Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 08/16/2023

Episode 34: Letters to a Beginner V - In Quest of a Market

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

So, Harry, you’re getting tired of writing stories that won’t sell. I suppose I might wax sarcastic, and ask why you don’t write better ones, then; but I won’t. I know the selling problem, and I’ll admit that it’s no easy one to solve.

I rank the ability to sell a story nearly as high as the ability to write one. Unless you can dispose of your manuscript, after you have spent hours over it, your work counts for nothing. I have seen a great many young writers, some of more pronounced ability than you, Harry, who have given up the literary profession because they were unable to sell their work. For this reason, I say that the selling is well nigh as important as the writing.

You want some hints, I take it, in regard to selling stories. I am not sure that I can help you a great deal, but I am willing to tell you all the tricks of the trade I know.

First of all, to go back to trite fundamentals, you must be able to gauge the merit of your work. You write a love story, for instance, which you naturally wish to sell. Now, a casual glance at the lists of markets will show you that the daily newspapers, the syndicates, the domestic journals, and the very best magazines all use love stories. You can begin at the top, of course, and go down the list; but by the time you reach the right level your postage bill will be running neck and neck with the price you are paid. There are probably two or three hundred markets for a love story. It must be apparent, then, even to a beginner like you, that it is necessary to recognize in a general way the particular class of publications for which your story is fitted.

You have probably discovered already that a story fresh from your brain sounds better than it does after it has been laid aside for a day or two. You will be able to pass upon its merits more impartially if you put it away until your enthusiasm cools. You will also find that it is good practice to read your stories aloud to some other person before you submit them to any magazine. The defects and crude portions will become discernible in a way they never would otherwise, particularly if your hearer is capable of criticising.

A good critic, you will find, is of inestimable value. I would rather have an unbiased, honest opinion of my story, from some one able to judge of its merit, than all the praise in the world. It is here that a literary bureau proves helpful. It tells you just what class of stories yours parallels. Then, even if the story does not sell to the first two or three, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you did not start too high in the list.

Again, it may pay you to write with a certain magazine in view. You don’t need to cramp yourself at all, but you can follow the little eccentricities of punctuation, acceptable length, and so forth. You will find that no magazine is a distinct class by itself. Every one has its imitators. So if your story does not prove acceptable to the first editor, you can try it with the imitators. At least, it fits the requirements. On the other hand, a story written in a haphazard fashion may not equal the demands of any class of publications.

It’s a good thing, Harry, to hobnob with an intelligent news agent. If you can find one who knows something about writing, and who keeps a close watch on the new magazines, you can easily be first in the field with your story. I suppose a new high grade magazine gets twenty or thirty manuscripts the first week or two after it is published, and one or two hundred the next fortnight. Now, if you will remember that the next issue must be made up early, probably out of those twenty or thirty manuscripts, you will appreciate the “early bird” proverb.

It will also pay you you, Harry, to study the question of timeliness. A story that fits the season has a much better chance of acceptance than one which may be used at any time and is of equal literary value. Readers expect a Christmas story in the December magazine, an Independence Day tale in the July number, and seasonable fiction at all times. A great many writers overlook this fact altogether. Christmas stories are usually weak in plot; they have been done with a regularity that has exhausted all ideas. A fairly original Yuletide story, offered during the summer months, or a good Fourth of July tale, submitted during the first quarter of the year, stands a very excellent chance of acceptance. If you will remember that stories should be submitted from four to six months before the issue of the magazine in which they should appear, you will be stealing a march on less experienced and less observing writers.

I would strongly advise you not to meddle with the cheap upstarts in the magazine world. The chances are ten to one that the editor is an unsuccessful author, with no literary judgment, and no money to pay for the manuscripts he does accept. He will be apt to hold your manuscript three months, and then return it, soiled and blue-penciled. He won’t wait for your acceptance of his offer before shooting the story down to the type-setters. I’ve rescued stories, at the eleventh hour, from such magazines as “Four O’clock,” originally published in Chicago, and—but the others are still living and I don’t want a quarrel with their editors. Just the other day, the editor of a magazine that is not called “The Five-Center” disagreed with me.

Don’t be afraid to alter a story to suit an editor. You won’t spoil its artistic qualities if the magazine is a standard one, because its editor would hardly ask you to ruin it. Some publications, like “The Youth’s Companion,” reserve the right to make sweeping changes in a story; others revise without a “by your leave.” If an editor hints that a story would be better with another ending, he means that he would like a second chance to pass upon it in its revised form.

After a story is accepted, and payment is promised on publication, don’t write and ask when it will appear. No less reputable a magazine than “The National” once accepted a story from a fairly well-known writer. After waiting sometime, he wrote, asking when it was to be published. By return mail, back came the manuscript, without a word of explanation. Of course, Harry, this is a little above your head, as none of your stories have even pleased an editor, as nearly as I can discover.

Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. “Life” and other publications demand it; every other magazine prefers an envelope to stamps. And before I leave this subject, Harry, I want to urge you to use the common, long envelope rather than the hundred and one shapes that leave a string of angry exclamations behind them, from the postoffice clerk who tries to postmark an hundred letters a minute to the editor who jams the eight-inch envelope into the four-inch filing case. If you send a brief, courteous note and a return envelope with your manuscript, you may be sure that it will be given fullest consideration. If it doesn’t sell, you have sent it to the wrong place; you’ve aimed too high or too wide of the acceptance target.

I don’t suppose, Harry, that you have written a story good enough to be accepted. When you do, I shall rejoice with you. Until that time I want to help you out with all the hints possible. Now, your last story, “The King’s a Man,” was very good, but it really had no chance of acceptance because—

What’s this? Another letter from you! Really, my boy, you are beginning to bore me. Let’s see what you want now.

“‘The Good Magazine’ has accepted ‘The King’s a Man.’ ”

My hand, Harry. I’m glad, very glad. You won’t need advice now, and perhaps, after a bit, you’ll be explaining things to me. But just the same, my boy, I’m glad, deep down in my heart, very glad.

Your appreciative father,

John Vanders.