Sunday, March 23, 2008
Long-running industry magazine files tell epic story of writer's market
The Associated Press
CINCINNATI: Emma Gary Wallace, professional author, had more than a few notions about the business of writing.
With a resume that included essays in housekeeping and cooking magazines, and a popular Christmas story, "The New Neighbor," she was able and ready to share tips with readers of a new monthly magazine called Successful Writing.
"Writers waste a great deal of postage sending stuff around the country to impossible markets," she observed. "Don't carry coals to Newcastle or offer jewelry in a blacksmith shop. Every magazine has its own policy and makes a definite appeal to a certain clientele. Study these and take them into consideration when offering your wares for any market."
The year was 1921, and advice about writing was and remains a market itself.
The timeless cry for help as one makes the great leap from the desire to write to actual writing to published writing has inspired countless books, magazines, classes and Web sites. Successful Writing, now Writer's Digest, is one of the oldest players in the business. Based in Cincinnati at the corporate headquarters of F&W Publications, it still enjoys a circulation of more than 100,000.
"I sincerely believe that we have something to offer a broad spectrum of writers at every stage of their development, from the novice to the veteran writer in every genre," says Writer's Digest editor Maria Schneider.
For anyone who wonders what the emerging writer has faced over the decades, the magazine's files preserved in bulky, bound volumes tell a dual history. Evolution is constant, as technologies from airplanes to computers, and historical events from the Great Depression to the sexual revolution, bring on new markets and genres. But at the heart of the game, the riddle remains: How does one write, and write well? How do you get your writing noticed and sold?
Like the best epics, reading through the pages of Writer's Digest is less about finding the answer than enjoying the questions.
"It's like asking if we're any closer to the great mystery of how one paints a portrait or composes a symphony?" says mystery writer Lawrence Block, who for years contributed a column to Writer's Digest. "Most of the arts certainly are extremely difficult, and there are always more people who want to do it than can do it."
Writer's Digest features interviews, market surveys and general advice. The April issue includes a cover story on vampire novelist Laurell K. Hamilton, updates on such "hot" genres as romance and horror and an essay by contributor Bonnie Trenga, who recommends that sentences run no longer than 40 words because "your readers don't have a very long attention span."
When the magazine debuted, "crook stories" were in, dialect was out and the great new draw was "motion pictures," or photoplays, a business barely as old as the century. The Goldwyn Co. ran an advertisement about its hunt for the "screen's own Shakespeare." An article reported that the "penurious playwright who used to peddle manuscripts" was "probably writing his plays for the motion pictures now, and living in ease."
Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and other modernists were already breaking up traditional narrative and grammar, but in the early 1920s, the marketplace belonged to the straight and the simple.
"A readable, lucid style, is far preferable to what is called a 'literary style.' ... a complicated method of expression which confuses rather than clarifies thought," one columnist advised. A suggestion for nonfiction writers: "One of the surest ways to please editors is for the writer to prove himself accurate."
The market often danced to the tune of current events. In the '20s, the rise of commercial flights resulted in "airplane fiction," adventure stories set in the skies. The repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, led to new opportunities in beer industry journals.
During World War II, romance writers were urged to forget those Depression-era tales of financial peril and were reminded that if a young man wasn't in uniform, the writer had to explain why. At the end of 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered, correspondent Sgt. Donn Hale Munson reported that the "war market" was "shot" and that it was time to "take your hero out of uniform ... and put him back in civic clothes."
The times could change as surely as snow melts in spring. In January 1981, the cover story centered on authors and their typewriters, and revealed that Gay Talese used dental floss for repairs. By April, the magazine was running a long article on word processors. By the end of the year, one article speculated about an "easily accessible database network."
Cyberspace and electronic publishing seemed like science fiction for much of the 20th century, and it took a science fiction writer to catch the future. A 1971 essay by the editor of Galaxy magazine, Frederick Pohl, an award-winning science fiction writer, uncannily anticipated print-on-demand and electronic books as he imagined the market of 2001.
"Suppose you want to read a novel. You type out the name and byline on the keyboard of your teletype, and 'order' a copy of the book. Immediately it starts printing out your personal copy, a page at a time," Pohl writes. "And if you don't care about (having an actual book), you can hang your TV tube over the foot of the bed, have the book displayed to you a page at a time and read it at your ease."
Scandals that seemed new in recent years were around long before. In the 1930s, articles were appearing on plagiarism, ghost writing ("as old as the proverbial hills") and journalistic fakery. In the 1950s, a new genre teen fiction was identified.
If publishing was ever a gentleman's game in tweed, the pages of Writer's Digest were not telling. Books over the decades were compared to breakfast food, chewing gum and oil-burning engines. A columnist in 1930 complained of the "abnormal emphasis being stressed on sex." As early as 1945, the industry was condemned for selling its soul to the gods of publicity.
"Nowadays it is not enough to publish a book; it must be sent skyward like a trial balloon, carrying its banners and famous names," complained Vardis Fisher, an Idaho-based author and newspaper columnist.
Romance and mystery were in demand all along, although trends and publications have come and gone.
In the early '20s, you could try Saucy Stories, which called for "fiction with very rapid action" and a few "clever epigrams" thrown in, or "The Youth's Companion," which "welcomes humor and pathos, but not pessimism." During the Depression, the MacMillan Co. was looking for "realistic, proletarian" novels, while by 1974, in the wake of Watergate, magazines from the National Tattler to The Woman were seeking investigative pieces.
The writer in 1949 looked out on an especially interesting market. Whisper magazine was seeking "sensational material, only with tabloid treatment." Jungle Stories was soliciting stories on "native tribal life or adventures of white men in the jungle."
Both sides of the Cold War were possible: Personal Liberty Magazine sought examples of "the enslaving spirit of Communism, Nazism and fascism." The Kapustkan Magazine wanted fiction "aimed at the evils of war, greed, hypocrisy, secrecy, poverty, injustice, intolerance, inequality and intimidation."
A caution: "Brevity desired."
The market was a code to crack and self-proclaimed experts came bearing solutions, such as J. Berg Esenwein, whose advice "plucks out the heart of magazine writing" and saves much "eye strain" for young writers. Readers of the '20s and 1930s likely heard much about William Wallace Cook's Plotto, "a new method of plot suggestion." Other options included Grace Porterfield Polk's "Polk-a-Dot Primer for Poets" and the Sherwin Cody School of English, presided over by Cody himself, a bearded man with a stern, professorial gaze.
No one was readier to counsel, and console, than Thomas H. Uzzell, identified as a former editor of Collier's and a market watcher whose ads and essays appeared for more than two decades.
In 1931, as the Depression dragged on, he reminded the idle businessman that the empty hours could be filled writing that long-promised book. "Necessity has launched more literary careers then you'd like to imagine," Uzzell observed.
A decade later, soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, an Uzzell ad was headlined "WAR! NEW MARKETS! NEW DEMANDS! NEW PROBLEMS! Can you solve them?" Uzzell declared that in "such times only craftsmen, trained writers with editorial insight can survive. Escape and propaganda must be combined."
The famous, too, have prescribed. Somerset Maugham, in a 1942 essay, thought hospital doctors were ideal writers because they have seen human nature "bare" and frightened. Fifty years later, Stephen King urged against writing outlines, even as the magazine itself touted a system of plotting with index cards. Michael Crichton believed that you should get published first, then worry about an agent.
All agreed that the only way to become a writer was to write. The prolific John Updike recommended steady work habits, while Michael Chabon said nothing was possible without "talent," "luck" and "discipline." And in the early 1920s, a promising young short story writer offered a terse formula for success after a less fortunate peer sought help on how to develop a plot.
"Your letter was very vague as to what you wanted to know," the author scolded. "Study Kipling and O. Henry, and work like hell! I had 122 rejections slips before I sold a story."
The author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was not easily discouraged.