Monday, October 6, 2008

A Surefire Formula for Guaranteed Success in Your Writing

I’ve been reading Good-bye to All That, which is a classic memoir about World War I, written by British poet/novelist/translator Robert Graves. The book was written in 1929, in a big rush—only 11 weeks—and was successful enough that Graves was able to focus on writing for the rest of his life (he was the author of more than 120 books--!!).

Historian Paul Fussell wrote the introduction to my edition and included this amusing piece that Graves wrote about the writing of his book; Graves really, really, really, REALLY wanted it to be a successful and popular book, and here’s how he went about achieving that goal:

“I…deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost. I put in three or four ghosts that I remembered.

“And kings…People also like reading about other people’s mothers…And they like hearing about T.E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be a mystery man…And of course the Prince of Wales.

“People like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets…Then, of course, Prime Ministers…A little foreign travel is usually needed’ I hadn’t done much of this, but I made the most of what I had. Sport is essential…Other subjects of interest that could not be neglected were school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, sever illnesses, suicides. But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones….

“So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody….”

There you have it, the secret of your success! I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but a couple days after reading this, I found myself pondering whether I could squeeze a ghost into my historical novel.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.