Street & Smith was one of the many publishers Cook worked for.
This is their book department in 1906, at the height of Cook’s career.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been studying the careers of hyperprolific authors. No study of the field would be complete without looking at the life of William Wallace Cook. Around the turn of the last century his work was everywhere — as serialized novels in newspapers, as dime novels, and later in hardback books. We wrote everything from boy’s fiction to romance to mystery to science fiction.
His two most enduring books, however, and really the only two that are still read today, are both nonfiction. The first is Plotto, a plot outline device that allows you to link up various plot elements to create a virtually infinite variety of stories. It’s on my shelf but I have yet to try it. The other is The Fiction Factory, in which he describes his early years breaking into the writing business in the 1890s and his climb to steady success in the early years of the 20th century. Despite having been written more than a hundred years ago it remains useful and inspiring reading for any aspiring or professional author.
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Last month I posted here about Researching the Habits of Highly Prolific Authors for a book I’m working on. Black Gate reader John Hocking kindly suggested in the comments section that I read Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print, by Ronald Weber. I took him up on his advice and I’m sure glad I did.
This book looks at the careers of writing and editing from the nation’s earliest days until the end of World War Two. Weber shows us a parade of successful writers and editors — many well-known to this day, many more now forgotten — who found success in the ever-changing market for American popular periodicals.
Until the middle of the 19th century, American writers were hampered by the lack of international copyright laws. Newspaper and magazine editors filched English publications for free and saw no reason to pay homegrown talent. As the population grew and both American and British writers managed to get their governments to set up legal barriers to such theft, the market for American writing blossomed.
These writers certainly didn’t waste their time moaning about their lack of inspiration and hoping the muse would visit them. As prolific and successful Western writer Zane Grey said in a letter to a friend:
This morning I had no desire to write, no call, no inspiration, no confidence, no joy. I had to force myself. But when I mastered the vacillation and dread, and had done a day’s work — what a change of feelings. I had a rush of sweet sensations.
This is a common thread throughout the book. In example after example, we are shown that writer’s block is a myth and that writers should not — indeed, must not — sit around all day twiddling their thumbs. These writers worked hard.
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Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article here on Black Gate about the habits of prolific authors. The research I did for that post sparked an interest in me that’s only grown. Now I’m working on a book-length study of how some of the great writers of the 20th century managed to write hundreds of books, most of them while hammering away on manual typewriters. There are lots of books on increasing your word count, but none, as far as I know, focus on the actual methods of the most productive writers.
I’ve set myself some limitations. First, to be given a chapter in the book, the writer must have written at least 300 books. They must also have enough biographical material that I can gain insights into their work methods. Also, they must be dead so that I can look at their careers as a whole, they must have been active in the 20th century so their work is more applicable to the modern era, and they must have written in either of the two languages I am comfortable reading — English or Spanish.
At the moment I have the following list: Isaac Asimov, Walter Brown Gibson, Corín Tellado, Marcial Lafuente Estefanía, Lauran Bosworth Paine, Ursula Bloom, Enid Mary Blyton, Barbara Cartland, and John Creasey. Some writers who don’t quite fit the bill but who have something worth quoting are given passing mention. Frank Gruber is a good example. His book The Pulp Jungle is essential reading for anyone who wants to know the inner workings of a true wordsmith.
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