Skip to main content

Vintage WD: Notes on Fiction Writing

In this 1941 Writer's Digest article, one writer talks about knowing the ins and outs of the genre in which you're writing, and the one thing they all have in common: writing a good story.

By Robert Erisman

Writer’s Digest, April 1941

Notes on Fiction Writing

I am sitting here remembering that I have edited quite a few fiction magazines and that I have published in quite another few and that in and around these labors I have done a great deal of thinking about and wrestling with most every problem of fiction writing and from most every possible angle. I am sitting here with all this boiling inside me and thinking that I should be able to write some kind of an article out of it that might be helpful to other writers.

So I start making notes. I start jotting things down; anything, just as it comes:

Story ideas were never Lyle Gumm’s trouble. Lyle writes detective and mystery yarns under the name Donald Dale. He came up to the office one day to talk about a novelette he was doing for me. He did not look very happy.

“Oh, hell, Bob,” he said, “I’m not having trouble getting started because I can’t get an idea. My trouble is that I have too many ideas. I sit and go mad trying to decide which one to use.”

Lyle was almost too intelligent to be a writer. A writer who has trouble finding a “good idea” for a story is luckier than Lyle’s kind. He will be so happy over his idea when he finally hits on one that he will nurse it, expand it, relax contentedly into the problem of developing it into a sound emotional story.

The day of the trick story idea is taking more than a temporary back seat. It is completely out in the literary field, pretty nearly out in the slicks, halfway out in the pulps, thriving only in the comic magazines. It looks as if the reading public is growing up.

Literary magazines want more significant stories, slicks want stories that tend toward the literary, pulps want stories that tend toward slick, comics are calling in experienced pulp writers so that they can get better stories. The trend is to quality, in the writing; the trend is to character, in the plotting.

Writing a pulp or a slick, it’s best to get a “feel” for a character as your story idea. Thinking up a character that you could really go to bat for, that you could really be thrilled writing about.

One day I was doing some work around the house with hammer and nails and lumber. I’m no powerful, rangy lug, but working with tools and doing a good job with them gave me a feel of power, of easy rangy strength. I thought I’d like to do a story about such a character, I thought I’d like to get the feel into the character that I’d felt working with those tools capably.

An opening paragraph began running through my head. Later I set it down. And before I had that paragraph down a complete logical plot had flowered out of it. The story I wrote from the plot I sold to Liberty.

One night I was sitting in a bus station waiting for my bus. Most of the guys plunked around on the stools at the lunch counter were muscular tough mugs in work clothes. Compared to them I felt like a tall “nice” young man. They shot some touch, suspicious looks at me. I gave ‘em eye for eye for the fun of it.

I thought: This character I feel like, and these tough bus station babies, there’s something interesting in the feel of this clash. Suppose I had just come to this town and my making a go of my business in the town depended on these tough mugs liking me and they didn’t like me because I looked like a lanky sis.

A first paragraph got going: “They didn’t like Henry Palmer down at the bus station so he might just a well have ripped out his chair and taken his. D.D.S. diploma off the wall and packed up his instruments and moved on to the next town, for all the business he was going to get in Dorean.”

And a logical character plot started flowering, and the resultant story finally sold to Argosy.

Every writer ought to work in an editorial office if he possibly can, in whatever menial capacity. It is very, very tonic to a writer’s confidence to see that editors are not gods but simply [people]; that the stories they buy do not have some mysterious magic quality but are simply good jobs of writing and rewriting that ordinary humans produced; that editors actually do get very excited over buying a first story by a new writer; that what one editor thinks is a fine story another might think a piece of junk, and vice versa, so there’s no golden rule on what a good story is.

Taymond Porter, cover-name western pulp writer, took me to lunch one day and he said a lot of things but I remember this: He said he wrote his stories better than they had to be to sell simply for the sake of his writing soul. He said that he could never enjoy writing just for the dough itself.

Eaton Goldthwaite, Short Stories regular, is the lad who lives down the road two miles and beats me at checkers, and he says: I think up an interesting opening situation and the rest of the story takes care of itself.

Duane Decker, who broke into the slicks four years ago and has been in them ever since, used to have a desk next to mine in a literary agent’s office, and before he waved good-bye he said: “They keep telling me, cut out the clever-dialogue-for-its-own-sake, cut out the wise-cracks, and I did, and I broke in!”

Plot pattern that can be used in writing a comic magazine original, a pulp, a slick, or a literary story: Give the hero personal problem (he’s a coward, or his girl is mad at him for something about his character, or he’s trying to live down his crime past, etc.), then involve him in a new, bigger problem (affecting a whole town, or a whole range, or a poor old man, or the life of a lovely girl, etc.), and in an action climax have him solve both his personal problem and the bigger problem at the same time.


1. (Liberty story mentioned above) Hero is a former gangster, goes to small town to forget crime past (personal problem); falls in love with town girl and she with him but he hesitates to take her from town boy who’s been her sweetheart from childhood (bigger problem); gangsters come up from big city to bump him, instead of fighting them as girl expects he will, he pretends he’s a coward before them, so sends girl back to childhood-sweetheart-town-boy, at end he is being taken for a ride by gangsters with you hoping he might escape out on the road but you never find out.

2. (Argosy story mentioned above) Hero trying to start dentist business in small town, gang at bus station don’t like him (personal problem). Girl he falls in love with his brother who is fugitive from big city gangsters, brother hiding out at girl’s house. Hero breaks into girl’s house to save her and brother (bigger problem) from gangsters when they arrive; hero and girl and brother escape, rush to bus station for help, in resultant fight bus station gang beat up gangsters, hero tries to fight but is booted around, but bus station gang sees hero is “regular,” they like him finally, and hero sees that he’ll get their dentist business henceforward.

Half the manuscripts that come into an editorial office can be spotted as amateur right off by their physical appearance: paper is soiled, worn; or story is written in ink or pencil; or script is wrapped in ridiculously elaborate or fantastic fashion. I’ve never been able to understand how a writer could hope to interest an editor in a story that was written on paper that was yellow with age, dirty with too much travel, obviously rejected a thousand times.

A writer should never stop reading the magazines he’s trying to sell. Even after he starts selling them he shouldn’t stop reading them. Fashions in stories change constantly, just as in clothes, and in much subtler ways. A writer should try at least to stay up with the fashions, and he needs to know them to do this. And when he gets sure enough of himself he might even try setting a fashion or two of his own.

In a pulp you make your action scenes full, detailed. In a slick you make them pretty brief, you tell simply what happened without “pumping it up,” and you clip your scene sometimes right in the middle of the action.

Take an action excerpt from our Argosy story for example:

And then Henry had the girl and they were on the staircase trying to make their feet go faster, and then the door slammed deafeningly above them and Ted was hurtling after them.

None of them breathed a word. It was all speed, nerve-bursting speed, and Henry virtually heaved Sis into the roadster, and was inserting the ignition key before he was halfway in. And Ted was scrambling in over the back and Sis was releasing the emergency brake.

The motor caught on the first stab at the starter, the front left fender scraped past the back right fender of the black sedan Myers had left cut in ahead of the roadster.

And then an excerpt from the Liberty story, the final “action” clash between the hero and the gangsters:

Eldredge said, “What’s the idea of hitting the girl?” And Mary’s deep-blue eyes flashed proud defiance. These killers were babies to her, before this man she loved.

Eldridge had his turn. The tall son went over to sim and slammed him not once but a dozen times. With the knuckles, with the open palm and on the back-swing.

The gangster spat: “An’ they told us you might get tough!”

I didn’t look at Mary’s face.

These are the fine shades of style that you must keep up with daily. In a Colliers story, the action climax will likely simply show the hero hitting the villain, that’s all. There’ll likely be no detail on it at all. In a Liberty story, there’ll be the least bit of detail, as above. In an Argosy story (Argosy is a shade more slick than most pulps) the action will be pretty detailed, as above, but still not as “super-tense” as most pulps. In a pulp the action scenes will be full, finished, completely detailed. Explanations will be full and completely clear in pulps, they’ll be clear but half-suggested most of the time in the slicks.

Which emphasizes what I said above, the need to know all the markets to write for any one. From now the slicks are tending literary, and now the pulps are tending literary, and now the pulps are tending slick—and you have to know exactly how much, for so far it is very, very little but it is happening.

There was the day Max Wilkinson, fiction editor of Colliers, told my agent to have me come up and talk to him. At last, I thought, at last I will really find out the inside likes and dislikes of Colliers editors, the kinds of stories that they prefer, the kinds they look down on, the secret taboos, etc., etc.

I said: “I seem to notice a great many war stories in Colliers lately—do you prefer them now?”

“Not at all,” Wilkinson said. “We just happen to get more good war stories lately than any other kind, so that’s what we print.”

And then I said: “I’ve heard that gangster stories are out of date now, that they are practically taboo in slick offices—is that true?”

And Wilkinson shook his head and said: “Certainly not that I know of. We’ll buy a good gangster story as readily as any other kind.”

Then Wilkinson began talking about what Colliers wanted in fiction, and when I could think of something I wanted to know I asked it. And one thing I asked was did they prefer girl interest in their stories, and Wilkerson said that it didn’t matter whether a story had girl interest or not, and so it went, and frankly this was the sum and substance of what I found out about Colliers fiction needs: They are always looking for a good story at Colliers.

And that is what most every editor will tell you, and you are wasting his time and yours trying to get anything more specific. The tough thing of course, is that every editor has his own ideas of what a “good story” is. But the good thing is that you as a writer do have complete and absolute freedom in your choice of a subject to write about. I had that truth brought home to me for the first time when my agent was talking to me right after he had taken me on.

I said: “I seem to notice that most of the stories that get published have an unusual background of some sort. Is it good to use an unusual background?”

And he said: “Not necessarily.”

I said: “Are there any particular kinds of stories that have a better chance than other kinds?”

He shook his head. He said: “Write any story that you feel like writing. Just be sure you make it a good story.”

And we could have no better proof of his being right than the Liberty and Argosy stories we’ve been analyzing: the background of the Liberty story is a small-town lunch wagon, and the background of the Argosy story is a small-town bus station, and certainly you couldn’t bear those for ordinariness.

There has been a great deal said about suspense. You hear exultant praise for the way such and such a writer has “maintained the suspense” in such and such a story. Suspense is a very simple thing. Take a character and make the reader like him and put him in trouble and keep him in trouble until the end of the story and you have “maintained the suspense.”

You do, though, have to be sure you make the reader care what happens to the character. And you do have to make the trouble he is in convincing.

One of my writers brought a novelette in to me recently. It had a hero that you liked, he was in trouble from beginning to end. Yet you did not feel suspense, you were not gripped by the story.

Trouble was, hero was such a powerful, capable guy you could never really worry about him—and the villains, though there were four of them, and they were all ruthless brutes, were still not very frightening. So my writer had the first half of suspense in his story (you liked the hero) but not his second (the trouble hero was in was not convincing).

Two fixes made a tense yarn out of this novelette:

1. We made the hero a champion for a couple of nice kids who were about to get married (so that though we didn’t have to worry so much about the hero, we did have to worry about these two kids).

2. We made the villains more frightening. The writer had introduced them in a scene in their hide-out early in the story, and you knew them so well from their talk that you did not fear them any longer; you felt that you knew their powers and limitations pretty thoroughly.

So we kept one villain unknown, only hinting now and then at his mysterious ruthlessness, deadliness. We made a second one active and present a great deal of the times, but we didn’t ever let him reveal himself to the reader, so that he kept you guessing. The other two gangsters we let be as they were, just brute henchmen.

Personal Essay Awards

Learn about the Writer's Digest Personal Essay competition.

Sugar House Review Market Spotlight quote

Sugar House Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at Sugar House Review, a nonprofit poetry publication based out of Utah.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 28

For the 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Day 28 is remix time.

Brian Lee Durfee: On Finishing a Fantasy Trilogy

Brian Lee Durfee: On Finishing a Fantasy Trilogy

Artist and author Brian Lee Durfee discusses what it felt like to write the final sentence in his Five Warrior Angels trilogy with his novel, The Lonesome Crown.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 5 WDU Courses, our Short Short Story Competition, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce 5 WDU courses, our short short story competition deadline, and more!

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 27

For the 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Day 27 is all about resolutions.

Willaims, 11:26

Preslaysa Williams: On Finding Hope in Romance

Award-winning author Preslaysa Williams discusses the process of writing her new romance novel, A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 26

For the 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Day 26 requires a second thought.

12 Books That Make Perfect Gifts This Holiday Season

12 Books That Make Perfect Gifts This Holiday Season

Here are 12 books released in 2022 that make perfect gifts this holiday season for the reader in your life.

Writing a Nonfiction Crime Story in a Literary Style

Writing a Nonfiction Crime Story in a Literary Style

Rigorous research, incorporating  authentic dialogue, and adding details from true-to-life moments, author Deborah Larkin shares how she wrote a nonfiction crime story in a literary style.