Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 3: Get That Novel Out of Your System


Marjorie Holmes ended up writing 134 books, 32 of which hit the bestseller list. She also wrote for all manner of magazines. From Writer’s Digest, August 1943.

Once you’ve written that novel that’s in you, crying to be written, you can live with yourself again. You can face your image in the mirror without flinching. You can sleep nights.

You’ll never be satisfied to dismiss it in a few pages as The Novel I Didn’t Write. A matter of personal integrity is involved. If it’s peculiarly and fiercely your novel, no one else can write it but you. And if you’re at all serious about your work, you’re in for self-inflicted hell until you do!

Writing a novel is so long a task, so perilous a gamble. The free-lancer must stake so much valuable writing time against monstrously uncertain success. In that same period he knows he can be turning Out many shorter manuscripts, making a go of Writing.

But unless the “good book” in the back of the mind of every writer is actually written, he fears that always he will be a hack Writer, at odds with himself and the people who have had faith in him.

But-and here looms the most sinister threat of all-*what if he does gamble all on his novel and then it doesn’t sell?* He realizes that, in that eventuality, he can no longer take refuge even in his dreams. He will be shocked and wounded; he will not only be far behind the eight-ball financially, but he will probably be conditioned for good against the novel form… And so, while you are tormented by the knowledge that you’re compromising, shirking your task, the cold sick dread of failure is holding you back. Mentally and emotionally you are a mess!

This is the story of the novel I did write. Things that affected the slow, agonized crawl to its completion. Maybe there’s something in it for you?

I began my novel shortly after I was out of college. The stimulus was a series of remarkable articles by Clark Venable, which the WRITER’s DIGEST ran from February through July, 1933. “Subject Matter and Beginning,” “The Voice of Jacob,” “Characterization,” “Color and Tempo,” even “The Last Hard Mile.” (They were wonderful!) I gulped down Mr. Venable’s advice, gave myself the tests: “Am I equipped to tell this story? Have I the dogged determination required for the chore? Is my story worth the labor and will it justify the use of the equipment I will bring to it? If all answers are definitely yes,” Mr. Venable urged, “then in heaven’s name begin.”

And so, gasping a frantic yes, yes! to all of them, in heaven’s name I-began. In heaven’s name I wrote, furiously, gloriously, for weeks. Then one sad day I paused for breath and looked back. To my stunned amazement, I found it had taken me 90,000 words to simply set the stage! Actually, I knew nothing about writing the novel. Even Mr. Venable’s fine articles assumed an experience and technical background I did not have.

I would have to put this material away. I would have to start at the bottom with stories and articles. I would have to learn structure and dramatic balance and discipline. I would have to mature.

It was a bitterly disappointing decision to have to make, but I knew it was the only way.

At that time I had sold a couple of pulp and confession stories. To these I gratefully and hopefully returned. I painstakingly built plot outlines; I polished and tested every page.

Sometimes, angrily throwing away the tenth version of a dramatic scene, I would protest, “What’s the difference? The editors will probably cut. And it’s just a confession, isn’t it?” But I could never kid myself. And I believe that this habit of petting, and practically tasting every sentence, every word, before letting it go, made for the kind of writing that had to go into my book. The book that I was still working on-simply because I couldn’t resist it-now and then.

To get my name into the more general magazines, I was also writing fluff. Airy little articles about love, glamor, personality, husbands, kids. These were easy to write and sold readily. I got anywhere from $10 to $75 for them, with frequent reprint bonuses which made the total take for the time involved very good. Together with story sales I made sometimes as much as $800 a month. I was in a (very small) unspectacular way, doing all right.

But-I couldn’t sleep nights. I’d read articles like Steve Fisher’s “Literary Roller Coaster” and walk the floor. Why, the guy was only 25 While I-well, let’s skip that. Anyway, I was old enough to have finished my book too if I’d just quit stalling, if I just had the courage to drop everything else and see it through. In a kind of panic, I’d open my notebook to the words an English prof had scribbled there once: “You can write beautiful things for people who crave beautiful things. There is a duty!” Or I’d gaze wretchedly at Clark Venable’s closing paragraph, clipped, framed, and hung over my desk: “For aught any man can say to the contrary, the author of that greatest novel may be now a lowly beginner who has within him the seed of genius which flowers only when WORKED. You?…”

In spasms like this I would haul down my novel, which despite the infrequent spurts on which I had worked on it, had grown to surprising proportions, and brood over it. I felt that I really had something in it; that, if nothing more, I had captured the spirit of a kind of people I wanted to portray. But something was wrong-and I didn’t know just what. I was too close to it, perhaps too much in love with it to regard it with an objective, discerning eye. Finally, though I’d never had much faith in critics, I bundled it up and sent it off to Mr. A. L. Fierst.

Money was never more luckily spent. I already knew that the book was too long, but I was lost and confused in determining what to cut. He pointed out what must go-and why. He suggested a plan for complete reorganization. In one letter he taught me things about writing a novel that I’ll remember all my life.

One mistake I had made was in the number of characters. I love characterization. My idea of creative bliss would be to write nothing but character sketches till the end of time. This I had been doing with the excuse that I was writing a novel. Every amusing or colorful character I had ever observed and “canned” in my notebook, had been lovingly dusted off and shoved onto a stage where he served no particular purpose and had no business to be. The result was a bizarre collection of personalities, each interesting in itself, perhaps, but contributing nothing to the plot, and only obscuring the true protaganists.

It was these few principal characters who were really important. On their backs rested the plot. It was through their courage, loyalty, and rollicking spirits that I must accent the theme. They deserved the spotlight, the very best that I could give them. To do this I couldn’t go dashing down bypaths, exploring the morals of the town drunkard, deciding what the garbage man thought about.

And once I had-however regretfully-killed off all these other minor characters, I had not only shortened the book considerably, but gained elbow-room to build up the characters I was really interested in. The Andrews family itself, and the few people who contributed to their destiny. This simplified the problem, the story, and the mood. It made for dramatic unity. It quickened the pace.

To further quicken the pace, I did what I should have done in the beginning-made chapter outlines, as if each were a short story in itself, leading to a dramatic climax. Then I went through every chapter already written, trying to shape it over the skeleton of this outline. A lot of irrelevant scenes had to be lifted out bodily-some of them to be discarded completely, others to be salvaged and worked into different chapters where they more aptly fit. For instance, in the original version of the manuscript, I had scattered the theatrical experiences of Ken, the older brother, through four or five chapters dealing with other matters. In revising, I gathered them all together and sewed them into a couple of chapters all his own, where they belonged.

In making these tardy chapter outlines, I discovered chapters that seemed dramatically out of place. These I shifted around until-like those little dime-store puzzles where you tilt and twist until the darkie’s eyes or teeth fall into place-they seemed to fit. To illustrate, I tried the chapter where the kitchen catches on fire, at least four different places. But not until I arranged so that it should follow a chapter dealing with the family’s difficulties at Christmas, did it live up to its own dramatic implications.

Timing, in the modern novel, is important. Almost as important as in a short story, I think. Speaking for the moment as simply a reader, I am distressed at how often novelists pay no attention to it. A dramatic effect achieved, a point made they often still go wordily on, to ruin that effect. I’m wordy enough myself, heaven knows! But the precaution of a chapter outline, pointing to a definite curtain line or peak of interest at which to stop, is a safeguard against going too far afield, as well as invaluable as a timing device.

Another mistake I made in first writing my novel was in handling the dialogue. My own short story experience should have taught me that dialogue serves two purposes-to delineate character and advance the plot. But somehow I got the notion that in novels no such hampering limitations prevailed. I love to write dialogue, and so I had a grand time letting everybody talk their heads off. They argued, they dissertated, they philosophized. And while a lot of it made interesting reading in itself, it kept the characters marking time when they should have been going someplace. A novel-as Mr. Venable had warned-must march!

Perhaps the over-abundance of dialogue had been due to my anxiety to make my characters realistic. I had faithfully reproduced pages of conversation authentic to a certain kind of people. Every interruption and half-speech, every “huh?” “gosh, kid,” “I dunno’” and “damn.” The result had used up a lot of space (you haven’t nearly as much elbow-room in a novel as you might imagine-the pasture looks vast and green after the narrow roads of short story writing, but that’s where so many of us go astray). More disastrously, it had become so realistic as to defeat its own end. The oral word is a tricky thing when reproduced in print. For instance, if I were to take down literally the conversation that took place recently at a luncheon, I would succeed only in making a group of refined ladies sound like a bunch of bawdy madams. Similarly, in my novel, the dialogue of typical, small-town middle-class girls, too conscientiously recorded, gave the impression that they were tawdry and cheap, instead of the nice, appealing youngsters they were. This dialogue had to be pared down and cleaned up. Since my novel wasn’t to be hairy-chested Steinbeck or Hemingway realism, anyhow, dialogue that went all out for realism threw the thing out of balance; actually giving it an unrealistic effect. Rather than impairing the ultimate realism–the stuff that makes a reader feel that he sees and knows the places described, participates in the story-a realism that, thank heaven, the critics are agreeing is there-I believe that my willingness to compromise a little with realism, contributed to its final achievement.

In other words, the novelist, like the painter, must sort over his material, using only that part of it essential to the design he has in mind-and often streamlining and simplifying even that.

While on the subject of realism, you might like to know something about my methods of capturing it. This will take us back for a moment to characterization. Most people agree that the scene stealer in World by the Tail, is Sam, a cocky, witty, infuriating little clown of a dad, so let’s take a look at him. Better, let’s look at the strip of paper that was long pinned over my desk, labeled-SAM.

Physical Characteristics:

  • short, fat tummy, bald-headed
  • big nose
  • ruddy complexion
  • fat lips-wrinkled, like prunes
  • devilish blue eyes
  • likes snappy clothes
  • traces of powder on his ear lobes after

shaving. - … etc.


  • thumbing his suspenders
  • slapping his knee
  • noisily blowing his nose
  • pointing foolishly to his bald head
  • … etc.

Pet speech tags:

  • “Never did like ya very good, any

way-“ - “Don’t y’know it is?” - “Cheer up, Christmas is comin’, ain’t it??? - … etc.

I didn’t remember or think up all these characteristics at once; they came to me as I brooded over the character, recalling or observing them. The list grew along with the story. But having it within glancing distance kept Sam always vividly strutting and chuckling and kicking up his heels before me. I couldn’t lose sight of him, consequently he came vividly out of the typewriter.

I kept sheets like that for every one of the characters-Jean, Ken, Polly-all of them. Such lists helped me to visualize and get hold of the characters I wasn’t quite sure about. And they prevented me from being so mentally sure of a character that I failed to portray him on paper, where the reader could see and know him, too.

The realism of your settings is important. I know the small, midwestern lake town background intimately, but every time I go back to it I fill my notebook with homely little details never recorded there before. The shaggy, mashed-down look of dock posts, the melancholy dip of rowboats at anchor, the dried foam looking like snow upon the sand. Dusty little towns with their jutting flagpoles at the corner of main street, ordering *inside turn*… small town hostesses reminding pertly, “Save your fork,” as they serve the pie… the look and smell of a hayloft in late afternoon-. Those are the kind of things that go into my notebook. Then when I’m miles from the midwest but trying to write about it, I have at my fingertips all the warm, pungent, vivid details that will recreate the scene.

But in the use of realistic detail, as in all else, I learned that the novelist must not overplay his hand. Background must remain just that-background. It must not be so glowing as to detract from the color of the characters. It must not hold up the action. Any vast ornate chunks of it must be broken up and scattered throughout the scene.

Figures of speech also pepper my notebook. Everything I see seems to remind me of something else. It’s fun to discover unique ones, and I am perhaps overfond of using them. One reviewer said my novel starts off as if I had “contracted with Reader’s Digest to supply its Picturesque Speech department for the season” before I settle down to telling the tale. I shall remember that next time. Too many similes can be too much cake.

Another mistake I made in my first floundering attempts at writing a novel, was failure to clarify the theme. Frankly, I hadn’t considered that I was writing a “theme novel”—that is, a book to prove anything. I was interested only in showing a certain kind of people for the gay, courageous souls they were. What I had failed to realize was that by their gaiety and courage they were proving something-if I could just fasten on what that was, make all episodes, however subtly, point to it, draw it out. I reread novels that I had loved for their characterizations deliberately refusing to be charmed away from that binding thread-the theme. However well hidden, it was always there!

Well, I thought about this theme business a lot during the three years that my novel lay around the house untouched. You see, shortly after receiving my criticism of this first version and getting all steamed up to revise, there were complications on the home front. I was going to have a baby. It seemed a very poor time to turn my back on all the money I could be making free-lancing. Besides, I began to be plagued by all those doubts mentioned at first. What if I gave up my markets, gambled a year or two on my novel, and then it didn’t sell? I just didn’t have the nerve. Perhaps-now keenly aware of its many faults, and quailing at the staggering amount of work involved-I was discouraged. I had lost faith.

And so I went back to free-lancing, writing everything under heaven-confessions, articles, verse, juveniles, pulps. I collaborated on booklengths with Mary Frances Morgan, that clever, attractive gal who never fails. We made a lot of money. We had a lot of fun. But after a while I began to have that harried look again. And again-I couldn’t sleep nights. I’d lie awake thinking about my novel, figuring it out. I began to sneak a day or two Out of my busy schedule to work on it. But I’d just get going strong when a hurry-up, sure-money assignment would come in to lure me away from it. That would be followed by another-it would be weeks, months, before I could come back.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I decided to get that novel out of my system—however swiftly, however poorly I wrote it, to get it done! I dropped everything else-sent back assignments, telling the editors the baby was keeping me busy (and he was). But even taking care of a new baby, an older child and the house didn’t seem so hard when I was doing the work I wanted to do-and now felt that I was ready for. I had had ample time to ponder over the mistakes I had first made; I corrected them. I had learned a lot more about story structure; I applied it to my book. I had gotten a grip on my theme. Whatever my impatience, habits of slow, painstaking writing were not to be thrown overboard. I fought every sentence to a finish. I let nothing go until it was right.

Finally, amazingly, the thing was done. Relieved, almost incredulous, I typed the final word. It might still be a punk book, but by golly, it was a whole one! Whole and balanced out this time in a sense that satisfied.

I sent it off to my agent and forgot about it. It was wonderful just to have it out of the house. I hoped that even if nobody bought it (and somehow I could scarcely conceive that they would) he would never send it back. Consequently it was the biggest shock of my life to arrive in Pittsburgh last summer (after moving up from Texas) and find a letter from my agent, saying the Lippincott editors would like a luncheon date to talk about the book!

I went to Philadelphia with a feeling of dazed incredulity. I came home sort of drifting on bubbles and stars. But I had to get my feet back on the ground and keep them there. There was a lot of cutting to be done, and I had to cook up a new ending before they would decide. I’m terribly superstitious; I didn’t risk jinxing it by telling anyone or even indulging in a dream. All I could do was work. I even wrote two new endings, so as to give the editors a choice. And fortunately so, as it was the second one they liked.

Because of my experience, I don’t advise people to start their novels too soon. Don’t gamble everything on your novel until you’re sure you have something to say, and know how to say it. But once you’re confident of that, wade in. Get it out of your system. You’ll never have a moment’s peace until you do.