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Literary Advice From John Paul Jones

1 Jul

There are plenty of books of literary advice out there. Few of them have anything to say that the others don’t. But I think the essence of them was spoken by a guy who wasn’t a writer at all. He was a sea captain, the greatest naval hero of the American Revolution. And, since it’s 4th of July weekend, I’m going to start this writers’/readers’/publishers’ blog off with what he said. he said,

“No captain can go too far wrong who places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”

A statement which he proved one dark night in 1777 when he was sailing back to America having carried the news of the victory at Saratoga to the French court who, on hearing it, decided to go public with their support for our war. To sweeten the deal — I guess — they gave Jones a worn-out old warship which Jones renamed Bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard). Not much of a craft, but bigger than anything else we had. Jones recruited about 300 marines from some Irishmen hanging around the docks, and headed home.

On the way, he encountered the Serapis, the newest frigate in the Royal Navy. They lashed togetehr and started pounding each other to splinters.

Jones soon found that he had only three cannons that worked without blowing up. Bonhomme Richard was springing a new leak every time Serapis fired a broadside, and the some of the pumps were failing. Bonhomme Richard was sinking.

But Jones’s marines were sweeping the Serapis’s decks and rigging with their musket fire, and Jones wasn’t in a mood to quit. When the American flag fell, cut from its staff by British fire, the Serapis’s captain asked,

“Do you surrender, Sir? Do you strike your colours?”

To which Jones replied something like “No, sir. I have not yet begun to fight.”

Which would have gone down as famous last words except for one thing: Serapis surrendered not long thereafter. About midnight, Jones accepted their surrender, and then transferred everybody on Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis and let his own ship sink. It’s the only time in history that the winner of a sea battle sailed home on the loser.

Which has what to do with writing, exactly? Just this: every new writer is in Jones’s position. Ever time you send out a manuscript to an agent or editor, you’re engaging Serapis. The odds are against you, and they always will be. But every published author you ever read was in exactly that position once. And every time you go through the gut-tightening experience of trying yet again to get read, you have a chance of sailing home on her deck.

Happy 4th.