How Writers Get Published: The Lure of the Pen – Flora Klickmann (1917-18)

by Victoria Madden

I’ve been looking through another volume of The Girl’s Own Annual and found a series of articles by the Editor, Flora Klickmann, entitled The Lure of the Pen or, how to get rid of all your Romantic claptrap about Being An Artist and write something that will actually Get Published. One of the things I really like about Klickmann’s writing is that so many of the points she makes are just as valid today; and the ideas and suggestions in this set of articles have been incredibly useful in boosting my own glacially paced efforts.

It’s statistically impossible that I’m the only person with my particular set of problems as a writer, so the idea that others out there will also find the articles helpful is probably a good one. With this in mind, I’m going to do a review of each article here with my thoughts on what I found particularly useful. (If you want to read the articles in full, they’re in book form at Project Gutenberg; the American edition from 1920.) And then maybe we’ll all start writing, rather than trying to write!

Klickmann’s first article is concerned with the problem of the would-be writer from the publisher’s perspective i.e. – where you are all going wrong. This was incredibly helpful and a good eye-opener, with Klickmann pulling no punches:

‘In the business of Making Literature … genius is rare. Nearly-genius is almost as rare. The only quality that presents itself in abundance is entirely untrained mediocrity.’

As Editor of a popular monthly magazine, Klickmann reads about nine thousand stories, articles and poems over the course of the year, not including those read by others of her staff. Of all these, it’s rare that more than than about six hundred form suitable material for the magazine: the market is there for the writers, in fact she’d like to buy double the amount she does; but the writers just aren’t producing what she needs.

Rejected manuscripts tend to fall into three categories:

the piece isn’t suited to the policy and requirements of the publishing house, or her magazine;

their subject matter has already been covered by the magazine;

and, the largest pile:

the piece has no marketable value.

The key problem, in this last, is the mindset of the would-be writer, that has to be overcome before any progression from un-marketable to marketable work can be achieved:

‘[domestic service is the only other vocation] where the candidates expect good pay at the very start without any sort of training, any experience, any specialised knowledge, or any idea of the simplest requirement of the business from which they hope to draw an income’

The examples she gives of practitioners in other areas puts her point into very clear perspective: we would find it laughable that an artist would submit a painting professionally, announcing that this is his/her first attempt at drawing; a musician expect to play at a concert when she has had no training; or a dressmaker expect large fees as, without the most basic knowledge, she feels convinced that she could make a dress. Yet Klickmann has experienced all these attitudes amongst would-be writers.

As she goes on to outline, the difficulty with literature is its subjectivity: ‘no matter how you much you try and pin it down, some new genius is sure to break out in a fresh place’. (This comment seems quite prescient, given the development of Modernism over the next ten years.)

Most novices in the above-mentioned fields will recognise and accept that there are specific techniques involved that can be taught and must be practised – what Klickmann calls the ‘mechanical’ processes that are invaluable in assisting the would be artist, musician or dressmaker along the right road towards the longed for goal.’ adding ‘True, such advice cannot make good a lack of real genius, yet it may help to develop nearly-genius, and that is not to be despised.’

Literature, however, is an ‘intangible’ medium – apart from ‘the bare laws that govern the construction of the language’ there are ‘no similar universal structures that will pass on the knowledge needed to write well’. This ‘inability to reduce writing to any set of specific rules’ means that one frequently encounters the amateur writer/poet who sees himself as an Artist, untrammelled by any such mundane considerations as his readers – a type that Wodehouse used to great effect in many of his stories.

Klickmann goes on to point out:

‘despite this prevailing idea that we all possess heaven-sent genius, which is ready to sprout and blossom straight away with no preparatory work .. some training is imperative; and if the would-be writer is to go far, the training must be rigorous and very comprehensive.’

This certainly struck a chord with me – for someone who detests the flights of high Romanticism I seem to have great difficulty in curbing my own irrational leanings in that direction and what I like, and find valuable, in these articles is the way they both highlight, and puncture, my own prejudices. I have always been extremely sniffy, in the past, about formal training for writers for the very ‘writer as Artist’ reason she cites but, after all, what could be more natural, practical or valuable? (Why am I so resistant to seeing prose writing as a craft, as I have no difficulty in seeing art or music, or even scriptwriting?)

What’s encouraging, though, is that that most of the faults in a writer’s work can be ‘remedied with study and practice’; so that, even though your story is nowhere near a work of genius, you will at least be able to produce something that editors will want to publish.

From Klickmann’s considerable experience, the main recurring faults that characterise unmarketable submissions are omissions –

a lack of:

any preliminary training;

specialised knowledge of the subject dealt with;

modernity of thought and diction;

the power to reduce thought to language;

cohesion and logical sequence of ideas;

ability to get the reader’s view-point;

new and original ideas and themes;

the instinct for selection;

a sense of proportion

and in later articles she’ll be showing the would-be author how to overcome these failings.

With all the writing courses, groups and ability to blog these days I’d be surprised if beginners still send their ‘early, crude efforts to editors’ any more; and the unguided or self-admiring ‘small literary coteries’ formed by ‘ardent amateurs’ – another Wodehouse favourite – are probably somewhat more focused these days.  But her comment ‘The craving for “self-expression” is one of the characteristics of this century’ is more true than ever a hundred years later, though the medium that now lures is not the pen but the mobile device.