In the nearly 100 years that Writer’s Digest has been shepherding writers through their careers, the magazine has published countless tips on the craft of writing. Some timeless fiction writing tips are great advice for writers to follow no matter the year. Others don’t age as well, shedding light on how readers’ tastes and publishing trends have evolved over the last century.
In WD Contributing Editor Don Vaughan’s recent article for the Writer’s Digest May/June 2019 issue, he gives an overview of the various types of magazines published during the 20th century and the lessons fiction and nonfiction writers alike can learn from the styles of storytelling these magazines pioneered.
Vaughan’s exploration of the men’s adventure magazines popular in the 1940s-1960s unearthed a classic writing tip from Fiction House, Inc. Managing Editor Jack Byrne. In “The Way to the Fiction House Market,” an article he penned for the August 1929 issue of Writer’s Digest, Byrne gave this advice for writers looking to break into any of the 11 men’s adventure magazines published by the now-defunct Fiction House:
Vintage Wisdom (Good and Bad): 14 Short Fiction Writing Tips From Writer's Digest 1929
“We must have a good, fast opening. Smack us within the first paragraph. Get our interest aroused. Don’t tell us about the general geographic situation or the atmospheric conditions. Don’t describe the hero’s physique or the kind of pants he wears. Start something!”
This quote from Byrne is often cited in many anthologies and studies of men’s adventure magazines. While they can no longer be found on newsstands (unless you’re shopping in an antique mall), Byrne’s advice still holds up for any type of fiction today. An intense opening hooks readers and increases the changes that they’ll remain hooked, wanting to find out how your story unfolds from there.
Yet, some of the tips from Byrne’s article don’t hold up as well as the above for various reasons. After unearthing the full 1929 article, WD editors have selected their favorite vintage fiction writing tips from the piece—the good, the bad and the just plain silly.
“Build your plots so that action can be continuous. Picture your story as a succession of action scenes that will unfold a situation and solve it in the climax. It may help you if you think of your plot as a movie director would visualize it if he were making a six-reeler. Ask yourself what scene he would use as an opening to get immediate attention and interest—what continuity would he follow—from what angle would he shoot various scenes to get his best effects?”
While Byrne’s assumption that all movie directors are male doesn’t hold up (sorry, Greta Gerwig), action writing is still a good quality to strive for in your writing. Readers expect to be dropped into the middle of the action at the beginning of a story. Don’t bog them down with the details that led up to that point. If you’re stuck wondering where the action of a scene is, it couldn’t hurt to try looking at it as if you were a director (who can be any gender) filming a movie.
“Study our magazines. It is the one surest way to familiarize yourself with the special formula of each of our publications. And we mean study! Don’t just read the stories—dissect them, find the qualities in them that made us buy them!”
For fiction and nonfiction writers, this remains true of any magazine or literary journal you’d like to submit your work to. Most writers will probably read (or skim) a few pieces from publications before submitting their own writing to the editors. However, you greatly increase your chances of getting published by figuring out what makes pieces from the publication unique and adapting your work to better nail the style and tone that publication seeks.
“Avoid unnecessary profanity. Avoid use of the name God in a profane or semi-profane or even in a facetious manner. Drinking scenes should be cut down to the minimum. Especially is it necessary to avoid having the hero of a story indulge in much drinking. He need not be a teetotaler, of course, but don’t dwell on his drinking abilities!”
Opinions about swearing, using the name God in vain and drinking have certainly evolved since 1929. Byrne wrote this article during the Prohibition, after all, and I can think of plenty of novels from this era that ignore this advice (ahem, The Sun Also Rises). In fact, a character that swears too much can add some grit to their dialogue. While dwelling on too much of anything can certainly bog down a manuscript, it isn’t necessary to eliminate any of these three vices in a story.
“Whenever it is necessary to the plot of your story to kill a character, avoid gory description of the episode. Killings should be handled chiefly as a means of removing a character from the action of the story so that the plot can develop accordingly. They should be along the lines of the bloodless knockout of the prize ring.”
While society’s general aversion to goriness has changed since 1929, this fiction writing tip is either a winner or a loser depending on the type of writing you are doing. For example, even those who haven’t read The Hunger Games probably know that the saddest scene is when Rue dies. Suzanne Collins handles Rue’s death as a sentimental end to her friendship with Katniss and a turning point for her to up her game to fight against the Capitol. It is unlikely that this scene would be remembered for the same reasons and have had the same effect on readers if Rue had died in a more gruesome way that was vividly described piece by piece.
However, the rules of goriness are different in genres such as horror. Use your best discretion when deciding on how much gore to write into a scene, keeping in mind the tone you would like your work to have.
“Woman interest is permissible but it must not overshadow the ‘action-adventure’ elements.”
Byrne was speaking of how to write for mens’ adventure magazines here. But 90 years later, we’ve come a long way in terms of what is perceived as “women’s interest,” so much that this tip is laughable.
“A requirement common to all our magazines is that the heroes of the stories be Americans. In stories laid in a Canadian or an Alaskan locale, the hero may be a Canadian or French-Canadian; in a Mexican locale, the hero may be a Mexican or Spanish-Mexican type.”
While it is never a good idea to lean toward appropriation in a story, it isn’t a requirement that your protagonist be of North American origin and remain in their country of birth.
“Sympathetic character delineation is a requisite in all Action Stories yarns. We want the lovable, swash-buckling hombre, the two-fisted type of adventurer, who is the genuine Action Stories hero.”
Publishers no longer expect your protagonist to be a “swash-buckling hombre,” but they at the very least expect them to be someone that readers can relate to. Is the reader given enough detail about the main characters so that they can understand their motivations and desires? If not, it’s time to get back to revising your manuscript.
“Getting what we call air-feel into a story is indicative of the fact that the author is well-acquainted with the field in which he is writing. To get this with any degree of success, the author should reproduce, wherever possible, the vernacular of the air pilots in his dialogue. Then, too, the whenever outlining technicalities, the writer should strive to eliminate that stiffness about them which is present whenever the author is not well-versed in the air field.”
While Byrne’s advice is referring to air travel and air warfare specifically, it’s always a good idea to do some research about the setting or subjects of your story so that they have a deeper sense of detail and authenticity. Travel to the place your story is set. Study the intricacies of the dance the characters obsess over. As always, never bog readers down with too much detail. They want to feel as if they are immersed in the world of your story, after all. If one pilot spends two pages telling their co-pilot how to land the plane or something else you’d hope they knew before taking off, it interrupts the flow of your story.
“Our heroes should be young—only occasionally do we use the old prospector type.”
The above advice might be true when writing for children and teens, but in adult literature, an unexpected protagonist is always welcome.
“Keep the characters lively and human—put them in a big, glamorous outdoor setting—and let them move at a fast clip through a series of high adventures.”
George Orwell’s Animal Farm proves that stories told from the point of view of animals can be interesting. Most adult fiction has human protagonists, so an animal protagonist in your story might set your manuscript apart from the rest of the slush pile. However, when going an experimental route it is always important to ensure that this experimentation is done well. Keep the action fast-paced, like Byrne advised. Readers don’t want to get stuck in long, drawn-out prose about a cow chewing on grass all day.
“Let the plot unroll rapidly, maintaining tension and speed with adequate characterization, right up to the finale. Here, swing your story to its highest pitch in a swirl of convincing, gripping action that will hold the reader to the last word.”
This tip has no doubt stood the test of time. Byrne emphasized quick plotting so much because the type of fiction he was looking to publish required it. Yet, the essentials for any good story are good characterization and believable, interesting action from the first to last page.
“Avoid the roughneck types of hanger-on—the kind of fellows who use ‘desedem and dose’ style of language. Tell the story in straightforward English, neither too highbrow nor too lowbrow.”
I have no idea what “desedem and dose” language is, but I can guess that it isn’t the best style to write a story in. It’s always best to write in language that sounds believable and natural—don’t abuse the thesaurus.
“Manuscripts should be cleanly typed on standard-sized paper. Don’t send us first-draft copy, with interlineations, crossed-out words and other aggravations. Soiled pages divert the attention of the reader from what you are saying—something you cannot well afford.”
Well, duh. In the era of the typewriter and mailed manuscripts, I’d venture to say most would be turned off by soiled pages. Now in the era of the computer and the ability to digitally edit before sending your work out into the world, there’s no excuse for sloppy writing.
Follow these vintage writing tips worth trying, and your stories will stand the test of time.