How He Did It: Fitzgerald's Recipe for First-Time Novelist Success

Today marks the end of the UAA MFA residency, where Nancy Lord and I co-taught a class on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I’ve also written about here.

There’s nothing like being surrounded by aspiring novelists and memoirists to think about how first-timers have written their debut books and survived the debut publishing process. What follows are my notes on how Fitzgerald did it, and what ingredients–romance, ambition, a little luck, a willingness to revise, and more–went into his early success. Publishing has changed, but I think those ingredients still go a long way.

A young and not-yet-famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, just out of college, in the army, and writing every moment

F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24,
1896, St. Paul MN ~ March 10, 1948, Asheville, NC)


Early influences: In college, he was a fan of heroic “quest” books
by Compton Mackenzie, H.G. Wells, and Robert Hugh Benson, later turning toward
American realism.

Chutzpah: Denied admission to Princeton, he talked his way in via
makeup exams and a personal interview. Injured or cut from the football squad
(accounts vary), he turned to the college humor magazine and playwriting for
compensatory attention. As an undergrad, he surprised his friend Edmund Wilson
with the remark, “I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived,
don’t you?” Still, Fitzgerald was not the best-known writer in his graduating
class. He was confused enough about his future to be relieved when America
entered World War I just before his Princeton graduation because it gave him a
direction to turn next.

Literary Drive: Having lost an earlier young love, Ginevra King, to
a rival, Fitzgerald in his early 20s was determined to publish early and find fame
and fortune in order to secure the heart of Zelda, who married him just days
after his debut novel was published.

Spine: Several rejections of earlier “potpourri” drafts (including
one written at in the army) didn’t stop Fitzgerald from editing and later
completely overhauling his original material—sometimes with confidence, other
times in despair. His hunger for rewards prompted the unpublished novelist to
ask in July 1919 if a draft to be submitted to Scribner’s by August 20 might be
published in October. (It would barely pass editorial muster and end up being
published the following spring.)

Luck: Getting paired early with editor Maxwell Perkins, who
threatened to resign if Scribner’s didn’t accept Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and who later
edited him to even greater success with Gatsby.


A Princeton grad and contributor to
the campus literary and drama scene who pined over a lost sweetheart (Ginevra
King of Lake Forest, later inspiration for Daisy in The Great Gatsby) and bounced back to fall in love with Zelda
Sayre, Fitzgerald was determined from a young age not only to publish, but to
gain fame, riches, respect, and love by becoming a serious novelist.

Serving in the infantry during
World War I, he felt romantically sure he would die and was desperate to leave
a mourning nation with proof of his early genius. He began writing a novel in
training camp, was caught working on it during “study period” hours. Limited to
weekend hours alone—Saturday 1 pm to midnight and Sunday 6 am to 6 pm—he
nonetheless managed to pour out a 120,000 –word novel in about three months. A
mix of prose and verse—a

potpourri,” he admitted, “The Romantic Egoist” was a “picaresque ramble of one
Stephen Palms from the San Francisco fire, thru school, Princeton to the end
where at twenty one he writes his autobiography at the Princeton Aviation
school. …. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly
the story of our generation.” (The full manuscript has not survived.)
Biographer and Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli calls this work a “working
draft” for the later debut novel Fitzgerald would publish, This Side of Paradise. But not without radical revisions.

The manuscript was finished when
the 21-year-old Fitzgerald got temporary leave at the end of February 1918 and
sent off to Scribner’s, a publishing house with Princetonian connections. In
August, it was rejected via an unsigned but personalized letter most likely
written by soon-to-be-famous editor Maxwell Perkins, who had recently moved
from advertising to editorial staff. The letter kindly suggests revisions,
asking Fitzgerald to heighten the high points and prune details, apologizing,
“We certainly do not wish to ‘conventionalize it by any means… but only to do
those things which it seems to us important to intensify its effect and so
satisfy a reader that we will recommend it….”

Fitzgerald complied with a rapid
revision—from his own notes, it seems that he loaded the novel with
“neo-symbolic bits” and an “impenetrable chapter where I let the hero alone
with rhapsodic winds and hyper-significant stars….” Not exactly the revision
Scribner’s had it mind. The novel was rejected in October.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was actively
courting Zelda. He worried (rightly, as it turned out) how marriage would
affect his literary career, and Zelda herself was hesitant to marry an
unpublished writer with no financial future, but his high ambitions ultimately overrode
anxieties on both sides.

Continuing Revisions: Not to be
discouraged easily, Fitzgerald reworked his former material enough that he
could assure Maxwell Perkins that five chapters out of nine were fresh
material. He submitted the new novel as This
Side of Paradise
in September 1919, just before his 23rd
birthday. When a Scribner editorial board panned the manuscript, Perkins
threatened to resign, saying, “(If) we aren’t going to publish a talent like
this, it is a very serious thing.” Less than two weeks after submission,
Perkins informed his new author of the good news, and Fitzgerald wrote back, “I
have so many things dependent on its success-including of course a girl—not
that I expect it to make me a fortune but it will have a psychological effect
on me and all my surroundings and besides open up new fields. I’m in that stage
where every month counts frantically and seems a cudgel in a fight for
happiness against time.”

In a much later essay, Fitzgerald
recalled telling all friends and acquaintances, paying off debts, buying a new
suit, and reveling in his metamorphosis from “amateur into professional.” Waiting
for the novel to come out, he published many commercial short stories (dividing
himself, as he would over a lifetime, between the life of a literary novelist
and the life of a harried freelancer trying to make a buck). This Side of Paradise was published
March 26, 1920 with ads reading “A Novel About Flappers Written For
Philosophers.” It sold the 3,000 copy first printing in three days. Fitzgerald
was famous overnight, if not wealthy. (Five years later, the ultimately more
enduring Gatsby would not sell as
well in its first year.) By the end of 1921, This Side of Paradise sold 49,075 copies—very impressive, thought
not enough to get him on the year’s top-ten bestsellers’ list. By comparison,
Lewis Sinclair’s Main Street sold
295,000 copies in 1921.

Later Assessments: Reflecting on
the novel’s amateurish qualities, Bruccoli (citing also James Miller) writes,
“The loose form of This Side of Paradise
resulted from the circumstance that Fitzgerald did not yet know how to
structure a novel…. Drawing on his undergraduate writings as well as his
reading, Fitzgerald assembled a montage of scenes and poses.” (One review
actually mistook it for a collection rather than a novel.) Bruccoli mentions an
uncontrolled POV and authorial intrusions, as well as a romanticism that would
soon be outdated, even while his social observations were realistic. “Though he
was still a self-conscious or self-indulgent writer with a weakness for the
ostentatious passage, he was a natural writer.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, and is now working on a novel set in the 1920s about psychologists Rosalie and John Watson. She teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency program and for 49 Writers.
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