Mario and Me

I happened to be going through some old files the other day, and came across a 1978 article about blockbuster bestsellers. The reason I saved the article was that it included a list of “Mario Puzo’s Godfatherly Rules for Writing a Bestselling Novel.”

Puzo, who passed away in 1999, wrote a number of bestselling novels, including The Godfather, Fools Die, and The Last Don. But what I really 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.

While all my books to date have been nonfiction, I was amazed at how many of Puzo’s rules apply not only to nonfiction books as well, but to life in general. In this article, I’m going to reveal the five Puzo rules that I believe can best be applied to your daily life.

Puzo Rule No. 1: “Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.”

Anyone who is serious about writing – whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or copywriting – should take this advice seriously. The most dynamic writing is from the heart.

While my first two books, from a writing standpoint, were not in a class with my more current books, they grabbed people in a way that publishers are incapable of understanding. There is no question in my mind that the reason people have been so zealous about them over the years is because I “let it all hang out” in my storytelling.

In other words, by volunteering my mistakes and downfalls, readers can easily relate to my books. Yet, on those few occasions when I showed my manuscript to others, they would usually volunteer suggestions about taking out material that was too “disrobing.”

Be careful about who you show your work to, no matter what business you’re in. When you become inhibited, your creativity and genius get suffocated in the process.

Puzo Rule No. 2: “Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”

Actually, I first learned this secret from the late Ayn Rand, who pointed out that 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 Bob Hope’s executive producer for 25 years, if it was difficult to write a joke. He replied, “It’s no more difficult than writing a postcard, and to write a postcard is easy. But to write a good postcard is hard.”

I recall someone once saying to me, “It must be nice to be able to knock out a book as quickly as you do.” I asked what made him think I could “knock out” a book quickly.

He responded, “Because your books are written so simply, it’s obvious that you don’t put a lot of time into them.” Displaying remarkable control over my emotions, I quickly reminded myself that capital punishment had been reinstated.

So, in lieu of going the homicide route, I smiled and said, “I guess you’re right. I’m lucky to have such an easy job.” I then calmly walked away.

All quality products – not just books – are easy for the consumer for only one reason: The people who create them put a ton of work into making them easy. In my case, I do about 25 drafts of every book I write. 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.”

I’ve employed the essence of this strategy for more than two decades, and one of the things I’ve found is that it’s also a great 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 of any other industry when it comes to making a deal on the basis of a business plan alone.

Why? Because people either can’t, or won’t, stretch their imaginations enough to share your vision. Regardless of what business you’re in, be sure to have something concrete to show the other person if you’re trying to raise money or make a deal of any kind.

I attribute much of my early success as an author to the fact that I not only wrote my books before showing them to a paperback publisher, but promoted the hardcover editions into bestsellers first. Once a book was a success in hardcover, I was then able to command a huge 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, yet good advice. In my book Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves, I advise readers:

“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 have received throughout my career from people who have told me that they parted ways with a spouse or domestic partner after reading one of my books, almost always resulting in a better life. 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. Don’t for a second think that I’m making light of divorce, but spending a lifetime with a person who makes every minute of your existence unpleasant is a far worse alternative than enduring the pain of a divorce.”

I emphasize that, unlike Puzo, I used the word “spouse,” not “wife.” In fact, most of the letters I’ve received from people who got rid of their spouses have been from women.

Puzo Rule No. 5: “Never trust anybody but yourself. That includes critics, friends, and especially publishers.”

This 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 wrote, “The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.”

This can sometimes create a sticky situation between an author and an editor. So-called line editing, or proofreading, is one thing. But content editing is quite another. Though editors, on the whole, tend to be very bright people with excellent technical skills, it takes a special kind of editor not to overreach.

But at least editors are professionals. What’s alarming is how easily many would-be authors are influenced by the input of their nonprofessional friends and associates. If you don’t have enough confidence in your writing – or whatever it is that you do for a living – to follow your own instincts, you should change professions.

Note that Puzo also stated “especially publishers.” Non-authors and first-time authors tend to believe that publishers are omniscient. But, in truth, Puzo was right: Publishers are the worst possible judges of your material.

Which makes it kind of difficult, since most writers are looking to those very publishers to anoint their work and publish it. I have to admit that the easiest way to find out if your book has potential is to ask a major publisher to evaluate it – but not for the reasons you might assume.

Experience has taught me that if a mainstream publisher says your book is a surefire bestseller, you’ve probably written a dog. On the other hand, if the publisher gives it a “thumbs down,” it’s an excellent sign that you have a great book on your hands.

How can publishers – as well as experts in other fields – be so consistently wrong? To oversimplify it, I’m convinced it’s because publishing is such an incestuous industry that those on the inside become hopelessly myopic. 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.

Finally, a parting Mario Puzo bonus for you, straight out of The Godfather: “He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you start putting horse’s heads in people’s beds when things don’t work out your way. (Though I might have enjoyed doing just that to the guy who told me how easy my job was.) What I am suggesting is that when it comes to deal making, your mindset should be to make the offer so good that the other person can’t resist taking you up on it. This is also a great approach to writing ad copy. The perfect ad is one in which the prospect feels that he literally can’t refuse the offer.

Do yourself a favor and make it a point to abide by Mario Puzo’s rules. If you fail to do so, don’t be surprised if, one fine day, some of the goodfellas drop around to pay you a visit. And if that should happen, just remember that I tried to warn you.