The James N Frey Percent Guarantee Of Success

Anyone with a passionate desire will succeed if he gives himself to it fully, knuckles down and masters the craft, works hard, has good teachers and reliable readers, learns how to re-dream the dream and rewrite in answer to criticism, and actively pursues the selling of the script in a businesslike manner. I guarantee it 100 percent.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking it can't be true. Not everyone can be a novelist. But I assure you, it is true. I absolutely guarantee it.

I can make that claim because I have a lot of experience in failing, trying again, failing, trying again—and finally succeeding.

Here's my story:

I always knew I was going to be a writer. And because I was born with the desire, I thought I was naturally born with the talent and didn't have to do anything special to prepare myself. I'd just knock off a novel in a few weeks, I thought, and fame and fortune—

my natural birthright—would come knocking at my door. Such was my attitude when I was in my early teens.

As a result of my firm belief in the fantasy of what a huge talent I was, I didn't study very hard. In fact, I had just about the worst grade point average in the history of my high school: 58 percent (or about a 1.0 in a 4-point system). My highest grade was an 82 in Driver's Ed. Naturally, colleges were not sending me offers of academic scholarships. When the time came, I didn't graduate with my class.

That really didn't bother me much. I landed a job as a soda jerk and took a couple of night school courses in English literature—hoping, I guess, to find out what my competitors like D. H. Lawrence and Herman Melville were up to. I paid little attention to the professors—I knew better than they did—and got Ds, but I was not in the least discouraged. I was, of course, committing Fatal Mistake Number Six: living the wrong lifestyle. My father, seeing I was just a hopeless dreamer, was in despair. He thought my ambition to be a writer was a little nutty anyway. He wanted me to be a dentist or an insurance man. Or a banker, like him. Something with a future.

I moved from upstate New York to California to pursue my fantasy of writing a damn good novel, becoming famous, and retiring to my yacht before I was twenty-five.

Instead, I ended up being a machinist apprentice at the U.S. naval shipyard in Vallejo, California. I had to eat while awaiting fame and it was the only job I could get. Reality was beginning to make itself felt in my dim consciousness.

For my apprenticeship I was required to take a night school course in English at the local junior college. They gave me an entrance test, which qualified me for the lower-level bonehead course. I was outraged, of course. My fellow classmates were mostly recent Filipino immigrants whose native language was Tagalog. I quickly found out they knew more English grammar than I did. I decided I'd better buckle down and learn a little something. Since I was soon going to out-Hemingway Hemingway, it might help to know a little of the mechanics. Augment my genius.

During those years I didn't get much fiction writing done: Fatal Mistake Number Seven. In fact, by the time I was twenty-three I had yet to write anything. I was learning how to make submarines, play golf and poker, drink beer. I finally wrote a short story and submitted it to a new literary journal the junior college was putting out. They received six submissions and published five of them. That's right, mine was the reject.

I was crushed. The realization that I wasn't going to be the next Hemingway was finally beginning to dawn in my peanut. That was in 1965. I didn't write any fiction again until after I had finished my B.A. degree in 1969, when I started my first novel. I had come to a decision: Since the short story was obviously not my form, I was going to commit myself to becoming a novelist. Give it my all.

The first thing I did was try to get into a creative writing graduate program. I tried the big, more popular ones: Iowa, Irvine, San Francisco State, the University of California at Davis, and so on. Ten or twelve of them, and they all rejected me.

Sometimes these rejections hurt so much that I'd quit writing for a few days, a week, a month. I hadn't learned yet that rejections are just part of the game and so was committing Fatal Mistake Number Five: I wasn't keeping faith.

During the next few years I may not have made all the bad mistakes an apprentice novelist can make, but I made the big ones. Some were whoppers. I wrote the wrong kind of books. Serious, philosophical works, full of existential angst and leaden with symbols that symbolized I hadn't the foggiest idea what, which is Fatal Mistake Number Two: trying to be literary. When I got good criticism, I didn't attempt to re-dream the dream and rewrite: Fatal Mistake Number Four. In addition, I was guilty as well of ego-writing: Fatal Mistake Number Three.

Then I switched and tried stuff more suited to my abilities. I abandoned my first two novels because even I could see they weren't going anywhere. My third one, The Deuce of Trump, I completed and eventually submitted. It was rejected by an agent and an editor in the same week, so I put the book in a drawer and never sent it out again, without realizing they both were telling me it just needed a little more work—Fatal Mistake Number One again: being timid. My next effort, The Cockroach, was autobiographical, and because I hadn't resolved any of the issues I was exploring in the book in my own life, I could never resolve them in the story. Then I failed to finish four novels in a row because I lost faith in them. Fatal Mistake Number Five again.

Finally, I switched to thrillers and mysteries, but the mistakes multiplied.

I let an incompetent agent represent me, and even after it dawned on me he was a knucklehead, I stayed with him for two more years—because as long as I had an agent I felt like a writer. Besides, I didn't have the guts to dump him. Fatal Mistake Number One—timidity—again. Then I signed a multibook contract for pennies right after I sold my first novel, which wasted three potentially very productive years. I found teaching a nice diversion, so I let it gobble up all my time. Fatal Mistake Number Seven again.

When it comes to mistakes, I'm an expert.

I got lucky at times, too, such as when I met the right teacher, Lester Gorn, who is probably the greatest creative-writing teacher in the United States, and a world-class structuralist critic. He's been drumming the principles of the craft into my thick head now for over twenty years.

I got lucky, too, with my second agent, Susan Zeckendorf, who proved a great salesperson, who knows the business, is energetic, forthright, and who believes in me. She kept me from drowning more than once, and if I listened to her more often I'd probably have books stacked in the front window of every B. Dalton's from coast to coast.

Another lucky break came when a friend said I should go to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which was a truly spiritually transforming event in my life. I attended half a dozen times as a participant, and am now on the staff. It has been a mind-stretching experience and I am deeply indebted to the staff and the participants who have instructed and inspired me. At conferences such as Squaw Valley, writing is seen as an art form and the writer is seen as an artist, a seeker and interpreter of truth. At the Squaw Valley Writers' Conference I first heard that it is the job of the writer to create a masterpiece. Every year my batteries get recharged by just being around a couple hundred kindred souls, all trying to write damn good fiction.

The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was meeting, falling hopelessly in love with, and marrying my wife, Elizabeth. She is blessing number one in my life, and is the reason I've survived all those fatal mistakes.

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