Norvell Page is best known for the adventures of pulp hero The Spider, but he also wrote science fiction, sword and sorcery, and even dabbled in the spicies. In the midst of the Great Depression, Page became a millionaire thanks to his high output and penchant for weird menace. In 1935, Page was asked to contribute an article on the nuts and bolts of writing. Here is Norvell Page's response:
by Norvell Page
I begin this way to avoid misunderstandings. This is an article about how a writer-for-money produces manuscripts which sell.
I turn out 100,000 to 120,000 words a month for the "pulps"—magazines (so called because they are printed on "wood pulp" paper). These words—the pulp writer always talks of words—because he's paid on a wordage basis—are written as well as I am able to write them. I try constantly to improve the quality, the forcefulness and the keenness of character interpretation in my stories. I spend twice as much time on rewriting as on writing.
To me, these things and pride in my work are art enough . . .
But let's get on with the article.
When the editor asked me for three or four thousand words on "How I Write," I smiled. "I don't know how I write," I told him, "I've been too busy writing to analyze my methods."
The editor chased me to my files, looked over some of the stories I had written, and picked out one.
"Tell me how you wrote this one," he said.
I looked at the carbon copy of the story—I file a carbon copy of every story until I can cut the printed story out of the magazine, then I compare them to see how the editor edited my work. Well, here was the carbon copy, and I looked from it to the wall of my office, where hung the covers of the magazines which illustrate stories I have written. It was there, the illustration that went with this story.
It shows a man hanging from a rope over a bloody pool in which floats a skeleton. To the left, a man in a black robe and a hood is holding a red-headed girl clothed only in a scant yellow sheathe of silk. The hooded man is trying to make the red-headed girl cut the rope and drop the man into the bloody pool. You have an idea it would prove fatal if she did.
I grinned at the editor. "Okay, if that's what you want, you can have it."
* * * *
That story is titled "Dance of the Skeletons" and it's of the pulp type called "Mystery-Horror"; that is, it's about foul deeds which are to make the reader's blood run cold and to keep him guessing as to who actually committed those deeds.
The history of this particular story began one evening when I climbed three steep flights to a Greenwich Village attic and invited a writer friend to visit a new speakeasy with me.
My friend was depressed. He sat before a table on which sheets of manuscript were scattered.
"The editor wants me to cut my sixty-thousand word novel to thirty-six thousand," he said bitterly, "and get it in by next Monday. I've only written ten thousand and I like the plot as it is."
My friend decided he wouldn't cut his story and that he couldn't plot and write another in seven days.
"Mind if I have a shot at it?" I asked. "I've never written for that editor, but I can give him thirty-five thousand words in a week, if that's what he wants."
My friend said morosely, "Go ahead," and the drinks were on me.
They have a saying: When you want trout for breakfast, you first catch your trout. Or maybe it's a bear. The same thing applies to writing. When I began writing, I didn't believe that. I'd see a market note in a writer's magazine that a magazine was buying western (or mystery or what have you) stories of a certain length and I'd sit down and write a story which I thought filled the bill and send it in. I didn't read his magazine first—why should I when my story had to be original? But in those days I didn't sell.
Now, when I want to sell a new magazine, I pick up a market tip, and then buy that magazine and read it from cover to cover, with especial reference to the lead story and the blurbs—the score or so of words that the editor writes at the top of a yarn to sell it to the reader.
When you see a blurb like this:
"Through the fog-choked grayness these horrors prowled. Their faces were pale as the fog itself and even knives could draw from them no blood. Yet it was blood they sought, blood they sucked from their victims' headless corpses . . ."
Well, you get the idea that the editor wants it sca-a-arry.
There's more to it than that, of course. You go through your magazine and find that the editor uses some first person stuff; that he has a woman interest in all his yarns, maybe a bit of sex; that the girl should be in danger from the chief menace of your story—this is what is known as "slant" or "formula." Actually it is what the editor likes or thinks his readers like. When a story has it, he buys it. When it doesn't, it goes back to the author.
Having learned this magazine's "formula," I next sought an idea for a story. A story idea is the most nebulous and elusive thing in the world, yet its acquisition can be simple. I believe it is a matter of habit, of training your mind to think in certain grooves.
It is doubtful if any two writers come by their story ideas the same way. A friend of mine saw a corollary between the song "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and the fact that a gangster would talk of "smoking down" an adversary. Another writer went walking and noticed the shadows of people, who passed him, sliding along the pavement. He got a story out of that. I looked out of the window once and noticed the unconscionable number of dogs that clutter the parks of New York. I was seeking a horror story with an overwhelming menace. I thought, "Suppose all those dogs had hydrophobia . . ."
But these are haphazard methods. There are few writers, I believe, who can pull a story out of their brain by staring at a blank wall. Most writers have some system of jotting down ideas. I have a file into which I drop clippings from newspapers, cards on which I have scribbled ideas that occurred to me from time to time, many of which were of no particular use at the time.
This night, when I had finished reading the magazine, I ran through my file. I was looking for some clipping that might suggest horror, that would give me a menace to make the reader's blood run cold. I soon found what I wanted, a typewritten note made after coming home from a motion picture. The movie concerned some lad who had gone up the Amazon for something or another. My note stated that the explorer lowered the carcass of a forty-pound pig into the waters of the river and, forty seconds later, lifted it out a clean white skeleton.
The answer to the stripping of the skeleton was a species of fish known as caribs. The particular type found in the Amazon headwaters are called piranha, and they are cannibals. Only as large as a man's hand, they have remarkably large mouths fitted with a row of razor-like teeth top and bottom.
That much I jotted down after seeing the picture. It was an idea, nothing more. Now, let's see how I maneuvered that into a story. My thoughts ran something like this: I must have a background of terror and mystery. Obviously, these carib fish, operating in the Amazon River, would involve little terror. Furthermore, the solution would be too obvious, hence no mystery either. Then the necessary murders via the caribs must be committed somewhere else, preferably against a city background. So much for locale.
Now then, how shall I use the fish? Obviously, if they are seen at work on the carcasses of the victims, there's no mystery. The point about these fish is the speed with which they work. It becomes apparent then that the maximum of terror would be obtained by converting living men into nice white skeletons within a few minutes, and concealing the method by which this was done. There's the menace decided upon.
Next we turn to motive and the villain. The two are inseparable. The usual resort in terror stories is to devise a "mad scientist" who is making experiments. I've used that. So have thousands of others. It is trite because it is the simplest explanation for unspeakable horrors. Editors don't want it anymore.
I sought frantically for a possible and logical reason for killing people by turning them mysteriously into nice, fresh skeletons (and incidentally, I think motivating stories of this type is the most difficult part of the plotting). My mind flitted to murders for various kinds, torch murders where bodies were soaked in gasoline and burned, murders in which bodies were dismembered and tossed into rivers, . . . ah!
People who commit that kind of murder frequently desire to destroy the identity of the victim. You couldn't do a much more thorough job of hiding identity than by removing all the clothing—and the flesh too. So much for that. Our villain wanted to prevent identification.
But to have the horror of the story to the full, these skeletons must be flaunted in the face of the city, they must appear at the festive board, thud at the feet of the police commissioner entering headquarters. That is obvious intensification.
To motivate such activity, the murderer not only must want to hide the identity of his victims, but he must want publicity for his skeletons. That was rather a tough problem. Also the motive must not be too apparent. That made it tougher. The tip came from the daily newspaper. The stock exchange was fighting Washington over some threatened publicity move. It would ruin the stock market, it was contended, and send shares crashing . . .
This, then, was what I had: The villain feeds his victims to the carib fish because he wants to hide the identity of his victims; he wants publicity for his skeletons also. From the newspaper I learn that publicity harms the value of stocks. Non-sequitur? Well, here's what I worked out of it, though I'll admit the publicity part of it stumped me for a while:
An unscrupulous capitalist who has fallen on hard times sets out to clean up in the stock market by foul means. He kills off certain captains of industry to make the stock of their companies decline. However, mere murder of these men would not depress the stocks. He must contrive to kill them and make it seem they have merely disappeared because the financial condition of their companies is no longer sound. To accomplish this, he kidnaps them and feeds them to carib fish, piranha, which can within a course of minutes eat all the flesh from the bones. The villain then tosses the skeletons in various conspicuous places. By this means, he not only depresses stocks through the mysterious disappearances of leading men, but he distracts the attention of police from the stock market manipulations, by which alone he could be traced. When the skeletons finally are identified, stocks rise again and the villain cashes in both ways. The hero is a detective from a Midwestern city studying New York methods. The girl would be the daughter of a victim, and for a time, a suspect also.
My agent showed the above to an editor who needed a story and he said he'd be glad to see a detailed outline of the novelette.
He'd like to see a detailed outline! Yeah, so would I. There is nothing on earth I hate more than an outline. Some writers never use them, but I find that an outline holds me to the course of my story, keeps me in the right length, helps in a thousand ways. But it's still a job.
I can't compose outlines leaning back on a soft pillow with my eyes closed. I'd go to sleep. I have to sit down at the typewriter and watch the words beaten out by the flying keys. Then my mind works story-wise. The first thing I do is pick my characters. I had already chosen the type of hero, but that was all. I hammered out a character sketch of him, including the old folks back home in the Midwest and the size of his hat. Most of it never was used, but it planted the character firmly in my mind, brought him to life. I never have been able to write a salable story unless the character "comes to life" and actually at some point in the story takes the action out of my hands and runs it himself. And I've found that the spots where that occurs are the best parts of my stories. Or so the editors tell me, without even knowing that those special bits were "inspiration," if you care for the word.
I also did a sketch of the girl, and of the other leading characters I intended to use. Minor characters might be handled the same way. At current word rates, I never had the time to try it.
The next step was to single out the suspects. After that came the brow-wetting labor of digging up detailed information in the library—this time on caribs—figuring out dramatic incidents, and batting the ball around among the suspects. A tried and true device is to throw all the suspicion on one man, then kill him near the end of the story. But when you do that, be sure you have another suspect all ready and waiting to take the burden of suspicion—and don't let him be the guilty man.
I decided to do that, then I sought a dramatic incident to open the story, a scene also that would introduce the leading characters, and the main theme—the Dance of the Skeletons. And, in this case, I couldn't forget the atmosphere. I knew from analyzing the magazine that the editor likes them eerie.
I started "Dance of the Skeletons" in the police headquarters with our hero and his mentor, a hardboiled New York detective, reading a note that invites them to see the skeletons dance. It's a foggy night, etc. Atmosphere. Hero and mentor go to the spot where the skeleton is to dance. An attack in a dark alley, a glimpse of brown-skinned naked men (I brought in the Amazon Indians, too) and finally, in the dark, our hero touches the bones of the skeleton, dangling from the brick wall beside which the two men stand. He flashes on his light and a cold wind brushes them; the skeleton dances!
Back at headquarters, a detective says he has a clue, but refuses to tell what it is. He goes out to follow it—and an hour later, his skeleton is tossed out in front of the police headquarters! And so on. Another skeleton is dumped on the dance floor of a nightclub. The solution—well, it was easy once the thing got underway. The simplest way to carry the fish northward from the Amazon would be a swimming pool, naturally in a private yacht. The villain tortures our hero by lowering him slowly toward the pool of cannibal fish. (See cover illustration.) One gets his toe, that's all, and in the end, the villain himself dies in his own pool of horrors. Our hero tells who else is guilty and how he figured it out and the hero and the girl clinch. Curtain.
That's the outline of the story, and then the hard work starts, the writing of it. Thirty-five thousand words in a week—with deductions of time for outlining, revision and final typing—a finished product ready to go on the editor's desk.
There are some writers making a living in the pulp market today who turn out no more than three thousand words a day. They may or may not send out the story as it falls from the typewriter. I'm the reverse of that. I once turned out 25,000 words in a fifteen-hour day. In pinches, fifteen and sixteen thousand words a day are not unusual for me. I once wrote a draft of a fifty-five thousand word novel in four days.
But these high production days are spurts. No writer living can keep that up long. I knew one who was topping 200,000 words a month—one month he beat 250,000—but he cracked after a while. There came a time when 80,000 was a good month for him. He's made his pile, he says, and doesn't care.
An editor told me that the author of the Shadow stories, which run around 50,000 words each, received an outline for a story on Tuesday and turned in the completed manuscript on Friday.
It's a great life if you don't run out of words.
On my Spider stories, fifty-five thousand lead novels for the magazine of that title which I write monthly under a house name, I have written as many as six different opening chapters, and spent a full day getting the first two thousand words on paper. I may have written eight, ten, twelve thousand in getting those two, and even then, I don't always like them.
I started out to tell you how a writer-for-money produces his stories. I've tried to tell you how I go about it, but after all, this is my private process. It probably doesn't fit the methods of anyone else. I have a friend—one of the three-thousand-word a day men when he's working at it—who never thinks on paper. He reclines, smokes and builds his stories in his mind. He thinks out his sentences beforehand. When he finishes a scene, he stretches out again and dreams over the next scene, even figures out some of the dialogue. And he, too, revises endlessly. That's the way I used to think "authors" worked.
I have another friend who thinks up his plots pacing the floor with quick, springy strides. Now and then he stops and stares up at a corner of the ceiling and suddenly he flings himself at his typewriter like a hungry man at a steak and pounds out his story. But that "plot" was merely an idea. He'll pour the story on paper with only that idea at the start, and turn out as neat a yarn as any writer I know. He swears he doesn't know from one minute to the next what will happen in his story and he'll often leave the last page of a manuscript in his typewriter overnight while he seeks the right ending, the right "tagline." He's the one who burns them out at 2400 words an hour and sells them as they come from his typewriter without revision.
Personally I stand a little in awe of such men. Turning them out that way is one thing, but selling them is quite another and he does that, too. Be damned if I don't think the man is a genius. (And he'll break my neck if he reads this article and finds I said it.)
They tell of another writer who sits before his typewriter in a dark room and writes his story by touch. He sells them to the "slicks."
But these authors all have several things in common. They study the magazines to which they intend to sell; they are close observers of life; they keep files of notes for stories unless they are possessed of exceptionally retentive memories which can recall not only events but actual conversations which occurred years before; they know what they write about, either from experience or research.
May I speak frankly?
I never turned out a story in my life that wasn't plain, hard work. Not that the writing itself wasn't enjoyable. I don't have to sweat out words, or worry about action when my characters "come to life." But somewhere in that story, the work was hard. Getting the idea, working out the outline, revising the copy, trying to get a fast opening that still would carry all the information it should; straining to tell a scene just as I see it in my mind's eye.
That's "how I write." I hadn't analyzed it before, but that's more or less the course on any story, whether it's a four-thousand word short or an eighty-thousand word novel.
Writing for a living is hard work, but I wouldn't trade with any man I know.