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Sidney Sheldon's guide to success
The bestselling author of 'The Sky Is Falling' works hard, writes obsessively -- and always keeps readers wanting more
(CNN) -- Here's how much Sidney Sheldon is devoted to writing:
Years ago, he was living near a canyon in the Los Angeles area. A raging blaze began in the canyon, and the police came to his neighborhood and ordered everyone to evacuate. After his wife took what she needed, Sheldon went into his house and looked around. Inside were valuable scripts, priceless mementos, items that could not be replaced.
What did he take?
A half-dozen yellow pads and a handful of pens.
"I knew that I might be in a motel and I had to be able to keep writing," he told an audience on CNN.com during an Internet chat last week. "I left all the valuable things in the house. That's how deeply ingrained (writing) is for me."
That's as it should be, because writing has been very, very good to Sidney Sheldon. His current book, "The Sky Is Falling," went straight to the bestseller lists, just as did his previous 14 novels -- including "The Other Side of Midnight," "Rage of Angels," "Bloodline," and "If Tomorrow Comes." He earned an Oscar for his screenplay to 1947's "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and created the television show "I Dream of Jeannie."
He's also, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records," the most translated author in the world, with his works appearing in 51 languages.
The future on a movie screen
Sheldon, 83, started his creative career as a songwriter. A Chicago bandleader liked one of his songs and incorporated it into his act. Soon, Sheldon was heading for New York to seek his fame and fortune on Tin Pan Alley.
But New York wasn't as welcoming as Sheldon had hoped. He moved into the local YMCA and got a job as a movie theater usher. There, on the screen, he saw his future.
"I saw these movies every day, with all these glamorous people on screen: Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, (Clark) Gable ... and they lived such exciting, glamorous lives, that I wanted to be a part of that," he said. "So I gave up songwriting and went to California. ... I got a job as a reader at $17 a week. I would get up at 4 o'clock every morning and work on original stories. I started selling them, and I became established as a screenwriter."
His hours aren't quite as long today, but he still puts in a full schedule: start at 9, finish at 6. He works every day, and "if I can't sleep at night, I will go into my office and work for a few hours," he added.
Sheldon dictates his books to an assistant, has them typed up, then edits the manuscript extensively. The average book, he said, takes about two years.
Starting with a single character
Though his books are known for being intricately plotted, he starts with little more than a single character. He also enjoys putting cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. "Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write my books so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she must turn one more page," he said. "When people tell me I've kept them up all night, I feel like I've succeeded!"
Sheldon may not live the exact lives of his characters, but he tries to stay as close to them as possible. He travels to any locale in which a book takes place, and interviews people who work in the same jobs as his characters.
Sometimes he can get a little too close, he acknowledged. "I feel everything my characters feel. ... Recently, my wife and I were on a plane, and she came over to me and said, 'Why are you crying?' I had not realized I was crying, but I was writing a scene where the character was in terrible trouble."
Now that "The Sky Is Falling" is out, Sheldon is returning to his first career: songwriting. He's written lyrics to country songs and plans on going to Nashville in November to meet with musicians. An autobiography, he added, is also in the works.
But there's always a new novel around the corner. He doesn't know where the ideas come from, but he's thankful that they do.
"Any talent is a gift," he said. "I think we're obligated to work as hard as we can at whatever talent we're lucky enough to have been given, whether it's writing or music or painting. We should just be grateful."
Sidney Sheldon reflects on career, from small screen to printed page
Sidney Sheldon's home page
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