It’s funny how luck seeks out preparation

John D. MacDonald


I’ve spent a lot of years practicing law, and I can attest to the fact that cases are won through preparation.

Plain old hard work.  Burning the midnight oil.  Outworking the guy on the other side.

Writing books is no different.

Author Bert Carson recently gifted me a copy of a biography of legendary pulp fiction writer John D. MacDonald. The book is John D. MacDonald by David Geherin.

In the introductory chapter, Geherin explains MacDonald’s self-initiation rites into the writing world.  When MacDonald came home from WWII, he had four months’ severance pay.  For some reason, he decided he would use that time to embark on a career as an author.

So what did he do?

Much to his wife’s chagrin, he sat down in front of a typewriter and didn’t get up out of his writing chair for four months.

Four months.

What did he have to show for a third of a year’s work product?

Eight hundred thousand words of unsaleable short stories.

That’s 800,000 words.

He didn’t know any better than to dedicate himself to learning the writing craft.  As MacDonald himself put it,

I thought you got up in the morning and went to work and worked till lunch and then went back to work until the day was over–with good business habits, as in any other job.

It wasn’t until my habit patterns were firmly embedded that I discovered that writers tended to work a couple of hours and then brood about it the rest of the day… The thing to do is to do it.  Get the fissures in the piles and the varicosities and the pressures on the disks and keep the ass on the chair and do it!

I love a guy who isn’t afraid to tell the unvarnished truth.

Methodically MacDonald kept at it.  Day in and day out.  Before long he sold a story or two.  Then he sold a bunch of them.  Then he switched to novels and sold a few.

At last count readers have purchased about 75,000,000 John D. MacDonald books.

Funny how luck seeks out preparation, isn’t it?

Please don’t understand me to say that anyone who has the self-discipline to apply the seat of his pants to a chair for thousands of hours will inevitably make it as a bestselling or world-class author. I wish the formula was that air tight.

However, I do know that if an author doesn’t prepare herself by learning the writing craft, luck will have no chance to find her.

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  • Roger Summers

    Lucky I came across your words here, Stephen.

  • I couldn’t agree more. Ideas are great, a world inside your head where real characters live are essential, but I won’t find out about them if your craft isn’t top-notch because, as I get older, reading time is spent more and more on only the best quality stories I can find.

    I had my period of gobbling down quantity – a long time ago. Now my palate is more discerning, and I consume only the good stuff.

    Craft is the difference: knowing how to keep a reader clued in when you have a group scene. Having arcs buried in the words so that a reader goes on an emotional journey not just only from the beginning to The End, but over chapters, or within a single scene. Internal consistency in voice. No plot holes. It is all learnable – and it is obvious when an author hasn’t learned it. Obvious to me, and my purchasing dollars.

    Thanks for the story – another explanation for why I love John D. MacDonald’s work.

    • Alicia,
      Amen. My reading habits have evolved much the same as yours. At this point in life, I look for work that has stood the test of time, and try to learn from it. Writing craft is a never-ending journey, but it’s worth taking the time to develop it.

  • Absolutely spot on! The writing is what makes the difference, because all plot ideas have already been used, nothing new under the sun!

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