Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 08/11/2023

Episode 31: Letters to a Beginner II

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

Our magazine has a neat little rejection slip in which the editor is made to express great regret because he is forced to return a manuscript. I am not enclosing one of these printed forms with your story for the simple reason that I hate to play the hypocrite. I don’t regret that I must return your story. I am glad of it. I am immensely pleased to know I have the power to keep it out of at least one magazine.

I wish, Harry, that you would send me better stories. I suppose you think you are doing your best now, but you aren’t. Why, you haven’t even avoided some of the errors I pointed out in your last manuscript. That’s the trouble with too many of you young writers. You read advice very eagerly and then you go off and follow it about as closely as you would if I told you to go to the moon in a submarine boat. You ought to get the rules so well in mind that every time you violate one it will look as if your fountain pen had unclogged suddenly in an ugly black blotch on your paper.

I don’t mean to say that “An Incident in the Life of Dennis Patrick” is without merit. It is a good short story with a serial title. By the way, Harry, you are behind the times with your titles; they have been growing shorter and shorter of late. Back in the days of the thirteen colonies, authors used to spread them out like the publishers do the advertisements today. Go to the library and see what Captain John Smith called his book about Virginia. I imagine the captain had the newspaper idea of getting the gist of the whole story in the headlines.

You probably reason that the story’s the thing and that the title is of secondary importance. I’m not sure, for I’ve known titles to sell books. A half century ago a star-gazer brought out a book called “The Planetary and Stellar Worlds.” The title killed it, and it fell flat. The publisher changed the name to “The Orbs of Heaven,” and sold 6000 copies the first month. Of course, this was business, not literature. It isn’t a bad thing, however, to combine the two.

Your title is too vague, too general. The reader wonders whether he is going to read of the time Mrs. Patrick spanked Dennis over her knee, or of the time he leaned forward to catch the faint “yes,” or of the time he fell asleep to wake no more. As a matter of fact, I believe your story is the description of how he became a hero. Why not simply, “Dennis Patrick—Hero,” or, “When Others Quailed,” or “The Loyalty of Dennis.” A title should be an outgrowth of the plot, and should suggest something of the story without laying it bare. Look at Hawthorne’s “The Wedding Knell,” Poe’s “Thou Art the Man,” and Wilkin’s “The Revolt of Mother."

Your first sentence might have been written by our office boy. “He was over five feet tall,” you say. Of course he was, but can’t you emphasize the fact? It would be better to remark casually that he lacked fifty-nine inches of being ten feet tall. An editor may sometimes forgive sensationalism but never triteness. A good example of what you might have said may be found in a recent magazine, where the first sentence of a story is “Five feet four in his cowhide boots he stood, and he had to stretch to do that.” Study this introduction, Harry.

Along in the middle of your story I find the sentence, "The boy is running madly.” What is your idea in switching to the present tense? I never yet knew an editor who wanted a story written partly in the time of Christopher Columbus and partly in the time of Theodore Roosevelt. Make all the action take place in one tense, and make that tense the past. You can try the “historical present,” if you wish, but your father, who is an editor, and who has your welfare in mind, wishes you would leave it alone. I suppose you can recall a story written in the present tense that is a masterpiece. I can recall days in June that are not perfect, preacher’s sons that are not bad, and men who do not care for money.

Heroism is a grand thing, Harry, but you should not grow poetical over it. Your story has such abbreviations as “ ’tis” and “ ’twas” scattered through it, with rhyming clauses and enough alliteration to supply a circus-bill writer.

“ ’Tis” and “ ’twas” sound affected, no matter how easily you may use them. I would much rather you said “ain’t” and “hain’t.” As long as you persist in those gushing abbreviations of “it is" and “it was,” I am afraid your stories will come back. You know the introduction of most stories is a good key to their value. Well, I once unfolded a manuscript that began, “ ’Twas night!” and ever since I’ve wished I had rejected it before residing the second word. It was a waste of time after the “ ’twas.”

The rhyming clauses I noted were in the sentence, “She lived in luxury, with never a wish denied and never a want unsatisfied.” This makes a pretty jingle, but it sounds a good deal like a street-car gong on a dining-room table. It is out of place, most emphatically out of place. If you want to write verse, do it; if you want to write prose, do it. But water and oil will not mix.

Alliteration is also out of place in a story. “The Death Defying Dare-devil Diver” looks all right in lurid green letters on a red background, as a circus poster; but it sounds vulgar and coarse when you put it on a small piece of creamy white paper. And the mention of “Patrick’s perfect patrol past the people” and the “hissing, dizzy, fizzling, sizzling bullets” had better be eliminated. People read to be amused, not to be made victims of “pied piper” tonguetwisters.

I might also add for your special benefit, Harry, that you must narrow down your ideas of the confines of a short story. Don’t preach nor teach. People can go to church to hear a sermon, and to school to learn a lesson. What they want in a short story is not information of military tactics nor statistics on the speed of bullets, but situations and dialogues that amuse and entertain. There are problem novels, and novels with a purpose, and an hundred other kinds; but you will recall that the best selling books of the day are not classed under any head other than pure fiction.

I am afraid your story is a little out of its natural order. In fact, it seems to me that a good share of the time you are telling it backwards, as witches say their prayers, or Chinamen read their books. The way to tell a short story is to draw a line from your striking introductory paragraph straight to your climax, and never, by a hair’s breadth, deviate from that line. Nor must the natural sequence of the action be overlooked. It is all very well to get a strong situation at the outset, but don’t choose one that necessitates beginning your story in the middle and going both ways.

There are a great many other errors in your story, but none of them glaring enough to point out specifically. I believe, too, that you have had enough adverse criticism for the present; for frankly, Harry, your story is by no means hopeless. But I want you to rise above the pay-on-publication, and the pay with subscription, and the no-pay-at-all magazines. You have it in you, and it’s only a question of sticking to it with bull-dog tenacity. If you are like lots of other young fellows I know, you will grow discouraged in a month or two, and drop writing. If you are what I believe you are, you will stick to it and plod steadily on to “better times.”

Trusting that I may soon see more of your work, I am

Your affectionate father,

John A. Vanders.