Take That, ChatGPT!

There are some things that only a human can do well. Writing is one of them. Here’s what novelist and best-selling author John D. Spooner learned from a lifetime of it.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Getty Images

“God help you, you’re a writer.”

This is what my cousin, Richard Frede, told me long ago. Richard was a successful novelist. His book, The Interns, was a bestseller, and he told me this after he read the manuscript of my first fiction scribblings. I took his line as the best compliment I’d ever received. But now I know what he really meant.

So you want to be a writer. I get several dozen manuscripts a year, beginnings of novels, plays, poetry. They come from friends and strangers, young and old. I also have people each year, at cocktail parties, dinners, and restaurants, come up to me and say, “I’ve got a great book in me. My adventures would be a big bestseller. Movies, too. If only I had the time.”

I tell them all, “If you’re serious, try this: A month from today, give me 700 words on the subject of love. That’s about the word count of the average newspaper column.” It’s one thing to spout about your fabulous life. It’s another to actually sit down and tell your story on a page. And it almost always makes the person talking to you change the subject. Because you’ve challenged them. After many years and several hundred people to whom I’ve given this challenge, only four have actually written 700 words on the subject of love and handed me the results. Three women and one man. All of the essays were provocative and different, philosophical, full of earnest emotion. None involved personal adventures with love. The three women were content to meet the challenge and move on, not pursuing the great American novel. The one man was a waiter in one of my favorite restaurants. He immigrated to Boston from Turkey, where he had been a musician and a roadie for rock bands. He told me he wanted to become a playwright and write about his prison-like experience as an immigrant. Horrifying. He gets up at 4 a.m. daily to work on his play. “I lose myself in it,” he tells me. “The world goes away.” He wants it badly.

If you want to be a writer, this is how you have to feel. I’ve spent time with great writers. For them, their work was the most important thing in their lives. I’ll bet that the greatest painters felt the same way. Dancers, actors, poets, musicians…ditto.

These days, if you want to be a writer, you’re going to need an agent. You cannot do it by yourself. And I’ll tell you right now: Self-publishing does not mean you’re a writer. It means you’ve written a book. Good for you. But being a professional writer means you’re trying to make a living from it. Someone pays you to write. Not you pay someone to publish it.

What does a literary agent do? They take your manuscript or outline and try to sell it to a publisher. If they do, there’s typically a 15 percent agent’s fee. They get you a $100,000 advance, and the agent gets $15,000. If your book only earns $1,000 from sales, you still get to keep the entire $100,000, less the agent’s fee. You do not get a nickel more than that unless your book “earns out” the advance of $100,000. Your book would have to sell many thousands of copies to pay the publisher back the hundred grand. If it does, you get royalties on top of that advance. The giant percentage of books published never earn out: The publisher almost never gets their advance back. How do they make money based on this model?

The publishing business model for years has been to have a handful of authors support the entire list.

I asked Bill Phillips, former editor in chief at Little, Brown, about this. “Absolutely,” he said, “it’s always been true. Authors such as James Patterson pay the freight. Michael Connelly, the mystery writer, Herman Wouk, in his day, they pull the wagon. Women now are about 80 percent of the total book buyers in the nation. You take the big names out there, Colleen Hoover, Delia Owens, Barbara Kingsolver, Michelle Obama. The millions of books they sell allow the publishers to bring out new and mid-list authors who hopefully will break even or don’t lose too much. That’s the formula that’s been in place for publishers forever. Plus the backlist,” Phillips says. “The backlist is the classics that continue to sell long after the authors have gone off to writers’ heaven. We had J.D. Salinger, The Victory Garden, and ‘Bloom County’ comics. They all sold in the millions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had Curious George and Tolkien. The big names on the backlist allow good writing, new writing, to flourish. The lesser stars also have an audience who love them, albeit relatively small.”

I have no magic wand for getting an agent to read something of yours. In this very challenging period for writers, it may be harder to get an agent to notice you than an editor at a publishing house. But again, you have to know my number one rule of society: All of life is relationships. I know that life is not fair. Sometimes it’s not fair in your favor. But you can try this. You can search literary agents and get addresses. They all claim that they will read only online submissions (some say they will read nothing unsolicited). Still, be a maverick. Don’t submit to anyone if you don’t have a finished manuscript. But as a teaser, do this: Write 1,000 words on something—an essay, an op-ed, an opening scene—something that gives the flavor of what you can do on paper. You’re showcasing your talent. That’s the point. Go against the norm and send in a physical letter, short and to the point, telling the agent that you have a finished manuscript, but you’re sending in a tease, a shorter sample to set the hook. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. But bear in mind: These days, agents are not really interested in books that do not sell more than 20,000 copies. If you think, “That’s nothing”…it’s like 15,000 people used to go to one Bruins game. The average novel in America published today sells fewer than 1,000 copies. You can’t live on that. Neither can the agent.

George V. Higgins, in my opinion, wrote one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a Boston noir classic about mobsters, told almost completely in the dialect of the streets. It changed the dynamic of crime fiction in America and was an inspiration to many of the brilliant crime writers to come later, particularly the great Elmore Leonard. In the final episode of the hit TV show Justified, the hero is cleaning out his desk and hands a book to another deputy on his team. In effect, he gifted him the Bible on criminals. The book was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins was a lawyer and had been a prosecutor. He went to Boston College Law School, and one of his classmates, then a judge, was his friend. She gave a dinner party and invited Higgins and me. Higgins had strong opinions about everything, particularly politics. One of my mantras is “Don’t be a headline reader.” Unless you know what’s behind the headlines. Higgins knew what was behind the headlines. He knew where the bodies were buried. His genius was that he understood human nature, and he could become his characters. Also, like all great male novelists, he loved “the sauce.” On that first meeting, Higgins fell asleep before the lamb chops were finished. Novelists, in particular, feel that they never get what they think they deserve. I’ve written five novels, and I feel their pain. Read George V. Higgins. No one had his ear for how people think…and speak. He needed to write. But he hated the infrastructure of publishing.

At college, I majored in English, then a respected major. Now it’s a concentration that has disappeared from what students care about. Today, it seems computer science is far and away the most popular choice. Let’s all get rich.

At college, I majored in English, then a respected major. Now, it’s a concentration that has disappeared from what students care about. Today, it seems computer science is far and away the most popular choice. Let’s all get rich.

Luck does play a role in life. Who might walk through your door and, by accident, change the way you look at the world? I went to Brookline High School, and they had an English teacher, Francis Newsom, who sold to the school his idea to establish an honors class in English called “creative writing.” You had to qualify for it by writing a mood essay; it was your problem to figure out what that meant. In the class, you had to do the regular work of the course, all the reading plus writing assignments. Senior year, mandatory, we all entered the Atlantic Monthly writing contest. We had to enter three pieces: a sonnet, an essay, and a short story. I won an “honorable mention,” and I know it got me into college. All I ever wanted to be was a writer.

All Robert B. Parker did was write. He created the Spenser mystery series and was wildly popular. He also loved his wife, Joan, more than I’d ever seen a man love his spouse. Parker hated promoting his books, hated interviews of all sorts, hated pretension, pomposity, stupidity—which he found all over the place—and was happy to write all day, pump iron at the gym, cook, enjoy his cocktails, and spend time with very few close friends. And love his wife to pieces. Just like Spenser (who did the same things as Parker did, except Spenser saved his grand passions for his girlfriend, Susan Silverman). He looked like his hero: solid, tough, sardonic.

As I’ve said, writers can be odd…and selfish. I asked Parker for a favor: if he would write me a blurb, words of praise to go on the back jacket of a new book of mine.

“I’ll either read it,” he said to me, “or give you a blurb. Which is it?” He was sarcastic about almost everything but his wife. “I’ll take the blurb,” I told him. He gave me a great one. Most praise on the back of books is either from friends of the author, who will praise gratuitously, or from authors on the roster of the publisher who—even if they didn’t really want to—will say a few supportive words to stay on the good side of the folks who publish them. The only real praise might be from favorable reviews. But often, those are cherry-picked phrases, such as a line like, “just amazing…” even though the next words in the actual review might be “how terrible this book is.”

My writing gods in college were Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger. In those times, those were the major names. After I graduated, I went to Europe with two friends and almost no money. We all sang in cheap cafés. One of the guys played the guitar. I played the castanets. People would buy us drinks and dinner, and I never spent more than two dollars a night in a hotel. In Pamplona, Spain, where we went to drink wine out of wineskins and run with the bulls, we met Hemingway, who was traveling with an entourage. We found him on our second day there and cornered him outside the corrida. He talked about bullfighting: “Watch the horns,” he said, “they tease you, they feint left, then jab right. Like a boxer.” He broke away from his posse: a matador, a journalist, several Smith College young women, a picador. He hand-signaled them to wait there. Papa made his way to a small alley. I followed him, pushing through the crowd of celebrants, all wearing red neckerchiefs knotted around their necks. Me too. Him as well. He stopped in the alley to urinate. I came up next to him, “Good idea,” I said, “take a whiz.”

“Women whiz,” he answered. “Men piss.”

“I want to be a writer,” I stupidly said. I couldn’t believe that I was drunk on red wine and talking to my writing god. “Whizzer,” he said to me, “every American kid in Pamplona wants to write. Don’t talk about it, do it.” He zipped up and walked away, not wanting to waste any more time with “the Whizzer.”

John Updike was one of my gods as well. In my view, Updike was the greatest man of letters in America from the 1960s through the 1990s. He wrote novels and short stories. He wrote poems and essays. When he was president of the Harvard Lampoon, there were times when he wrote the entire issue. And illustrated it as well. He had gone to Oxford to study drawing. One of his classic pieces described Ted Williams’s last baseball game. “The Kid” would never tip his hat to the crowd after a home run. He just ran the bases, with no expression and his classic, easy stride. Williams hit a home run that last day. He never acknowledged the fans. Updike wrote, “Gods do not answer letters.” One of the greatest lines ever to describe an athlete.

Amazingly, this most erudite of authors loved golf. A mutual friend arranged a game at Updike’s course, where they both belonged. I was excited about what I could ask him about his books, his life, and his insights on writing. But on the course, Updike was all business. It wasn’t “a good walk spoiled.” It was his focus on the game, his game, and not about my favorite sport, “shootin’ the breeze.” It was a drizzly day on the North Shore of Boston. Updike was polite, a gentleman on the course, long pants in the summertime. His swing was a manufactured one as if he had spent a lot of money on a lot of lessons, and it produced a routine with a lot of parts—a routine he completely focused on. We played for a few dollars, two players against two. The rain came down harder and harder, with no chance to ask my hero anything related to writing.

We kept playing in the rain. Updike seemed, on every shot, to be replaying the lessons he had taken. The friend who had invited me to play said, “John is a focused dude. He goes through his routine like there’s no one else here. And he wants to win.” My glasses were fogged up from the rain. Now I know that Updike was not going to give me any creative secrets, which, of course, I resented. So I did not want to fork over any money to my hero. My host, who was a really good player, said to me, “If we lose, it’s your fault.”

We came to the 18th hole all even. Updike had a three-foot putt to win the match. It curled around the cup. And stayed out. I won two dollars, carried over from the front nine.

We all shook hands and had a beer in the clubhouse. I figured that now was my chance to ask him about his writing life. But he tossed down his beer, got up, and said, “Nice playing with you, gentlemen.” Updike walked out of the club bar. Gods do not answer letters.

In the late 1960s, the British novelist John Fowles ruled a certain roost. His novels and his style in The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman topped bestseller lists. Then there was The Magus. All of his books were bestsellers. But The Magus, for me, was a mystical journey. The novel was about magic and human foibles and love in many of its endless permutations. When my wife and I were married, I gave her a list of books I thought she’d enjoy. The Magus was top of the list.

“You’re giving me a reading list?” she said. “I’ll give you a reading list.” End of discussion.

One Sunday afternoon in the fall after we were married, she was sitting on our bed, reading The Magus. After dinner, she went back to the book. I came to bed, reading as well. At 10 p.m. she was still reading. I fell asleep and woke up around midnight. She was still reading, and we had a brief tiff about “time to shut the lights.” One thing led to another. We could pinpoint that to the night of conception. Nine months later, our son was born. We named him Nicholas, after the hero of The Magus. I got John Fowles’s address from our mutual U.S. publisher and wrote Fowles the story. Never heard back. I forgot about it. But two months later came a letter on perfect blue British stationery. It was from Fowles.

“Excuse my tardiness, but I’ve been in Greece, filming The Magus,” he wrote. “I had very many pregnant meanings in the book…but none of them that pregnant. With huzzahs to your Nicholas.” I Scotch-taped the letter to the inside of his novel and gave it to my son when he was 21. The heroine of The Magus was named Alison. My Nick’s wife is named Allison. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

If you have a passion to write, most of you will be eager to have your family and friends read your stuff. Don’t do it.

If you have a passion to write, most of you will be eager to have your family and friends read your stuff. Or you’ll be excited to read it to them. Don’t do it. Let your creation be a mystery to family and friends. They will either praise your writing gratuitously because they love you and never tell you the truth, or worse, they’ll give you a critique: “Well, the young woman on the subway doesn’t quite ring true.” The instant critics are only going to piss you off. The only people who matter are the people who may buy your writing.

In Boston, there is salvation for those of you who need professional instruction and are determined to write. Reach out to GrubStreet.

GrubStreet is the brainchild of Eve Bridburg, a literary entrepreneur coming out of BU’s Writing Program on a teaching fellowship. She became a literary agent but dreamed of something bigger, something that would unite creativity and the awareness of the many problems in society for which writers can produce change with their words. She started GrubStreet as a creative writing center in 1997 with eight students. The organization is now in the Seaport District, with its own building and classes for everyone. There is nothing they cannot teach you: poetry, essays, memoirs, nonfiction, novels, playwriting.

I believe that the best American novel of the 20th century is The Great Gatsby. I know I’m not alone in this. A friend of mine who is a concierge in a building in Beacon Hill once told me that Gatsby is also his favorite. In the daytime, he’s a unit supervisor in charge of vocational counseling. His favorite movie is Casablanca. Mine too. Scott and Zelda’s only child was Frances Scott Fitzgerald, called Scottie. In the mid-1980s, she built a house in my summer community. A good friend of hers from Philadelphia sold her the land, and she invited me for lunch to meet Scottie. We all have moments of doubt when we meet our heroines and heroes: “What can I say to her? I feel so stupid.” That’s how I felt before lunch. I had so many questions. After three gulps of some wine from the Loire, I got false courage. “What about the Riviera?” I asked her.

“When you’re a child,” she said, “and you’re living in a Riviera bubble, it’s the most glorious childhood you can imagine. Everyone is glamorous, speaking about things that always shouted laughter. Somewhere there is always music…piano. Cole Porter, when songs had real lyrics, not drivel.”

There is no child of a legend who has had an easy time. “You can’t escape the legacy,” she told me. “Good, solid friends sustain me, not necessarily the legends of the past.”

Lunch was lovely. But I couldn’t resist asking her the biggest lessons she learned from growing up with Scott and Zelda. She stared into her teacup for some seconds.

“Two things,” she said. “One is that early, brilliant success in life makes one think that it all goes on forever. It seldom does. And it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“The second lesson is about childhood. I was surrounded by so many adults when I was young. They all seemed like movie stars to me. I think that parents should get their kids comfortable in the presence of their elders. It would prepare them better for life.”

“Any thoughts about writing?” I asked.

Scottie Fitzgerald hesitated again. Then said, “You can’t really teach it. A writer writes.”

I agree with that. Grip it and rip it.

John D. Spooner is a veteran writer, novelist, and best-selling nonfiction author based in Boston. You can learn more about his work here.

First published in the print edition of the April 2023 issue with the headline “Take That, ChatGPT!”