My training as a writer began, at latest, when I was ten. My father was, and still is, a journalist; he was formerly Irish special commissioner for the Birmingham (England) Gazette, and now dean of the English musical critics. It was his idea that, provided the applicant had the goods, no business gave such immediate and permanent rewards as authorship, preferably approached through journalism. He taught me all I know about writing, the text-books being his own and Pope’s Essay on Criticism, which contains matter applicable to prose writers as well as to poets. I may say here, without wishing to beckon to the income-tax hounds, that I have found his opinion as to the rewards of the literary business to be singularly just.
In due course I became junior reporter on the Birmingham Gazette; stayed there until the effort to be a reporter and write stories on the side track broke down my health; and then snatched a free sea voyage by becoming secretary to a business man bound for the United States. My health improved, and the war now being on, I tried to get home. But nobody could get to England unless to join the army, for which the medical examiner of the Consulate pronounced me physically unfit. I essayed circumvention, but my eyesight, combined with a ragtime heart left by my illness, marooned me every time. I mention all this because, but for such circumstances, I should probably not have been writing at all. Even had I survived the war, the English editors are much slower to snap up an unknown man than the American. America is without doubt the literary novice’s paradise. In England, Conan Doyle hawked Sherlock Holmes in vain for eighteen months. Out of my experience, I swear he could not have kept the stuff in his hands here eighteen minutes.
Well, left flat in a strange land, I naturally tore my way back into newspaper work —as it happened, in the capacity of reviewer of motion pictures for a New York evening newspaper. I later became editor of a weekly motion picture section of the same paper; then switched to a scenario-staff job with Vitagraph. I cannot emphasize too much the value of this motion picture work. Like most beginners, I had cherished the vague idea that incident in a story was rather crude. The thing was snappy dialogue and lots of style; a Greek quotation every now and then, perhaps, to split the ears of the groundlings, as it were. At Vitagraph, without going to the equally fatal opposite extreme, I was brought to realize that life, which a literary buffer is supposed to portray, in fact consists of incidents, and not of philosophical reflections. I had heretofore sold nothing; I now sold a yarn to the Black Cat Magazine for twenty dollars.
To this extent, I broke my rule against working on the side. When “Getting It” appeared, however, I resigned from my staff job, with about two hundred dollars capital, and started to do the thing in style. I was married; so you see I counted on making my mark pretty quickly.
I didn’t sell anything.
I tore my hair, went out and became an editor again, accumulated more capital, resigned again, and had another slap at the market.
This time I landed a dozen stories with People’s Magazine, which treated me very kindly and wanted more. But I had passed upward and beyond such stuff—I thought. I started a series of intensely emotional, introspective stories which should really be literature—and went bankrupt again.
I had another spell as an editor; and one day, while putting a page to bed, I conceived a momentous idea. It was extremely simple, and absolutely vital. It was simply that a writer is an entertainer of the public, and that it is therefore his job to give the people what will entertain them, and not what will entertain him; and not what will instruct them, elevate them, reform them or give them a permanent wave—unless he is asked for it. Is a grocer, when asked for salt, supposed to force sugar on the customer? And is a writer, in selling his stuff, any less a merchant than a grocer? And is there any difference, in this connection, between stuff which is to be put into the brain and stuff to be put into the stomach?
With this idea, and another chunk of capital, I resigned again and took a flying leap at Western Stories Magazine. I caught on, and have hung on ever since. When I have had an idea which was not suited to this magazine, —a sea story, for instance—I have sold it to some other—Adventure, Short Stories, People’s, The Red Book, The Blue Book, or the movies, thus continually opening up new markets.
I can say with my hand on my heart that, having a holy horror of dictating to people about their personal tastes, I have never— since I realized I was doing that very thing— made the slightest attempt to “uplift the standard of American fiction. ” I have tried to write the type of fiction which is in demand, better than the next fellow, conceiving this to be my duty and to my interest. A grocer is a fool if he does not try to stock a better brand of sugar than his competitor. But better sugar does not mean salt. Nor does better fiction mean material which readers—who pay for it—have stated they do not want.
This sounds self-evident; but I am at present endeavoring to impress it on several acolytes, with surprisingly poor success!
As for “Gold Mounted Guns, ” which appeared in The Red Book for March, I can tell less about that, technically speaking, than any of my stories. I had been writing thirty thousand word stuff, and wanted to do a miniature to show myself I could. I was lying in bed that night, thinking about nothing in particular, when “Gold Mounted Guns’* flashed into my mind complete—beginning, middle, end, title, and everything. I got up, made a note of the last words, which are the whole story; and wrote it the next morning.
Seems to me that’s all I have to say.