Saturday, February 4, 2017

Writing Lessons from Frank Gruber

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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

When You Can't Write Because The World is Burning

I have seen a lot of my writer friends talk about how difficult it is to focus on writing in our current political and social climate, and I understand it. Awhile back I wrote about how there are a lot of things that make writing difficult, and being mentally or emotionally strained is one of them.

Personally, the more angry, upset, or generally bummed out I feel, the easier it is for me to write. It feels good to get into a zone where I'm in control and my mind is firmly with a universe of my own making. Being depressed or feeling defeated is a different story, though, and I think we all have different levels of despair we can reach before the writing starts being difficult.

Rather than give tips on writing, I'd like to give tips on recharging, because even if you decide today you don't care about writing, you'll need to take care of yourself regardless of what is on the news.

1. Don't drink yourself to death. Like many of you, a good whiskey or a big margarita helps me chill out after a rough day or works as a reward when I've put up with a lot of shit. I'm not a teetotaler and wouldn't suggest ending a relationship with alcohol for anyone who isn's suffering from addiction. But, you know, drink some water, too. Hangovers fucking suck, and they're only going to get worse if you start drinking your worries away instead of enjoying at a level that doesn't leave you useless.

2. Find the music that lifts your spirits. This is different for everyone. When I need a happy boost I actually listen to some really depressing music. It works for me. Maybe you need something more upbeat. The point is, when it's quiet, listen to music that makes your heart happy. Allow yourself that.

3. Take 24 hours away from social media. Just 24. Don't make promises you may not be able to keep about a week or permanent hiatus from Facebook. Just say to yourself in the evening "I'm not doing this tomorrow" and stay clear. You'll get a break from the stuff you didn't even realize was putting you on edge.

4. Go outside. If it's cold, you'll get a refreshing chill, if it's sunny you'll get a little boost of vitamin D. If it's dark, enjoy the stars or moonlight behind the clouds. It's free, it's easy, and it only takes a minute.

5. Read. Read an old book you love, read a new book you're excited about. Check out some short stories. Leave the news behind, if only for twenty minutes, and enjoy stories.

6. Go fucking write. You know, and I know, that you love this or you wouldn't call yourself a writer. Take care of you, and then take care of business.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bursting Bubbles

Lots of talk about bubbles lately. If you live in the city, you're in a bubble. If you live in the country, you live in a bubble. Maybe we're all in that Stephen King book Under the Dome? No, they mean something just as bad but easier to fix, if we want to.

Do you have friends and family with views that are different than yours? That is becoming less common, apparently. We block our way on social media into only hearing what we want to hear. And I'm not saying you're wrong for doing it. We all need to take care of ourselves. I've been fortunate in that I have been able to travel around the country and the world and visit other bubbles. Tokyo and little suburbs in Niigata prefecture, Japan. Copenhagen and small Danish villages where we ate fried eels. Pozzuoli, the neighborhood in Napoli where Sophia Loren was from and the Camorra crime syndicate holds sway, the New Jersey of Italy, because it smells like a sulfurous Earthfart thanks to Vesuvius, where it rests, waiting for the next big one. And in America I've lived in naturist colonies in California (thankfully before phone cameras) and deep red state Louisiana,
"liberal lakes" Minnesota, and visited cities and burgs of all sizes.

But I've been to many more places and met even more people without ever leaving my chair, because I read a lot of books. I read books by people who live lives so unlike mine it feels like fantasy or science fiction. These writers invite us into their bubble to walk in different peoples' shoes. I've been to Bull Mountain thanks to Brian Panowich, parts of L.A. I've never seen thanks to Robert Crais, Josh Stallings, and Christa Faust. To Belfast during the Troubles thanks to Adrian McKinty, to Haiti thanks to Roxane Gay. And I've invited people to my world with my own stories.

 I've been accused of being a "social justice warrior" where that's an epithet, not a commendation, because I write about people of all creeds and colors and backgrounds. Well, welcome to my bubble. I grew up in a town that doesn't sound as diverse as it was. Martha Stewart sprang from it like a decorating demon in a cloud of brimstone and potpourri. Marty Kostyra (as she was known then) is in the Nutley High School Yearbook of 1959 with my old man. But my street, which was literally on the other side of the tracks of the Lackawanna-Erie Railroad line, had refugees from VietNam. My friend "Jon" was one, and introduced me to shrimp chips and Shaw brothers movies and taking your shoes off when you came inside to watch TV. Across the street was Santos, the Puerto Rican Vietnam vet with the ponytail who told us creepy stories in the summer when we sat out on the stoop or started an illegal campfire to roast marshmallows and hotdogs. I learned to play soccer (ahem football) from someone who had tried out for the Colombian national team and I drank homemade wine given by an Italian neighbor and ate mulberries off the thorn bushes in his yard. My uncle ran gay bars for the Jewish mob in New York and told us about his transgender bartender who played matchmaker for goombahs who liked trans women. And of "Betty Grable" aka Tom, a country boy who fled home to be a circus geek before finding a home behind the bar.

And at ITT where my mother worked, and I came on age fifteen as a dishwasher and later short order cook, I met Irish and Scottish women who had worked as housemaids (like my Italian grandmother had) to come to America. And black men and women who made a good living as porters and cooks and managers, like Norman who told me how he went marlin fishing every year, and Harold who served in World War II and told me the French prostitutes thought he would have a tail, and Peter the Greek who ran the kitchen and warned me to never, ever, wash his omelet skillet. My WWII-vet uncles who roofed houses and fixed cars, and my biker and trucker Nam vet cousin who showed me the shrapnel still working its way out of his leg ten years later.

If you've read Blade of Dishonor, you've been in part of my bubble. Bad Boy Boogie, out in April from Down & Out Books, explores more of it. Bubbles are beautiful, but aren't meant to last. Burst yours with a great book. When I visited Ireland, a couple in Galway bought me a pint and talked about Henning Mankell, how they visited Sweden because they loved the Wallander books. We can't all hop a plane and visit, but we can read the book. So we don't need to wonder how the other half dies, to quote INXS. Because we'll know.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Harmless Poem

I'm pressed for time today, so for a change of pace, what about a little poetry, courtesy of Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). 

The Stalin Epigram (with one tiny addition)
Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin (Read: Washington D.C.) mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


I recently read a book that began with an author's apology. Apology for the conceit of writing from the perspective of a Native American; acknowledgement of the possible cultural appropriation of choosing to do so. I have to say I'm a little tired of the cultural appropriation discussion. We are, at the end of the day, all people. I hear some question how a man can write from the perspective of a woman and vice versa; because we're all people. We all have hopes and dreams. Some men are more masculine, while others may have more feminine interests and attributes than some women I know. Why do we put people in boxes? Isn't the nightmare that is unfolding politically right now enough to make us realize that first and foremost, we're all people? That we should not let labels divide us? If I can read a story from the perspective of a man or boy or Native American or Muslim, how is it different than writing from that perspective? On the one hand, we can never truly know exactly what others are going through. All the experiences that have combined to bring them to whatever point they're at in their life and what they believe are unique to them, and it is conceit of any of us to say we completely understand. (Except with teenagers who think they know it all, but that's another discussion.) Do we ever completely understand anyone else? Perhaps not. But there are levels of understanding. My husband understands why I analyze situations before I go into them. He understands my need to examine things from every angle. While others would tell me to stick a sock in it and don't care about my musings and deliberations about decisions, my husband understands that I know myself; that I can attempt to be completely logical about a decision and still throw logic to the wind and make an emotional choice. When I bought my first house, I had a checklist. All the things that were important priorities. I took notes of each house I visited. And at the end of the day, there was a house that had every single thing on my checklist... And I still bought a different house that didn't have all those things. Don't ask me how that happened. I recognized after the fact that I'd been swayed by sentiment and charm and some of the things that bugged me about the house were things I'd identified from the first time I set foot inside, and still ignored. Buying a house isn't the same as being banned from a country because of your ethnicity. It isn't the same as being pushed onto a Reservation and treated like a second-class nobody for centuries. However, I've seen a lot of commentary lately. And that commentary has included the sentiment that white people don't know what discrimination is. That we should shut up because we've never been there. Except that very statement is a discrimination all of its own. No, it isn't the same as what some other people have endured. However, part of being an artist... part of being a decent human being... is learning to try to see the world through the eyes of someone else and consider their perspective and their experience. I have experienced discrimination. I've casually said that I never knew what it was to be discriminated against because of my race until I worked in a specific school in Baltimore. I was called cracker and held down on the ground while a group of teenage boys kicked me, because I was white. I had students whose guardians laughed while they taunted me and talked trash about me. Physically and verbally assaulted for months. And I don't know anything about discrimination? It's nothing compared to what some people have endured, but it's enough to prompt understanding. It isn't even, in truth, the first time I experienced that. Once, when on vacation overseas, my traveling companion and I accidentally docked our canoe near the residences instead of the stores on an island. The children pummeled us with rocks until we got out. They had some choice names for us, too, because they thought we were Americans. And when I was 18 and lived overseas, I found myself constantly presumed to be American, and many of my traveling companions who were Americans started wearing Canadian flags and pins because Americans were treated poorly. When people realized I was Canadian I was treated differently. I may not have endured the worst there, and it may be nothing compared to the discrimination others have faced, but it does inform my understanding. It helps me begin the journey to compassion. Why wouldn't I want to be able to portray that in my writing? Am I limited to writing from a white woman's perspective? I don't believe so. I think that we have to be willing to take a journey with our characters - whoever they are - and try to probe their psyche to understand them. And the process of doing that may lead to a greater understanding of what other people have endured. Isn't the cornerstone of characterization respect? As long as we push past stereotypes and try to really build a perspective that considers the factors that have affected this person, can we not produce a believable character who is credible? I certainly felt that way with the book I read. The book touched on prejudices and struggles from both Caucasian and Native people, and I believed it did so with tact. It was a touching story that specifically dealt with moving past prejudice. I want you to write as a Muslim, as a Native, as a person facing prejudice because of your color, gender or religion. I want you to work hard to bring these characters to life, so that I can read more stories that deepen my perspective and understanding. Isn't that what great fiction is all about?

Getting My Imagination Back Into Shape

My final edits for Another Man’s Ground have been turned in, and I’m now back to my work in progress – the third Hank Worth mystery. With the holidays and some other writing projects, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to work on it every day. I’ve popped in and out, certainly, but the consistent daily work had to take a backseat for a while.
It’s wonderful to be back. It took me a couple of days this past week to get there, but I’m back in my groove. I love the steady satisfaction of pages of text appearing on the computer screen. The kick of creating something from nothing. And it gets easier the more I do it.
It’s a lot like exercise. It’s hard to drag your butt off the couch, but when you do it – and the more consistently you do it – the better you feel. And your imagination needs a work out just like any other part of your body or mind.
The revisions I’d been doing were great (making everything better is always a good thing), but the first draft of a novel is where my imagination really gets a workout. I’ve got a couple of great new characters, including a real jerk. And I’ve got some existing characters grappling with heavy-duty problems. I don’t know how I’m going to solve them yet, or whether I’ll solve them at all. We’ll have to see where my imagination leads me.