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Writing The Great Gatsby

coding a novel the great gatsby Aug 05, 2018

“I want to write something new - something extraordinarily beautiful and simple and intricately patterned."

That was The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald began in the wake of wild times had with his wife Zelda, their friends, and total strangers in New York City and on Long Island in 1922. Fitzgerald wrote steadily through 1923, and had a first draft of the novel finished by April 1924.

'Trimalchio' was the title of the finished novel, which he submitted to his publisher, Max Perkins, in October 1924.

Maxwell Perkins enthused about the novel's glamour, (you can read their exchange of letters below) but was uncertain about the way Gatsby's character was revealed. 

In 1925 Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, spent six weeks in Rome and on Capri, where Fitzgerald revised the book to meet Perkins's recommendations and in April of 1925, six months after the initial draft had been sent, The Great Gatsby as we now know it was published.

The Great Gatsby commonly ranks as one of the best novels of the last century, so I think it bears close study. (Hunter S Thompson wrote out the entire novel to learn what beautiful writing felt like.)

I've been reading both Fitzgerald's versions of the book side by side. You can buy Trimalchio here on Amazon if you'd like to do the same.

The first three chapters of both are almost identical, and in the first chapter we see just one change, which tells us this chapter was carefully constructed and set in stone. Not a word of it was accidental, haphazard or 'lucky'.

On the second page, Fitzgerald made a deft, poetic substitution, changing 'the abortive sorrows and unjustified elations of men' to 'the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.'

Why 'shortwinded'?

Because it's got 'wind' in it. Read on.

Fitzgerald's Programming of the Mind of the Reader.

It's in first chapter that the writer sets out her or his stall; it's the masterplan, and the tone is set, the theme too, as a directive for all that follows. That's why we struggle over them so. I write and re-write mine hundreds of times, possibly over a thousand, checking the coding and inference and implication of every word.

I'm a bit surprised by the content of Gatsby's first chapter after a more forensic look at it.

For instance, I've always thought it was 'good style', proper practice, to avoid repetition of the same words and I'm careful not to do so within a book let alone a chapter, but Fitzgerald repeats certain words, deliberately obviously, and we can get insight into what he was up to.

'..something extraordinarily beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.'

What does that mean in material terms? It means colour, elements of nature and heightened sensibility and tangible emotion.

Of course, Fitzgerald is writing long before the term 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' (using language to programme behaviour) was invented in the 1970's, but essentially what he's doing here is akin to what Derren Brown does. Several authors have claimed that Brown uses neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) in his act which consists of a range of magical 'tricks', misdirection and, most intriguing, setting up audiences to provide the response that he wishes them to provide by using subtle subliminal cues in his conversation with them. In his book Tricks of the Mind, Brown mentions that he attended an NLP course with Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP. The language patterns which he uses to suggest behaviours are very similar in style to those used by Richard Bandler. Derren Brown uses repeated words to strongly condition the audience's response.

(Watch him convince Simon Pegg to buy a red BMX bike here.)

I worked for a while at a small ad agency where my job as their copywriter creative director was to use a similar technique in marketing brands. It made for very dull reading.

Nevertheless, it's what Fitzgerald is doing purposefully in the powerful first chapter. He is repeating words to create patterns making a beautiful net, think of it as an alluring spiders web, which entraps the reader in this alternative 'beautiful' world. 

(To ensure literary acclaim he uses a few well-turned aphorisms, as one does, in the first chapter since the critics and awards judges will make their minds up there.)

But this is a popular, populist book, created to hypnotize and persuade, to lure and involve.

So let's look at the words in the first chapter at 5,888 words.

They fall into these thematic categories:

- colour (white; 9, bright; 7, light; 6, rose; 4, red; 3, glowing; 3, silver; 3)

- elemental (evening; 6, night; 6, day; 5, wind; 4, warm; 4, summer; 4, windows; 4, water; 4, the longest day; 3, blew; 3, bay; 3, curtains; 3, the world; 3, )

- sensory ( eyes; 10, voice; 9, feels/feeling/felt: 8, face; 8,  a moment; 7, her voice; 6, life; 5, heart; 6, physical; 4, murmur; 4, her eyes; 4, enormous; 4, whisper; 3, sound; 3, singing; 3, intimate; 3, hands; 3, candles; 3, expression; 3, beautiful; 2

- sexual attraction (romantic; 5,murmur; 4, laughed; 4, she laughed; 3,  secret; 3, slender; 3, thrilling; 3, lovely; 3, her face; 3, her head; 3, hulking; 3

- childish innocence (young; 7, surprised; 4, remember; 4, story; 3, charming; 3, idea; 3, absolute; 3, suddenly; 3)

Think about this.

I'd be unlikely to use the word romantic five times in a novel, let alone a first chapter. These are really significant numbers.

White, evening, eyes, romantic, young.

Got it? There's the copy DNA.

Daisy is namechecked as a character the most in the chapter at 28 mentions, and it is Daisy who is the guide to this other transient, translucent world of fictitious beauty.

'The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise--she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression--then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.

"I'm p-paralyzed with happiness."

She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I've heard it said that Daisy's murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)'

By looking at the copy DNA of the first chapter, we can get powerful insight into the purposeful way Fitzgerald worked to create the great rose-tinted bubble of The Great Gatsby.

I'll be teaching writers a session on 'programming' their novels on the Full English Retreat and getting my writers to 'code' their novel from the first chapter onwards. We have no need to be ashamed of repetition. We need to control the material while achieving the illusion that the words are unfolding as naturally as events do in a way that is as low and thrilling as Daisy's timbre.

'I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth--but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered "Listen," a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.'

Fitzgerald worked hard and conscientiously. That's how 'genius' happens - deadly focus, pre-consideration, tight deployment, determination; vision and revision.

You'll find plenty more food for thought on our novel writing course and discover how other writers built their novels too, sentence by sentence, draft by draft.


You can view F. Scott Fitzgerald's manuscript here.

Letters From Max Perkins to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(After receipt of the first manuscript 'Trimalchio'.)

Nov. 18, 1924

Dear Scott:

I think the novel is a wonder. I'm taking it home to read again and shall then write my impressions in full;—but it has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour, and a great deal of underlying thought of unusual quality. It has a kind of mystic atmosphere at times that you infused into parts of "Paradise" and have not since used. It is a marvelous fusion, into a unity of presentation, of the extraordinary incongruities of life today. And as for sheer writing, it's astonishing.

Now deal with this question: various gentlemen here don't like the title,—in fact none like it but me. To me, the strange incongruity of the words in it sound the note of the book. But the objectors are more practical men than I. Consider as quickly as you can the question of a change.

But if you do not change, you will have to leave that note off the wrap. Its presence would injure it too much;—and good as the wrap always seemed, it now seems a masterpiece for this book. So judge of the value of the title when it stands alone and write or cable your decision the instant you can. 

With congratulations, I am,

[Maxwell E. Perkins]

[Two days later, after re-reading...]

November 20, 1924

Dear Scott:

I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book. It is an extraordinary book, suggestive of all sorts of thoughts and moods. You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective. In no other way could your irony have been so immensely effective, nor the reader have been enabled so strongly to feel at times the strangeness of human circumstance in a vast heedless universe. In the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down upon the human scene. It's magnificent!

I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and meanings, but points of criticism are more important now. I think you are right in feeling a certain slight sagging in chapters six and seven, and I don't know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt that you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up here to the pace set and ensuing. I have only two actual criticisms:—

One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn't he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn't you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase "old sport",—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps. I think that for some reason or other a reader—this was true of Mr. Scribner and of Louise—gets an idea that Gatsby is a much older man than he is, although you have the writer say that he is little older than himself. But this would be avoided if on his first appearance he was seen as vividly as Daisy and Tom are, for instance;—and I do not think your scheme would be impaired if you made him so.

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course. But in the end you make it pretty clear that his wealth came through his connection with Wolfsheim. You also suggest this much earlier. Now almost all readers numerically are going to be puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me though, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged. You do have him called on the telephone, but couldn't he be seen once or twice consulting at his parties with people of some sort of mysterious significance, from the political, the gambling, the sporting world, or whatever it may be. I know I am floundering, but that fact may help you to see what I mean. The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect;—or not of an explanation, but of the suggestion of an explanation. I wish you were here so I could talk about it to you for then I know I could at least make you understand what I mean. What Gatsby did ought never to be definitely imparted, even if it could be. Whether he was an innocent tool in the hands of somebody else, or to what degree he was this, ought not to be explained. But if some sort of business activity of his were simply adumbrated, it would lend further probability to that part of the story.

There is one other point: in giving deliberately Gatsby's biography when he gives it to the narrator you do depart from the method of the narrative in some degree, for otherwise almost everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it,— in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them. But you can't avoid the biography altogether. I thought you might find ways to let the truth of some of his claims like "Oxford" and his army career come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative. I mention the point anyway for consideration in this interval before I send the proofs.

The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.

The presentation of Tom, his place, Daisy and Jordan, and the unfolding of their characters is unequalled so far as I know. The description of the valley of ashes adjacent to the lovely country, the conversation and the action in Myrtle's apartment, the marvelous catalogue of those who came to Gatsby's house,—these are such things as make a man famous. And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, for with the help of T. J. Eckleberg and by an occasional glance at the sky, or the sea, or the city, you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me you were not a natural writer—my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.

As ever, 

[Maxwell E. Perkins]


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