In 1903, Jack London skyrocketed to fame with the publication of The Call of the Wild. Three years later, readers greeted the publication of White Fang with similar enthusiasm, helping to establish London as one of the most popular American writers and the highest paid of the 1900s.
An article in The New Yorker notes, “By 1913, he was making more than ten thousand dollars a month, nearly a quarter of a million in today’s money.” But London’s success did not happen overnight. In order to write The Call of the Wild and White Fang, he drew on his experiences in the Yukon in the 1890s when he was living in poverty.
In an article in Literary Hub about London’s Alaskan cabin, Joy Lazendorfer writes:
In 1898, Jack London was trapped in an Alaskan cabin while, outside, winter froze everything to icy stillness. ‘Nothing stirred,’ he wrote later. ‘The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick.’ London, then 22, had come to Alaska to make his fortune in the gold rush, but all he’d found was a small amount of dust worth $4.50. A diet of bacon, beans, and bread had given him scurvy. His gums bled, his joints ached, and his teeth were loose. London decided that, if he lived, he would no longer try to rise above poverty through physical labor. Instead, he would become a writer. So he carved into the cabin wall the words ‘Jack London Miner Author Jan 27, 1898.’
Obviously, London was determined to become a successful writer. But the odds seemed stacked against him. Not only was he poor, but he also had no literary connections or literary background.
How was he eventually able to find success?
Luckily for us fellow writers, London shared the secrets of how he learned to write, persevere, and become a famous author. In a 1905 article for The Editor magazine, he explained exactly how he got into print.
In today’s blog post, I’ve collected seven tips from this article that we can use to improve our own writing. Read on for London’s writerly wisdom.
1. Be Prolific
London had zero experience when he decided to become a writer. He observed,
…I knew positively nothing about it. I lived in California, far from the great publishing centers. I did not know what an editor looked like. I did not know a soul who had ever published anything; nor yet again, a soul, with the exception of my own, who had ever tried to write anything, much less tried to publish it. I had no one to give me tips, no one’s experience to profit by.
London’s solution? He decided to write prolifically and try his hand at all different kinds of writing.
So I sat down and wrote in order to get an experience of my own. I wrote everything—short stories, articles, anecdotes, jokes, essays, sonnets, ballads, villanelles, triolets, songs, light plays in iambic tetrameter, and heavy tragedies in blank verse. These various creations I stuck into envelopes, enclosed return postage, and dropped into the mail. Oh, I was prolific. Day by day my manuscripts mounted up, till the problem of finding stamps for them became as great as that of making life livable for my widow landlady.
Between 1900 and 1916, London completed hundreds of short stories and fifty fiction and nonfiction books. Of course, not all famous writers are that prolific, although it might be necessary in order to reach London’s level of monetary success. Many self-publishing gurus today say that publishing numerous books is an effective strategy for making a full-time income as an author.
However, London’s advice is also helpful for those writers who are not yet ready to publish and are focused on sharpening their skills. It’s only by writing that we can gain practice as a writer.
So write as much as you can, no matter how badly you think it is. Try all different genres and types of writing. Maybe you’ll discover a literary form that you love that you would never have experimented with otherwise.
I am reminded of Vincent Van Gogh. He never achieved recognition during his lifetime, but he was devoted to practicing his craft. Over the span of just ten years, he produced more than 900 paintings, not including drawings and sketches.
2. Don’t Quit Your Day Job
When London first started writing short stories, he thought he would be able to quickly make a comfortable living. But he soon found out that it’s a difficult journey to earn a full-time income from one’s writing. Instead of receiving money, he received rejections.
At last, one story was accepted. However, the magazine offered to pay just five dollars. Disheartened, London nearly quit writing and went back to shoveling coal.
But, just before going through with this resolution, he received an offer of forty dollars for another story he had submitted. That story finally helped him break into the publishing industry. And the rest, as they say, is history.
However, London advised,
Don’t quit your job in order to write unless there is none dependent upon you.
I think this is valuable advice for anyone who is any kind of creator online. It is much easier to put in the time to practice and create when you’re not worrying about money. And it also means that you probably won’t give up as quickly when success takes longer than you think.
3. Popular Genres Will Pay More
London also gave advice on which genres he thought were most lucrative:
Fiction pays best of all, and when it is of fair quality is more easily sold. A good joke will sell quicker than a good poem, and, measured in sweat and blood, will bring better remuneration. Avoid the unhappy ending, the harsh, the brutal, the tragic, the horrible—if you care to see in print the things you write. (In this connection don’t do as I do, but do as I say.)
Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded There are only a few who are able to do it. If you are able, do it by all means.
I like that London made the aside, “Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.” He obviously found success writing many harsh stories with unhappy endings.
However, it’s true that certain genres will always have more readers. For example, the romance, mystery, and fantasy/science-fiction genres tend to sell the most today.
Take this into consideration if you want to reach the most readers. Maybe the story idea you have can fit into one of those genres.
But, of course, you can also be a Jack London and forge your own path.
4. Don’t Wait for Inspiration
London also shared his strategies for how he wrote so prolifically:
Don’t dash off a six-thousand-word story before breakfast. Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint,’ and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.
His advice to not write too much reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s advice to not deplete your inspiration:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.
I wrote this article about several other famous writers who would set themselves a daily word count goal. This goal can be huge (3,000 words) or small (500 words) depending on your circumstances and the pace at which you write.
If you follow through every single morning or afternoon or evening, despite the distractions and the craziness of your everyday life, you will gradually develop a daily writing habit. And that means you will also develop an incredible amount of focus and determination and passion for your craft.
5. Study the Craft
Speaking of passion for your craft, London said he learned to write by reading the works of great writers.
Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.
By studying the work of the greatest writers, you’ll have a standard to judge your own work against. Is your plot too simple or does it have intriguing twists and turns like a Dickens novel? Can you tackle complex themes in your work, provoking your readers to consider their own deeply held beliefs, like a Dostoevsky novel?
Check out the video I made below on “Close Reading” that shows how you can dive into a passage of a well-written novel and identify the techniques and themes that make the writing so powerful.
6. Stay Healthy
This is one that writers often neglect. Staying healthy is important to keep up your stamina and inspiration as a writer. London noted,
See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all.
In this article, I wrote about the importance for writers of going on a daily walk. Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card agreed,
Take care of your body. Writing is a sedentary business; it’s easy for many of us to get fat and sluggish. Your brain is attached to the rest of your body. You can’t do your best work when you’re weak or in ill health.
7. Write Down Your Ideas in a Notebook
I am a huge fan of keeping a writing notebook so I loved this piece of advice from London:
Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.
London isn’t the only famous writer who kept a notebook. W. Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, and Damon Knight are among the other famous writers who kept a notebook to collect ideas and help them out of creative ruts. If you want to write prolifically, you need to be generating many story ideas.
All of these strategies helped London become a bestselling author. In just five years time, he taught himself to write gripping stories and was crafting beautiful prose like this paragraph from The Call of the Wild:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.
I hope these insights from London give you inspiration and motivation with your writing this week! You can read London’s article in its entirety here.
London concluded the article with these words,
Spell it in capital letters. WORK. WORK all the time. Find out about this earth; this universe…And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life….The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH; WORK; and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail; and with it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.
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Thank you! Wishing you much success with your writing projects this month! God bless.