Archie Bittner (1897-1966) worked as editor under Doubleday’s Harry E. Maule on Short Stories and Frontier before going on to edit Munsey’s Argosy in the early 1930s. Then, he put his theories int practice as a writer, writing under the pseudonym Wayne Rogers for the weird menace pulps. He also ghosted several stories for the Spider and Operator #5. A man whose opinion on story writing should be read carefully, even if you end up disagreeing with him. This article was written when he was assistant editor of Short Stories magazine and appeared in the May 1923 issue of the Student Writer.
BESIDE my desk looms a pile of manuscripts two feet high. Two feet of paper of all shades and qualities, bound together with clips, patent fasteners, rubber bands, pieces of string, dainty baby ribbon, scraps of rag, and every conceivable variety of “the tie that binds”; two feet of pleasing, fair, and execrable typewriting— some single-spaced, some double, some triple, some with a scant quarter-inch margin that often runs off the right side of the sheet, leaving bits of the story to the reader’s imagination, some with majestic two-inch margins on all sides, some that can be read at a glance, some so blotted out and corrected that it is an impossible job to make head or tail of them; some in script, written with pen, pencil and what must have been a hunk of charcoal. They are mighty interesting visitors, these manuscripts, impossible as most of them are, for each has its personality, often more clearly revealed than in the person of its author. Each of these manuscripts represents hours of patient work, represents hopes and ambitions, represents who knows what stimulus?
To make a magazine out of this pile, to dig out the acceptable stories, to detect the spark of possibility in others, to recognize even the chance that the writer of one of these quite unusable stories may be helped to do the type of story the magazine needs— that is the job of the editor.
More than fifty per cent of this two-foot pile of manuscripts are utterly impossible, the work of totally inexperienced persons who have no conception of fiction-writing but are spurred on by an ambition to break into print or to make “easy money.” Without fail December brings its floods of these manuscripts hammered out to finance the Christmas gift list. For these writers a magazine editor can do nothing; time is too valuable. Eventually the cost of postage and a growing pile of rejection slips convinces them that there may be a bit more to this story-writing than appears on the surface.
Twenty or twenty-five per cent more are those manuscripts that show just a trace of experience, just a bit of ability—usually the work of writers who manage to sell a filler or two to one of the less exacting publications and forevermore pour forth an astounding volume of manuscript. These tales are generally either “hack”—ancient in plot—or they are pointless, fall away to nothing and become tiresome drivel. And their writers never learn. Months of work with them yields no results; they never get past a certain point of submediocrity. They are the ones who contribute to my pile (intended for a magazine of masculine appeal that uses no gushy love or boudoir stories) titles such as these: “Just a Working Girl,” “The Love of Roseline,” “Tattling”—the principal tattler being a beautiful young society bud—“Diary of a City Girl in a Small Town,” “A love-letter story written in book lore with titles and authors’ names affiliated.” Magazine editors easily recognize their work, and time is too short to waste on them.
THE remaining twenty or twenty-five per cent of the two-foot pile constitutes an editor’s real problem. There are the acceptable stories; there are the stories that can be made acceptable with a bit of work; there are the stories of writers who sell most of their work; and there are those toughest of problems—the stories from writers who have sold one or two to the magazines, who have the ability yet do not seem to be able to ring the bell consistently.
These writers are both the hope and the worry of the manuscript reader—to help them sell five out of six instead of one out
of six; to help them find themselves, to turn out the work of which they are capable; to try to place a finger on the weak spots in the story and perhaps suggest a remedy; that is the most interesting although most difficult part of an editor’s work.
ALTHOUGH eighty per cent of this two-foot pile of manuscripts will in all probability be worthless to the magazine, every manuscript there will have its chance; every manuscript will be read. Often that reading can be safely discontinued at the foot of page one—as the confetti-sprinkling, hair-hiding, page-gluing, upside-down and back-to-back-page school of detectives have definitely established—but every manuscript is read long enough to ascertain whether or not it is at all suitable or whether the writer is a promising prospect. Yes, even the pencil-written scripts are read, for most editors remember that the first O. Henry manuscripts were in longhand. No matter whether your name is Hank Potts, from Pumpkin Center, or Rudyard Kipling, your manuscript will be read. And if your name is Hank Potts, and the reader discovers in you a new “find,” buys your first story and turns you into a regular contributor, that will afford him a greater satisfaction—it will actually mean more to his magazine—than reading a dozen good stories by “big names” who are expected to produce good stories. A magazine lives on new authors, writers who will take the places of the present “big names” when their day will have passed. There is one safe bet—if your story comes back it does not meet the requirements of the publication to which you addressed it; it has had its chance and has not made the grade.
The Perfect Story
“WHAT do you consider a perfect short-story?” asks a writer friend.
For the all-fiction magazine the perfect short-story would be one that opens with a bang, that arrests the reader’s attention in the first paragraph; it would be a story with a strong and fresh plot, a plot that will quickly arouse a reader’s interest, that is worth his while to follow; it would be a story with plenty of action, action that moves right along rapidly and tensely enough to transform the reader’s interest into suspense. Each scene, each paragraph, would be an integral part of the story, helping to develop the plot; extraneous matters and tiresome details would have no place in it. It would be a story with strong characters, characters that live, that move, that breathe, and that a reader will remember; it would be a story that is convincing throughout, both in plot and in characters; a story that sustains the interest at white heat till the climax and then closes with a snap, a twist—a surprise ending that could not be foreseen, that comes as a delight and that causes the retrospective reader to think back and mentally review the places in the story that justify the ending, the little touches that were there but that he did not fathom. Such a story will bring any reader back for more.
An impossible ideal? Perhaps, but, to my mind, a story is successful in the degree to which it meets these requirements. And a story is rejected because in one or more of these particulars has fallen short.
Why Are Manuscripts Returned?
PROBABLY more manuscripts—and from now on I am speaking of the twenty per cent of real possibilities—are returned because they are ordinary than for any other cause. They are usual, mediocre, lacking in originality; their plot is the regulation thing, its developments not of sufficient strength to hold a reader’s interest— they are just not good enough. Dozens of stories as strong as these can be secured, but a magazine needs the outstanding, the unusual, the better-than-the-average. Where a story of this kind falls short is the hardest thing to explain to a writer, the most difficult thing to analyze, yet an editor can readily feel it; to him such a story is just one of the inconspicuous little hills in the vista of the day’s work; it is the peak he is after.
By their very nature the causes for a manuscript’s rejection are interwoven, one overlapping the other. Practically always the patient succumbs to a complication of ailments; yet, if we are able to lay finger on the main trouble, and remedy that, the minor ailments will either cure themselves or be more easily recognized and overcome.
Lack of plot is undoubtedly the writer’s worst trouble—a fatal one ninety-nine times out of a hundred. To an all-fiction magazine the plot is the thing; the plot is the story. Occasionally an experienced and skillful writer is able to sell a story that has very little plot strength. But that is the rare exception. A story without a plot—really, a manuscript without a plot—is simply a narrative, and narratives seldom interest. Readers do not care to follow a minute account of a character’s experiences, opinions, etc., unless the thread of a real story makes them of some importance.
The members of your immediate family might be interested in a narrative of your trip from Boston to New York, but the people on the next block from you would not give a rap to hear it. If in the course of your trip you ran across a gang of crooks planning to rob a bank, if you circumvented them but were arrested and tried as a confederate, were acquitted and hailed as a hero —then your story would interest folks ten states away. The first is a narrative, the second a story; and the difference between them is the all-important secret of “plot.”
Or, to use an apt illustration an editor recently drew: If Mary loves John and marries him, that is no story. If Mary is homely and John has vowed to marry none but a beautiful girl and yet Mary wins him, that is still no story. But if homely Mary purposely introduces beauty-loving John to a very pretty girl and uses this girl’s faults and shortcomings to impress her own desirability upon John, thereby winning him, that is a story.
Even experienced writers cannot seem to grasp the necessity of this fundamental story quality. Men who sell with a fair degree of regularity will persist in sending out an utterly plotless piece of work every third or fourth trip. Why? I wish I knew. Perhaps it is lack of material, lack of a real story to tell. If that is the cause—a hundred times better to send out nothing at all. Plotless paper-fillers neither bring in money nor give you worth-while experience.
You cannot lay too much stress on the plot; get a good plot, one that has at least some originality, one that turns and twists a bit, one that has several threads afloat in the story and all nicely worked together at the proper moment—and you are well on the road to a successful story.
Right here let us spike the mistaken notion some writers cherish that a story must be “regulation” to be acceptable; as a writer friend recently wrote, “I hope this is sufficiently orthodox to get by.” A hack plot is an abomination. Sometimes a hack plot with an original twist or a new presentation gets by, but the new plot is the one the editor looks for day in and day out. The new plot—the story that is “different,” but that is within the scope of his editorial policy. For a magazine barring successful crime stories, a story in which a murderer cold-bloodedly slaughters half a dozen innocent people and ends up by marrying the heroine and settling down to a life of peace and opulence would no doubt be different— but hardly acceptable. Keep digging in your plot mine for that new idea, that distinctive story, and, if it does not ram squarely into a magazine’s taboo, you will sell it every time.
“UNCONVINCING” spells return to another batch of manuscripts, even though they are equipped with plot strength. Though the plot be good, unless it is told in such a way that the reader will believe it, of what use is the story? Sometimes it is the whole atmosphere of the story that is unconvincing—and in these cases the writer has probably laid his story in a section with which he is unfamiliar. Again the plot motives do not ring true; either they are farfetched in their conception or they have not been properly presented. In other cases it is particular scenes or devices that sound false and put the whole story out of tune: such as the promiscuous use of coincidence, of “accidental overhearing,” of stepping out of character in order to satisfy the plot—in a word, any action that is not perfectly natural and plausible. Often a writer replies to the charge of unconvincingness with a newspaper account proving that the incident in question actually occurred. To which I can only reply that truth has far greater latitude than fiction; unless it is convincing I do not care how many times it has occurred! A reader simply will not believe it.
Workmanship of course has a good deal to do with the making of a successful story. The best of plots may be presented in a transparent way, and nothing falls flatter than the surprise plot that is anticipated halfway through the story. Plots that are obvious, easily foreseen, are generally the result of poor workmanship. Sometimes it is just a word, a phrase, a paragraph or a scene that gives away the plot; again it is because the whole story has been presented back end first. Another of the products of poor workmanship is the laborious, lumbering tale through which the wheels of the plot can be heard rumbling and turning, in which the internal machinery can be seen sticking up through its story covering on every other page. When you have a good plot respect it—tell it in a natural and a careful way; cover its structure properly, oil its joints, let it run smoothly and un- noticeably. Your reader does not want it forced upon his notice; he wants to believe that your tale is an actual happening, not a creation of ink and paper and an author’s imagination.
The antithesis of obviousness, but equally dangerous for a story, is confusion. Unless a story is perfectly intelligible a reader should not be asked to follow it. Stories which require a chart and compass to pilot one’s way through their involved mazes invariably sail back home. Often attempted subtlety is responsible for confusion. If you have a good story, tell it in a natural unassuming way, and avoid the affected “deepness” that requires every paragraph to end: “Then * * * If she had known * * * To think that * * *” A writer has no justification for asking his reader to keep guessing at the meaning of the dots, to hunt for the hidden subtlety in the spaces.
AS a story’s mission is to entertain, the manuscript that is tiresome, dull, wordy, and lacking in interest can expect little consideration. Many a story starts off with a rush, only to be bogged in a slough of tiresome and uninteresting events and details that smother the plot and kill the reader’s interest. Sometimes editorial cutting will save such a manuscript, but more often it goes back as uninteresting. A charming Western story came to my desk recently, a story that was different, original and very well done, but it was killed by six solid pages of anthropology and legend which had nothing to do with the real theme but were introduced as a background for the hero. Well, the anthropology killed it, but the writer was able to see my point; he simply cut out the six pages and returned one of the best stories I have read in a good while. When your plot is well sustained by action, when extraneous matters are carefully excluded, when every incident contributes to the progress of the plot, dullness is not likely to creep in.
Even though plot is the primary consideration, the characters of course have a good deal to do with the success of a story. Wooden dummies or convenient automatons that can be made to perform in any way without consideration for consistency or faithful reproduction of the characters they are intended to portray will kill the best of plots; and characters that are addicted to unnatural changes of purpose serve to make a story unconvincing.
Although a good plot may get by with ordinary “stock” characters, the magazine editor is as anxious to secure fresh, original, unusual characters as plots with these attributes. Certain it is that a good strong character will never hurt a tale—it has sold many a mediocre one—and a poor unconvincing character may easily kill it.
Manuscripts written in defiance of a magazine’s editorial policy are butting against a stone wall. A magazine that does not want successful crime stories, sex stories, supernatural or problem stories does not want them—and will not take them. Sending manuscript of that sort is a sure way to reap a crop of rejection slips, yet some successful writers keep “experimenting.” One well-known humorist continues to send domestic comedies to a magazine that specializes in outdoor fiction and stories of a masculine appeal, eschewing domestic trials and tribulations. Another well-known writer persists in sending pulsating love tales and sex stories, though he has been repeatedly advised that they are positively not wanted. Such blind submitting is simply a waste of postage—and, incidentally, a busy editor’s time. Know, your magazine before you send your stories to it; sow your manuscripts in the proper ground, just as a farmer picks out the most promising soil for his various crops, and your harvest will yield more checks and fewer rejection slips.
For technical points I believe the average editor has little use. The story is the thing. When a writer gives me a long-winded dissertation on subjugating the characters and emphasizing the plot, or vice versa; of this and that “treatment” or technique, I can only mentally yawn and reiterate: The story is the thing!
GENERALLY speaking, straightforward narration in the third person is preferable to the “frame” story in which the reader is first asked to observe the idiosyncrasies of the prospective story-teller and then listen to his story. The latter method necessitates interesting the reader first in the narrator, and then anew in his characters. But, here again, some mighty fine “frame” stories have been written.
A logical, unified time scheme makes easier reading—and a good story should be easily read. It is not advisable to jumble up your time or make it any more involved than is absolutely necessary. Where a story starts in the present and must throw back into the past, into the time of events which transpired before the story opens—or a double past, a scene that occurred in the past earlier than the past before the story opens, it is often better to start with the earliest scene and work to date, or else to break the thread of the narrative, definitely taking the reader back to the past scene as if it were a present. An attempt to skip heedlessly back and forth between scenes of different times is quite sure to result in confusion.
Telling the story from one point of view, through the eyes of one character, also makes easier reading and enables a reader to consolidate his sympathies more readily; it tends to make a stronger story.
Gaps of years in the telling of a story are likely to give it a drawn-out tone. Generally speaking, a concise, rapidly transpiring story is preferable.
Unexplained, indefinite, or “believe what you choose” endings are usually unsatisfactory—tabooed by some magazines.
“Trick” stories in which an unfair advantage is taken of the reader are unwise. Detective stories where the guilty party is hauled out of the air, a character the reader has not met before and could not possibly have suspected; the story in which the writer deliberately misleads his reader by holding back information to which the reader is entitled—stories of this type only serve justly to incense the reader and will generally receive the rejection slips they deserve.
But I have very little use for “rules” on points of technique, or for discussing them. The story is the thing, and without a story all the technical rules in the world are worthless. Stop worrying about technique and get that plot!
To Get More Acceptances
Have a story to tell before you start to fill up manuscript. Get a plot—one that will hold a reader’s interest.
Study your field. Familiarize yourself with the magazine with which you want to build up a market. Keep your stories within its scope, or send them somewhere else. Don’t try to convince the editor that he doesn’t know what he wants.
Write about the places you know. If you are a Westerner leave Greenwich Village and the slums of New York to New Yorkers. There are plenty of them, and they can’t write your type of story.
Action! Does your story move? If not, put some life into it or throw it away.
That surprise ending, or the big point of your story—is it covered up successfully? Have you unveiled it at just the right moment, or will nine out of ten readers see through it on page four?
Is your story convincing? Would you believe it yourself if someone else told it? Would each of your characters actually do as you have made him? Don’t send out a story that sounds “fictiony.”
Go over the manuscript and cut down the excess baggage. Those extraneous matters, however well you like them—unless they further the plot of the story, throw them out.
Make the point of your story perfectly clear. Often a writer expects the reader to take too much for granted. Remember, the reader does not know all you know about this story, but only what you put on paper. Make everything clear beyond the chance of confusion or misunderstanding.
Points of fact. Are you sure of all of them? Never take a chance on doubtful truths. Nothing will give you a worse reputation with an editor than to let him discover misstatements, incorrect geographic, climatic, or other conditions, situations historically untrue, in your manuscript—nothing, unless he publishes your story and receives a flood of letters from his readers pointing out the inaccuracies!
And keep everlastingly at it—not only with new manuscripts but with the old
ones in which you still have faith. Find out the trouble that is bringing back the stories that ought to sell. Fix them up and try again. I have known stories to sell on the fourth revision.
What Short Stories Wants
INASMUCH as this article may turn some of your manuscripts toward Short Stories, let me sketch briefly what we can and cannot use.
We can use good stories of almost any length, short-stories, novelettes, novels up to 60,000 words. Short-stories of North, East, South and West; America, Africa, Asia or any other interesting setting. A good Western story is always welcome; likewise a realistic baseball yarn, a circus story that smells of tanbark, a railroad story that is humanly done, a racing story that is not loaded down with crooked gambling, a crime story that does not make of crime a promising career, an Alaskan or North Woods story, a prizefight yarn—in short, anything that will appeal to the average man, anything that is red-blooded, that smells of the out-of-doors, that is clean and wholesome.
Short Stories cannot use: successful crime stories, ghost stories, supernatural tales of any sort where the supernatural is not explained, society stories, love stories that are love stories and nothing more than that, psychological studies, sex problem stories, phantasies and wild tales that are not based on common sense and fact.
Readers of The Student Writer are more than welcome to address their manuscripts to me personally and are assured of my careful attention. If you have a story that Short Stories can use it will be a privilege to help you put it across. If you can do the sort of story Short Stories needs I shall be mighty glad to help you locate among our consistent contributors.
You may want to compare this article with earlier ones by Ray Long (editor, Cosmopolitan), Fanny Ellsworth (editor, Ranch Romances) and Richard Martinsen (editor, Action Stories).