Scott D. Parker
Earlier this week, I review THE PULP JUNGLE by Frank Gruber. Reading through all the true struggles he endured to bust through and actually make it in 1934, I realized that I, in 2017, with a full-time day job, have it pretty good as I work at my writing craft and pursue my own goals.
But Gruber’s odyssey as a writer can also speak to us writers today. What follows are some facts and quotes I took away from his book.
From August 1932 (when he arrived in New York) until June 1934 (when he sold the story that enabled him to break big in the pulp fiction market), Gruber wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage. My takeaway: Yeah, he had it bad, real bad. I don’t. Not really.
The Big Break came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’” My takeaway: sometimes, your best work can emerge out of your brain and through your fingers in whole cloth. Don’t be afraid of going with it.
His income in 1934 was less than $400 ($7,200 in 2017 money). In 1935, he made $10,000 ($176,511). My takeaway: Yikes!
Even after his Big Break, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood. My takeaway: always keep learning and always maintain your contacts when you make them. You never know what will happen and with whom.
Frederick Faust, the real man behind the famous pen name “Max Brand,” trained himself to write 14 pages every day, year after year. It added up to 1,500,000 words of fiction per year. It took him 2 hours each day. Then he would often drink. My takeaway: Constant writing and constant production will produce material you can sell. Keep at it. We may not all type as fast as Faust and we may not all have 2 hours in our days, but we do have an hour or so. The words will come, and they will come faster and easier the more you do it.
"There is equality of opportunity. There is no equality of talent." Gruber said that about the days of yore. With independent writer opportunities, the field is even more wide open.
The story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (Insert Your Own Personal Challenge)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes” and then he delivered and discovered that he could. Then he did it over and over again.