Monday, May 1, 2017

A Million Words a Year For Ten Straight Years, by Walter Gibson

A Million Words a Year For Ten Straight Years

by Walter Gibson

Originally published in Writer's Digest, March 1941.


Ten years ago, Street & Smith had a weekly radio program that dramatized stories from Detective Story Magazine. In the program, the used an announcer who termed himself "The shadow." His sepulchral catch-phrase, "The Shadow Knows" existed only as a bodiless theme. The Shadow would have remained such, but for the foresight of Henry W. Ralston, now vice-president of Street & Smith Publications. He advised creating a magazine character to be called The Shadow.

I was the writer who received the assignment. The story was to be done under the penname of Maxwell Grant; if satisfactory, three more would be needed since The Shadow was to be a quarterly publication.

Since then I have written more than two hundred Shadow novels, totaling better than ten million words. The first issue clicked, and the magazine immediately became a monthly. It jumped to twice a month, within its second year, and still appears at that frequency.

I've stopped in the middle of another Shadow to tackle an assignment that's proving tougher than any of those stories. I'm trying to tell the readers of Writer's Digest what I've learned about writing that I didn't know ten million words ago.

However, the target is so big that I can't miss it, so here go the shots.

When I first started writing the Shadow stories I had two things to do: create a character and devise a plot. I treated them as one, and herewith made a chance discovery. It was this: build a lead character, and a story will build itself around him. In a sense, he lead character becomes the plot, or at least the main portion of it.

This is by no means as obvious as it sounds. It does not mean to construct a character, equip him with a lot of things that will please you, and may catch the reader. That's just as far away from it as beginning with a solid plot, and then jamming the lead character into it. If the character is to be the personalization of the plot, he must develop with it.

You must treat your character as a discovery, rather than your own creation. Treat him, not just seriously, but profoundly. Picture him as real, and beyond you, in mind as well as prowess. Feel that however much you have learned about him, you can never uncover all. This mental attitude gives you a deeper knowledge of the character than the story itself discloses.

The plot induced by this process will normally require a lesser character who may be termed the "proxy hero." He is the person, along with others like him, who is matched against the villains of the piece, in a theme which is really the personal saga of that all-important lead character, who is developed through his influence and action towards the lesser figures.

The proxy can be replaced by another, even from the wrong camp. The unity lies in the lead character's identity with the plot. When incidents and situation are fed to him, they are used or rejected, according to how they rebound to the writer.

This isn't metaphysical bunk. It's the system I have used, though it may sound odd when rationalized.

Basically, my lead character is in the game for his own amusement, and therefore (parenthetically) the reader's entertainment.

The thing that amuses him is straightening out the comparatively small problems that concern the lesser characters in the story. Looming large to them, those problems, either separately or linked, reach the lead character, and the combined burden changes his implied fun into damnably earnest business.

I found I could start a story just from that.

However, it wasn't a case of taking any character, and giving him any problem. They must be suitable to that lead character, who IS your story. The "proxy" can be dumb or bright; his problem small or large, plain or bizarre. But it must feed to the lead character, or--here's a help--must furnish the impetus to another problem that is very well suited to him. In which case, the original character and problem is like giving a car a shove, when the starter won't work.

I learned these things the hard way.

The system that I fortunately blundered upon, enabled me to write the stories "off the cuff" as some writers put it. I brought in lesser characters, with their conflicting traits and motives, and let them reveal the Shadow, but inasmuch a he became more rounded, with each succeeding story, the value of the minor characters necessarily became less. The stories, themselves, were getting stronger, because the cumulative plot factors were more frequently evident. Thu though I didn't recognize it, I was becoming an experienced fiction writer.

But if you've done considerable writing, and have really progressed with it, regardless of whether its sold regularly or not, you may be up against the same thing I struck, when I tried working "off the cuff." The trouble hit after I'd done about a dozen stories.

It took the editorial head of "too many characters." It was true, there were too many characters, but there was a deeper reason behind it.

In order to hold those budding features of the major plot until they blossomed, I was plugging in additional lesser characters, hoping their gyrations would occupy the reader, until I had properly established the major theme.

This menace definitely threatens every spontaneous writer. Having accomplished something by instinct, he tries to repeat by reason. It can happen to the best, or worst of us. Of course, the symptoms vary, but the basic trouble is always the same.

My symptoms were too many characters. My editor, John Nanovic, wanted them cut down, So I rewrote a good portion of that story, and provided a synopsis for the next, also at editorial request. One synopsis led to another, and with each, I learned that more matters than characters were under test. To each synopsis, I added more detail, until--well, here's the way I work today.

First: I find a crime and a man to do it. I figure possible complications for him, and how he might handle them. To a degree, I'm using the "plot from character" process with him. At any rate, this goes into a couple pages called a "Background."

Next comes the outline, three to four pages. It brings the background people into conflict with the Shadow, and introduces the proxy hero or his equivalents.

Then I write a synopsis. It runs twelve pages, sometimes more, and brings in the features of each chapter, even to snatches of dialogue. I've been hung up three days on a synopsis and have counted it time gained. The headaches that accompany a synopsis eliminate those that would otherwise occur when writing the story.

A spontaneous story loses its value if the plot bogs down. Too much bearing on the plot, while writing, ignores the spontaneous effect. Complete surety of the plot, before beginning, allows spontaneous writing. Therefore, I write an elaborate synopsis, which covers definitely, even in actual detail, each point that promises real difficulty during the wring of the story.


I believe that other writers think I find steady output easy; whereas, I know that I find it difficult. Before The Shadow went twice a month, I was asked to begin writing on that basis, to make sure that I could do it, I did the year's supply in under ten months. Since then, I've never had to speed up my writing schedule.

When I finish a long grind on a story, I get the feeling that now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of anything except the reading public. I get that feeling, plus. Because I have more excuse, not less, for taking a rest, and enjoying all the fun that prospective writers think a literary career is going to bring them. However, instead of easing up, I go at it harder. Which brings me to a personal conviction: namely that many writers who think they've approached their output limit, are only kidding themselves.

Had I not been confronted by a demand for heavy output, I doubt that I would have ever known that I could produce it. I would have written and mulled, and loafed in between.

Output means money. If you don't write stories, you can't sell them. So write them until it hurts. THEN WRITE MORE. Maybe you'll find that pain will help them.


I have found out certain points regarding my own output. Here they are:

Working hours: I tried getting up at a reasonable, or stated hour, to approach writing like a regular job. No good. Experience proved that I wasted the extra time I could have slept, and became tired earlier.

Peak of progress: Roughly, after the first two thousand words, I begin to approach the peak, and reach it between three and four thousand. Generally good through five thousand and sometimes longer.

Time to Quit: Never, until after the peak has been reached, though long pauses can be inserted, such as going somewhere to dinner, a party, or a show. Such excursions, however, must be made with intent to resume work on return. After the peak, I quit whenever I want.

Reward for Merit: When writing, I take the fun first, and pay up for it. This has given me discrimination and wariness regarding fun.

In breaking off, I follow a method which I believe has been frequently suggested; that of quitting in the middle of a chapter, often in the middle of a paragraph, or even a sentence. Once, when a car was tooting for me to go somewhere, I couldn't wait to put another page in the typewriter, so I ended in the middle of a hyphenated word. In picking up, the next day, I found it was very easy, perhaps because of the novelty. I often end work when I pull out a page, regardless of whether the sentence has ended.

When I finish a story, I put a new page in the typewriter, and begin on the next. I regard it as a surefire system to keep up output. Every writer is bound to have something in him, upon completion of a story that will be of value, if he uses it right then.

This plan, judging from test that I made, is more applicable to the short story that the novel length.

One Wednesday, I had the best of all excuses. Trying to start the next story outline, I couldn't find an idea to go with it. It was a really tough nut, that would take a few days to crack. The day was lousy, and I felt the same. I was in Maine, and unless I mailed the synopsis the next afternoon, John wouldn't get it until Monday, since the office is closed Saturday. So I gave myself a complete out, and began to read a magazine that was around the house.

In it, I found an article by a successful writer of mystery stories. It told how the source of inspiration, or what-have-you, can go dead or latent, leaving a writer more or less helpless until it returns. My agreement was so absolute, that it suddenly changed to horror. I was acknowledging a luxury that I couldn't afford. I went back to the typewriter, drove through the outline, and into the synopsis. By Monday, I was deep into the story, a breeze to write, from that synopsis.

Which proves that one source of inspiration is a good, swift, self-delivered kick in the pants.

Someone might answer this by telling me: "Maybe you don't need much inspiration, writing for your market."

I need just as much a if I were writing for another, because I'm not writing for any market. I have always written for readers, and have found it valuable to continue that policy. It keeps a writer from going stale, enables him to follow any trend, and sometimes to start one.


To crack the nut that is a story, my tendency is to work from device, and step it up. There are certain requirements, or conventions, such as bringing the lead character in soon enough, introducing action, having a clean-up climax, all of which go into the synopsis.

Here is an example. We discussed a story idea, John Nanovic and I, involving a mysterious idol that would vanish and reappear. The theme, though probably used, promised plot possibilities. The superstitious would believe that it had moved places of its own volition, but the crackdown at the finish would prove human agencies responsible.

As it stood, the idea was fine for formula. Devices were needed merely for the transfers, and the little idol could be carried out in a person's pocket, if needed. I didn't like the theme for this reason, something else I've learned. In many instances, the reader might think of a better way to swap the idol. It meant encumbering each swipe with artificial obstacles, to a point of fare-thee-well.

If there would just be one obstacle, and a huge one, applicable in all instances! The answer came: the idol itself. I made it about eight feet high, a ton in weight, and called it the Fate Joss. Its disappearance then meant something, but the neat one-man methods for its removal were gone. The story required special scenes, huge motives involving groups of men, instead of individuals, since the mystery lay in which crew, not which character, bagged the Fate Joss.

Device can help solve a writing problem rather than a plot. I had a story called "The Five Chameleons," involving five men who had changed their identities to resume crooked work under the guise of respectability. Their particular game was to get control of a bank in a certain town and substitute counterfeit currency for the real stuff.

The story was all right. The trouble was with the characters. Five were a lot and with their double names they practically became ten. There was a question too regarding which set of names they should be known by. It tok device to solve that problem. The device was to reject all ten names except by mention and establish these me through descriptive nicknames. Being a device, the names began to hatch other devices. One man was called "Deacon." He was to go into business in the town the five operated. That meant picking a business to suit his appearance. He became an undertaker.

Therewith the character himself solved a pressing plot problem of how the crooks were to bring queer money into the town and ship out the genuine currency. "Deacon" decided to change his stock, coffins, so counterfeit came in the new ones, genuine went out in the old.

In a recent article in the Writer's Digest were these two points: A writer must have something to say and technical skill to go with it. I have compared that with my own experience. For years I wrote factual material; therefore I always had something to say. Maybe the automatic elimination of one problem helped me to handle the other.

I had done some fiction writing before I started The Shadow; but, an interesting point, much of it had been fictionalized fact. In writing straight fiction I therefore treated it somewhat as fact. Therefore I had very little difficulty finding something to say.

From my experience I feel that factual writing is good training for the prospective fiction writer. Especially so because of something else I read in the Digest; the tendency of writers to balk at studying other writers. When I was doing fact I could read fiction and absorb it because I enjoyed it. I read articles only to learn the commercial trend.

Now that I am doing fiction it is the other way about. I read fiction in snatches but I delve in factual material and enjoy it immensely.

During my period of fact writing I dealt considerably with magic. It was a hobby that I turned into a business sideline. I was completing the second volume of magical secrets from Houdini's notes at the time I turned to fiction. I applied much that I had learned about a magician's technique when I came to devise situations as mystery fiction. I think every writer can work a hobby or adapt specialized knowledge to fiction uses.

Writers may wonder what it is like to work exclusively for one publishing house, over a period of ten years. I think that most of them would enjoy it, for I do. It brings a feeling of cooperation that makes your work seem closer to the printed page, a stimulus for any writer. John took over the editing of The Shadow, right after it began. Ten years of such association counts. It's enabled us both to accomplish the semi-miraculous, that of occasionally changing each other's opinions, on certain story questions. It doesn't happen often with editor and writer.

Sometimes, John has surprised me with his confidence in my ability to handle a certain story. Or maybe it's just his way of telling me to have confidence in myself. Funny, too, that those were the time he always said: "This will make a good one."

Do I enjoy being a writer?

I'd rather do any of a thousand other things. But whatever job I took, I'd spoil all the fun of it, by wanting to write.

So there it stands.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for digging this up, then typing it up. He was an amazing writer. I wonder how many typewriters he wore out with use...