Vintage WD: Roses and Thorns, Reflections on the Writing Life - Writer's Digest

By Jim Kjelgaard, Writer's Digest, September 1956

25 years as a writer, and he’d do it over, and here is how he’d do it.

If Robert Bloch, master of science-fiction and fantasy and my very good friend, ever actually invents a time machine that can send me back a quarter of a century for a new start, I’ll again be a writer. A writer’s life has thorns, but some of the roses are very sweet. I cannot imagine a more rewarding career. I don’t know of a time when I have not wanted to write. Even in grade-school days, I was always scribbling in my notebooks.

As I grew older, the desire to write became more intense. In my teens I read everything I could get my hands on. But I think it was Zane Grey and Hal G. Evarts that made me decide once and for all that I would be a writer. I read almost everything these two men wrote. Both these writers seem to lead such exciting lives. Grey was forever fishing in the South Seas, Evarts was always hunting in some exotic place. I liked to fish and I loved to hunt. So, I thought in my adolescent ignorance, if I become a writer, I also can fish and hunt to my heart’s content.

I was, or course, wrong. While Evarts and Grey wrote most entertainingly of their exploits, they never said anything about the grueling discipline, the long hours spent over their typewriters. But now, I know about this part of writing, and so, if I could start over, I’d know that I faced an exacting job that often requires many more hours of hard work than most jobs.

One time I had to do a quick rewrite on my novel The Lost Wagon. To get it done I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. I’d know I’d have to be strong enough to face such effort every now and then or I’d be a failure.

I’ve never met one of those movie-version writers who spent part of their time in Florida, part in Maine, attend an endless whirl of gay parties, and only write when the mood strikes them—half an hour every other week.

All the successful writers I know are successful mainly because they work hard.

But when the work is done, there is the other side—the traveling and the hunting.

A writer is freer than a man at a regular job. Every year, for never less than six weeks and often for a much longer time, I leave my desk and go forth in search of new ideas. So doing, I’ve visited great areas of the United States, Canada and had more than the average man’s share of hunting and fishing.

What would I write, it I were to start all over? I think I would not decide in advance that I just had to write novels, or short stories, or articles, or TV script. I’d play the field, at first. If I had a good idea for a novel, I’d write it. Should a first-rate article subject be lying around, I’d grab it. Same goes for a TV script.

There are few writers who can play the field all their lives. For most of us, it’s just a way of learning what we can do best and, more to the point, like best. I sold at least 500 stories and articles to all types of publications—from a ¼ cent-a-word pulps to 50 cent-a-word slicks before I decided that juveniles were for me.

So I learned something else, and were I to do it over again I’d forget everything I’d ever heard about the financial rewards of writing. I’d know that doing something you like means you will do it well, and doing it well, you’ll get paid for it.

When I definitely decided to specialize in juveniles, many who thought they knew, told me I’d never earn $75 a week. It is true that I did not average that much at the beginning, but after my third book I was never below it, and most of the time I’ve been gratifyingly above. (I’ve been writing juveniles for 17 years.)

It’s a Long Road

Were I starting over, I’d know that, before I could hope to earn a living writing, I’d have to serve a long apprenticeship. I started serious writing when I was 18. I sold a little of what I turned out—for a tenth of a cent a word—to magazines any literate person could sell to.

It was eight years before I hit what I then considered the jackpot. Collier’s bought a story called “The Black Horse,” and paid more than twice as much as I’d received for my best sales. After that I was on the right road, but five more years passed before I had an assured income, one that would equal what a postman might earn.

I would know whether or not I had “the gift.” To my mind “the gift” is in large measure the strength of the urge; that is, how badly you want to write.

I often received letters from youngsters who would like to be writers. There is one in particular, who started corresponding with me when she was in fifth grade. She is now in high school. She sent me her stories. The first were nothing more than little girl meanderings. I gave each the most honest criticism I could offer and she took my advice. The last story she sent me is probably not saleable but it is a wonderful bit of writing for any high school student. If that youngster keeps on, she’ll be a writer. Whether she does, depends on whether the desire burns strongly enough to make her face the discouraging hours and the hard work.

The Will to Write

And so, for all of us, the gift is the will to write.

I would not fear competition as such. The very loose statement that there are millions of aspiring writers in the United States means merely that there are millions who write an hour a week, an hour a month, or even an hour a year. But only a very few work hard enough to become professionals.

My textbooks, during my apprenticeship, would be the works of writers whom I admired most. It would not matter who they were, as long as they were what I thought I’d like to be, though it never hurts to aim high. If I thought I could be another Ernest Haycox or Luke Short, I’d try my best to be one. I might fail, but just trying to scale their heights would be sure to get me at least part way up.

I would set aside some time each day for writing and adhere rigorously to my schedule. I’d make sure of privacy; if I hadn’t any room of my own, I’d go into the garage, a shed, or out under a tree.

When I decided that writing was the only career that would ever satisfy me, I was working full time in a factory. But I allotted two hours every night for writing. I wrote whatever I considered a good story, and were I starting over, I’d know this as excellent experience.

I would not, even if the attic overflowed, throw away a single script I wrote as a beginner. I’d know they’d be mawkish and poorly written. None of them would be saleable. But many of them would have a priceless ingredient—youthful enthusiasm and genuine inspiration—which is increasingly hard to inject in later years. When I’d learned my craft, I’d reread those stories, and if I could recapture the original spark from even one, I’d rewrite it and have one of the finest stories of my career.

As a beginner, I’d certainly seek advice, but I would not show my scripts to my family or friends, for their criticism. People close to you almost invariable praise your efforts and don’t know enough.

I’d be aware that editors hold their desks because they know their business. I’d realize that they must please a reading public and I’d try to be assured of their whole-hearted cooperation. I’d know that a good editor can, and often will, help to make a pro out of an amateur. Editors certainly helped me.

When Harry Paxton was on the staff of The Country Gentleman he liked the idea behind one of my stories, “The Last Elk.” But it was poorly written and so he sent a long letter suggesting many changes. After I sent the story back he made me rewrite it five more times. He accepted the sixth effort and paid for it at top rates, but not before he had written more words of criticism than were in the original story.

And this was not an isolated case in my experience. When Ben Hibbs was editor of Country Gentleman, he put as much effort into my story “Uncle Lawrence’s Trout.” Florence Bonime, formerly at Dodd-Mead and now herself a freelancer, worked endlessly on The Lost Wagon doing some fine rewriting.

But I’d know that I couldn’t expect such editorial help until I’d be at least three quarters towards being a regular professional with some sales under my belt. So, as an apprentice, I’d look for people who know what editors want. I’d ponder the possibility of asking an accomplished pro to accept me as a student, but I’d have small hope that he would. Most professionals can do a lot better writing than they can teaching, and when they aren’t writing they’re hunting new stories. But if I could persuade a pro with a national reputation, not someone who’d just written a few features for the local paper, to tutor me, I would not object to paying him reasonable fees and I would not look for miracles. The most I’d expect would be to absorb some of his experience and have him show me what I was doing wrong. I would also insist on a flat fee. Under no circumstances would I sign a contract with any writer guaranteeing him any part of my future earnings.

Failing to find a writer, I’d look for a professional critic. But I’d be sure that, if I had the least doubt about his ethics or methods, I’d be unable to work successfully with him. So I’d try more critics until I found one in whom I had complete confidence.

Twenty years ago, in the pages of Writer’s Digest, I found a critic-agent who suited me exactly. For more than a year and a half—and I had already sold—I paid him to tell me what was wrong with my stories, and during that time he did not make a single sale. But neither did he ever mince words or butter me up with flattery. I’m still with him, and though he tells me when he thinks I’ve gone astray, principally he acts as my agent. Some people think I’m silly to continue working with him and giving him commissions, sometimes amounting to $400 or even more. These people do not know about the many profitable story assignments my agent has brought me or the lucrative book contract which I might never have had without him. He has brought me more money than I ever pad him in commissions and has been a real friend.

Having found a critic in whom I had confidence, I’d do exactly as he said. I’d analyze everything he told me, over and over again. If he asked me to rewrite a story five times, or ten times, I’d do it and try to discover why each rewrite was necessary. If the critic told me to discard a story, I’d do that, too, and consider the reading fee well spent. But if I myself had any confidence in the story, I would not throw it away, for I would know that even the finest critic can be wrong.

I Would Remain Myself

Above all, I’d remain an individual. I’d recognize the fact that there are basic essential techniques but that “formula” tends to be a poor imitation of what someone else has written. I would write any story which I thought deserved my time. I have done this, knowing in advance that there was no obvious market for the story, but though weighty editorial conferences almost always resulted because the story was off-trail, the majority of them were accepted for good prices. One, “Of The River And Uncle Pidock” made Martha Foley’s Anthology of Best Short Stories of 1949.

Any story I happened to work on, even though I knew it was going to bring only a small price, would get every ounce of ability I had.

Since I’d realize that writing could not be expected to support me at first, I’d get a job, and it would be as far a possible from anything connected with writing. If I were a man I might work in a factory, drive a truck, become a farm hand, preferable something manual. If I were a girl, I’d think twice about becoming a secretary or stenographer. Nobody who hammers a typewriter eight hours a day can look forward with any degree of enthusiasm to using it again at night. Perhaps I’d be a nurse or sales girl.

In my work, everything happening to me would be important, and I’d keep notes that I might use in a story or book. The last time the old Liberty paid their $1000 bonus for the best short-short of the year it was awarded to me for a story, “A Matter of Morale.” Based on an incident I’d picked up in a factory.

After my writing had netted me about $7,500 I’d consider going into full time freelancing. But I’d still be cautious. If, for the past ten years, I had averaged no more than $500 a year, and if I’d been able to hit only secondary magazines, I’d be sure that I had enough savings to tide me over for a few months—especially if I had a family to support. I’d know that I was putting myself out on a limb, and that I’d still need courage, and faith in myself.

But having come this far, I’d know I’d made the decision, because for me there was really no choice; that in spite of the difficulties, the hardships, the realization that I might never become rich in any real sense of the word, writing was my way of life; that only by writing was I fulfilled. And having spent a few years at it, selling here and there I’d know enough joys to balance any discouragement. I’d know that one acceptance wipes out of memory all rejections; that one reader’s not “how good you made me feel when you said that.” Would compensate for the days that my family went to the beach while I stayed in a hot room and typed.

I’d know that if I say a rose bloom fully on a morning work, I’d pick it, even though the thorns on its stems would prick my finder. Fingers heal but the beauty of a rose never dies in writer’s mind. 

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