L. Ron Hubbard as president of the New York Chapter of the American Fiction Guild in 1936

Advice to the Word-Weary by L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard, center, as president of the New York Chapter of the American Fiction Guild in 1936. The Guild’s membership included Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Once upon a time Ye Ed wrote me a letter in which he stated that he did not want a dissertation upon the way Keats used a comma. He wanted, he claimed, an article in which there was a great deal of sound advice about writing and a number of examples.

While cleaning my files I ran across the following letters and carbon copies. If I wanted to be grasping, I could write two dozen articles using this material.

Instead, by cutting out the funny sayings and things, here is raw, solid meat as handed out to certain gentlemen and ladies who, somehow or other, obtained the address and thought, for some reason, that I could write.

•••

L. Ron Hubbard
New York City

Dear Mr. Hubbard;
For a long time I have been writing fiction. Most of it came back and lies neglected in my files along with letters from editors and plain rejects.

I have not managed to sell a single line. Of course I had some published in the school paper and a few places like that, but I think that if I could get at it right, I could earn a good living by writing.

The man down at the service station has read a lot of my stories and has given me quite a lot of good advice on them. He took a writing course, I think, or maybe it was journalism, at the local university.

Is it asking too much for you to answer this question? How did you start to write and sell?

Respectfully,
Jim Higgins
Cornshuck, Iowa

•••

Jim Higgins
Cornshuck, Iowa

Dear Higgins;
It isn’t a question of how I started to write, it’s a question of why.

There’s a world of difference there. I take it that you have a job, otherwise you wouldn’t eat and if you don’t eat, you don’t last long.

We assume, therefore, that you are eating. That is bad, very bad. No man who wants to start writing should be able to eat regularly. Steaks and potatoes get him out of trim.

When a man starts to write, his mental attitude should be one of anguish. He has to sell something because he has to pay the grocery bill.

My advice to you is simple. If you have the idea that you can write salable stuff, go off someplace and get short of money. You’ll write it all right, and what’s more, you’ll sell it.

Witness the case of a lady I know in New York. She was plugging at writing for some fifteen years without selling a line. She left the Big Town with her husband. In the Pacific Northwest her husband died and left her stranded.

She went to work in a lumber mill and wrote a book about it and sold it first crack out. She worked as a waitress and wrote a book about that and sold it. Having succeeded with two books, she went back to the Big Town and got herself a job in the library until the returns came in. She wrote all the time after that but she was eating. In sawmill and hash house she wasn’t living comfortably. She needed the extra.

She hasn’t sold a line since.

The poet in the garret is not a bad example, after all. Personally, I write to pay my bills.

Jack London, I am told, plastered his bills over his writing desk and every time he wanted to get up or go arty he glanced at them and went right on grinding it out.

I think if I inherited a million tomorrow, my stuff would go esoteric and otherwise blah.

I started to write because I had come back from the West Indies where I had been hunting gold and discovered that we had a depression going on up here. Dead broke and with a newly acquired wife I had to start eating right away.

I started writing one story a day for six weeks. I wrote that story in the afternoon and evening. I read the mag I was to make the next day before I went to bed. I plotted the yarn in my sleep, rose and wrote it, read another mag all the way through, went to bed….

Out of that month and a half of work I have sold fiction to the sum of nine hundred dollars. At the end of the six weeks I received checks amounting to three hundred and two dollars and fifty cents.

Unable to stand prosperity, I left for California. I got broke there, wrote for a month without stopping to breathe, sold eleven hundred dollars’ worth. Nothing like necessity to take all this nonsense about how you ought to reform editors right out of your head.

As far as that guy down at the service station is concerned, he may be okay, but remember this: You are the writer. You have to learn your own game. And if he’s never hit the bread and butter side of the business, he knows less about it than you do, all courses to the contrary.

Write me again when you’ve gone and done some tall starving.

Best regards,
L. Ron Hubbard
New York City

•••

L. Ron Hubbard
Podunk, Maryland

Dear Mr. Hubbard;
I have always felt that I could write if I tried, but somehow I’ve been so busy during the last few years that I haven’t had much chance.

I was married when I was very young and every time I started my writing, Joe would either move (Joe is my husband) or we’d have to both work because of the bills.

Most of my children have grown up now to a point where they can take care of themselves and although I have some time now I don’t seem to be able to get down to work. I have a lot of stories in the back of my head but I just can’t find time or ways and means of getting them down on paper. I feel that this is mostly mental.

Would you tell me how you write?

Wishfully,
Mary Stein
Swampwater, Florida

•••

Mrs. Mary Stein
Swampwater, Florida

Dear Mary Stein;
Remember when you read this that I didn’t ask to be appointed your psychoanalyst. I am nothing but a hard-working writer, after all, using fictitious characters and working them over. When real people get planted in front of me I stand back and gape and wonder if it can be true.

Let me tell you about Margaret Sutton. She writes some of the best children’s books being written today. She has five kids, I think. A lot of them need plenty of attention. She has to support them and do her own work and everything.

One day somebody asked her why she didn’t get a maid now she had so much royalty money. She blinked and said, “A maid? Why, what would I do with my extra time?”

Well, there you have it. Maybe it is mental.

From Crabtown to Timbuktu, when I have been introduced as a writer, somebody always has said, “Well, now, I could write too if I just had some time.”

That is a queer mental quirk with people. If a man is a writer, he is doing something everybody thinks they can do. A chap who is the head of a big insurance company, highly successful, once said to me, “I would like to write, but I never seem to be able to find the time.”

It’s their way of apology, I guess. Nearly everyone makes that remark and, to be brutally frank, it is a source of much merriment in the professional ranks.

I am not one to talk about working and writing in the same breath. I have a law around the house here which says that writing comes first and to hell with everything else. The lawn grows into an alfalfa field, the pipes drip merrily, the floors need paint, but I turn a deaf ear to pleas and go right on writing.

I have found this to be the case. My time at the typewriter is worth, per hour, what the average artisan gets per week. I do not work the same hours he does. I work far less, but I work much harder.

Therefore I paint my floors and fix my pipes with the typewriter keys, if you get me. One short story will pay for all the work to be done around this house in a month including the maid’s wages.

People let petty things keep them away from a typewriter. I think that is true because they want to be kept away from the machine. When you start to write there seems to be an invisible wall separating you from the keyboard. Practice is the only thing which will dissipate it.

If you make yourself write during trying times, you are doing a lot toward whipping your jinx.

Recently I was very ill in a New York apartment. My agent, Ed Bodin, and his wife came in. My wife had been there with me for several days and was worn out. Ed and Juliet wanted to take her to a show.

They left at 8:45 p.m. They returned at 11:30. In the interim I had grown restless. I felt that I was stale, would be unable to write anything for months. Then I got mad at such a traitorous thought, climbed out of bed, sat down at the mill and wrote a story which I gave to Ed upon his return.

I knew, of course, that the story would be rotten. Half the time I couldn’t see the paper, I was so dizzy.

But I guess I was wrong. Ed sold it almost immediately to Detective Fiction Weekly. It was “The Mad Dog Murders.”

My contention is that, if you have the stuff on the ball, you can write anytime, anyplace and anything.

Best regards,
L. Ron Hubbard
Podunk, Maryland

•••

L. Ron Hubbard
Unusualado, California

Dear Mr. Hubbard;
I been pounding out a lot of western yarns and shipping same to certain editors located in New York where the only horse in town is located on a whisky bottle.

These gents claim, per letter and returned stories, that I haven’t got any real feel of the west.

The same irritates me considerable. I spotted a yarn of yours and you seemed to know hosses hands down and guns likewise and that don’t measure like most of these western yarns.

I think maybe I’d better go back to wranglin’ hosses because maybe I don’t know how to put it in stories. I sure do know something about putting them in corrals.

I thought it was about time somebody wrote some western stories that knew what they was writing about. I still think so.

The question is, what the hell can I do about it?

Yours truly,
Steed Monahan
General Delivery
Stud Horse, Arizona

•••

Steed Monahan
General Delivery
Stud Horse, Arizona

Dear Steed Monahan;
You have laid the finger on something. I’m not sure what. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you have the dope but lack the knack of writing fiction. You know there might be something in that. Anyway, I’m no judge because I never read any of your stuff.

This question once leaped up at a New York Chapter meeting of the American Fiction Guild. Clee Woods, Al Echols, Sayer, and maybe Tom Roan got pretty deep into the argument about whether or not you had to know the west to write westerns.

I wasn’t so very interested because my forte is adventure and such, but I listened because I had been raised in Montana but had never been able to sell a good western story.

These lads who knew the west had it all settled to their satisfaction that you had to have the dope and data before you could put down the words and syllables.

Then Frank Gruber stood up and said he’d sold a few westerns that year. Fifteen or so. And that was odd because, he said, he had never been closer to a ranch than editing a chicken paper in the middle west.

So there you are. The dope and data does not outweigh good story writing. I can write stories about pursuit pilots, stories about coal miners, stories about detectives, stories about public enemies, G-men, arctic explorers, Chinese generals, etc.

Which doesn’t mean that I had to shoot down another plane to get the dope. I have never: 1. Been in a coal mine. 2. Been a detective. 3. A public enemy. 4. Been a G-man. 5. Explored the Arctic. 6. Been a Chinese general.

And yet I am proud of a record which was only marred by one inaccuracy in a story, and that was very trivial. By getting experience somewhere near the field, I can exploit the field.

For instance, of late, I have been looking into dangerous professions. I’ve climbed skyscrapers with steeplejacks, dived with deep-sea divers, stunted with test pilots, and made faces at lions. But at no time was I actually a member of that particular profession of which I was to write. I didn’t have to be because the research enabled me to view it from a longer, more accurate range.

The only thing you can do is try hard to write a swell, fast-action western yarn. Peddle it to every western book in the field. Ask for some honest comments on it.

But before you do this, be sure you are writing what these magazines are buying.

A good story comes first. Information comes second. An editor of one of our best books recently told me, “Accuracy be damned. Very few gentlemen will know you’re wrong. Give us the story. We can buy the accuracy from a twenty-five-a-week clerk with a library card. You don’t have to know. You can write.”

Ride ’em, cowboy, and don’t pull any leather until they spot your trouble for you. But if you can’t write, you can’t write, no matter how much you know.

And I guess that’s all I know about that subject.

Best regards,
L. Ron Hubbard
Unusualado, California

•••

Mr. L. Ron Hubbard
New Orleans, Louisiana

Dear Mr. Hubbard;
During the last few months I have managed to sell some of my stories to magazines located in New York. I have every assurance that I can keep right on selling these stories of mine and I think it’s about time I made a break for the Big Town.

I’ve been reading the writers’ magazines and I think you have to know all about New York and the markets before you can really get places in this game.

I’ve been making over a hundred dollars a month in the writing game and I’ve sold stories to__________, and__________. I asked one of the editors about this and he told me by all means look him up when I got to New York. As that sounds encouraging, I’m planning on leaving.

Jeb Uglook wants me to go with him to Baffin Land on his whaler this summer, but I think I better give my writing a break and go to New York instead.

But I thought, before I made a decision, I’d better write to some professional writer like you who’s been in New York a lot and ask him what conditions were there.

My stories are mostly about this part of the world as I am always cruising around or trekking off someplace with guys like Jeb Uglook, or Biff Carlson (he’s the Mountie here), but I think I ought to have a wider field for my work. Detective stories, for instance, and things like that.

Would you tell me about New York?

Sincerely,
Arch Bankey
GeeHaw Factory
Hudson Bay

•••

Mr. Arch Bankey
GeeHaw Factory
Hudson Bay

Dear Arch Bankey;
A few years ago I knew a beachcomber in Hong Kong. All he ever talked about was the day he would go to New York. That was the place. New York!

But he was smarter than the rest of us. He never went. He just talked about it.

There’s nothing like knowing your editors, of course. Editors are swell people as a rule. Nothing like getting their slant face to face. Increase your sales no end.

But if you think you can go to New York and live there on a hundred a month, you’re as crazy as a locoed wolf. Think about it from this angle:

In New York you’ll have noise, bad living conditions, and higher expenses. You will have to keep right on writing to keep eating.

You are used to writing where the biggest noise is a pine tree shouting at its neighbor. That is the condition you know. You can write there.

Chances are a hundred to one that you won’t be able to turn out a line when the subway begins to saw into your nerves, when the L smashes out your eardrums overhead, when ten thousand taxi drivers clamp down on their horns.

If you can’t write, you can’t eat because you won’t have enough reserve.

Besides, the markets you mention are not very reliable. Those eds are the brand that want something for nothing. Wait until you sell the big books in the pulp field. Wait until you crack into at least four of the big five publishing houses. Wait until you are pretty sure you know what you’re doing in the game before you make a change.

I’ve wrecked myself time after time with changes just because I have itchy feet. I have just come from New York. I got along all right, for a very little while, then the town got me. I had a big month and managed to get out.

But once New York gets you, you’re got.

Some of the swellest guys I know are in New York. Also some of the worst heels.

Here’s my advice, take it for what it’s worth to you.

Jeb Uglook and the whaler will provide you with lots of story material. Go with him and write it. Trek out with that Mountie and study the way he goes about it. Take your trips with your eyes open for data.

Neither Jeb nor Carlson will let you starve. If you can’t put out the wordage, you’ll find editors far from interested in you.

Write everything you can, study the mags you’re sending stuff to, collect every scrap of story material from GeeHaw Factory. Collect yourself checks to the amount of one thousand dollars, no more no less. With that all in one piece, shove off for New York.

On arrival, get yourself the best clothes you can buy. Register at the Waldorf-Astoria. Take editors out to lunch in a Cadillac taxi.

Stay in New York until all you’ve got left is your return trip ticket to GeeHaw. Pack up and leave right away quick for home.

Don’t try to work in New York. Don’t try to make it your home. Go there with a roll and do the place right, then grab the rattler for Hudson Bay before the glamor wears off.

Sitting in a shabby room, pounding a mill with the landlady pounding on the door is fine experience, but I think gunning for whales up off Baffin Land is much more to your liking.

Best regards,
L. Ron Hubbard
New Orleans, Louisiana

•••

And this, my children, endeth the lesson. Any questions?

 


L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard, New York City, 1935

With 19 New York Times bestsellers and more than 350 million copies of his works in circulation, L. Ron Hubbard is among the most acclaimed and widely read authors of our time. For a more extensive biography, go to www.galaxypress.com/l-ron-hubbard

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