I A N F I R E S T O N E
Web Developer Publishing & Marketing Consultant Dad
2011.04.21. Keywords: Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie, Jackie Onasis, prolific, decline
Jessica, my life partner, was in a store in Pennsylvania where the author, Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carole (also an author) were signing their books. Mary H. C., for those who don't know, is one of history's most successful novelists, having written over 40 books, all of which have been best sellers, and all are still in print. Probably fewer than a dozen published writers could make such a claim. MHC was promoting and signing her most recent novel, I'll Walk Alone. Though I do not read novels (I've read less than twenty in my life), I do write them, and Jessica knows my affinity for prolific writers, so she got in line and texted me, asking if I was interested.
When I received the text, I had to pause. My first reaction was,
"Mary Higgins Clark is still alive?"
Forgive me, Ms. Clark. I live in a bit of a bubble, without television, and I don't network as much as American entrepreneurs are told they must, so while I knew who she was ... you get the picture. If Jessica says Clark is alive and signing books with her daugher, I believe her.
My second reaction was to Google Mary Higgins Clark. She's 83. Hmph. Immediately I thought of another prolific mystery novelist, Agatha Christie, who wrote 80 best-selling novels, right up until the year of her death at age 85. (Just before Jessica's text I had finished listening to a RadioLab science program that discussed Agatha Christie extensively.)
Next I Googled the book I'll Walk Alone. I chose to check the reader reviews at Amazon.com. Honestly, I thought they were harsh, and I even felt ashamed of many of the commentors.
These comments seemed to be coming from her recent fans, who may have thoroughly enjoyed some of MHC's earlier, more clever mysteries, who also may not realize that Clark is 83. Though half of the comments were critical, they often did include something like, "it was a decent book, but not as good as...."
I completely forgot to text Jessica back. My mind was now tangented off to what Clark must have thought when she heard early reactions to her book, and how Dame Agatha Christie may have handled the critiques of the first of her less-acclaimed latter works.
Decades after Christie's death, Dr. Ian Lancashire, English professor at the University of Toronto, embarked on making a concordance of her works. Most people, unless they're serious Bible students or archaeologists, are unfamiliar with concordances. These are catalogs of every single word used in a manuscript or collection of literature, and each word in a concordance is followed with its specific uses and a list of all of its appearances throughout the work. Computerized concordances can even give you nifty data, such as which words usually follow or precede the selected word, where it typically falls in a sentence, what other words commonly appear in the same sentence or paragraph, etc.
Dr. Lancashire made concordances of many classic authors--Elliott, Joyce, Shakespeare, Milton--looking for unique characteristics to their use of words. He did make some fascinating discoveries (for example, Milton never used the word "because" in his poetry). He then shifted his attention to contemporary authors. Agatha Christie was the most published author in world history (a billion books sold), so she was first. After OCR scanning a wide sampling of Christie's novels, then analyzing her usage of words, he noticed something odd. Her employment of nonspecific words increased dramatically with the publication of her later book, Elephants Never Forget. She was also using fewer different words per book, and simpler sentences. The concordance showed that starting with that book, and throughout the three more books she finished before her death, her handle on language was in sharp decline. It is theorized that she had Alzheimer's disease, which brought her career and life to a close.
Now I don't know if Mary Higgins Clark is in the same boat. However, one should expect a prolific novelist to begin losing his or her edge by the eighth or ninth decade, whether it's Alzheimer's, Pick's, Lou Gehrig's, dementia or just plain fatigue, no? Cut her some slack, people! Almost everyone said it was a "good novel," even if it packs less punch than most of her works.
Oh! Jessica! [dialing]
Days later a package arrived, and I let Spencer open it. Give him almost anything and he's delighted and blown away--one aspect of this kid's peculiar condition that I love. "Wow, a book!" I asked him to read the title: Ghost Ship. Now he was uneasy. "Are there skulls in this book?"
I informed him of the origins of the book, and showed him the signature of Mary Higgins Clark. I told him about her, and he seemed like he gained a new friend. From a quick flip through the pages, I was able to reassure him it wasn't a story about ghosts and skulls, but about a visitor from 200 years ago who tells a little boy about Spencer's age about a sea captain from Cape Cod. I showed him where that was on his world map.
I read him the story that night. It was a bit heavy for a seven-year-old, but was richly illustrated. It reminded me of a book I'm ghost writing for a client, where the story is lengthy, but the intended audience is very young. People who write for adults have a hard time cranking the volume down for children. Seemed to be MHC's case here--could have and should have been half as many words. That aside, no expense had been spared in illustration, printing, jacket production, binding, even the paper. I respected the book.
Now Spencer was asleep, and I held the book and looked at it (and took pictures, see?). This was perhaps MHC's 34th book. I was about to feel envious. I've been involved in the publication of scores of books, but rarely as its sole, credited author (even then under pseudonyms). I want very much to begin publishing my own books. I'm 43 years of age, and while I don't feel like I'm off to a late start (for reasons to follow), I find many people my age and older feel like if they didn't create art, music or literature in their youth, they missed their chance.
Such is not true. And I'll invoke Mary Higgins Clark to make my point.
Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins Clark Conheeney has 40+ books to her name, and they sell. In fact her debut novel, We Are the Children, first published in 1975, is in its seventy-fifth printing! At this point the mathematician in me says "2011 minus 83 equals 1927-28, which is FORTY EIGHT years before 1975. MHC didn't write her first novel until she was almost fifty?"
Often, it's not until you've gotten the insanity of youth, accumulating furniture, that first marriage, and the kids grown and out of the house that you actually have some personal discovery time. I need not wax wordy on this point. MHC cranked one out, and lucky for her (whatever luck is) it sold well. Did that help propel her into repeating? I'm sure it did. Let's do some math again. From age 47 to 83 she wrote over 40 books. That's a book every 10 months. Rock on, Mary!
Is that such a hard thing to do? [That's a trick question.] I say no, not necessarily. One can make difficult necessary, though. Starting a book and quitting a book are easy to do. Thinking one is too old to start is even easier, and tragic. One does not mentally decline at 47, 57, even 67 in the absence of disease or deficiency. In fact, a book I highly recommend, The Brain that Changes Itself, explains beautifully how age-related dementia and forgetfulness can actually be reversed dramatically--how even victims of stroke who were once thought to be beyond rehabilitation can train their healthy brain tissue to take over for the damaged, eventually returning to independence and careers.
So let's say you're 63 and your dream has been to paint a good painting, or write a good book. Let's start with math. Crank one out every year and you'll have 20 by the age of 83. Perhaps your first one won't sell. Perhaps it will suck. Say this: "let it suck." (If you hate that term, substitute "stink.") Do not quit. Your first one is just that--your first. What if you create 6 works per year? From 63 to 83 you will produce a healthy 120. Can 120 books be written in 20 years by one person? Of course! I often write 40 publishable pages per day, and that means 240 manuscript pages in a week, and that's taking off a day. Naturally writing is just ONE phase of getting a book published (you've got brainstorming, research, outlining, more outlining, rough draft, three to five revisions, layout, preflight, release, and then marketing and distribution).
The trick is who is helping you. Write a few books, paint a few paintings, bang out some poems, just to get a handle on the tools, a feel for the flow, to begin identifying as the creator of such. In the case of books, almost no published authors actually produce without the help of a team of experts--a publisher (who knows the market and what they want), proof readers, an editor (who cuts the garbage and dead weight from your work, and then rearranges the misplaced parts), and even another writer. Yes, another writer. Editors are fixing syntax and following logic. The back-up writer checks imagery within words, helps come up with the right expressions where the original author went awry. The extra writer, way more often than you'd think, is a ghost writer, who rewrites the book, or considerable chunks of it.
But isn't that cheating? No! The original author is the origin of the story, of [most of] the characters, the setting, the dilemmas. The original author is the inventor. If an inventor gets a patent, and someone else builds the device, it may hit the market looking or performing somewhat different than the inventor's concept, but (1) it is still the inventor's, and (2) his device is now on the market! Editors and ghost writers are professional story developers. If you were to have a computerized concordance to analyze the unedited manuscripts of best-selling authors, you will find that 75% of them were horrible writers, if not illiterate. The difference is that they came up with a story, believed in it, and put it out there, and didn't quit. Yes, there are gifted, learned, linguophiles out there making scholarly as well as titillating books, but they are the minority, and often strain to eek out one or two books per decade, because they insist all of the inspiration, characters, plots, subplots, phrases and hidden gems come directly from them. This is what I meant by "making difficult necessary." Going solo is not only slow, but often results in a work so peculiar and eccentric that fundamental problems are woven into the manuscript's fabric that make it undigestible to those whom the author thought was the target audience. The editor and auxiliary writer (if you will) are not cheats, but catalysts, helping writers get the work from concept to a mature form of existence in a fraction of the time, staying true to the author's vision (or helping him/her develop it).
My point here is not to sell you my services, but to drive home the fact that most published authors are not scholars, but people with a story who don't quit. Period. And if they dare to, they may come up with two, three, even six per year. Same with art. Same with sculpture. Same with experimental photography. Same with cuisine. In fact I have come up with a shortcut methodology for creating fiction plots in a matter of minutes. In a single hour I once came up with ten short story outlines, nine of which were eventually written and published.
Let's discuss one of these prolific side-writers. Most people don't know it, but one of the most productive book editors who ever lived was none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Yes, that Jackie. Do you think she worked as a book editor in her 20s? No. How about her 30s? Uh-uh. And wasn't she still raising John and dealing with the death of husband number two in her mid 40s? If any "normal" woman were to be the widowed First Lady and then widow of a kingmaker, would she then feel compelled to take a job (with working class pay) at a publishing company? No, but Jackie did. Why? Because she wanted to edit books, and do it well.
Jackie O's passion for editing didn't come out of nowhere. Her husband John was the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book: Profiles in Courage. Did he write it? No, not really. The idea was his, the passion for the subject was his, the cause the book helped serve (his Presidential candidacy) was his. The literary world agrees the real author was his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen. JFK certainly helped outline the book, and may have done some research for it, and probably had final say on the wordings. He's the attributed author, despite the degree of his authorship, and the Pulitzer Prize went to him. It was, after all, JFK's book. But, don't you think that throughout this process, his wife Jackie--literate and already published--within the confines of the White House, was involved in the creation of the book while JFK dealt with the affairs of state, and Sorenson was still needed for speechwriting? Jackie had co-authored a book in 1951 with her sister. My personal opinion is that Jackie caught the publishing bug at the age of 22, after which she assisted in the collective writing of her husband's book, which received the world's most prestigious literary award. Then, embittered to politics and society by its deceit and malice, she longed to escape the public eye and pursue that which had been so, so fulfilling--publishing! In her case, co-publishing, an enterprise she was finally able to rejoin in her forties.
Jackie edited over 100 books in her short career as an editor. She hadn't worked a regular job since her early 20s, when she was an amateur photographer for a publisher. What does this teach any would-be writers, artists, or people facing a career change. Was Jackie a spoiled heiress, or did she climb the fence and break the bull? Her philosophy as an editor was that "the book belongs to the author" and "let the author shine." Simple, but the most profound axioms are. She died prematurely at 64, but her career of choice began at 44, and it served her well. She lost husbands, children, and for much of her life, privacy. But her work as a co-creator was hers.
Even if one's passion isn't writing, it is not too late to pursue one's passions. One should not think that seniority will preclude opportunity. Conductor Neville Marriner has just stepped down as the director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at 87 years of age. During his 40+ years as director, he recorded over 450 performances for broadcast or distribution. How many musicians can claim that? At the age of 85 he laughed that he had to fight for every break in his youth, but now in his eighties he was being offered more work than he could address. In a 2005 interview with the Hollywood Sentinel he exclaimed, "I have lived classical. This is my world, my life." The interviewer asked 81 year old Sir Neville if there were any other areas he wished to explore in his career, to which he answered, "Yes! The opera! I would really be fond of doing more opera, writing and conducting the music, and working on the stage."
Marriner went on to conduct several opera performances before his retirement six years later. To be fair, Sir Neville didn't just flow into opera unassisted. He didn't record 450 performances without expert help. Successful authors don't hatch books in a vacuum. But they all choose to start, and they don't quit. Mary Higgins Clark began well into her 40s, as did Jackie, as did Neville's recording career. Marriner decided at 81 to go a new direction--opera conducting--a far more demanding undertaking, which he did, with critical acclaim. They all worked at their calling until they could not.
How much time is left?
What can be created?
The answer to both is: More than you think!
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