Know their policy, insure against rejection

This article is on how different magazines even within the same genre have different requirements for what and how stories should be told. Richard A. Martinsen was editor at Dell and Fiction House in addition to being an author who had published stories in many of the magazines mentioned here.

Martinsen was the editor who encouraged Lester Dent of Doc Savage fame to develop series heroes. A good judge of talent, then.

Richard A. Martinsen c. 1931

(The scene is a wood-pulp editorial sanctum, a little affair of glass and beaver-board partitions strangely reminiscent of a glorified cheese-box; one of a row of cubbyholes leading off a long corridor, like a maze of rabbit-warrens.

The Editor, who resembles one of the five million budding young executives in any great national organization in guise and garb, occupies a swivel-chair in front of a flat-topped desk.

Upon a plain and uncomfortable straight chair, beside the desk, is seated the Writer, who is very probably—YOU.

The click of typewriters and bee-like hum of the nearby general offices furnishes steady accompaniment for the ensuing dialogue.

Inject the stage-business and pantomime to suit yourself. It’s all a matter of individual temperament.)

Writer—I’d understand your tossing those last three stories back at me if I hadn’t sold you. But you took my first yarn right off the bat.


Writer—And those yarns weren’t duds, either. I’ve already sold one of ’em to He-Man Tales.

Editor—That’s fine. He-Man Tales is a good market.

Writer—Huh ?

Editor—I said He-Man Tales is a first-rate market. Prob’ly pays more than we do. Y’oughta build yourself up there.

Writer—But you don’t get me. I started out to sell you. I don’t want to keep shooting away hit-and-miss all the time. I want to get two or three good markets and plug ’em regularly.

Editor—That’s a good idea too. The trouble with those last three yarns is that they weren’t in line with my policy for Gallant Stories.

Writer—Gee-gosh! Didn’t I just tell you I sold one to He-Man Tales? Your Gallant Stories covers exactly the same field!

Editor—True. But my policy differs, just the same. You’ve proved it by the sale you made.

Writer—You might as well tell me there’s a difference in the policies of West and Lariat

Editor—There certainly is.

Writer—Or Adventure and Action Stories

Editor—Even more decidedly!

Writer—Or Love Stories and Sweetheart

Editor—Hold your horses a moment. You’re getting over my head. One thing at a time. I’ll admit I didn’t think there was much distinction between heart-throb yarns myself until the other day, when I passed the manuscript of a friend of mine down the line, and found it was too this for Modern Love, too that for Sweetheart, and too t’other for Cupid’s Diary. However, I don’t profess to know the women’s list, so that’s out. If you want me to shed a little illumination on the men’s books, though, I’ll try.


Editor—To begin with, we must divide the field into its principal elements, to wit: detective, Western, air, war, adventure, and general fiction. There are numerous subclassifications, but this being a lecture and not a seminar we can’t tackle ’em. Now, of the main groups, which d’you want me to vivisect first?

Writer —Oh, Westerns will do. They’ve been my meal-ticket so far.

Editor—Very well. Remember that many of the things I say will be more or less controversial. No man can discuss such a variety of shops without falling off the boat on a few fine points, unless he’s worked in all of ’em. I’m going to talk not as an editor, but as a writer, with about five years and a hundred or so stories head start on you. The editorial experience is thrown in just for good measure…

Four of the leading Westerns should be enough to open your eyes. We’ll take Western Stories, West, Triple-X-Western and Lariat. I’ve sold plenty copy to three of ’em, and know the fourth pretty definitely. Ostensibly any good Western man-tale ought to find a home with any of these four books. But the average wouldn’t.

If your hero happened to be an Eastern tenderfoot, or a young mining engineer, or a sourdough, or a town marshal performing in his official bailiwick, he might get by in the first three, but wouldn’t find favor with Lariat, which wants stories about real cowboys—mostly on the range. Triple-X is tending that way again now, too, although perhaps not so emphatically, and even the other books prefer real puncher heroes doing their stuff in the open.

WRiter—Yeah. That’s elementary. But—

Editor—But we’re just beginning. So much for heroes. Now: if the first three paragraphs of your yarn establish your setting—paint an artistic, colorful atmosphere, that’s very nice, but it’s curtains, so far as Lariat is concerned. Ralph Daigh out at Triple-X wouldn’t like it much, and even Roy Horn’s brows, on West, would pucker slightly, unless it was very well done indeed. The best bet, then, is to start off at a gallop.

WRITER—Yeah. And gallop all the way. what I mean!

Editor—Then don’t mean it too strenuously. Because you can’t gallop too hard and remain plausible. And if you’re not doggone plausible from gaff to fantail, West and Western Stories will issue return tickets, while if you’re too calmly plausible, Triple-X and Lariat will have none of you.

I’ve evolved a two-way target that’s been working pretty well for some time. If a yarn is tossed back by West as too melodramatic, Triple-X usually corrals it, while if Triple-X’s reaction to a yarn is violently jaundiced, West not infrequently picks it up. If both these books jump on a yarn, however, I toss it in the lowest drawer forthwith. There’s something radically wrong.

Generally speaking, a yarn that Triple-X and Lariat will clutch avidly won’t sell to Western Stories or West, and vice versa. Yes, speaking very generally. For each of these mags has a number of its own peculiar wants and don’ts—West a particular lot of ’em. And Western Stories, f’rinstance, is a deal more addicted to the sentimental side of range life and character than West. And Lariat wants elementary simplicity. A yarn with the least trace of the supernatural, bogus or real, used as frame-up by the villains or as fact, is out for West. And West isn’t keen for railroads in the cow country, and doesn’t like Indians, while Triple-X doesn’t want—

Writer—Whoa! Whoa! Have a heart! Let’s change the subject.

Editor—Don’t you want to discuss the other Western markets? A Western is a Western, you know.

Writer—I know it isn’t by now, not being stone-deaf. Let’s talk about adventure books.

Editor—All right. There aren’t so many of those. Let’s see. Action Stories, Adventure, Short Stories, and All-Fiction are fair samples. No. Maybe we’d better switch Short Stories from adventure to general fiction. Its policy is pretty broad: J. S. Fletcher to H. Bedford Jones, and ’most everything in between. We’ll substitute Wally Bamber’s new Far East.

Well, if Jack Kelly and Jack Byrne over at Action Stories received all the manuscripts submitted to Adventure, they’d turn down 95 per cent of ’em. And Proctor, of Adventure, would turn down a good fat 95 per cent of the stories finding homes at Fiction House. You see, the shops are playing to entirely different galleries—or think they are. Action Stories wants high pressure from beginning to end. The hero is welcome to kill fifty villains with ten shots, if the feat is put across convincingly. But no matter how convincing it sounded, or what illusion of reality’ was achieved, that wouldn’t go in Adventure. Ten in ten shots would be plenty. Far East might conceivably stand fifteen, and All-Fiction twenty.

The point is that with Action, and in lesser degree with All-Fiction and Far East, powerful drama and a cogent, compelling story are the thing—the big thing—while with Adventure there are numerous other, and scarcely less important considerations. Every hair on the cow’s back must not only be carefully tabulated, but in its proper place. Adventure is an etching. Action Stories is a poster. Each in its way is art.

I’ve mentioned only basic differences, so far. Action Stories wants outdoor adventure. Adventure will upon occasion use city stuff, with a detective or mystery slant. Far East constrains itself to the geographic area conveyed by its title. All-Fiction uses the world for a playground. Carson Mowre has no set formula, but just the same a story has to be mighty virile and move along swiftly to hit him.

Another thing: though most of the “adventure” magazines profess wide range of locales, most of them feature and give most space to a certain type of story in a specific locale. It used to be Westerns. Then the air and Foreign Legion chiseled in for a while, with detective on the side. Now it’s largely Western again. And if a writer wants to hit something, it’s good sense to shoot at the biggest hole.

Adventure yarns are safe and solid stuff. They have an exceptionally wide field, because most of the so-called general fiction books also plunge on them. But there again, nearly each magazine has its pet types and anathemas, its favored treatment, its—

Writer-Yes, I know. About a thousand things a fellow can’t get even by analyzing a copy of the magazine itself. I’m beginning to think it’s a miracle if a novitiate makes a sale.

Editor—Strangely enough, it isn’t as much of a stunt to sell one or two stories, as it is to get rid of most of your copy when you’ve won your spurs and are producing regularly. Then the first fine edge of enthusiasm is taken off your stories, and prob’ly off your characters and plots. To make up for that you have to hew right to the line in matters of magazine policy— which is another way of saying salesmanship.

Writer—Ah, yes. That too has a familiar and bromidic ring. The problem is to find out what these complex and innumerable elements of policy are. We’ll skip the detectives—

Editor—Oh, sure. A mere bagatelle. There are only thirty-six of ’em.

Writer—Each differing a shade in type and policies, I presume?

Editor—Pretty nearly. There are the inductive reasoning, the two-fisted, the gangster books, the mystery, the pseudo-scientific, the horror—-

Writer—Well, let’s skip ’em anyhow. And the air books. And the war books—

Editor—There are only two of those left, now. All around war. World War, of course. They’re Battle Stories and War Stories. And it happens that their policies are much the same.

Writer—Well, thank the Lord for something! Could you elucidate that policy in a nut-shell?

Editor—Straight action-formula. Start off in high, and keep stepping right along. Land, sea, or air. Locale anywhere, with war background—

Writer—Entirely too pat. You must have primed for it. Let’s get along to the general fiction books. There should be some good markets there.

Editor—There are. From the out-and-out wood-pulps, like High Spot, Excitement, Complete, and Top-Notch, to magazines which verge almost on the slicks in policies—and prices, too.

Writer—As for instance?

Editor—Short Stories and Blue Book. The old Popular was the greatest Roman of them all, and still carries along. Argosy isn’t far behind, either, and Five Novels wants good writing as well as peppy action.

Writer—This seems to have developed into an enumeration of markets, instead of advice on how to hit ’em. I have a market list.

Edi tor–The best market list in the world is only a catacomb of skeletons. Skeletons measure pretty well to scale, but you can’t get the picture of the flesh and blood people from ’em. Ten men may be bank cashiers, yet all differ in temperament, likes and dislikes. Magazines are the same. To learn their individualities you have to know them, and to know them you have to come into personal contact.

Writer—O Solomon! You were about to propound the policies of the general fiction books, if I recall.

Editor—To be sure. Well, the platform of the best ones is the least cut-and-dried in the pulp field. Short Stories tends to adventure, and outdoor stories on the whole. The off-trail stories are apt to be the longer length, feature stuff, with prominent names to help ’em crash the gate. But Roy Horn will knuckle onto almost any good yarn, so long as it’s written from the man-slant, doesn’t engender race prejudice, and leaves a pleasant taste.

There’s no limit in type save the sky for Blue Book, either. Pick up any issue and you’ll see a thoroughly balanced ration.

Richards of Complete Story Magazine and Lawrence of Top-Notch are among the other editors who’ll tell you they have no formula, and are sincere in it. But you’ll find they have their inhibitions, their likes and dislikes, all the same.

Writer—That’s natural, since they’re human—as human, at least, as editors ever are.

Editor—Horsefeathers ! It’d do most of you fellows good to wield the scepter for a while. You’d soon find it was more like a shovel, and that the throne-room in many respects resembled one of Chic Sales’s ingenious structures.

Most of the delays, oversights, and slights that irk you are due to the high pressure under which the modern wood-pulp editor works. Most of us are in sweat-mills, swamped with mechanical routine. We’ve come to be primarily detail men. The leisure, reflection, and pedagogic mellowness that used to be associated with a literary sanctum are not for us.

If an editor is giving you uniformly quick service, friendly cooperation, and intelligent reactions, you can bet he’s an unusually conscientious soul, and is doing a good part of his reading and real thinking o’ nights. Otherwise he’s slighting some element of his work, doesn’t know a good job from a bad one, or doesn’t care.

Writer—Alas! I weep for you… But we were talking magazine policies, I think. Or was the oration complete?

Editor—I could keep going all day and not scratch the surface. But it wouldn’t help you much. You’ve got to learn by experience, in writing as in other things. All I can do is get you started working along the right lines intelligently. If I haven’t already done that, it’s hopeless.

I’m only going to mention one more important and at the same time widely divergent element. That’s story length, a matter to which many of you chaps appear to pay no attention at all. Believe me, you should. A 6000-word short is good for any magazine anywhere. There are several books which don’t mind an extra thousand or so, but there are more which most decidedly do. And if you slop over, when a book specifies a 6000-word limit, you’re just building a wall in front of your manuscript. True, a cracking good story will leap any wall. But average copy won’t.

Writer—I’ve heard of machine-made fiction. Now I realize what the term means. Does every story have to be turned out on a lathe?

Editor —No. If you’re enough of an artist, you can carry on in your own sweet way. There’s always a market for literature, in the old sense. But it isn’t the wood pulps.

As for that, there are a few writers in our field who soar above ordinary barriers. Joel Rogers is one. Joel knocks about every rule for the action story into a cocked hat. I don’t know whether he’s good because he does it, or does it because he’s good. He puts in the action when and where he feels like it. But he creates men, and rambles along with such excellent feel that the reader will stay with him indefinitely. And so will the editors.

Policies are evolved for the average performer, in pulp-paper fiction as in all else. For him, though, they’re iron-clad.

Writer—A pox on the whole system! Why should I invite a brainstorm trying to absorb your confounded foibles? I’ll get an agent and let him do the worrying!

Editor—Not such a bad idea. However, the best agent in the country can’t market an unsalable story. Unless you study your field, and conform to its policies, you are placing your agent under an impossible handicap. If he’s a good man he’ll shoot your stories back at you as fast as an editor. Your chief benefit will be his coaching, and that’s fair enough, provided you are willing to pay for it.

Despite his best endeavors, the average agent in our field already suffers from a surplus of aimlessly written stories, judging by what flows over my desk.

The novitiate feels he’s achieved quite a feat merely in getting a complete story out of his system. That’s only natural. And it isn’t until the glow of the first few birth-throes wears off, and the yarns come trotting home again, that he finds his sea legs and starts really cleaving to a given line.

The fault of overrunning word lengths is also usually associated with the fiction tyro. Most of the 8000 or 9000-word manuscripts I see are 6000-word stories lacking crispness and proper condensation.

The 10,000 to 12,000-word story is the worst of all, as a sales prospect. It falls midway between short-story and novelette length, and is available for very few magazines.

Writer—Dear me. You chaps appear to dictate length, treatment, types, beginnings and endings. It’s a wonder you don’t standardize plots, and make an end of it.

Editor—They’re already standardized. Human reactions haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years.

Writer—A lot you care about human reactions! Action is your only battle-cry.

Editor—Why not? A real action plot is good for any magazine.

Writer—In the pulp-paper field, you mean.

Editor—Every field. The way you put it over is the determining factor. It’s your style and presentation that align a story with a definite type of book. A versatile writer could do the same plot three different ways and sell it to three different kinds of magazines.

Writer—Credible in theory, but I’d like to see someone do it.

Editor—I have.

Writer—No foolin’? What was your plot?

Editor—Never mind. There are plenty. I’ll outline another: a young Westerner comes riding over the hill. He’s an outlaw, with a posse in pursuit. He evades the law temporarily, however, and applies for a ranch job in another county. It seems to the rancher’s sweet and innocent little daughter that Prince Charming has arrived. Her illusion impels the outlaw to play the role, which grows so natural that when a gang of rustlers spots him and promptly arranges a raid, he can’t bring himself to participate. In fact, he warns the rustlers off. However, they think he’s got a joker up his sleeve, and carry on despite him. The bad-good man is now in a tight spot. His code forbids squealing, and yet he can’t kill the faith of the girl. I fence he decides upon voluntary suicide, going out to stop the raid single-handed. There’s a whale of a scrap, and the good-bad man is surrounded. As the outlaws close in to finish him off, however, the law appears, headed by the ranch punchers and the girl’s father. They were privy to developments. Even the girl had known the good-bad man was an outlaw. In fact, the local sheriff had promised the girl’s father that if the ex-outlaw stood this test, he’d help secure a pardon…

Writer—And what are the magazines you’d pick for that old hack?

Editor—It’d go ’most anywhere, properly dressed. However, let’s pick three books as far apart as the poles. How about The Saturday Evening Post, a woman’s magazine—say the love magazine put out for Woolworth’s by the Tower Publications— and, oh, Action Stories.

Writer—You couldn’t make it. Not enough girl for the love book, and too much of her for Action.

Editor—Wrong. It all depends on how the love element is handled. For the Post we tell the story abstractly, and let it develop normally. For Action we tell the story through male eyes, crowd in the dramatic tension and high-pressure action, and suppress the girl to a pastelle of motivation. For the love book we stick to the girl, and key down on the gore.

Writer—I’d certainly like to see the three complete manuscripts!

Editor—This is a chat, not a short-story course, so I’ll not accommodate. However, you don’t need the entire stories. The opening paragraphs in each case will give you the idea. Give me a few minutes and I’ll knock those out for you.

Writer—Good. I’ll go outside and read a paper until you call.

(Fifteen minutes later)

Editor—All right. Here you are. This one’s the Post opening.


“There was a sense of unreality about the scene. The serried walls of granite thrust their heads into the sky like brooding sentinels. Even the brilliant sun drenched the place with garish color instead of warmth. It was as though Nature had caught its breath, so deep was the hush which lay upon this western world, so motionless … as vivid, but as empty as an abandoned stage.

“Yet the illusion of desolation was not long sustained. From far in the distance came a sharp crackle, like the breaking of dry sticks. A moment later, with a silvery jingle and muffled creaking, a horse and rider appeared on a rocky knoll to the right of the winding trail. The skyline etched the rider in sharp profile as he twisted in his saddle to peer keenly behind him … a lean face…”

Editor—Now try the heart-throb.

Writer—(Reads) :

“With a little sigh Janet watched the rabbit pop under a clump of sage. A half-wistful smile quirked the corners of her intriguing lips. Alas, even Mr. Bunny Cottontail had more pressing concerns in life than a mere girl!

“She raised herself to an elbow. Her eyes fastened dreamily upon the nearby hilltop, with the dome of heaven painted above it in vast azure masterstrokes. It was a panorama of romance, an exalting blue and golden fairyland. Yet something was lacking. … It came to Janet with another little sigh. She was lonely…

“And then—”

Editor—Then two shots off stage, and enter Prince Charming.

Writer—But I say: the scene was completely empty in the Post opening. No girl around, or anything.

Editor—Different theater, different stage. Same aim, though. We’re introducing the hero as he rides over the hill. Now let’s get him into the Action yarn.


“As startling, as harrowing as the crack of doom were the two shots which crashed along the canyon walls, tossed and retossed like the growls of a Satanic laughter.

“As though the tumult had been a signal, a horseman rocketed over the skyline.

“Doom’s messenger—a reckless human thunderbolt-pressing close to the saddle, his lean face set and grim, eyes glittering with a danger flame, the rider drove along. Once he twisted to look behind him, and his lips twitched scornfully…”

Editor—And there you are.

Writkr—You’ve taken unfair advantage again, though. You’ve speeded up your rider as well as your style. He was just loafing along in the Post opening.

Editor -Very well. Let him loaf, and harp on his contemptuous laugh as he turns to peer behind him. What I attempted to show primarily was the necessary changes in viewpoint as well as style. But mark one thing. The action opening might conceivably get by in the Post—it’d have to be considerably less crude than this one, of course —but the Post opening would definitely kill the yarn for Action Stories. Nine chances in ten the readers would never look beyond it.

Writer—Ergo, stick by the action opening, eh?

Editor—That’s it. From the standpoint of psychology on shop readers, the first two or three paragraphs are the most important in your story. Bob Hardy or Rusty White—anyway, one of our leading agents —recently told me he’d been trying to impress that fact on his writers for the last three years, and most of ’em haven’t learned it yet.

Writer—Well, I have. And quite a few other things, for which I’m duly grateful.

Editor—All right. Come on, then. It’s up to you to buy the drinks.

1 comment

  1. Extremely interesting article about writing for the pulps. Presents a good case against the old criticism that all pulp fiction is sub-literary. Yes, some magazines published a lot of mediocre or poor fiction but others tried to publish quality fiction.

    I think the best method to determine what type of story to send to a magazine is to read a few issues of the different titles. For instance reading a couple issues of Adventure will certainly be different from reading a couple issues of Action Stories. This should give the writer a clue as to the type of fiction each magazine publishes.

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