Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 08/15/2023

Episode 33: Letters to a Beginner IV

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

I don't wonder, Harry, that you hesitated a good while before sending me your latest story. It isn’t the kind of thing a man likes to have read by a person who respects him. It’s a pity that more editors do not know you personally: it might deter you from submitting the story.

There are several terms the world applies to such a tale, but they all amount to the same thing in the end. I don’t know whether you call it erotic, or risque; I call it vulgarly indecent.

You say that you have already submitted the story to “Ainslee’s” and the “Smart Set,” and that they have returned it. Of course they have; they don’t use stories of that kind. Just because you see something in their pages about a street corner and a stray breeze is no sign that they would permit a view of that same corner in a gale.

In short, Harry, you lack the genius necessary to construct a story of that kind. It takes a master-mind to write delicately of a vulgar situation, and I sometimes think that it takes a master-mind to read it understandingly. Perhaps I am wrong. I am not thinking, just now, of Mary McLane.

Do you remember, Harry, when you were a little chap, and I caught you smoking a cigarette out in the old barn? You will recall that I didn’t preach at all; that because I knew you I just said: “I wouldn’t smoke, Harry, if I were a promising young fellow like you.” And you— do you remember?—you looked up at me, with your white teeth close together, and said: “I won’t, sir!” Now, Harry, I am not in the least afraid of your ruining your morals; but if I were a talented young fellow like you, with my eye on the best magazines, I wouldn’t write that kind of stories.

Let’s look at it from a financial standpoint. There’s “Harper’s”—you never saw that kind of a story in its pages; and “Century”—you never saw one there; and “Scribner’s"— but what’s the use running over the list? Your own common-sense will tell you that the market is altogether too limited to warrant writing stories that you wouldn’t care to have your own sister read. You simply can’t afford it. It won’t enrich you, and it won’t bring you fame. If you persist in doing this kind of thing, it will slip you into a rut, and a muddy one at that, which can never lead you to the company of giants.

Look at the authors who wrote in other days and are still remembered to-day. How many of them ever ventured to try their hands at indecent story-writing? Their fame came in another way, altogether, and yours, if it comes at all, will also come from an entirely different quarter.

You are young, Harry, with a good ambition and forcible ideas. The world is clamoring for young blood. Today is the young man’s age in literature just as truly as it is in any other business. Readers are looking for the blood that leaps through veins and the brawn that is the trademark of the young writer. The editor of “Harper’s” says that “were it not for the young beginner the magazine would languish in all its fine tissues for lack of the infusion of new blood.” And yet you have turned from this field to the one affected by the jaded, worn-out writer!

I am sitting before an open fire-place, Harry, and I am watching the smoke curl upward from a manuscript that should never have been written.

Yours sincerely,

John A. Vanders.