Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 07/17/2023

Episode 30: Letters to a Beginner I

by Leslie W. Quirk. These letters originally published in 1903-1904 issues of "The Editor."

Well, you’ve done it. Ever since you were a little chap in grammar school, I’ve been waiting for that first story of yours. I used to watch you write little compositions in those days, and even then I could see the pride of creative power in your big blue eyes. You were bound to try your hand at story writing some day, just as I did when I was about your age. And now, as the children say, “you’ve gone and done it."

It isn’t a very bad story; not so bad, perhaps, as lots of first attempts. You’ve waited a bit longer than most of them do, and you know enough polite English to pilot you along fairly well. So far as correctness goes, indeed, no one can raise a singe objection to your maiden effort.

Of course, you have some awkward passages, but that is to be expected. If there were none, you would be a genius pure and simple; and, after all, you are nothing but the son of your father.

Your story is tragedy. I wonder why it is that nine-tenths of the first stories of writers are tragic. Perhaps the thought that they are writing words which thousands may read makes them unduly grave. I remember my own first story, of a fugitive fleeing over the rugged mountains into a mine, where a dynamite cartridge used in blasting killed him. It wasn’t a good story; it was just cheap melodrama. After a bit, Harry, you will look toward the goal of the author who writes a whole book about nothing, and writes it in such a way that it interests you more than the one in which each chapter begins with a hold-up and ends with a murder. Melodrama is like the Fourth of July : it is vapid and dull on the morning of the fifth. Some books are written for today, some for tomorrow, and some for both days. It’s a nice study in distinctions.

I notice that the element of time bothers you a little. You keep introducing your sentences with a “then.” Just omit the word. If you tell things as they really happened, you won’t need to keep saying “next.”

Your introduction sounds as if you were writing at so much per thousand words. You might cut it down one-half, or even twice that much. Your description of the trees and and grasses are all very well in their way, but “The Century” and “Plant Life” have different editors. If both magazines were under the same editorial management, they might divide the thing. As it is you must hold it up critically, like Solomon did the baby, and see which one clamors for it most.

And, Harry, I wouldn’t say the girl had raven-black hair. I put a wig of midnight hair on one of my characters once, and then when I slipped and called her a blonde on page three the editor helped me out by suggesting that the moon sometimes shone at midnight. This goes to show that the phrases lack individuality. It’s like the senseless expression, “Time flies.” Whenever I hear that I feel like making the flippant observation, “Yes, but the bandmaster can beat it.” It doesn’t mean anything; it isn’t a blow straight from the shoulder. Black’s black any way you look at it. You know the old preacher used to say, “Hell’s hell, and der ain't no use honeyin’ it by calling it hades.”

I think the greatest difficulty with your story lies just here. You are indefinite; you use forcible, snappy words, but still they are not exactly the right words. I went to a football game last fall and watched what they called a “grandstand player.” He worked well and tackled low and hard. But nine times out of ten he tackled the man without the ball. Now, that’s your trouble. On page seven you say, “All the pleasure of the game was gone.” The word you want is not “pleasure” at all; it is “zest.” And a little further along you say, “He caressed the terrible weapon, turning it over and over in his hands and examining every little point about it.” By all this spreading of words, you mean simply that he looked at the gun. Why don’t you say so, then? If you aim to destroy interest, you’ve hit on just the proper plan. You must not elaborate too much; avoid mentioning the minor details that do not affect your story. Let your reader imagine he is finding out things with a Sherlock Holmes sagacity. It will please him immensely.

Are all those big words in your story really in your everyday vocabulary? Or did you drag them in with the combined aid of your brain and Webster's Unabridged? It may be all right, of course, but you know more big words than your father, which isn’t the proper thing for a young fellow in his teens. Besides, it's the short, terse words with a long meaning that stand out distinctly. Look at “vex,” “zest,” “vim,” and words of that kind. It is a mighty good thing to broaden your vocabulary, but don’t burden it with installments of too great length.

Once or twice I thought I detected an attempt at humor. Now, if you are writing a pathetic story, make it pathetic. You say in one place, “And she, being a girl, believed him.” This is flippant, altogether irrelevant. It is neither funny nor clever. I once wrote a skit of that style for “Judge.” And the joke of it was, “Judge” rejected it promptly. That is the reason l am confident such things are but sorry jests.

And another thing, Harry. Just because you can be a regular genii and create people out of nothingness, don’t think you own them body and soul. In a short story, you may intrude in one of two ways. You may be one of the characters, and from the vantage ground of the first person singular describe the happenings about you; or you may be the mind, as it were, of one of your characters. You can write of his actions, of his likes and dislikes, of his thoughts. But there your power ends. You must not err again by putting down the thoughts of all your characters. With the single exception of the character whom you push to the foreground, you must make the minds of your people closed books. You don’t know what they feel. You are breathing, thinking, living with just one person. You observe the others as he might.

Your style is jagged, almost abrupt. I suppose the uneven edges will wear off with time. The trouble right now seems to lie in your transitions, and if you could make each sentence dovetail into the preceding one you would be gaining immensely. I remember that my English instructor in the university once gave back a theme of mine and asked me to point out to him how each sentence was connected with the preceding one. As a matter of fact, the connection was missing a good share of the time, but I went to my room and dovetailed that composition till it fitted together so perfectly that it sounded like one of the monologues of those black face gentlemen at the vaudeville. You know how one story always reminds them of another and how they will shift from a mother-in-law joke to one on babies without seeming to change the subject at all. Perhaps the entertainer will tell about a horse race. Then he will say, “Now there’s my brother Bill; he never rode a horse in his life, but Bill can row a boat!” And then he will tell you a fish story. Now, Harry, you lack just this easy ability to slip from sentence to sentence without an appreciable jar.

I suppose I might go on criticising your first story until you had your second completed. Yet I feel that I should be doing you an injustice, for as first stories go yours has much merit. I have pointed out the principal faults that you may avoid them in the future. Experience is a mighty good teacher, I grant, but she is getting a bit slow for these days.

And, Harry, if I were you I wouldn’t offer that story to an editor. At any rate, drop it into your desk drawer until to-morrow. It won’t sound so good then, and you will begin to discover faults for yourself. Write two or three other stories before you send any out, and see if each succeeding one is better than the last. They will make nice reading a few years from now. I know, Harry, because I have a bundle of my own. Such foolish little stories as they are—and so soiled! You see, nobody was ever kind enough to tell me not to send them out.

Awaiting your next effort with considerable curiosity and eagerness, I am

Your affectionate father,

John A. Vanders.