This week marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind, one of the most beloved novels in history. Margaret Mitchell spent nearly 10 years writing the 1,037-page Civil War epic, which won a Pulitzer Prize, broke all sales records despite a costly $3 price tag and became an equally iconic film.
Mitchell was a journalist by trade, but her fiction had been confined to a few unpublished short stories until a leg injury sidelined her. At her husband's suggestion, she started the book as a way to stay busy during her recuperation. She never admitted to dreams of becoming a famous novelist or followed conventional wisdom about how to get published. In fact, she broke several cardinal rules by submitting an incomplete, sloppy and somewhat indecipherable tome on yellow legal paper -- and doing so in person.
Nevertheless, Mitchell's path to success offers important lessons that hold true after eight decades of drastic changes in tastes, culture, mores, business and technology. Besides the obvious -- be a spellbinding storyteller -- here are six takeaways that may help other writers.
1. Write what you know. It's a cliché but one worth examining. Mitchell didn't experience the Civil War firsthand but her friends and relatives did, and she heard it re-fought for decades on the verandas of Georgia. Those vivid memories bring authenticity to her recounting of the Southern perspective on the war and its aftermath. She also lent fragments of her biography to Scarlett's. The author's scandalous dance at a fund-raising event also caused a stir, for instance, and her mother died while she was hurrying to her bedside. These details create some much-needed empathy for a character who, despite her strength and courage, is undeniably selfish and ruthless.
2. Start with a timeless, universal theme. When adversity strikes, some people rise to the challenge while others don't have what it takes, an axiom Mitchell often cited as her saga's centerpiece. Her spoiled, sheltered heroine manages to escape a burning Atlanta, rescue her imperiled family, save its plantation and build a thriving lumber business. Meanwhile those around her, even the man she loves, flail helplessly as their genteel lifestyle disappears. Reeling from the Depression and frightened by the war in Europe, 1930s readers identified with Scarlett's plight and took heart from the message that survival was possible. In the decades to follow -- shaken by further violence, poverty and other calamities -- Gone with the Wind has never stopped inspiring and enthralling audiences worldwide.
3. Don't let others discourage you from seeking publication. Macmillan editor Harold Latham was looking for new authors when he visited Mitchell's town in 1935, but she declined an invitation to submit her work. It was only when an acquaintance cattily insisted Mitchell could never write a book that the young novelist, instead of being deterred, got irritated. In a fit of perversity, she gathered up her huge, untidy manuscript and brought it to Latham's hotel.
4. If you wait until your work is "ready," you may never let go of it. By all accounts, Mitchell was very self-critical and had little faith in her project. And while she had penned a captivating story, her assessment that it wasn't ready was correct. Her timing, however, had been perfect. After delivering her copy, she wired to ask for it back because she had changed her mind. Instead, her new publishers sent a huge advance check.
5. Editors don't know everything, but they know a lot. Tomorrow is another Day, the Pansy O'Hara story, may have found an audience but it's doubtful those would be household words today. As eager as Macmillan was to rush the manuscript into print, staff members agreed both the book and its protagonist required new names. They thought of calling her Storm, Angel or Robin before choosing the more resonant Scarlett, and among the rejected book titles were None So Blind, Not in Our Stars and Bugles Sang True. Editors also instructed Mitchell to rewrite the beginning and verify several historical details. Sources indicate her research was so thorough that after someone cited an encyclopedia entry as proof of an inaccuracy, it was the encyclopedia that required correcting.
6. Leave readers wanting more. Gone with the Wind ends with the most famous cliff-hanger since the 1001 tales Scheherazade spun to delay her execution. By the time Scarlett realizes she's in love with Rhett, he's given up and walked out. She resolves to win him back and seldom fails in her missions. Did she succeed? Mitchell heard the question incessantly and usually responded that she didn't know and had no plans to continue the narrative. Her estate eventually authorized two sequels -- Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley in 1991 and Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig in 2007 -- both of which reunite the lovers. However, if Scarlett's creator entertained any ideas about personally satisfying our curiosity, they died with her in 1949.