WIP: Smith, Gruber, and Me


Inspired by a blog post by Dean Wesley Smith, I got a copy (via interlibrary loan) of pulp writer Frank Gruber‘s autobiography, The Pulp Jungle. Dean recommended this book to understand the life of the Depression-era pulp writers. I’m only a quarter of the way through it or so, but it is a great read (for me, at least). I’ve found it not only enlightening about the character and approaches to work of the pulp writers, but also about what things are focused on to bring “success”. These are my takeaways so far:

  • Where to spend money. Gruber’s depiction of the life of struggling writers during the Depression is fascinating and bleak. He writes at length about not having money for rent or transportation or even food for days at a time. But you know what he always did have money for? Reaching out to potential readers. In those days, the pulp magazines were king, and the “readers” for writers were the editors of those magazines, because that was as close to the final readers as a writer could reach in those days. Even when Gruber had literally no money to eat, he found the money for postage to keep his stories going out to potential buyers. It was the only money he definitely spent.

  • No revising. Gruber writes at length about writing stories and sending them out. While they were out, he wrote more stories and sent out. And when stories came back, he says he never went without sending it back out the same day. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but you know what he hasn’t mentioned once? Rewriting, or even editing. Write/send/repeat. And that’s it. A lot of his stories didn’t sell, but many or most of them eventually did. Unrevised. Wow. And while it’s easy to think that eventually someone just bought his trash, he also had the experience of writing something quickly, sending it out repeatedly, and eventually finding someone who not only loved it, thought enough of it to give him a job as an editor overseeing all the stories. Wow. I suppose that, just as they say that “there’s someone out there for everyone”, you can also say that there’s a reader (or more) out there for every story, and that rewriting and editing don’t change that, they just (maybe) change which readers like the story. What’s more, not only does Gruber never mention rewriting or editing for himself, he never mentions it for any writer or any publication in the entire industry. Wow! No wonder Dean hammers this home every time he gets the chance.

  • Records. I’m deeply impressed that, in a time before spreadsheets or even calculators, Gruber kept such meticulous records that he was able to tell what stories were out to where at any given time, how much money he had made by story and type and phase, how much was owed at any given time for what and by whom and in total, and more. Wow! When I ask myself if I’m keeping too much data about everything, the answer is a resounding no.

  • Networking. At Comicon this weekend, one of the panelists said that the key to getting work in front of a larger audience was networking. In his autobiography, Gruber documents his networking, though he doesn’t call it that. He was able to meet and befriends lots of editors, agents, and many other struggling writers. He had great relationships with all of them. And when he was desperate and he went to them to sell stories, how much did it help him? Not at all. Not one tiny bit. The only thing that did help him was writing new stories, getting them in front of potential buyers, and keeping them out until they were sold. He was living Heinlein’s rules, and trying everything else, and the only thing that worked was Heinlein’s rules. Wow!

As I said, I’m still only a quarter into the book, but I’ve already gotten a lot out of it. I can’t wait to read the rest of it—and to align my own practices with those of Frank Gruber.