Friday, March 28, 2003

[3/28/2011] Presenting Ring Lardner, with "Who's Who -- and Why" and the Preface to "How to Write Short Stories" (continued)


"So much for the planning and writing. Now for the marketing of the completed work. A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor."
-- Lardner, in the Preface to How to Write Short Stories

We can fill in Lardner's 1917 biographical sketch somewhat by ripping a few paragraphs out of the Introduction to Some Champions: Sketches and Fiction by Ring Lardner, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman (Scribner's, 1976):

Ring Lardner was one of the American writers who emerged from the newspaper sports desk. He began his professional career as a sports reporter for the South Bend Times in 1905. During the next fourteen years he became known as an expert on baseball as well as one of the most entertaining sports reporters in the country. His column "In the Wake of the News" in the Chicago Tribune (1913-19) has been called "one of the municipal glories" of Chicago. In 1919 Lardner became a syndicated columnist with his "Weekly Letter," which was tremendously popular for the nearly seven years of its duration.

Lardner began publishing fiction in 1914 when the first Busher story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. In less than twenty years he published 128 short stories while pursuing his journalistic careers. At the peak of his popularity in the twenties, he was one of the highest-paid fiction writers in the country, receiving $4,500 per story. In 1926 Lardner learned he had tuberculosis, which, compounded with alcoholism, forced him to give up his daily column in March 1927. By this time he had been working under the pressure of newspaper deadlines for twenty-two years. He continued to write regularly for magazines, commencing an association with The New Yorker, and pursued his lifelong interests in songwriting and playwriting. Although two of his plays were produced -- and June Moon (1930) was a success -- the collaborative effort necessary to produce them conflicted with Lardner's pride in his work. Lardner continued to write fiction, largely impelled by financial considerations, and in the early thirties his stories became increasingly pessimistic. As Some Champions shows, Lardner remained a fiction writer of the first rank.

In 1924 when [F. Scott] Fitzgerald persuaded Ring Lardner and Maxwell Perkins of Scribners to publish How to Write Short Stories, he was amazed to learn that Lardner had not preserved copies of his stories. The volume had to be assembled by photographing library copies of magazines. . . .

For How to Write Short Stories the author supplied the following Preface.

Preface to
How to Write Short Stories

A glimpse at the advertising columns of our leading magazines shows that whatever else this country may be shy of, there is certainly no lack of correspondence schools that learns you the art of short-story writing. The most notorious of these schools makes the boast that one of their pupils cleaned up $5000.00 and no hundreds dollars writing short stories according to the system learnt in their course, though it don't say if that amount was cleaned up in one year or fifty.

However, for some reason another when you skin through the pages of high class periodicals, you don't very often find them cluttered up with stories that was written by boys or gals who had win their phy beta skeleton keys at this or that story-writing college. In fact, the most of the successful authors of the short fiction of to-day never went to no kind of a college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade. They could of got just as far in what I call the literary game if they had of stayed home those four years and helped mother carry out the empty bottles.

The answer is that you can't find no school in operation up to date, whether it be a general institution of learning or a school that specializes in story writing, which can make a great author out of a born druggist.

But a little group of our deeper drinkers has suggested that maybe boys and gals who wants to take up writing as their life work would be benefited if some person like I was to give them a few hints in regards to the technic of the short story, how to go about planning it and writing it, when and where to plant the love interest and climax, and finally how to market the finished product without leaving no bad taste in the mouth.

Well, then, it seems to me like the best method to use in giving out these hints is to try and describe my own personal procedure from the time I get inspired till the time the manuscript is loaded on to the trucks.

The first thing I generally always do is try and get hold of a catchy title, like for instance, "Basil Hargrave's Vermifuge," or '"Fun at the Incinerating Plant." Then I set down to a desk or flat table of any kind and lay out 3 or 4 sheets of paper with as many different colored pencils and look at them cock-eyed a few moments before making a selection.

How to begin -- or, as we professionals would say, "how to commence" -- is the next question. It must be admitted that the method of approach ("L'approchement") differs even among first class fictionists. For example, Blasco Ibanez usually starts his stories with a Spanish word, Jack Dempsey with an "I" and Charley Peterson with a couple of simple declarative sentences about his leading character, such as "Hazel Gooftree had just gone mah jong. She felt faint."

Personally it has been my observation that the reading public prefers short dialogue to any other kind of writing and I always aim to open my tale with two or three lines of conversation between characters -- or, as I call them, my puppets -- who are to play important roles. I have often found that something one of these characters says, words I have perhaps unconsciously put into his or her mouth, directs my plot into channels deeper than I had planned and changes, for the better, the entire sense of my story.

To illustrate this, let us pretend that I have laid out a plot as follows: Two girls, Dorothy Abbott and Edith Quaver, are spending the heated term at a famous resort. The Prince of Wales visits the resort, but leaves on the next train. A day or two later, a Mexican reaches the place and looks for accommodations, but is unable to find a room without a bath. The two girls meet him at the public filling station and ask him for a contribution to their autograph album. To their amazement, he utters a terrible oath, spits in their general direction and hurries out of town. It is not until years later that the two girls learn he is a notorious forger and realize how lucky they were after all.

Let us pretend that the above is the original plot. Then let us begin the writing with haphazard dialogue and see whither it leads:

"Where was you?" asked Edith Quaver.

"To the taxidermist's," replied Dorothy Abbott.

The two girls were spending the heated term at a famous watering trough. They had just been bathing and were now engaged in sorting dental floss.

"I am getting sick in tired of this place," went on Miss Quaver.

"It is mutual," said Miss Abbott, shying a cucumber at a passing paper-hanger.

There was a rap at their door and the maid's voice announced that company was awaiting them downstairs. The two girls went clown and entered the music room. Garnett Whaledriver was at the piano and the girls tiptoed to the lounge.

The big Nordic, oblivious to their presence, allowed his fingers to form weird, fantastic minors before they strayed unconsciously into the first tones of Chopin's 121st Fugue for the Bass Drum.


From this beginning, a skilled writer could go most anywheres, but it would be my tendency to drop these three characters and take up the life of a mule in the Grand Canyon. The mule watches the trains come in from the east, he watches the trains come in from the west, and keeps wondering who is going to ride him. But she never finds out.

The love interest and climax would come when a man and a lady, both strangers, got to talking together on the train going back east.

"Well," said Mrs. Croot, for it was she, "what did you think of the Canyon?"

"Some cave," replied her escort.

"What a funny way to put it!" replied Mrs. Croot. "And now play me something."

Without a word, Warren took his place on the piano bench and at first allowed his fingers to form weird, fantastic chords on the black keys. Suddenly and with no seeming intention, he was in the midst of the second movement of Chopin's Twelfth Sonata for Flute and Cuspidor. Mrs. Croot felt faint.

That will give young writers an idea of how an apparently trivial thing such as a line of dialogue will upset an entire plot and lead an author far from the path he had pointed for himself. It will also serve as a model for beginners to follow in regards to style and technic. I will not insult my readers by going on with the story to its obvious conclusion. That simple task they can do for themselves, and it will be good practice.

So much for the planning and writing. Now for the marketing of the completed work. A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.

Personally I have found it a good scheme to not even sign my name to the story, and when I have got it sealed up in its envelope and stamped and addressed, I take it to some town where I don't live and mail it from there. The editor has no idea who wrote the story, so how can he send it back? He is in a quandry.

In conclusion let me warn my pupils never to write their stories -- or, as we professionals call them, "yarns" -- on used paper. And never to write them on a post-card. And never to send them by telegraph (Morse code).

Stories ("yarns") of mine which have appeared in various publications -- one of them having been accepted and published by the first editor that got it -- are reprinted in the following pages and will illustrate in a half-hearted way what I am trying to get at.


Great Neck, Long Island, 1924.




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