and diligently, yet without joy.

But great luck rescued me from my own blindness about myself. Luck and Dorothy. During the last of my two-and-a-half years overseas, I was with OSS in the China-Burma-India Theater. At one point, due to the secret nature of ongoing operations, we were advised that outgoing mail was being subjected to one hundred percent censorship rather than the usual spot check, and that it would be best if no mention were made in letters of climate, foliage, health, food, friends, and so forth.

It made letters grotesquely difficult to write, and as a relief valve, I wrote a short story in longhand about some people in New Delhi, a place where I was no longer stationed. I wrote it to amuse Dorothy and to give her more of the special flavor of India than I could manage in straight exposition.

It got through, and without writing me what she was doing, she typed it in suitable form and submitted it first to Esquire, where it elicited a personalized and encouraging rejection rather than a form. Next she sent it to Story Magazine, where Whit Burnett purchased it for twenty-five dollars and, months later, published it under the title "Interlude in India."

When I was set free at Fort Dix, we had a rent-controlled apartment in Utica, New York, three months' leave, and tentative appointments my father had made for me with several corporations.

It seemed a good time to try to be a writer. Dorothy encouraged me. No one else did. During the winter of 1945-46, in four months -- October, November, December, and January -- I worked twelve and fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and completed 800,000 words of typed manuscript. In February I sold a second story after months of keeping at least thirty stories in the mail to the magazines at all times. I had papered most of my small workroom with form rejection slips, and I painted them out when at last they began to really depress me. I lost twenty pounds. Relatives and friends discussed John's "severe readjustment problems." In short-story format I wrote the equivalent of ten full-length books in four months. Motivation was so overwhelming, I compressed years of learning into a brief time. By the end of 1946 we could just barely live on the income from writing. In 1947 extreme financial pressures were eased.

I am still learning. And I still feel as if I were almost a writer. One cannot apply linear logic to erase a deep suspicion that one is an impostor.

It is the memory of the amount of work it took to learn my trade that oftentimes makes me less than tolerant with the stranger who says earnestly, as though we share something special, "You know, I've always wanted to write!"

When my mood is especially astringent, I answer, "Really! I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon." The lay person can remove a splinter from a finger and can write a nice letter to Aunt Alice.

The most common question is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

I do not know where ideas come from. I have the feeling that somewhere in the back of my head there is an ancient cauldron where all the input of the years of my life boils and bubbles, with the random bits of things seen, felt, read, heard, discussed, all tumble together in ferment, appearing and disappearing atop the dark brew.

The thing which differentiates the human brain from the computer is the talent, or knack, or quirk, which the brain has for established logical and also illogical relationships. Emotion, humor, fear, hate-all these seem to come from unlikely juxtapositions of random bits in the storage banks, or in the cauldron, or whatever you want to call it.

The contents of the cauldron are not readily accessible to me until two or more random bits clot together in some associational relationship and float to the surface. Then I can take these items out, a coagulation, and turn the lump this way and that until I see a pattern that may or may not become a story.

The other day I retrieved some information bits in strange shape and form. A man once told me how he had fabricated his qualifications and made a quantum leap -- forward or backward -- from cab driver to assistant pursor on a cruise ship, and how, by mumbling and by writing in such a way no one could read it, he had successfully covered his areas of total ignorance until he learned the job on the job,. I once saw a ship's officer get out of a cable car in American Samoa, pallid and wet and visibly shaken, perhaps because by chance he was the only passenger aboard on that six minute, gut-wrenching trip. I had read somewhere about a myna bird who lived next door to a fire house, and who learned such a persuasive imitation of the alarm bells and buzzers, he could fake out the firemen. In the thick offshore smoke of the burning Everglades a few years ago, birds landed on our small boat, some of them too near death from exhaustion to be saved.

I examined this curious clotting of four unrelated things. I know there has to be some connective -- something in my mind which makes some congruent relationship -- faking, loneliness, fright, imitation, communication.

When I perceive the relationships, then this might become a story or an incident within a story. My fallow periods occur when all the lumps I retrieve either have too apparent and simpleminded a relationship, or ones so complex they are beyond conscious perception.

After I have the idea for a novel, the idea will determine the approach and the length. A story is something happening to somebody. If the change is physical, environmental, then it is a casual and trivial story. I must qualify this by saying that there are some monstrous exceptions, such as Kafka's Metamorphosis. If the change is deep and subjective and lasting, then the story can have as much power as is within the capacities of the novelist.

Once I have the story, along with that prickling feeling of anticipation which clues me as to how well I might be able to do it, I establish a clear sense of the ending, and then I try, through trial and error, to find the most useful beginning. The right point in time to start a story is tricky. Begin too far back from the dramatic peaks and the story becomes slow and labored. Begin too close to the tensions and the pace becomes frantic. There are no rules except the subjective sense of "feel." I revise by throwing away. I might, for example, throw away thirty thousand words of a novel in first draft because it begins to feel progressively worse and beyond repair. Or I might discard the final twenty thousand of the first fifty thousand words by rereading it enough times to be able to detect the approximate arena where it began to feel wrong.

I do not plan the middle portions of a book. Once I have found a solid beginning-place, and know where it will end, I then have multiple choices of how to find my way through the thickets and jungles of the middle portion. When such portions get too far off the track because a side trail becomes too enticing, I can take out that portion and set it aside as something to read over the next time I am in the process of selecting a story to write. For me, too much preplanning destroys freshness and spoils my own fun. I do not know what each day of work will bring. I know the compass direction, but not the specific destination of each day.

Nobody ever invented a character, whether protagonist or walk-on, out of whole cloth. I have never consciously patterned any character after any specific person I know. I assemble the odds and ends of input into the people in the books, and then they become alive to me to the point where, when I attempt to manipulate them into word or deed which does not fit, the words go flat and the deeds are fumbled.

When a character is not consistent with his own patterns and habits and style, then the reader becomes all too aware of the fact that he is reading a book. The writer's hand has become visible, tugging at the strings, contriving scene and situation.

I strive for realism while knowing at all times that I can achieve the illusion of realism, not realism itself. Selectivity in description imitates reality. It shows the reader what you want him to see. If I describe a boat by saying, "Below decks she smelled of stale grease, stale urine, and old laundry," I need not mention the condition of the brightwork or running gear topside.

Yet in these shorthand techniques of realistic writing, I must be careful not to make the writing too vivid, or once again I intrude. The flamboyant overblown simile or analogy is like tapping the reader on the shoulder and saying, "Look how beautiful I'm writing, fella!"

I achieve a further illusion of realism by trying never to write about places I have never been and by researching the nuts-and-bolts details of various skills, occupations, and professions where appropriate.

A further aspect of realism is the result of the writer's attitude toward his work. I know that I am involved in entertainment, but I also know that the more entertaining a book is the more readers it will reach, and if the entertainment is built upon some solid foundations of awareness of the world, then there will be a resonance about the work which can in certain ways alter the internal climate and the outward perceptions of the reader.

The fact of a writer taking himself seriously does not make of him a "serious" writer. Yet if he has any slight feeling that in his choice of materials or choice of approach he is patronizing and deluding the readership, then the flavor of truth and purpose and reality will drain out of his work. As literary history has shown us often and forcefully, critical acclaim has far less to do with lasting acceptance than does the internal disciplines of the work itself.

As regards the area in which I have often chosen to write, I would like to quote Nicholas Freeling: "We are all murderers, we are all spies, we are all criminals, and to choose a crime as the mainspring of a book's action is only to find one of the simplest methods of focusing eyes on our life and our world."

I have explained where I think the ideas come from and what I do with them once I have them reasonably well in hand. But I have not said anything about my appraisal of my own body of work. It is to me a long, tough, satisfying process of becoming. I have more control of my materials this year than I had last year. When the control improves, one can attempt the more delicate and sinuous confrontations without the dreadful risk of descending into inadvertent parody or situational grotesqueries. I have not done a book or a story that I could not now do more effectively.

There are internal rhythms in prose which tap the subjective emotional quotient of the reader, and create awareness of the identities of the human condition on many levels. These rhythms arise from the careful and selective simplicities, not from arcane juxtapositions. The words and the phrases are the architecture and the music. The more simple, the more elegant and effective. The more complex and intricate, the more self-conscious and ineffective. I keep the learning process going by writing poetry.

I will do as many more stories as time, energy, and self-knowledge will permit. It has meant sixty hours a week at this machine for more years than I care to confess. But there is not a day that I cannot get a quick, electric feeling of joyous anticipation when I roll the white empty page into the machine. A day, a week, a month, or a half year of work may leave me without a page I can keep. But sooner or later there will be a day when the satisfaction at the end of the day matches the anticipation at the beginning.

And that's what keeps my machine running.


  1. Thanks for sharing that. John D. MacDonald writes very well no matter what he is writing.

  2. I love the method of revision he describes - just throw it away! Thanks for this posting. And for your website.