A rather wonderful book has come into my possession. I bought it whilst house-sitting (and writing my next book) in Suffolk, on a trip to an antique centre taken as light relief after an intense period tapping away at the laptop. Called Short Story Writing for Profit, it is by Michael Joseph and was written 90 years ago, in the mid 1920s. It bears some close reading, and some sharing, so I thought it deserved more than one post. I think, as I read it, the saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ is very appropriate to the writing life…
So firstly, the Foreword, which is by short story writer Stacy Aumonier, who was described in an Independent list of Forgotten Authors as ‘perfect for reading with a hot toddy on a cold night’, and who wrote the intriguingly titled “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty”, in which a shy heroine ‘winds up underneath a dead stranger’s bed in a French hotel room’. His wise words should be read by all aspiring writers.
An early paragraph describes the would-be author thus:
I have often noticed that when authors break loose, that is to say when they escape from their colleagues, and flash their personalities at dinner parties and tea-fights, they invariably talk about Smollett and Fielding, Freud and Froissart, and art, and art, and ART. But when they are together with no visitors present, they talk about contracts and agents, and the best way to squeeze a bit more out of editors and publishers. All of which is very nice and as it should be.
Do we know anyone like that? Apart from never having been invited to a ‘tea-fight, I don’t think I do, but one never knows how one comes across, does one? *puts on pompous hat*.
On the process of writing a short story he says:
…This is a point which cannot be stressed too much- that a short story must be finished before it is begun. In other words that you must think it all out clearly and in detail before you begin to write. In a novel it is not so necessary, because you may wander off and enjoy yourself and come back…
I am not sure how many authors of novels feel free to ‘wander off and enjoy themselves’, but Aumonier then offers the best piece of advice a writer of shorter fiction can hear, that is the need ‘to use the utmost economy and eliminate all superfluous matter’.
On the business of writing, that is the commercial side, the differences between then and now make themselves known, at least in the realities of traditional publishing:
But to be as successful as H.G. Wells must be a perfect nightmare. When he writes a novel he has to consider…English book rights, and the American book rights, but the English serial rights, and the American serial rights, and the translation rights in a dozen or more foreign countries….And it looks as though quite soon we shall have some further complications with broadcasting or wireless rights.
And after all deductions, he says:
A friend of mine who wrote two best-sellers recently told me that he gets just eight shillings in the pound on what he earns!
In the next post I will detail what the author, Michael Joseph, offers as advice to ‘remove the more obvious blemishes of amateur efforts’. Whilst believing that the writing of great stories cannot be taught, he hopes to make it easier for even the most obvious novice to get past the apparently discerning editors he mentions and into publications lost to news stands for decades. He is not quite as patronising as he sounds…
Perhaps we should all give up hope? No – we must turn back to the cheering words of Stacy Aumonier who ends his Foreword by saying:
There are days when the weather is dull and overcast, and customers [for your writing] few and far between, and surly in their demeanour. You feel inclined to put up the shutters, and run away and leave it, and never come back. But wait awhile. There dawns a day when the sun comes out, and you suddenly think how attractive your goods look in the window, and customers are jolly and generous. They pat you on the back, and even pay you for things in advance, and you are awfully pleased with yourself. You forget about the dull days. You even persuade yourself – quite unreasonable – that the dull days cannot return, because you are living then, and sunshine is a more vital thing than mist.