Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 09/07/2023

Episode 35: Letters to a Beginner VI - Stories That Sell.

Never mind, my boy! We all have to learn, sometime or other, that one story sold does not mean success; that the most trying period in a writer’s career lies just between the first acceptance and the second. It’s pitifully like the schooling we get, when our glad exultation at leaving the kindergarten gives way to disappointment at the long years in the graded school, and when each graduation means only the beginning of more years of study. If “well begun is half done” in the literary career, the second half is as the Irishman says—bigger than the first.

I’ve looked over your pile of rejected manuscripts, and have been impressed by the monotony in theme. You write of love all the time; of flirtations, of engagements, of marriages. Now this is all very well in its way, but we editors want something new. We are getting just a bit tired of the overheard and misunderstood conversations; of the villainous rival with the black moustache and weak eyes; and of the couple who meet and admire and love and marry—all while you wait. Give us something original by way of background. Have the Poll parrot or the phonograph repeat the conversation; make the villain the real hero; have the couple go to the divorce lawyer to get married, and have him show them why they could not live happily ever afterward.

To put it a bit more bluntly, Harry, those love stories of yours want something to bolster them up. They want to be love stories, but they want to be so disguised that at first glance they appear something else, with the love theme untangling along with the main plot. Write your love story about some other frame-work; and if you disguise it as a detective story, or a railroad story, or a newspaper story, or a business story, you will be getting in close to the editor who holds the final decision.

Never before in the history of writing was the detective story as popular as it is now. Time was when the detective was a sleuth with a dark lantern and a false beard. Nowadays he is much more apt to be a likable young fellow who falls in love and cannot read the clues of the woman’s heart. There must be a mystery, of course, and some quick-witted work, with maybe a villain, and perhaps a bit of melodrama—and always a girl. Now, Harry, study it out for yourself; then forget your Sherlock Holmes and give us a clean, clever, original detective-love story in which there is more than plot.

Some day coerce old Bill Jenner to give you a ride in his engine, and sweep down the valley at nearly a mile a minute. You won’t dream of carriages, or bicycles, or automobiles, after that ride. You will see the twin rails ahead, twice as bright and gleaming as they ever were before; trees and houses and cross-roads will rush to meet you; in your brain will be a tremendous freedom and gladness and exhilaration. Now, ask old Bill about the levers, and let him tell you the story of the girl who chased the runaway engine. Then close your eyes, and if you can’t think of a railroad-love story, you have missed your calling.

I suppose you have read Davis’ “Gallagher” and Jesse Lynch Williams’ reporter stories. I know you have sat at a newspaper desk, and covered sheet after sheet of the “flimsy,” listening to the click of the receiver in the telegraph room.

Most people think life is one great round of excitement on a paper. Of course, my boy, you and I know it is far more apt to be dull, with all its glimpses of sorrow and suffering. But it does have its moments when it is more than the humdrum of existence, and there are likable girls one meets, and there is an infinite number of stories yet unconceived. You probably know that the newspaper story is the most eagerly read, provided it is well done, of all the types that appear in the magazines.

Business, very naturally, interests practically the entire working class in this country. Have you noticed, Harry, how the papers and magazines are swinging in line for stories of business; how even “Ainslee’s,” with its pink teas and its trim maidens, is running a series of Wall Street stories; how “McClure’s” is ever reaching for them; how “The Saturday Evening Post” has made itself teem with this atmosphere; and how all the lesser publications are clamoring for this class of work. Books like “The Pit” strike the popular chord; good old Horatio Alger strummed this same string in all his juvenile books. Life is gay and life is sad; it has its loves and its hatreds; but, after all, business is its very soul. Business need not oust sentiment, however, and the best stories I have read are the ones in which dollars have been gained by intricate and vastly interesting machinations, only to be lavished on dainty and irresistible women.

Don’t think I’m preaching, Harry, because I am not; but I can hear the editorial demands, and I’m giving you first call to the work. These four classes of stories are admittedly the most salable of all kinds. It’s love the world wants, of course, but it isn’t the old, old sentiment that makes two worlds—one for lovers and one for unaffectionate beings. Give us life, first of all, but we shall thank you if you garnish it plentifully with love.

Awaiting with great hope the effect on your mind of this little sermon, I am,

Your affectionate father,

John Vanders.