How a Writer Makes His Own Good Luck

My client (and friend) Sam Polk scored the biggest coup last Sunday: his feature story on money addiction appeared on the front page of the New York Times’ Op-Ed page (print edition) and above the fold on the website. It became the most tweeted and emailed story of that long holiday weekend. It was such a thrill for Sam, and such a joy for me to watch— and to make it all even sweeter, Sam’s memoir on the same topic as the story was on the desk of a top New York book editor at the moment the story went live.  You can’t get better timing than that, and I have no doubt that Sam’s book will soon be snatched up.

Was it luck?

A little. But it was also a whole lot of hard work. I wanted to take the opportunity to illuminate exactly what that hard work looked like:

1.)   Sam was radically self motivated to learn. He was an English major at Columbia, and no doubt wrote a lot of essays and papers, but he had never written memoir. He wanted to learn everything about it. His goal was not just to write a memoir, but to write a great memoir. 

2.)   He is ridiculously well read. In the Times piece he talks about reading Liar’s Poker, which isn’t unusual for a young man on Wall Street, but he also writes that he had recently finished Taylor Branch’s three-volume series on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Talk to Sam for three minutes and he’ll be talking about a book he’s read. Suggest a book he might like or learn from, and within 48 hours, he’s read it. Good writers read. They just do.

3.)   He listened. Hard. He sought out mentors at writing conferences and writing retreats, and listened to what they had to say. He sought out the opinions of people who had worked with him, and listened to what they had to say. He sought out a book coach, never missed a deadline, and considered every single suggestion I made, whether he liked it or not, whether he believed in it or not, and whether he ended up going in that direction or not. In this way, he began to learn what his own voice sounded like and what, exactly, his point was. He wasn’t looking for someone to tell him what to do. He was strengthening his writing muscles.

 

*****

4.)  He threw out thousands and thousands of words. He worked on his memoir for more than two years on and off, but mostly on. During this time, he wrote hundreds of pages and then scraped them. He wrote whole drafts and scraped them. Writing is rewriting. We hear that all the time to the point where it sounds like noise. But it’s not noise. It’s the deepest truth. It’s how Sam found his story, and it’s how you probably will, too.

5.)  He relentlessly chased his point. There was a time when Sam and I must have spent two weeks, and dozens and dozens of emails, talking about nothing but his book title — well, arguing, really. We had super heated discussions. What was the book really about? The roots of bullying? The impact of childhood trauma? Addiction? Money? Wall Street? And what title would get people to pay attention? He was also having these same conversations with many other people. The title mattered enormously here, and Sam was adamant about getting it right. He ultimately went out to agents with the fabulous title, Gatsby Interrupted, but I believe that title will change again as the point of the book becomes even more refined.

6.)   He pitched with intention. He knew the kind of agent he wanted. He went out with a pitch to a select group and didn’t like the replies he was getting — all rejections — so he stopped pitching, and rewrote the book again. And again. Then he went back to pitching and found an agent who not only understood his story, but LOVED it. When that agent came back to Sam with suggestions for improving the book even more, Sam dug into that work without a moment of complaining. Not long after, the agent took the book out into the marketplace – and just then the New York Times story happened.

7.)   He continued pursuing new skills. Sam wanted to write magazine articles. He wanted to write essays and op-ed pieces. The first ones he attempted were pretty weak. He had written a memoir but that didn’t mean he knew how to write an 800-word article. But he kept trying, revising, throwing out words, trying new topics, figuring out how to do it better each time. He began sending out pitches.  He got some nibbles. Then out of the blue the New York Times bit. They liked his piece and wanted it longer—much longer. So now Sam had to learn how to write a 2,500 word piece — and fast. Remember how I said last week that art is an emergency?  He went after that piece in the same way he learned how to write the book, with relentless effort, a dogged desire to do it right, and a humbleness in seeking help. He wrote and revised and wrote and revised and I’m pretty sure he didn’t sleep until it was done. Soon he got the word that the piece was running on the cover of the section. And then there it was — a story that got people talking, thinking, a beginning of an important conversation, and for Sam, the beginning of a new career.

 

I Think in Books 

My daughter is reading Jonah Leher’s How We Decide. (“a readily engaging, literate and well-researched glimpse into the great mystery of how we make up our minds,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.) I keep seeing it around the house – that cover with the ice cream cones. I keep thinking I should take it away. It’s a great book -- but Leher got in big trouble over his more recent book, Imagine. He made up quotes. He had to leave his job at The New Yorker. His publisher had to refund money to readers. I sort of thought that meant we were supposed to discount everything Leher ever wrote. But my daughter shrugs and says, “People make mistakes. This is a great book.” I looked it up. Leher has an apology online. Here’s some of what he says: “There is no secret to good decision-making. There is only the obvious truth: We either confront our mistakes and gain a little wisdom, or we don’t and remain a fool.” So I decided: I'm not taking away How We Decide.