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Writer Lets the Authors Speak

Laguna Hills author assembles pithy sayings of famous writers on subjects of writing and publishing.

May 21, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So, you've finally started that novel you've been talking about for the last decade and you're stuck on Chapter 5. Or maybe you've finished your book and now you're having to deal with a less-than-reasonable editor. Or maybe you simply love to read and want to gain more insight into the world of writing and publishing.

If any of the above hits home, William A. Gordon would like to share a few words with you.

The Laguna Hills writer and publisher has assembled "The Quotable Writer: Words of Wisdom From Mark Twain, Aristotle, Oscar Wilde, Robert Frost, Erica Jong, and More" (McGraw-Hill; $14.95).

The 186-page compilation of some 1,200 quotes is organized into more than four dozen sections. There are quotes on:

Language: "All the fun's in how you say a thing."--attributed to poet Robert Frost.

Talent: "Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none."--Jules Renard, "Journal," 1887.

Writers and writing: "Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."--Norman Mailer, "Conversations With Norman Mailer," 1988.

Bestsellers: "I leave out the parts that people skip."-- Elmore Leonard on why his novels sell, from "The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction" by Barnaby Conrad, 1990.

Rewards: "Write a novel if you must, but think of money as an unlikely accident. Get your reward out of writing it, and try to be content with that."--Pearl Buck, in an essay in "Writer's Roundtable," 1959.

"The Quotable Writer" is billed as offering "words of wisdom" from writers over the years, but there's plenty of wit. To wit:

"An editor should have a pimp for a brother, so he'd have somebody to look up to."--Gene Fowler, former managing editor, New York American.

"Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves."--attributed to Brendan Behan, Irish playwright.

Gordon couldn't even resist including an inspirational quote of his own.

On why he relentlessly submitted his book, "Four Dead in Ohio" (Prometheus Books, 1990), a reappraisal of the 1970 Kent State shootings, despite nine years of rejections: "What do you think? That I was going to let myself be stopped by a couple hundred idiot publishers?"

Including his own quote in "The Quotable Writer" was an outright plug for his Kent State book, Gordon, 49, concedes with a laugh during an interview. But the 1973 Kent State graduate said he's proud of the book, now used in history classes at five universities.

"The Quotable Writer" had a similarly bumpy road to publication.

The idea dates to 1982 when an editor at Writer's Digest Books mentioned to Gordon that they were looking for a book of writers' quotations.

Gordon immediately set about gathering quotations. But by the time he submitted his work nine months later, the publishing house had received three other proposals and decided not to publish any of them. Gordon's not sure why.

"It's just one of the quirks of publishing," he said. "This is a very funny industry."

Or as fabled editor Maxwell E. Perkins once said: "Editors are extremely fallible people, all of them. Don't put too much trust in them."

So Gordon pressed on.

He said he came close to selling his quotation book four other times, "but it kept falling through. The editors liked it, but the marketing people didn't think it would be profitable enough."

Gordon actually received one offer, from a small publishing house in Huntington Beach. But he turned it down: "I wanted to try self publishing."

Which he did, in 1986, publishing his writers quotation book under the title, "How Many Books Do You Sell in Ohio?"

"I got some really good reviews, but it didn't sell," he said, adding that he sold only 2,000 copies.

Gordon's self-published quotation book went out of print about 1990. Since then, he's self-published "The Ultimate Hollywood Tour Book," (Northridge Books, 1992); had his movie location book, "Shot on This Site," published (Carol Publishing; 1995), and published the paperback version of "Four Dead in Ohio" (Northridge Books, 1995).

During that time, he also acquired an agent, who wanted to resubmit Gordon's writers' quotation book to publishers. The agent took it to McGraw-Hill, which happened to be planning a series of quotation books.

Gordon said his quotation book has been revised and updated and contains 40% new material. His search for literary words of wisdom took him to the UC Irvine Library, the Newport Beach Central Library and Orange County Public Library branches in Lake Forest and Aliso Viejo.

He estimates he consulted 800 books, magazines and newspapers to come up with the slightly less than 1,200 quotes in his book.

"I tried to tap sources that aren't conventionally tapped [for writers' quotation books]," he said.

Now Gordon is faced with the task of selling his book. And, as Sir Stanley Unwin said in "The Truth About Publishing," 1926: "The most difficult of all [tasks] that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book."

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