Writing Short Stories - Becoming Interested In Yourself
( Originally Published 1922 )
The Three Factors of Success.—A certain famous writer has said that success in writing depends largely upon three factors. First, the individual must be intensely interested in writing; second, he must have something worth while to say; third, he must be able to say it clearly and understandingly and with the least possible effort and the fewest words, so that the reader understands exactly what is in the writer's mind.
The Value of Being Interested.—In fact, it has been said by a number of persons famous in their individual lines of endeavors that success in anything rests on being greatly absorbed in some particular subject. A successful artist is one who is perpetually thrilled by glorious combinations of colors—he paints incessantly until he can reproduce certain beautiful or significant effects. A successful merchant is one who is thrilled by the barter of trade. There is a sort of deep joy in making plans which materialize in the chink of profit; in establishing systems that bring in more business and that make the business run more easily and more efficiently, with full satisfaction to those who buy and to those who turn the wheels of the business. In like fashion, well-founded interest in writing is a natural indication of the ability to devise salable ideas. The truth of the matter is, interest is contagious; it touches with magic colors all with which it comes into contact. The various phases of life are brought forward with sharper and keener portrayal, with a deeper and more profound knowledge of the emotions and instincts that move people to do certain things.
The success of your writing, then, will depend largely upon how deeply seeded is your interest in your success. If the interest you have in writing is only a passing fancy—only a temporary infatuation in the guise of interest-your chances for a continuous success are not great. On the other hand, if your interest is so pronounced that you fairly itch to put your ideas on paper, your future then holds forth great possibilities.
What Does Life Mean to You?-I want to tell you first of all that your writings should concern themselves with your knowledge of the psychology of life, or certain phases of it. Now don't become alarmed. There is nothing in the word psychology that will injure you. Your psychology of life is nothing more than your opinion of people and things in general. In your contact with conditions and individuals, if life means anything to you and you are interested in finding out new things every day, you will constantly be coming to certain conclusions concerning these things and people. A salesman knocks at your door. Much to your surprise, you find that after a few moments' talk he has sold you some volume or article you had not the slightest intention of buying, in fact, did not even realize your need for. You say to yourself, "What a wonderful salesman that fellow is," and you begin to think over the various arguments he brought up, his suave and unobtrusive personality, and the various psycho-logical factors that were dealt with to make you buy. You come to the conclusion that most things are possible if one takes only the right attitude and does the right thing in the right place. In this very conclusion you would have a plot or an idea for a possible story.
Have Confidence in Your Own Scheme of Life.—Thus the importance of deciding whether or not you have a pronounced scheme of life, whether or not you are in the habit of classifying in your own mind the various kinds of people, together with the psychology that motivates them. It has been said that the most successful person is the stubborn per-son, the person who has the most pronounced ideas on various things, as opposed to the person who is moved from one conclusion to another too readily. Certainly, if you would succeed in writing, you must have faith and confidence in your own scheme of life—you must believe firmly in what you think. At the same time you must be ever ready to revise your opinions in accordance with new circumstances and experiences. Thus, a young bride and groom, before the early glamour, romance, and novelty of their relationship passes on; labor under various delusions concerning how married life will proceed. They are convinced that their bark for two will pursue a true, uninterrupted course down the river of matrimony. A year or two later, perhaps, they have changed radically their ideas. These ideas will have been changed by experience itself. After the passage of time, their conclusions regarding married life will be far more true to life than those originally entertained.
Training Yourself to Be Observant: It follows naturally that anyone intensely interested in the movement of life about him must have a blue-print of life, on which, at times, he makes little erasures. The more observant one is of people and things, the more detailed and clearly defined is one's set of blue-prints. All of which brings us to the very great necessity of being most observant of all that occurs about us, of classifying this set of action, of considering this individual, of 'reflecting over such and such an occurrence, of arriving at this conclusion regarding this or that experience taken part in. Perhaps you think you are a close student of human nature, but are you really? Do you really study your friends and acquaintances? Do you really see all that goes on about you and apply a reason, a cause, to it? Or do many things of vital import slip by you? Does life touch you only lightly, leaving but a slight trace upon your memory? If so, you must train yourself to observe more closely the things that are constantly happening about you.
A splendid way to develop your faculties of observance is to consider the little events and conditions that arise in your daily life. You go to work in the morning, we will suppose. You arrive at the office, or the store, or the factory. The manager is out of sorts. Things do not go along with the harmony they should. The manager's crankiness imparts a spirit of confusion and discord. Mistakes are made as the usual spirit of co-operation is lacking. Upon consideration, you conclude that one wheel out of place disrupts the whole scheme of machinery, in everyday life as in mechanics. Each and every one of us have an influence on those with whom we come in contact, whether or not we realize it. Here, then, is a conclusion we have made. It is the germ idea of a story plot which could be worked out in a multitude of ways.
The Freshness of Your Personal Point of View.—In your study of reasons and causes and results, you will utilize, of course, your own eyes. What you see will be different, in a greater or less respect, from what another person, viewing identically the same thing, would see. Your own point of view of life colors life with a new tint. You conceive life about you as no one else does. The conclusions that you arrive at may be diametrically opposite from the opinions entertained by another person. Your own reasoning powers will convince you whether or not your opinions regarding these matters are correct or erroneous.
The Significance of Little Things.—It is not merely the big things you must look for and seek out. The little things of life have sometimes as much significance as those seemingly of greater importance. It is the little things that slip by the casual observer and that are seen by the keen-eyed one. If a writer would be original, he must be able to discover the various details that give a new tone to an old object—that bring out vividly, interestingly, and originally what heretofore was considered to have no vivid, interesting, or original features. One person may view an object or an occurrence, seeing only the commonplace, ordinary aspects of it, while another person will sense the very pulse of that object or person and, by a few illuminating phrases, will bring out its distinct characteristics. Things must not be ordinary or commonplace to you. A person may have been in a certain niche of life so long that his particular mode of life palls upon him and he realizes only its boring, depressing, and uninteresting features. Yet there is surely something about that mode of life that holds great possibilities for stories. It is for you to seek out those factors of your life that would be interesting to someone else.
Story Material in Lonely Places.—One hardly would presume that an old maid's life in the country could hold anything of interest. Yet Frances Buzzell in her story, "Lonely Places," which appeared in the Pictorial Review, weaves a poignant beauty out of the simplest and most dusty elements in life. "Lonely Places" is a story of an old maid who, living apart from the people of her village, brought upon herself by her reserve the dislike and misunderstanding of these folk. It might seem impossible to the casual observer that anything of interest could be born out of a life so lonely and so uneventful. Yet Miss Buzzell has treated her subject with a delicate and imaginative realism that is noteworthy. In the story's two or three initial paragraphs, the author makes two true-to-type observations regarding the passage of time in a small village and the effects of its deadening life on former inhabitants who return for a visit. They are as follows
She was not quite forty years old, but so aged was she in appearance that another twenty-five years would not find her perceptibly older. And to the people of Almont she was still Abbie Snover, or "that Snover girl." Age in Almont is not reckoned in years, but by marriage, and by children, and grand-children.
Nearly all the young men of Abbie's generation had gone to the City, returning only in after years with the intention of staying a week or two weeks, and leaving at the end of a day, or two days. So Abbie never married.
Then again, Miss Buzzell describes in the following the rigid regularity of life in a small village, with regard to Abbie Snover in particular!
Every Winter evening, between seven and eight o'clock, Abbie lighted the glass-handled lamp, placed it on the marble-topped table in the parlor window, and sat down beside it. The faint light of this lamp, gleaming through the snow-hung, shelving evergreens, was the only sign that the big house was there, and occupied. When the wind blew from the West she could occasionally hear a burst of laughter from the boys and girls sliding down Gidding's Hill; the song of some young farmer driving home. She thought of the Spring, when the snow would disappear, and the honeysuckle would flower, and the wrens would again occupy the old tea-pots hung in the vines at the dining-room porch.
The things that made the people of Almont interesting to each other and drew them together meant nothing to Abbie Snover. When she had become too old to be asked in marriage by anyone, she had stopped going to dances and to sleigh-rides, and no one had asked her why. Then she had left the choir.
Except when she went to do her marketing, Abbie was never seen on the streets.
For fifteen years after Amos Snover died, Abbie and Old Chris lived alone in the big house. Every Saturday morning, as her mother had done before her, Abbie went to the grocery store, to the butcher shop, and to "New-berry's." She always walked along the East Side of Main Street, old Chris, with the market-basket, following about three feet behind her. And every Saturday night Old Chris went down-town to sit in the back of Pop Lippincott's store and visit with Owen Frazer, who drove in from the sixty acres he farmed as a "renter" at Miles Corners. Once every week Abbie made a batch of cookies, cutting the thin-rolled dough into the shape of leaves. with an old tin cutter that had been her mother's. She stored the cookies in the shiny tin pail that stood on the shelf in the clothes-press of the downstairs bedroom, be-cause that was where her mother had always kept them, to be handy and yet out of reach of the hired help. And when Jennie Sander's children came to her door on their way from school she gave them two cookies each, because her mother had always given them two.
Bringing Out True Meaning by Use of Details.—Do you think that in writing such a story of country life you would have remembered and tabulated and considered such incidents as Miss Buzzell has used to bring out with great force the deadening ways and characteristics of the retired old soul, Abbie Snover. Note that the deadly-calm life of Abbie is stressed by speaking of her reserve, the seeming lack of any emotion on her part, the clock-like precision with which she regulates all her actions. It is the little things in a story that ofttimes bring out its pathetic, even its dramatic, nature.
Classifying Your Observations.—Now the beginner can-not be expected to remember and classify in their proper places all the observations he makes. Herein enters the vast importance of keeping a record. A note-book is a good thing, or a number of index cards may do. At any rate, you should not let your worth-while ideas and conclusions slip by. Certain thoughts and deductions may come to you at untold places. If so, you should keep such ideas firmly in mind until you can jot them down on an index card or in your note-book, to be preserved for use in a story. You will be surprised how quickly your note-book grows if you stick rigidly to this plan. After a time you will realize how utterly futile it would be to attempt to remember everything worth-while that you see and experience. You will be surprised at the wealth of material that your note-book accumulates. There will be material, suggestions, for hundreds of stories. It is better, though, to have a plethora of material than it is to be forced to skimp because of the lack of it.
Selecting Details with Restraint.—I do not want my readers to think that in the writing of a certain location, type of work, or type of life, it is absolutely necessary to assemble every item with the absolute assurance that these items are precisely true to life or to the type of material that is to be treated. Thus, suppose you are a worker in a certain line of business. For example, say that you are shipping clerk for a clothing industry. You may not be able to gather together all the facts relating to the conduct of a clothing business, but if you understand the psychology that moves the clothing business and that relates to the sale of garments ; if you are well versed in the psychology that moves the persons managing the business and know some of the main workings of the whole organization as relates to its contact with its customers and with its employees, your story will ring humanly true. It may have some minor defects but all writers have made mistakes of this kind. If your story be sincerely and convincingly treated and be true-to-type in the main, that is all that can be wished for.
Material for Stories in the Most Ordinary Places.—I find it so very difficult to convince the aspirant that the most ordinary life or location is a fertile field for the prospector of story plots. The style of present-day stories is very much different from the style of even ten years ago. To-day, we have stories based upon apartment houses, deserts, the home, the store, the business office, and so on, in every niche and corner of the Universe. The location of thrilling stories is not confined to the Northwest, Africa, the South Sea Isles, the underworld, high society, London and New York City. Magazine readers of to-day are interested in heroes and heroines anywhere and of any type, as long as they are true-to type. The most phlegmatic characters—the most uninspiring mode of living—the most dismal locations—all have imaginative possibilities or may form the background of stories of romance, action, and character.
The Simplest Ideas the Best.—You may have been told that it is the big, strong ideas that receive the most popular reception. You must not take the term "big," however, in its literal sense. The simplest ideas dealing with fundamental, elemental emotions and instincts, are the best, because they appeal more directly to the heart of your reader. The beginner never should attempt anything of too ambitious a nature. His plots should not be complicated or complex, they should never go far afield into foreign realms, dealing with a large number of characters and locations with which he is only acquainted by hearsay or by casual reading. His characters should not be too good nor too bad. He should confine himself to the portrayal of people and pleasures and emotions which he can safely and comfortably deal with. He should not concern himself with situations which may easily get so far beyond him that he falls into a trap from which he can extricate himself with but poor grace.
Where Famous Authors Get Their Material.—If the reader will take the time and trouble to classify in his mind various plots of the writer whose material he prefers, he will find that particular writer portraying places and people that he has studied most closely and knows most intimately. James Oliver Curwood writes stories of the great Northwest, where he has lived and hunted and prospected for years at a time. Henry Van Dyke features in many of his stories the French-Canadians, which people he has studied closely and under-stands intimately. John Fox, Jr. has written several stories based upon the mountaineers of Kentucky. Mr. Fox has mingled with these folks to such an extent that he feels him-self as one of them. Booth Tarkington wrote a great novel, "The Gentlemen From Indiana." Mr. Tarkington himself is a native of Indiana. Fannie Hurst and Montague Glass write stories of the Jews, their business dealings, their humors, their emotions, and so forth. These two last mentioned writers have studied the Jew to such an extent that they know their natures as well as the Jew himself does. Robert Chambers has written several stories with an artist as the hero. Chambers was an artist for several years. It is possible to continue such instances on and on, but the foregoing is sufficient to show that the very large majority of writers, in dealing with a set of characters or a certain location, have studied or been in that location, have lived among and been fellow-humans with these individuals. These writers them-selves stress above all else the importance of the beginner writing of those things he knows best. Joyce Kilmer in the volume, "Literature in the Making," quotes Kathleen Norris, the famous writer, as saying:
"I was talking the other day to a young girl of my acquaintance who is a costume model. She has literary aspirations. Now, her life itself has been an interesting story—her rise from a shopgirl to her present position. And every now and them she will say something to me that is a most interesting revelation—something that indicates the rich store of experience that she might, if she would, draw upon in her stories. On one occasion she said to me, `I went home and put my shoe-drawer in order.' "
"What do you mean?' I asked. `What is your shoe-drawer?'
" `Why, my shoe-drawer!' she answered. `You see, we costume models have to have a drawer full of shoes, because we must change our shoes to match every costume.'
"Why is it," asked Mrs. Norris, "that a girl like that cannot see the value of such an incident as that? That shoe-drawer is a picturesque and interesting thing, unknown to most people. And this girl, who knows all about it, and wants to write, cannot see its literary value! And yet what more interesting subject is there for her to write about than that shoe-drawer?
I do not see why writers will not appreciate the importance of writing about the things that are around them."
In the same volume Montague Glass is quoted as saying:
"The trouble with many young writers is that they don't know what they are writing about. They are attempting to describe psychological states of which they have only third-hand knowledge. Their ideas have no semblance of truth, and therefore their work is absolutely unconvincing."
Of special importance is the following quotation attributed to Rex Beach:
"How is a writer going to get ideas for stories unless he uses ideas? The more ideas a man uses, the more ideas will come to him.
"The imaginative quality in a man is like any other quality; the more it is functioned the better it is functioned. If you fail to use any organ of your body, nature will in time let that organ go out of commission.
"It is just the same with imagination as with any organ of the body. If a writer waits for ideas to come to him and ceases to exercise his imagination, his imagination will become atrophied. But if he uses his imagination it will grow stronger and ideas will come to him with increasing frequency."
Giving Your Plot the Touch of Originality.—Up to the present point, I have endeavored to impress upon the reader's mind the truth that an interesting story presupposes interest in life. And, while your own conclusions of life may, to a certain extent, differ from those arrived at by any other individual, still, your general ideas on certain subjects may nevertheless be very similar to those of other people due to the similarity of your own point of view to the point of view of others. A certain married woman may read this chapter, a woman who has been married for a number of years. She may, after looking back over her life, ask herself, "What has my experience of married life been?" Her husband may be a type similar to many other husbands and her experiences may have been much as the experiences of others. She then might very well ask, "How can I use these experiences in stories in such a way as to give them the unmistakable touch and charm of originality?"
This point is very vital. It is essential that the beginner understand perfectly what originality consists of before he delves into the more technical elements that govern the writing of short stories. We now have our groundwork of psycho-logical truth governing various characters and situations which we very much want to put on paper. At the same time, we want to get it down in such a way that the old theme will be impressed upon the reader's mind in an entirely new fashion. Here is where the writer must weigh his material cleverly so that the point to be brought out, no matter what it is, must come as a surprise as well as turn out naturally and logically.
Suppose the writer wishes to contrive a story of married life having as its main idea the fact that a successful marriage must be based upon true and strong love on the part of both parties concerned. That has been the underlying theme or germ idea of a great many stories and it will continue to serve as a theme for unlimited numbers to come. By its very wide appeal and application this theme is capable of being worked out in an unlimited variety of ways. The originality of your story depends upon the exact manner in which you work this out—the manner in which you arrange the events so that true love is shown to be the only way a marriage can be made really successful. It does not much matter HOW you do it, providing you DO do it, and accomplish it in a suspense-arousing, original, and perfectly sincere fashion. That all depends upon your inventiveness, and, as the writer already quoted said : "The power of developing ideas and of contriving incidents to illuminate a certain theme and to impress a certain situation all depends upon the extent to which you use this power and develop it and make it grow by exercise."