Once many years ago, Ray Bradbury decided the best way to become a good short story writer was to write a whole bunch of them. So he committed to writing a short story every week for a year. He also decided the only way to get published was to submit short stories, so he submitted a story once a week for a year too.
It’s a simple formula many beginning writers just don’t get — you got to put in the effort, and you have to send your stuff out there. As Bradbury explained in this speech, practice will help you, and it is impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row.
So let me introduce you to Write1Sub1, an online group where we encourage each other to write and submit a short story every week. They don’t have to be the same short story, because you probably want to let a story sit for a while before going back and editing it with a fresh set of eyes.
Many of us (including yours truly) are more novelists at heart, so if you don’t think you can face a weekly challenge, you can write and submit once a month. When I did this challenge back in 2014, I tried the weekly challenge. I burned out after four months, but got 16 stories written, more short stories than all previous years combined. Many got published in magazines and anthologies and the rest assembled into a collection I indie published. It really does work!
Check us out on our Facebook page. It costs nothing but your time, commitment, and perhaps your immortal soul. Keep on writing!
Hello, Black Gaters! I’m back after a month’s silence, and my silence on here usually means I’m drunk I’ve gone off somewhere. This time I spent three weeks in Cairo on my second writing retreat of the year.
During my previous Cairo retreat back in February, I started The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, the first in my neo-pulp detective series The Masked Man of Cairo. It’s set in Cairo in 1919, with the hero trying to solve a murder while the city is convulsed with its first major independence demonstrations. That book recently won the Kindle Scout program and is being published by Kindle Press on January 9. This time around I worked on the next in the series, The Case of the Shifting Sarcophagus.
So what does a wandering writer do when he goes to Cairo to write a novel? Try desperately hard not to let his research take too much time away from his writing!
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.
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.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article here on Black Gateabout 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.
OK, that’s small potatoes compared with all the other crap going on, but it was the end of an era. I bet I’m not alone among Black Gate readers and writers in being a Black Sabbath fan. Unfortunately I never got to see them in concert and now I never will.
They did teach me a lot about writing, though. As an author I get tips and inspiration from lots of different sources, not just other writers. Sure, I have a fondness for the great prolific authors and the literary giants, but I often learn more from the greats in different arts. Perhaps that’s because there’s a certain distance that allows you to see what they do more clearly. With other writers I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the nuts and bolts of their work, while with musicians and painters that’s not the case. I know very little about playing the guitar, and nothing about painting a landscape, so I focus more on the philosophy behind the work rather than the techniques of the work itself.
Me: I’m stuck. What kind of sentries would the bad guys set up?
DS Baker (a former soldier): Hang on…
Two minutes later we’re talking face-to-face across the Atlantic. I love the 21st century!
Yes, there are good reasons for a writer to stay on social media.
Well not all the time — and yes you have to avoid falling into the rabbit hole of long debates where you can’t let something stand. However, if you are a writer, then my experience is that properly curated social media is your friend.
I’m not talking about marketing, though it does help to have a wide circle of friendly people who are on your wavelength so might — not that you are entitled to this in any way — give your books a try.
Propaganda photo of the Volkssturm. This civilian militia appears to be well armed, but in fact borrowed their weapons from a regular army unit and had to give them back after the parade. The Volkssturm received castoff uniforms or no uniforms at all. The most appropriate uniform would have been a big bulls-eye on their chest
I’m in the process of researching one of my upcoming novels, Volkssturm, about the German civilian militia formed in October 1944. The Volkssturm called up all able-bodied men aged 16 to 60 who weren’t already in uniform. It also brought in some women. Most of these people weren’t particularly fit, or had been working in essential jobs such as armament factories and had been made redundant due to chronic shortage of material and Allied bombing. Even those who remained in essential jobs often served in local Volkssturm units charged with protecting their home area. The idea was to launch “total war” against the Allied invaders and save the homeland from devastation. We all know how well that worked out.
Nowadays before an operation it’s the thing for — usually — a senior nurse to work through a list with items like: “Does the patient have any allergies? Has the anaesthetist raised any concerns…? Is this even the right patient for this operation..?” There are also checklists for emergency situations such as reviving somebody fished out of a pond to make sure critical injections aren’t missed.
Why this is mildly terrifying is because (a) checklists significantly raise patient survival rates, and (b) the medical profession has only recently adopted them! (It’s a bit like that time my doctor mate remarked, “Oh that was before we went over to evidence-based medicine….” Erk?)
Why this is interesting for writers — and why I’m talking about this book here — is because checklists help in situations when people are working “in flow.”
They were first developed because nobody could fly the B17 without crashing it. The test pilots got together and made up a list for the co-pilot to read out at different stages: “Engine revving enough? Flaps at right setting…?” Now checklists are pretty standard not just for the aviation industry, but also for manufacturing and construction.
Checklists work because they are not procedures. They don’t tell the surgeon, “cut along dotted line A” or the pilot, “Steer down the runway.” Rather they act as gates between different phases of a project or procedure. They don’t get in the way of flow, so much as force you to pause and take stock before getting going or moving on.
For a writer like me this is interesting because it’s all too easy to dive in too early to drafting — because flow is addictive — without planning properly, and even easier to send off work that’s not properly polished — because writing is both exhilarating and mentally tiring.
Remember the 1950s The Vikings? Tony Curtis versus Kirk Douglas. But what were their characters called?
How about Gladiator? Russel Crowe as Maximus. Can you remember the names of the other characters?
Pirates of the Caribbean? Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. I bet you can name the other actors. What about their character names?
The nice thing about movies is that they have actors. Even if we don’t know their names, we do remember and then recognise them. So when Maximus’ right-hand man betrays him, we know who he is even if we can’t recall his name and didn’t realise how significant he was when we first saw him.
It’s harder with prose. Much, much, harder. As soon as you have more than a handful of characters, you’re faced with two problems: seeding and identifying.