[Article originally appeared in The Independent magazine, Mar 27, 1913 issue. By this time, England was a popular author who appeared regularly in slicks and pulps. He is remembered today for his contributions to the beginnings of modern American science-fiction.]
The Fiction Factory
How a Man Writes and Sells Over Half a Million Words a Year
By George Allan England
[The most remarkable characteristic of modern literature is the rising flood of fiction. In the United States alone about a hundred novels and two thousand short stories are publisht every month to say nothing of those not thought worth printing. Yet the demand is still greater than the supply as is proved by the great rise in prices paid for fiction in the past few years, and by the number of young men of education and ability who have in consequence been drawn into this field. The fertility of invention and facility of composition shown by some of the writers for the story magazines is a constant marvel to the uninitiated. We asked one of the most popular of them “how he did it” and he responded with this article which explains so clearly his method that doubtless any reader can do the same if he wishes to. Among Mr. England’s best known serials are The House of Transmutation, The Elixir of Hate, Darkness and Dawn and The Golden Blight. Of his hundreds of short stories many have been translated into Italian and Danish.
In reply to our request for some autobiographical data for an introductory note he sent us the following, which the editor, with unusual modesty, thinks is better than anything he could say himself and so quotes verbatim from Mr. England’s letter: “Here’s who I am: Age 36, son of an army officer, born in Nebraska, Harvard A. M. Got Bowdoin prize for my English Petrarchism, a study of the influence of Petrarch on Elizabethan sonnet-sequences. (No publishers have ever been willing to print this. ) First heard of in 1900, when I won the 500 franc prize of the New York Herald, with my translation, in verse, of La Course des Grands Masques. Have been a Socialist 8 years. In 1908 ran for Congress; 1912, for Governor of Maine, on the ticket. Both times defeated by largest pluralities ever given in State. Overwhelmingly the most unpopular man in the country, politically. Intend to keep on, and be elected school committeeman of Pinpoint Corners in 1948. I guess that’s about all I can think of. Oh, one more point: Publisht Underneath the Bough, a book of verses, in 1902, and lost only about $250 on it, A real triumph. ”—Editor. ]
Just the other day, the editor of The Independent put a new idea into my head—which is certainly a fit and proper function for an editor. He suggested to me the possibility that a view of the fiction-wheels actually turning, in my factory, might be of interest to the public. Tho naturally of a shy and shrinking disposition, and averse to dispelling popular ideas of the writer, in general, as a creature of fine inspirational frenzy (substituting therefor a real mechanic, prosy and practical), still I shall open the door and bid ye all come in and look around. You shall witness the cogs grinding, the buzzsaw’s humming, the sawdust flying and the finished product—all masterpieces, of course—shooting out into the bin. Also shall you hear the gladsome clink of silver; tho banish the thought that any writer really considers money a vital factor!
This being a personal narrative involves an almost Rooseveltian use of the vertical vowel. With which general apology, here goes!
Imprimis, my being a fiction-smith is all an accident, like most careers. I planned to be a professor and wear spectacles, also write Ph. D. after my name and be very wise. Instead, I have neither the Ph. D. nor the spectacles. Fate willed otherwise. She let me get as far as A. M., and then diverted me into the insurance business, where at least one can earn enough to eat on. My role was advertising-man and writer of insurance-puffs. In describing the wondrous advantages of insurance and dispelling its disadvantages, I received my first real lessons in imaginative writing and the forging of fiction. Beside this training, all my Harvard English work paled into insignificance.
After a year at this supremely excellent preparation, ill-health laid me low. I had overstrained my imagination. I retired to the woods of Maine, curled up and proceeded to starve, or near-starve, at any rate. But the gnawings of poverty inspired further effort. The idea of trying a hand at the short-story game dawned upon me. I wrote my first story on scraps of brown paper, with a pencil, copied it out on a near-typewriter, and sent it to Collier’s. Pretty soon $100 came back, whereat I near-fainted. After that, the wheels began to buzz in earnest.
The Building of the Factory
My plant was very primitive and crude, so I set to work enlarging and improving it. McClure’s, The American Magazine, Harper’s and other publications began accepting things, and the machinery began to turn rapidly. I commenced constructing my method. Nobody taught me; I was far away in the wilderness, and had to make my own tools and equipment. I began observing and taking notes, reading the papers with an eye to striking situations, keeping scrap-books, and in general collecting data from the environment. The rough-and-ready Maine woods-life was crammed with local color. I annexed much of it, and landed a series of Maine stories on a whole string of magazines. And the money kept coming in at a rate which surprised nobody as much as it did me.
After a while, a good fairy crossed my path, in the form of one Robert Hobart Davis, “Bob” Davis, who edits, builds, molds and cradles in the hollow of his palm a number of magazines for Frank A. Munsey—just how many magazines, even he himself doesn’t know. Mr. Davis invited me to go fishing with him, in a driving rain, on a very deep Maine lake. He sat in one end of the frail canoe, I at the other. He weighs 592 (sic); I weigh, well, something less. He talked contracts with me, and rocked the boat gently. So I closed with him. I loved life then, even as I love it now. Also, I could not swim.
From that narrow escape, the truly large aspects of the factory-building all date.
How It Is Done
Bob Davis put the scenario idea into my head. That is, the concept of working on approved orders, along a definite plot already agreed on between publisher and author. True, I still “free-lance, ” but only as a by-product. My solid, bill-paying work is all done on orders, according to the plans laid down by the good fairy and me.
The scenario, then, came to take a definite place alongside the note-books and the clippings. On this tripodal arrangement, plus an avid observance of human life and nature and a habit of pounding the typewriter-keys many hours each day, Sundays included, rests the ever-growing work of my fiction-shop. Genius, avaunt! “There’s nothing to it. ” Method and sweat, these solve the riddle of the meal-ticket.
My eye is ever open, also my ear, for every bit of good material coming my way. Into the note-book goes now a bit of scenery, a face, a phrase, again some new idea, a plot-germ, an odd garment, a deformity, a beauty. The olla podrida receives all; and in good time, each bit is fished out and consumed. For example, I open the book at random and read:
Aug. 21, 12. —Man on boat, dark Dago; hair gray, brushed back; eyes slant up, heavy lids; thick, up-curved lips, mustache waxed up, goatee, swarthy, handsome, looks like Pan.
(He’ll be the villain in some still-unwritten tale. )
Sep. 1. Sea-view. —Dappled white and slate clouds, breeze, sun in dazzling shine, beach wet, black, green, shiny; seaweed smells. Weed, lank and wet. Haze over beach. Big surf makes lather. Sea very pale green, running to white at top of wave. Thunder of surf, mist of spray, wind from surf in face.
(This will form part of the scene of reconciliation between M. and N. at some future date. )
Gormin’. Any God’s a-mint o’ things to tell ye. Swell up on your leavin’s. Make longs arms. All puckered up to a goolthrite. Double up the prunes! All of a high to go. He ain’t goin’ to stan’ it a gret sight longer. Jillpoke. Hotter’n a skunk. Fatter’n a settled minister, etc., etc.
(Local color stuff, Maine dialect. )
So much for the minutiae. My books contain a world of every kind of “property, ” like that at the stage director’s hand. No situation can arise where I cannot find a character, scenery and dialect to fit the case. Now for the plots.
“Where Do You Get Your Stories?”
Everywhere! The writer who is alive, can pick up stories right from the air. On trains and boats, from the newspapers, from the living speech of humans, from a thousand and one sources, good fiction can be culled. All you have to do is to watch for it—and grab it. And after years of work, the watching becomes second nature; you can’t help it. Writers are just big tom-cats stalking plot-rats thru the attics and cellars of life, or sitting at incident holes waiting for the story-mice to pop out. It’s so easy! Sometimes a chance bit of conversation will detonate a whole story or series of stories. About two years ago I took a morning walk with a friend. We got to speculating on what would happen if all the people in the world were killed, save two. From this germ has grown a trilogy of serials. Two have already been published in the Cavalier, and the third is now in course of preparation. They are Darkness and Dawn, Beyond the Great Oblivion and The After-glow, and they have kept bread and cheese on the shelf for a long time.
They weren’t written, of course, without careful planning and the previous construction of scenarios, in collaboration with the Good Fairy Davis aforementioned. (“Some” fairy! ) All serials have to be approved in detail, before I do a word on them; then they’re practically certain to sell. There’s no sense in running the fiction-factory on any uncertainties.
What does a scenario look like? This;
The Golden Blight.
Characters: John Storm, young scientist; Murchison, billionaire; Maximilian Braunschweig, Jewish financier, etc., etc., (many other characters).
Scenes: Edgecliff, N. J.; New York City; Washington, D. C.
Action: Storm discovers a method of turning all the world’s gold-supply into ashes. He demands that Murchison shall take steps to put an end to war, on pain of ruining him and the entire capitalist class, and overthrowing capitalism. Murchison refuses, and defies him. Storm demonstrates his power. At a great banquet given by Murchison, Storm projects his power and turns all the gold-plate and ornaments to dross. A hasty meeting of financiers is called, and plans laid to kill Storm. But he foils all plots, and continues his work of destruction, with repeated demands that the capitalists yield, etc.
The entire scenario occupies perhaps 1500 or 2000 words, and of course is far too long to quote here. These few lines will, however, serve to give some idea of this particular piece of machinery in my shop.
The Golden Blight was begun on January 1, 1912, and finished on March 5. It sold for an even $1000. If you’re interested to see how war was done away with and the cooperative commonwealth brought in, you can find it all told in The Cavalier. My best record so far is $200 for a story written in two days.
I don’t believe in driving the machinery too hard and running a risk of wearing it out. After it has turned out 3000 words for me, I shut the shop for the day and go for a walk, a skate or a run in my auto, which was bought with part of the proceeds of a single story. About once in two years I go to Europe, picking up still more books full of data, people and plots. I find these trips pay about 200 per cent dividends, in cash.
I’m always at it, the rest of the time. I take no Sundays off, nor any regular holidays. The shop runs best in daylight. Lamplight seems to dull the product. Tobacco is a prime necessity as a lubricant —lots of it, all kinds, the ranker the better.
In between the serials, of which I write two or three a year, I sandwich dozens and scores of short stories. The factory can turn out about two short stories a week, or three, if need be. Occasionally I do a novelet, running from 15, 000 to 20, 000 words, as a kind of aperitif for the longer novels. The little odds and ends of time are chinked in with moving picture plots, good for $25 apiece and taking only a few minutes to frame; also with “knitting work” in the shape of juvenile stuff, boys’ stories, small illustrated articles on how to do things, and so on. Nulla dies sine linea makes a good working motto. On a par with it is, “Every little bit, added to every other little bit, makes just a little bit more. ”
I rarely rewrite to any extent. The great majority of my product goes into cold type just as the fiction shop machinery has produced it. My special treat is writing about three or four serious essays and articles a year, on economics, Socialism or current events, for The Independent, Review of Reviews, Twentieth Century Magazine or some other review.
This material I rewrite very carefully. I can afford to, as it is my prime dissipation. My principal vice is writing verse, but I can never sell any. Verse, for the usual fiction writer, won’t buy matches to light his indispensable pipe. Of course I write endless stuff for the Socialist press, but most of this is given away. Every factory has certain by-products. These side lines are mine.
A few important problems arise in the shop. Am I a capitalist or a proletarian? Nobody can tell me. I own my tools of production—my cortex and typewriter—-but at the same time I employ myself and exploit my own labor. So I’m both slave and master. It’s confusing. Then, too, arises the matter of dissociating myself from my work. As time passes, I find the factory more and more absorbs my personality.
The business makes one cold-blooded. From observing other people and outside events, all with an eye to fiction, one comes to observe one’s own self and acts with a similar view. One begins to capitalize one’s own emotions, which is shocking.
No longer can I enjoy a sunset, an opera, a foreign town, a friendship or a flower with disinterested frankness. No, always the shop intrudes! The notebook ever itches to be in the hand. Alas! I leave the reader to figure it out for himself. When one’s own woes and blisses, romancings, hates, loves, ambitions, passions, begin to assume the notebook stage, wherein lies any spontaneous enjoyment of life? Ask any writer, and— if he be not a “short and ugly word” fellow—see if he won’t tell you that his inner shrines have really become an annex to the shop!
There lies something fundamentally tragic in the drying of a tear with the thought: “No matter—even this grief, too, will make good copy! ”
How small a role it plays in modern fiction! Perhaps it still exists, in certain attics; but it doesn’t habitually ride in motors or smoke cigars. No, gasoline and nicotine come to a well regulated shop rather than to a stable which houses Pegasus on musty hay.
Perseverance, notebooks, cold-bloodedness, scenarios, contracts, many hours a day in the factory, an observant eye and some knowledge of what the public, “that big baby, ” really wants—these supply the lack of genius with most satisfactory sufficiency.
Some day, when I am very, very rich —oh, worth maybe $5000—I’m going to be a genius. Till then I shall remain a mechanic, sawing wood like any other, making the chips fly, capitalizing myself and everybody and everything else I can get my hands on, and in general enjoying life thru the very function of trying to interpret it.
Everything and everybody must pay toll to me and go into the notebooks. Even the editor of The Independent, while he was ordering this article, was being crammed into the mental pigeonholes, marked “Hero. ”
Is it all made clear? I fancy so. To the best of my knowledge, nothing more remains to confess. So, having made a clean breast of everything, I turn back once more to my daily task of sawing the wood of contemporaneous fiction.
South Paris, Me.
Thanks for sharing this rare piece, Sai. Much food for thought for a fiction writer, pulp or otherwise. The outline of a blueprint for a fiction factory is an enlightening one. Keep these kinds of 'writing process' articles coming often. Thanks again for sharing. PS. I'm reading and rereading this gem.