Friday, September 03, 2010

Forgotten Books: Fundamentals of Fiction Writing - Arthur Sullivant Hoffman

Arthur Sullivant Hoffman was the editor of the pulp magazine ADVENTURE from 1911 to 1927, when it was considered to be the top pulp in the world and the one that most would-be writers really wanted to crack. Robert E. Howard fell into that category, because he was a regular reader of ADVENTURE and submitted many of his stories to it, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to sell any of them. (Luckily for his readers he kept at it and had success with other magazines.)

Hoffman also wrote several books about writing fiction. This one, originally published in 1922, was reprinted recently by Black Dog Books, and it ought to be of great interest to anyone who writes fiction, at whatever level. 

But one thing I should warn you about right away: Hoffman was very much a writer of his time, and even for that era, he was one long-winded son of a gun. But he has some really good things to say if you take the time to dig them out. Here’s an example:

“For twenty years I have watched the flow of manuscripts – more tens of thousands than I like to remember – and am year by year more convinced that more embryo writers of appreciable ability are ruined by an overdose of technique at the hands of their literary doctors or by slavish copying of the work of some ‘successful’ writer than by any three other causes you please to name.”

I certainly can’t argue with that. One of Hoffman’s main points is that each writer should develop his or her own style and techniques that work, and that the best way to do that is by writing.

Here’s another quote that I like:

“Some, like Sinclair Lewis, Talbot Mundy, and others, fully realizing the situation and keeping their heads, write what they know will sell, write it as well as they can under the limitations, and keep on writing it until they have attained sufficient standing and financial foundation – and sufficient mastery – to write what they wish and in the way they wish.”

That really sums up the life and goal of a professional freelance writer. Ah, but Hoffman goes on, perhaps somewhat brutally:

“But the vast majority become permanent slaves in the galley where they must serve their apprenticeship, perhaps growing very skillful at handling one oar among the many oars but hopelessly unable to paddle their own canoe.”

Hey, Arthur, I resemble that remark!

Here’s a quote concerning writers as readers:

“Their attitude is at least partly that of a critic rather than a recipient; their interest in ‘What is happening’ is at least partially distracted to ‘how it is written’.”

That’s something else I’m really guilty of. I often have a hard time just letting myself enjoy a book because I’m constantly taking apart how it’s written and thinking about how I could apply what I see to my own work. Hoffman, on the other hand, thinks that writers should always have their readers in mind first. Too often I catch myself writing for other writers, thinking about things that they would appreciate, rather than concentrating on the story and the reader’s reaction to it.

One more quote, this one not from Hoffman but from an unnamed author of his acquaintance:

“I try to give the reader a lot for his money. I don’t try to do any fine writing. Only one in a million of us can be a polished stylist. [I don’t agree with that, for what it’s worth.] I’m not that one, but I think I can evolve a story and tell it. So there is no more agonizing about the style. I try not to make the outside of the motor car which bears my people all gold and shiny and flower-decked, so that the countryside will look at the car and not at those it contains. I just try to make it a good, suitable, unobtrusive vehicle that will start and get to the journey’s end without any tire trouble or backfires.”

That’s a pretty good approximation of how I work. I think style is more important than this author makes it out to be, but I try to keep most of my attention on the story.

While a lot of Hoffman’s advice is pretty standard stuff – show, don’t tell, and don’t give your characters names that are easy to confuse with each other, for example – he has a lot of good things to say about how fiction is primarily illusion and ways to maintain that illusion. When I used to give talks about writing to various groups, I often started out by telling them that I was a professional liar, that my job was to make up the biggest pack of lies I could think of . . . and then convince them that it was all true, at least for as long as it took them to read the book.

While I wouldn’t recommend FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING to anyone who isn’t a writer, or wants to be a writer, I think it’s an excellent book that has a lot to offer in the way of practical advice, as well as in things to ponder. I know it’s improved my work already, and I’m glad it’s back in print.


George said...

Great advice and insight into the writing process. I'm ordering it right now! Thanks again for bringing books like this to our attention, James!

Todd Mason said...

There is an unfortunate tendency for even the best editors to be windbags...too much reading of other's writing can't help...

Charles Gramlich said...

I collect these types of books so I'll have a look see at it. It's not one I've heard of before.

Mark Terry said...

"I try to give the reader a lot for his money."

Really, I think this could be the best advice writers should ever get. I remember Stephen King saying if someone pays $25.95 (ha!) for one of his books, they should damn well get at least $25.95's worth, that it would be a real bummer for the reader to go away saying they only got $12.95's worth.

I always keep that in mind when I'm writing, whether it's books or magazine articles, or whatever. In business terms we call it "value added" but I always want my clients/readers to come away with more than they expected.

Ron Scheer said...

That business of not writing for other writers is a hard one. It's the equivalent of dumbing down - at least it feels that way.

Richard R. said...

I read an excerpt of this just recently, I think it may have been in BLOOD 'N' THUNDER magazine. Great review, thanks.

Todd Mason said...

Write your best, as much as you can and as much as you want to.