Mario Puzo, who passed away in 1999, wrote a number of bestselling novels, including The Godfather, Fools Die, and The Last Don. What I especially liked about Puzo was his legendary tongue-in-cheek interviews. One of my favorite Puzo comments was when he warned aspiring scriptwriters that the only way to get a fair deal in Hollywood was to go into the studio with a mask and gun.
I’ve always been amazed by how many of Puzo’s rules apply not only to writing, but to life in general. In that vein, following are five of my most favorite Puzo rules that I believe you will find applicable to our own life.
Puzo Rule No. 1: “Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.”
Anyone involved in writing — whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or copywriting — should take this advice seriously. The most dynamic writing is from the heart. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest reasons for the success of my first two books was that I was completely uninhibited in writing about my mistakes and shortcomings in a way that made it easy for the reader to relate to me.
Nevertheless, on those few occasions when I made the mistake of showing my manuscript to others, they often suggested that I should remove material which they felt was too autobiographical or too blunt. Fortunately, I listened only to my own inner voice and didn’t change a thing, so when both books became New York Times #1 bestsellers I felt vindicated.
The moral is, be careful about who you show your work to, no matter what business you’re in, because when you become inhibited, your creativity and genius become suffocated in the process.
Puzo Rule No. 2: “Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”
Actually, I first learned this secret from Ayn Rand, who said there’s no such thing as writing; there’s only rewriting. I’ve based my whole career on this principle.
I once asked an elderly friend of mine, who was a top-flight TV sitcom producer, if it was difficult to write a joke. He replied, “It’s no more difficult than writing a postcard, and writing a postcard is easy … but to write a good postcard is hard.”
I thought about my friend’s comment years later when someone said to me, “It must be nice to be able to just knock out a book any time you feel like working and get paid a million bucks.” Whereupon I asked what made him think I could “knock out” a book quickly.
He responded, “Because your books are so easy to read that it’s obvious you don’t put a lot of time into them.” Fortunately, I was able to control my emotions by reminding myself that capital punishment existed in my state. So, in lieu of going the homicide route, I smiled and said, “I guess you’re right. I’m lucky I have such an easy job.” I then calmly walked away.
The fact is that all quality products — not just books — are easy for the consumer for only one reason: The people who create them put an enormous amount of work into making them easy. In my case, I do about twenty-five drafts of every book I write. And the main purpose of doing all those rewrites is to make it as clear and easy as possible for the reader to understand what I’m saying.
Perhaps advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins put it best when he said, “Genius is the art of taking pains.” Repetition, polishing, relentlessly striving to make your product the best it can be is what lifts you above the competition.
Puzo Rule No. 3: “Never sell your book to the movies until after it is published.”
Though I’ve never sold any of my books to a film company, I’ve employed the essence of this strategy for more than three decades. For example, I’ve found that it’s also a mistake — at least for a first-time author — to try to make a publishing deal on the basis of an outline. And it’s just as true in any other industry when it comes to making a deal on the basis of a business plan (which is the equivalent of an outline) alone.
Why? Because people either can’t, or won’t, stretch their imaginations enough to share your vision. That being the case, be sure to have something more concrete than just a proposal to show the other party if you’re trying to raise money or make a deal of one kind or another — regardless of what business you’re in.
I attribute much of my early success as an author to the fact that I not only completed a book before showing it to a paperback publisher, I first marketed the hardcover edition into becoming a bestseller. Then, once the hardcover was a success, it put me in a position to be able to command a big advance from a paperback publisher.
Puzo Rule No. 4: “Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you can’t start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.”
Vintage Puzo — tongue-in-cheek, but good advice. A spouse who continually berates you for pursuing your dreams is a classic example of someone close to you who can derail your best-laid plans.
It still amazes me how many letters I’ve received over the years from people who have told me they parted ways with a spouse or domestic partner after reading one of my books — which almost always resulted in a better life for them. This used to make me feel uncomfortable, but after rechecking my premises I began to feel good about the fact that I had helped so many people find happier, more fulfilling lives.
Unlike Puzo, for the sake of political correctness, I have used the word spouse in this article rather than wife. As a matter of fact, most of the letters I’ve received from people who made the decision to part ways with their spouses or partners as a result of something I’ve written have been from women.
Puzo Rule No. 5: “Never trust anybody but yourself. That includes critics, friends, and especially publishers.”
This rule is closely related to Rule No. 1, but it goes beyond the problem of inhibition. It gets at the very heart of creating work that represents your own skills and beliefs rather than what someone else thinks your work should be.
When it comes to writing, the late essayist E.B. White summed it up perfectly when he said, “The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.”
I can tell you from a lot of firsthand experience that he was right. Avoid so-called experts like the plague. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, an expert is nothing more than a person who no longer sees the forest of truth for the trees of facts.
It’s amazing how easily many would-be authors are influenced by the input of their friends and associates. If you don’t have enough confidence in your own writing — or whatever it is you do for a living — to follow your own instincts, you probably should consider changing professions.
Trust me, you can’t go wrong following Mario Puzo’s advice. If you don’t believe me, just ask Don Corleone.