This is the first in a series of four articles published in 1926 by Albert William Stone in The Author and Journalist(A&J) on meeting various pulp editors in person. Stone was a Denver based author who mostly wrote western stories; A&J was also in Denver so Stone was writing mostly for a western audience in these articles.
IT IS trite to say that “editors are human.” Of course they are. They wouldn’t be editors if they were not. They are so human that they are ambitious, considerate, tolerant, broad- minded, keen-visioned — and the reverse of these things when the weather is too hot or they have eaten too heartily of a heavy dinner. They are good tempered or bad, according to circumstances and their immediate reaction to them. They have their prejudices, for and against. They have their egotisms and their professional jealousies, expressed sometimes with subtlety and sometimes without. They’ve got what the man in the street would call “a hard job”; and since having conversed with a baker’s dozen of them in New York, as cited in a previous article, I take off my hat to them as gentlemen possessed of large quantities of brains, perception, judgment and the milk of human kindness.
The first one I saw, after arriving in New York, was Frank E. Blackwell of the Street & Smith Corporation.
Mr. Blackwell once replied to a letter of mine something as follows: “Don’t get discouraged, old man. Writing is the most difficult field of endeavor. Keep right at it, and you’ll win out.”
So I was interested in meeting Mr. Blackwell. He is editor of three magazines—Detective Story, Western Story and Far West Illustrated. Miss Alice Strope is the associate editor of these three publications, two of them weeklies and the third a monthly. I had been selling them short-stories over a period of more than five years. They had written me dozens of letters. Now I was to see them in person.
The Street & Smith building is several stories high, and crammed from basement to roof with visible and audible evidences of the great publishing business housed in it. You hear the linotype machines clatter and the presses rumble continuously. Busy young men and girls rush about, flitting from floor to floor and from door to door, pencils behind their ears and stuck in their hair, green shades over their eyes, inkstains on their fingers. Great motor trucks are backed up under immense shelters at one end of the building, and bales of magazines are being loaded into them for transportation to railroad shipping points. Gray-clad postmen—but those fellows are entirely too reminiscent of erstwhile heartaches. I entered an elevator and asked to be let off at the editorial floor.
A pleasant-faced woman seated behind a desk in a cubbyhole at one side of a square, boxed-in room containing for furniture only a settee or two, spoke my name into a telephone transmitter. In a moment she smiled at me.
“Do you know the way over to the Western Story office? No?” She called, and a boy appeared. “Take this gentleman to Mr. Blackwell’s office, please.”
THE boy conducted me through halls, down corridors, into offices from which arose the busy clatter of typewriters, up short flights of steps and down others, and finally into a big room filled with desks whose surfaces were fairly plastered with manuscripts. It was a formidable array of contributions; I recognized them instantly as such, to be sure. And they were being read by a small army of young men and women—those individuals we writers know as “readers.”
Miss Strope’s roll-top desk was in a corner. Miss Strope smiled at me and beckoned me to a seat beside the desk. A quietly dressed young woman is Miss Strope, with the pink glow of perfect health in her cheeks and the alert bearing of one who, despite the sedentary character of her occupation, spends much time in the open. A young woman whose intelligence shows in her eyes, her good breeding, in the dignity of her greeting. Her handclasp was firm and of unmistakable cordiality.
“It is a pleasure to have you here,” she said simply.
A slender, smooth-faced man in a close- fitting brown suit appeared. He had dark, twinkling eyes and a friendly smile. It was Mr. Blackwell; and when he had been introduced he pulled up a chair, sat on one edge of it, crossed his legs and got down to business.
“We don’t very often see our out-of-town authors here,” he said. “Glad you came. Now—”
And he launched into a conversation relative to the needs and requirements of his three magazines, without wasting a moment. He knew what I had come to New York for, and lost no time whatever in supplying me with the information. My letters from him had, as a rule, been only a paragraph or two in length. Now he talked in reams. And he talked straight to the point.
“What we want,” he said, “is stories. We never have enough of them; never! I need nearly 750,000 words of fiction and fillers a month to fill my three magazines. This matter must conform to our standard, of course. And if you don’t think it’s a job to select 750,000 words of passable stuff every month, the year around, you ought to come into this office and see for yourself.
“STORIES, stories, stories!” Mr. Blackwell threw up his hands in the gesture of one whose task is almost greater than he can bear. “It’s almost a nightmare, sometimes, to get them. Every now and then I draw a long breath and say: ‘Well, this number is taken care of, at last. Now I can breathe!’ And then will come notice from some department, to the effect that four or five thousand words more are needed to fill a hole. We’ve got to start digging, hard, to fill that hole.”
“You must get plenty of stories, don’t you?” I suggested.
“Certainly,” he said. “We get them by the bale. But we must go over them with a fine-tooth comb to get what we want. And every time we find a yarn that will fit we give a whoop of joy. This job is a perpetual search. It is endless. A prolific author, who can turn out the kind of fiction we want, is worth his weight in gold to us. Why, do you know, Street & Smith paid one author $42,900 last year? And this chap made $9,000 additional in motion picture rights, that I know of—to say nothing of even more revenue he made from motion picture rights upon which I have no figures. That’s how much we think of a prolific writer who has learned our requirements.”
“Tell me of some of your requirements,” I suggested. Mr. Blackwell scratched his head.
“Well,” he said at length, “I think I may start off by saying that the principal one is —the story. It must overshadow everything else in the yarn, this thing I call ‘the story.’ It must take precedence over setting, description, narration, style—everything. It must grip and hold attention. It must have a valid excuse for being. It must be fundamentally sound, and susceptible of close analysis and scrutiny.
“One of our greatest tasks is to find real stories in the many contributions that are submitted. I don’t think I refer to plot particularly; for a story may have an excellent plot, conforming to all technical requirements, and still fall short. It may have high-powered action, striking atmosphere, graceful narration, and authenticity, and still not be a pulsing story. Even strong characterization will not turn the trick, sometimes, despite the fact that the other elements may be present. The author must feel that he has a story, perhaps, before he sets a line down on paper. Often I read yarns in which I can find no flaw, yet reject them. They lack that intangible, indescribable quality I call the ‘story.’ They are unconvincing, mechanical, creaking with machinery. They lack spontaneity. These things would not be true if they were properly conceived in the first place.
‘‘Next, I think I would stress the value of impression. An impression often does not particularize. There is a marked difference, you know, between an impression and an opinion. The latter may be based upon such thorough familiarity with the facts that a mere impression would not be descriptive of the actual state of mind.
“A writer, we’ll say, wants to do a series of stories in a mining setting. He knows little or nothing about mines, so he travels to a mining country and proceeds to make a personal inspection. He looks over numerous specimens of ore and rock, and takes notes upon their various names and classifications. He goes through tunnels and workings. He talks with miners and picks up picturesque phrases. He talks with mining engineers and jots down bits of technical information. He emerges at the end of a week or so with several notebooks filled front cover to cover, and so much detail that, when he attempts to write a story, he is bewildered. His yarn is pretty sure to be more of a textbook on phraseology and terminology than it is a real story. In other words, he has gone beyond the point of mere impression, and has loaded himself with so much detailed material he can’t handle it.
“I think that it is better for a writer to pickup just what he needs for his story, and no more. Then the picture he draws is more likely to have the effect he desires it to have on the reader—the effect of a vivid impression.
“Compactness is another quality I would stress. A story may be long and still be compact and closely-knit. A loosely constructed story can always be improved by the elimination of non-essential matter. If a situation can be described in two short sentences, with no loss of, and especially with a gain of, vividness of impression, then the two sentences should by all means be employed instead of the more prolix method. We want compactness in our stories; for compactness often heightens vivid impression and gives us that thing we call ‘the story.’ ”
“Such stories may be executed with the skill born of the experience of the writers, but they fail to measure up to the standard of compactness we set up,” he explained. “They are often deliberately stretched out, in order to carry them over into the advertising pages. I know of a case where the editor of one of our most widely circulated magazines offered to buy a story from a friend of mine, provided the author would increase its length from five thousand words to nine thousand. My friend at first declared he could not do it. He insisted that he had told the whole story in the five thousand words, and that to add any more to it would constitute nothing less than mere padding. Nevertheless, the editor was urgent, and my friend reluctantly ‘pulled’ the yarn out until it was as thin as tissue paper, so to speak. And the editor bought it, paying a good price.
“Such a policy would never do in the print-paper magazines. Our readers are interested in the story, and in nothing else. They read to be entertained, and they are more discriminating than you might think. A padded story draws their fire immediately. Hence, the print-paper magazine fiction contributor must deliver real stories, whether he has any literary style or not. His work mav be rougher, but it will have real virility.”
The Street & Smith market is virtually inexhaustible and insatiable. But its editorial requirements are closely drawn, and the only way to find out what kind of material the editors want is to read their books. To the discerning reader such reading will furnish a fairly accurate index. For publishing is distinctly a business; one editor described it to me as a “science.” The fellows who manufacture the magazines and sell them by the millions know what their readers want. Moreover, they keep pace with every shifting demand. Just now the Western story is in high esteem. This condition may change; when it does, you may be sure that these editors will be among the very first to know it. It is certain that they will discover the trend long before the authors do, because that is a part of their business.
One writer named by Mr. Blackwell—the one who drew down the $42,900 for his fiction last year—lives in England and turns out fiction with almost the undiminished constancy of water coming out of a hose. His copy, I was told, is hardly a model for literary typists to follow. It requires considerable editing, and when it reaches the linotype machines it looks something like the cub reporter’s first story.
But it has all the elements of real fiction— action, atmosphere, alacrity of movement, characterization, virility. The characters are alive. The stories are compact, closely knit. And this author is not, I was told, a young man any more. He is a veteran whose real name never appears over his work. So prolific is he that he employs three nom de plumes. He receives three cents a word, straight, for everything he sells. And he sells everything he turns out.
WHAT we want out of an author is volume, as well as quality work,” one editor told me. Mr. Blackwell did not say this in so many words, but I gathered that he feels the same way about it. “Volume,” this other editor went on, “is what builds up a following for the author, and enables the editor and publisher to determine how much his work is in demand. We think a lot of the writer who works steadily, and turns out a steady stream of material.”
I asked Mr. Blackwell about the availability of the long story, as compared with that of the short.
“The real money for the author is in long stories, after he has learned to write them.” he said. “It takes more work to turn out the serial or novelette. It must be planned, blue-printed, in advance. More perspiration must be shed. There are certain tricks to be learned. One of them is to insert some event, early in the yarn, which overshadows the entire story to the very end. There must be more complications and complexities. Each chapter must hold a promise of interesting development in the next. Generally speaking, I should say that the difference between the long story and the short is the difference between hard work and planning, and work and planning that are not so hard. There is always a market for a good long story.”
Before I took my departure Miss Strope mentioned one of my stories, which she had rejected a short time before as being improperly developed. She agreed that certain changes in it might make it available, and together we worked out these changes. When I returned to Denver I rewrote the story, and this time it “stuck.” Which is merely another evidence that a personal visit to the editor may pay in dollars and cents. It is also illustrative of the fact that editors can be of substantial aid to writers in working out their stories to fit the magazine at which it is to be aimed.
SINCE talking with these two outstanding members of the magazine editorial profession, I have come to the conclusion that editors know what they want, although they are not always able to take the time to put their requirements into words. I am also convinced that the best way of learning their requirements is to read their magazines, and study the stories printed therein. This means more than mere casual perusal. It means analysis, the application of logic and reason.
You will learn, for instance, that Mr. Blackwell prefers stories with few characters, and with the actions of the dominant character followed closely all the way through; that profanity is absolutely taboo; that a situation in which a woman is being mistreated will not be tolerated; that only one set of characters is wanted; that strength of plot is desirable, but that characterization is even more so; that sympathetic characterization always gets under the editorial skin; that convincingness is the pearl of great price; that plausibility must never be sacrificed, under any circumstances; and that it is mighty hard to sell him a short-story of more than 6000 words, no matter what he says about “no limit or length.” I have no doubt but that he would buy a longer short-story, provided he could find one that bore no evidences of padding But how often does that happen ?