I just got How to Write Short Stories [with Samples], by Ring Lardner (Scribner, 1924). The book is a collection of Lardner’s stories; the joke of the ironic title (suggested, apparently, by the author’s friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald) is built on with both a preface that purports to explain the art, and brief introductions to each story that note which particular aspect of short story writing is being demonstrated. With the exception of one or two that fall somewhat short of the mark—object lessons on the shelf life of topical humor—these are hilarious.
A few pieces of Lardner’s advice from the introduction:
The first thing I generally always do is try and get hold of a catchy title, like for instance, “Basil Hargrave’s Vermifuge,” or “Fun at the Incinerating Plant.” Then I set down to a desk or flat table of any kind and lay out 3 or 4 sheets of paper with as many different colored pencils and look at them cock-eyed a few moments before making a selection.
How to begin—or, as we professionals would say, “how to commence”—is the next question. It must be admitted that the method of approach (“L’approchement”) differs even among first class fictionists. For example, Blasco Ibañez usually starts his stories with a Spanish word, Jack Dempsey with an “I” and Charley Peterson with a couple of simple declarative sentences about his leading character, such as “Hazel Gooftree had just gone mah jong. She felt faint.”
After commencing a story about the adventures of Miss Abbott, Miss Quaver, and Mr. Whaledriver at a famous resort with the Prince of Wales, which then becomes a story about a mule and Mrs. Croot, which the beginner is instructed to finish for practice, Lardner has this advice:
Now for the marketing of the completed work. A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.
Personally I have found it a good scheme to not even sign my name to the story, and when I have got it sealed up in its envelope and stamped and addressed, I take it to some town where I don’t live and mail it from there. The editor has no idea who wrote the story, so how can he send it back? He is in a quandary.
In conclusion let me warn my pupils never to write their stories—or, as we professionals call them, “yarns”—on used paper. And never to write them on a post-card. And never to send them by telegraph (Morse code).