The Blood, Toil, Tears and Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration of Writing
by Boyd Anderson on 23 February 2013
For years there has been a cliché in the advertising business that every copywriter has an unfinished novel in his or her bottom drawer. But it’s not true. Only the better ones do.
Of course, better is a matter of opinion. And does it mean better copywriters or better novelists? Well, you decide from this collection:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Dorothy Sayers, Joseph Heller, James Patterson, Derek Hansen and Len Deighton.
That’s just a start. And all of them got their break as copywriters.
From this shortlist alone came two Booker winners and the most famous Pulitzer loser of all time, written on weekends after days spent dreaming up lines for soap powder and soft drink.
Some claim they learned how to write economically and on deadline through their experience as copywriters.
As for me, I found that copywriting was proof of the Thomas Edison axiom that ‘genius’ is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Except in advertising it translates as five minutes of inspiration scribbled on the back of a beer mat, and five weeks of perspiration getting it through endless levels of approval. Or not.
There are other parallels with Edison, too. His one percent was the inspiration to rip off poor unsuspecting Nikola Tesla, his opposition, and a lot of the so-called ‘inspiration’ in the ad business happens the same way.
Here’s how perspiration finally led to transformation for some:
F. Scott Fitzgerald had 122 rejection slips pinned to his wall while working as a copywriter in New York and pickling his despair in a gin bottle every night. Eventually THIS SIDE OF PARADISE was accepted, he asked Zelda to marry him, and so the Jazz Age began.
In London, Salman Rushdie coined the term ‘naughty, but nice’ for a cream cake while working on MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN at night. Not only did it win the Booker (the novel, that is; not the cream cake), but the Booker of Bookers and then the Best of the Bookers, which was certainly nice.
Joseph Heller laboured for so many years over CATCH 22 while holding down a string of copywriting jobs, it’s a wonder he didn’t see the irony in his own situation. Even when it was published, his contract was so disadvantageous he had to stay on the job until selling the film rights more than a year later.
Peter Carey says he had four novels rejected while working in advertising (incidentally, he was one of the best copywriters in the business) before a collection of short stories, The Fat Man in History, was accepted. Another collection of short stories and four novels were published while he divided his time between the two pursuits, one of which was the Booker winning OSCAR AND LUCINDA.
Dorothy L. Sayers published five of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries while working for a London agency. She later wrote one called Murder Must Advertise, about the mysterious death of a copywriter. One wonders about that agency.
And of course, anyone who has ever heard Bryce Courtenay talk will know that he kept The Power of One tucked away in that good old bottom drawer of his for at least ninety-nine percent of a long career of perspiration in advertising. Believe it or not.
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Boyd Anderson spent several years as a creative director in advertising, winning many awards in New York, Cannes, London, Los Angeles and Sydney. Boyd now writes historical fiction. Amber Road is his fourth novel, following Children of the Dust, Ludo and Errol, Fidel and the Cuban Rebel Girls. He lives in Sydney.