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Back to Fundamentals: Vintage WD

In this 1938 Writer's Digest article, Leon Byrne emphasizes the importance of learning and getting back to the fundamentals of craft, particularly when writing short stories (though we find his advice applicable to novels as well).

By Leon Byrne

Author of “The Three-Cornered Wound,” etc.

Writer's Digest, April 1938

Back to Fundamentals-ShortStories

An excellent analogy to the writer who has difficulty getting across is found every fall in the newspaper sports pages, where time and again, season after season, headlines will announce that Coach Soandso, after his football team has suffered a couple of early-season drubbings, has gone back to fundamentals—the fundamentals of blocking, tackling, kicking, and passing.

The boys started the season with a bagful of tricks, a repertoire of clever plays evolved by the coach, but tricky plays get nowhere, can’t even be executed properly, without the players being so well grounded in fundamentals that their blocking and tackling is automatically perfect.

In six years of editorial work with the Munsey Publishing Company and Popular Publications, I’ve read and passed judgement on at least 50,000 manuscript, good, bad, and indifferent.

Too many young writers either fail to master the simple fundamentals or forget them in a desire to be dazzling. How many times I have written on a manuscript report: “This author has forgotten that before he sits down to write he must have either a story to tell—in other words a plot to develop—or a character to delineate.”

If a story has character development as well as plot, or action, so much the better, but it must have at least one of those fundamentals. There are authors, of course, who can sit down with only a vague idea of what they are going to do, pound the typewriter for a few hours, and turn out a finished story that has literally grown out of the typewriter. They are experts who have mastered all of the rules and niceties of technique until these mechanical things have become second nature to them.

Personally, I write a story almost completely in my mind before I begin to set it down on paper. In fact, I sometimes carry it to the extreme of writing the ending of a yarn before I have done the middle part—that’s when I’m so much interested in the piece myself that I can’t wait for the filling in—I have to get the climax down on paper. Naturally, I know just what that center portion is going to be.

The ideal of the classic short story is to counterpart the flight of the arrow—leaving the bow with a twang, flying straight and true, thudding home in the heart of the target. Too many writers draw a bow at the moon; their arrow goes up, falters, starts to fall, is blown by the wind, clatters aimlessly to the ground.

If, when starting their story, they would say to themselves, “I am going to create one single, crystal-clear, decisive effect, so that the whole story, when finished, is a mathematical procession of events leading logically and irrevocable from the first sentence to the last.” Then they could be sure that their story would do what it should—strike one clear chord in the reader’s emotional reactions.

As the story is built, piece by piece, as the plot convolutions are taken up, the threads of the story intertwined, the characters shaped by their actions and their conversation, as each sentence is added to the story structure, the writer should bear in mind his finished job, the completed, unified picture. If a phrase sounds pretty, but has no bearing on that completed picture, he should throw it out. If an actor in the drama gets out of character, does something on page two that does not fit in with the picture we have of him on the last page, he should be recast, redrawn, rewritten.

An excellent training school for the writer whose work lacks unity is the so-called terror tale. In it, the author sets out to create one decided, specific effect, and there is not, or should not be any trouble in excluding all extraneous matter. Last week I read two manuscripts by a young woman writer who wanted an estimate of her work and ability. The first was a mystery-terror story, which I told her should sell—because she had taken an opening situation, stated the problem, and had gone straight through to the logical and inevitable conclusion.

The second was a love story, which I advised her to put among her souvenirs and write off as trial and error. All she knew when she started to write it was that she wanted to write a romance with a sophisticated, idle-rich background. She put her hero and heroine through the paces of interminable bright persiflage about inconsequentials, but she didn’t bring them alive, or give them a problem to solve—so she had no story. When she kept fundamentals in minds, she turned out a usable story. When she tried to be clever at phrases, she turned out quite a few clever phases—but no story.

That desire to be clever is one of the major stumbling blocks of writers who are not yet sure of themselves. They should realize that Dorothy Parker—using her early work as a symbol for a type—didn’t sell her writings because they were cleverly worded. Her clever phraseology makes a glittering icing for the cake she serves, but you can be sure the cake is all there beneath the icing.

In the same vein: A chap recently applied for a job to Rogers Terrill, who had charge of the Popular magazines. His background included a college education in the classics, and he had sold stories to the quality magazines, for which he expressed a personal preference.

“That’s all very well,” said Terrill, “but readers of Dime Mystery, the Spider, and so forth, aren’t apt to be interested in the classics. What makes you think you would have any sympathy for or understanding of what our readers want?”

“Well,” said the applicant, “in my opinion a story is a story, whether it’s written by a De Maupassant or a Horatio Alger. When I read, for enjoyment, I read with my feelings, my emotions, rather than with my mind.” He got the job—and, writers who set out to be clever would do better to write with their feelings rather than with their intellects.

To write with feeling, it is obviously essential to write of things one knows about, has had personal experience with, things that have been in some way a part of one’s own life. The above mentioned young lady who made a stab at picturing a life among the filthily-rich had, I suspect, gained her background from the movies.

I have seen college professors, erudite and educated ladies and gentlemen, and some proficient essayists, fail dismally when they attempted a pulp love story—because they wrote with their tongue in their cheek. You’ve got to feel a pulp love story just as much as you have to feel a Post love story when you’re writing it.

I’ve been reading the Writer’s Digest a long time, and I wouldn’t remember how many times I’ve seen it admonish its subscribers: “Read your markets. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read, and keep on reading.” I’d repeat that advice in letter ten feet high, if I could, and keep on repeating it. Editors themselves, in addition to the endless reading they must do to select manuscripts for their own magazines, must read omnivorously not only what their competitors are printing, but what the entire publishing world is printing—books, stories and news.

Not only what is being printed now, but what has been printed in the past. Only a scholar of literature could hope to be conversant with everything good that has been written in the last two thousand years, but the more an editor has read, the better editor he is.

Similarly, the more a writer has read, the more he knows about writing, the better able he is to evaluate his own work, to detect its deficiencies, to compare it with what the world has come to accept as good writing.

Most writers have difficulty evaluating their own work with the same detachment they can assume toward the writing of others. By all means, everyone who writes should have as large a circle of critics as possible. Don’t be afraid to try your stories out on any and everybody you can get to read them. That may be an unsocial bit of advice with which your long-suffering friends and acquaintances will have little sympathy, but it is pertinent.

An editor is not the only one who can give a valid reaction to a story. In fact, I know one publishing house where the court of final appeal for love stories consists of the telephone girl, the reception girl and a filing clerk. If the editor knows a story is usable, but can’t quite decide on it, she asks those three girls to read it and tell whether they like it or not. They can’t take the story apart and analyze it, but they can give their honest emotional reactions, which the editor considers as valid as her own.

Of paramount importance to the would-be writer is the self-admonition, “Nothing is going to discourage me.” Take the advice, the comments, the criticisms, the reactions you get from friends and editors, weight them, use what seems good to help shape your course, try constantly to improve your work through these criticisms and through self-criticism, but don’t let them get you down. If a story doesn’t sell one place, try it someplace else where it might fit—what one editor might turn down, another might welcome with open arms.

In my correspondence file are two letters pinned together, both from the same editor. The first one reads: “Sorry to have to return your story, but it seems to us the plot-idea is not sufficiently novel.” The second letter, dated about a year later says: “We are enclosing our check for $75. We like the story very much; by all means give us some more like it.” Both letters refer to the same story. Obviously, on its first visit to the shop it was not read by the editor, but by one of his assistants, but the incident goes to show that editorial judgment is neither uniform nor infallible.

If your first story doesn’t sell, write the second, and the tenth, and the hundredth and, if you’re like most writers, the more you write the better you’ll write, and eventually you will click. Never send a story out until you’ve done the best you can by it.

If I seem to be laying undue emphasis on simple fundamentals, the answer to that is that Paderewski still practices the scale of C every day.

Just what is it that gives the beginner away, labels his story amateurish? In the ideal story, the reader’s attention is caught on the first page, the direction the story will take is pointed out, the background painted in or hinted at; in short, the reader gets the “feel” of the story. I can think of no better example of this “pointing” than the first two paragraphs of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, Will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word or deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good-will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

The diction may be somewhat formal and archaic, but no modern reader can for a minute doubt that his is about to see the villain of the piece treated to a swift, colorful, and unique demise. Reading the first page of Poe’s story, one has to read it.

An example of pointing a modern pulp story is found in the first three paragraphs of “Guest Room in Hell,” from Horror Stories, by the author of this article:

I traveled far that day, through dank swamps and marshes. I had plunged ever deeper and deeper into the wilderness, in the hope of yet finding the rate botanical specimens I had sought. I had been utterly unsuccessful. And now, to add to my feeling of abject failure, and my unbearable fatigue, came the awful realization that I was lost.

Though I had come out upon a trail, overgrown and forlorn with disuse, which I knew must lead to some human habitation, I had no idea in which direction lay the little village I had left early that morning. My clothing, sodden and frayed by the dripping thickets through which I clambered clung to my chilled limbs and impeded my progress as I plodded wearily on. It had started to rain—a cold, drizzling mist that seeped through my coat as though it were sackcloth, and I had visions of spending a miserable night without shelter or warmth. I was nearly hopeless when a break in the thicket revealed the grounds of a large estate off to the right.

With a feeling of relief, I left the trail. The house, far back from the road, was almost hidden by the shaggy poplars that surrounded it, and the driveway leading up to it was also line with these tall, unkept giants that lifted their grotesque and lonely arms into space. It was as though I walked down a gauntlet of brooding sentinels who, peering at me from their lonely height, pondered silently upon the fate of lone wanderers who travel unknown roads by night.

Even if the title of the magazine and of the story hadn’t already labeled the story, pointed the direction it was going to take, those opening paragraphs would.

In most stories, color of background is desirable, if not essential. Beginners whose stories lack imaginative color might just as well not try. On the other hand, no critic ever dismisses as hopeless a beginner who errs on the side of over-imagination and color. You can’t teach imagination; you can teach restraint. A beginner often betrays himself by injudicious use of color, slapping it on by the bucketful so that it hides the story.

I recently went over a manuscript by a young woman beginner. The background of the story was a summer she had spent in colorful Santa Fe. The real story, however, was about a cat she had inherited along with the cottage she stayed in. The story of her relations with the cat was very good. There were about 2,000 words of that. Her description of lie in Santa Fe was good, to the extent of 3,000 words—but there was no definite connection between the two.

That was a case of overdoing the local color, of course. What part of Santa Fe had bearing on the cat story belonged in—but a travelogue was uncalled for. Similarly, any injection of background should be inculcated right in the narrative, if possible; should not cause the story to stop for one instant.

Once the reader’s attention is gained, it must be held—straight through. That is another place beginners falter—as well as old-timers. Once your story is started on its way, you can’t let the reader forget where it is headed. There must be plenty of sign-posts.

I think the most common notation marked on accepted scripts, handed by editors to assistant for editing is: “Point up the story.”

I well remember an Argosy story by J. Allan Dunn, a 20,000 word Northern. The editorial board, Don Moore, (who later went to Cosmopolitan) Fred Clayton, (who joined Liberty and myself, agreed that there was swell material in the yarn but that Dunn had failed to maintain his continuity. There were so many stories within the story that at the quarter, half and three quarters marks the reader practically had to go back to the first pages to recall just what the main problem of the story was. We took it, and cut it. Then the man who edited it kept inserting casual but needed references to the hero’s main pursuit, the vital thread (Mountie getting his man, of course) which the complications of the plot sometimes obscured. The published story was one of the most popular of the year.

Many beginners have difficulty with dialogue. If they would bear in mind that all dialogue must have a direct bearing on the story, their difficulty might be ameliorated. The cryptic, hard-boiled school of writing points a good moral. Instead of having two characters, upon meeting, indulge in pages of guff before saying anything vital, they get down to business fast.

Take a bit from Robert Carse in Adventure:

Kousa went back to Latour; he made a sign and the others there brought Chesnil forward, ranged the staggering, panting man beside the colonel. Kousa lifted up the automatic pistol from the holster at his waist.

“I wouldn’t shoot to kill you,” he said. “Not quickly or nicely. If you move again, we will just break your legs or arms.

I know authors who could spend several pages on that scene—and do it no more effectively. Even without reading the rest of that Legion story, the reader gets a definite picture of a desperate situation and a desperate man.

While the advice to “Read, read, read!” can never be reiterated too often—for the best way to learn how to write is to read what others have written—too many beginners take this to mean “Copy, copy, copy.” The too-frequent editorial comment on also-ran manuscripts is: “Too trite.” The author has done part of his duty toward himself and his editor—he has studied the phraseology and type of plot desired, but he has failed to do more than a copyist’s job—has failed to think up his own twists to the well-worn plot situations, has failed to speak his own language.

Clichés mark the amateur. They may have thrilled grandfather, but they’re a headache to today’s editors. Lurid, flamboyant overstatement is not half so impressive as plain, straight, unvarnished English.

Compare: “The hell-for-leather hombre-out-of-the-blue came thundering into the corral, skidded his cayuse to a spine-jolting stop, leaped to the ground in a whirlwind of dust and shoved two fistfuls of blue steel at the slack-jawed rannies. ‘This is my play!’ he snarled.”

“The stranger’s approach was like the sudden rising of a thunder cloud on the horizon; one minute he was the center of a far-off but swiftly approaching tornado; then, abruptly, the men in the corral were facing his guns and his scowl.”

The first paragraph is from a Western pulp—the second is a suggested rephrasing from an editor who has become sick unto nausea of trite phraseology. Is the second preferable to the first? Too much saccharine sickens; firecrackers on the sixth of July are a damn nuisance. Triteness is not a stimulant to readers, it is a soporific.

It isn’t necessary to ape the Saroyans and the Steins (most of whose works are as yet untranslated) in order to be different. Just be yourself.

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