great authors

What Alexandre Dumas can teach us (seven times over) about being a bestselling author

The swashbuckling French writer would have been 215 today, July 24. He could have taught a class on successful writing.

Today, July 24, 2017, Alexandre Dumas turns 215. He may be dead physically, but he lives on in public memory in a way that few authors can. Which is why it’s not wrong to say he turns 215. As of this day, there have been 107 film adaptations of his works, 16 TV programmes, three video games, radio plays, operas and even a puppetry adaptation. When 2020 comes around, it will have been 150 years since his death, but his popularity shows no signs of abating.

Given his star billing as a writer not only in his own lifetime but also in 20th and 21st Century Hollywood and contemporary television, I set out to identify what lay beneath Dumas’s phenomenal success at the time, and his enduring appeal today. What, in other words, can aspiring bestseller writers learn from the Dumas phenomenon?

Write in the dominant language of the age

In the 19th century, French was the language of diplomacy and international relations – the language of the courts, the elite and of business in many European nations. Dumas and Victor Hugo were its crowd-pullers. Like a major Bollywood star, Dumas had his fan following beyond the borders of France – spilling over into Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Russia. As France’s colonial and economic might grew, so did Dumas’ readership.

Today, the same applies to English. It is not a coincidence that so many of us Indians write in English in spite of our innate comfort with our mother tongues. A look at the map of global languages tells you the rest of the story. Whether we like it or not, English has significantly better chances of commercial success.

Write for every medium

Dumas embraced contemporary technology with all the zeal of a start-up founder. He first started to write dramas – the cinema of the day – and then moved to novels. Print publishing was the relatively new kid on the block in his time – and Dumas took to publishing his stories in serialised form in newspapers. His novels were never meant to stay on paper, however, but to transcend the medium and flower into plays and operas. Dumas was no wallflower. He wrote everything – articles, plays, serialised stories, travelogues and not surprisingly, a cookbook.

If you are considering a career in writing today, write everything that pays – articles, listicles, blogs, poetry, screenplays for TV or cinema or YouTube as well as books. Get on to the current mode of mass communication – the mobile and the web. Don’t be shy – Dumas would have sent mass WhatsApp messages if he were living today.

Understand the power of volume

Overwhelm with quantity. Generate a great deal of volume in your written work, and by the sheer law of probability some of it will be very successful or very good. Either way, you win.

Dumas was extremely prolific and wrote numerous works in his lifetime – interestingly, his last epic, The Last Cavalier, was discovered in 1990 by lifelong Dumas researcher Claude Schopp and published in 2005 to instant bestseller status. Dumas wrote the book in 1869, just before his death from syphilis in 1870.

Working under tight deadlines and cognizant of the immense popularity of his historical romances, Dumas took on co-writers to assist him. It is said that Dumas would sometimes write sections of the book and work on the plots of other books whereas his writers would fill in the basic story of the first work. In other words, a writing factory.

His most notable assistant was Auguste Maquet who is credited with the plot outlines of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Sadly, Maquet eventually had to take his employer to court to get a fair remuneration and his name on the credits. He got the first, but not the second.

Perhaps it is best not to emulate this part – in these days of social media, fair pay and sharing credit can foster a powerful amount of goodwill if you want a smattering of the golden dust of word of mouth. But you get my drift – work hard and do not shy away from adding co-writers if you wish to crank up the volume.

Create pivotal female leads, not token ones

Dumas gave us one of the most spine-chilling, terrifying women in books in possibly the first vamp of popular literature – Milady de Winter. Seductive to the point of irresistibility and as poisonous as a tarantula, she schemes, spies, deceives, lures and betrays men of honour for her evil ends. Milady is no cardboard character, but a malevolent force throughout the book whose terror hangs over the three musketeers like a constant curse. And boy, does she linger in your mind!

I like to tell myself that every female comic book villain from Poison Ivy to Mystique is nothing but a reincarnation of Milady.

Dumas’s five volumes on Marguerite Du Valois, are examples of his attention to powerful characters, irrespective of gender.

So if you’re writing that bestseller, get yourself a truly powerful woman character.

Let your personal trauma feed into timeless work

Dumas’s grandmother was a Haitian slave – a fact that must have been reiterated in countless racial slurs and no doubt, contributed to the posthumous neglect his status suffered from. That he succeeded on such a grand scale is testimony to his immense popularity in spite of the circumstances. Time and again, his heroes have been underdogs from humble backgrounds, who, armed with nothing but their courage and skill, have forged their way into success.

D’Artagnan is Dumas. Porthos with his immense appetite – sexual and otherwise – and his vanity, is Dumas. In a grand gesture of art imitating life, these heroes have given it all up for a belief. Just like his father, Dumas’s characters win only to lose tragically and nobly to lesser men. All three of the musketeers in their last adventure, The Man in the Iron Mask, are but Thomas Alexandre Dumas – the man who was a war hero, the first Black General of the French army – the man who disagreed with and was ruined by, it is said, an envious Napoleon Bonaparte.

Do you let your tragedies feed your work?

Let people hope

Romantic historical adventures, great tragedies and comedies, gothic and neo-gothic horror, detective stories – genres often dismissed by critics at the time of their writing as lightweight, popular reading – stubbornly cling on to public memory because they offer stories of hope, of redemption, of revenge and the eventual prevalence of justice. Dumas was a dab hand at building our sympathies with the downtrodden, the outsider and the wronged. Once he had our attention, he knew how to take us by the hand and deftly lead us to our dream of justice or redemption, with plenty of surprising twists and turns in between.

In a world where justice and fairness are upended brutally with unfailing regularity, is it any wonder that so many of us still reach out for a Dumas adventure in search of hope?

Live as dangerously as you write

Dumas gave his readers the drama they craved.

Known among his contemporaries equally for his dashing historical romances and his unparalleled generosity, Dumas lived his own life on a grand scale, almost as if it was a performance that he wished to etch indelibly into everyone’s collective memory. You have to have had a natural flair for the dramatic if you can bankrupt yourself twice, fall foul of two governments in quick succession (the French and the Russian), maintain 40 (!) mistresses, marry one of the biggest actresses of the day and have luncheons that live on in everyone’s collective memory two centuries later.

His popularity and fame were so great that when he decided to move to Russia to escape his creditors (and I am thinking of Gerard Depardieu as I write this), he was welcomed like a hero there. Until he fell afoul of the powers that be and had to shift base to Italy, where he was once again welcomed by an adoring reading public.

It is important to exude a bit of the glamour that you create for your readers, I think. Especially if you write stories where glamour plays a large part. Try to not bankrupt yourself, or go to jail – as one of our other insanely popular contemporary writers, Jeffrey Archer, had to. But then, glamour is always risky business.

Jash Sen is a writer and a columnist. She is the author of The Wordkeepers and its sequel, Skyserpents.

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