Lawrence Block

Guilty_magIt was an education

Guilty Detective Story Magazine (left, 35 issues in total) and Trapped Detective Story Magazine (below, 34 issues) were launched by Feature Publications in June/July 1956. They alternated months and while editorially identical, Guilty consistently outsold Trapped.

In my last installment of this seemingly endless experiment in senile recollection, I promised to explain what was so great about working for Scott Meredith. After all, I was putting in 40 hours a week reading inferior work and assuring the perpetrators thereof that they were talented, and that their success lay just a few dollars away. Aside from an inside perspective on white-collar moral turpitude, what valuable experience did all of this afford?

Well, I’ll tell you. The work itself—reading that garbage, prefatory to encouraging the production of more of it—was the best writing lesson I ever got. There’s ever so much more to be learned from bad writing. You can see what’s wrong with it.

That’s a whole lot easier than seeing what’s right with a masterpiece.

I’ve a feeling that any job that involves reading a vast quantity of amateurish work is a good training ground for anyone with literary aspirations. Back then—and for many years afterward—magazines and book publishers were generally willing to consider unsolicited manuscripts, and the duties of junior editors commonly included reading one’s way through the haystack of the slush pile, passing on the occasional needle, and stuffing the rest into those nine-by-12 self-addressed stamped envelopes.

I’m sure those junior editors gained something from the experience, but far less than was available to me. It was to them what KP was to a soldier—not exactly punishment, but hardly what had moved you to put on the uniform. Slush was a task to be tackled when time permitted, and the slush reader’s job was to make the slush pile disappear. If one’s time was limited, one might very well return manuscripts unread, without even a glance at the first page.

Even when time was abundant, a slush reader stopped reading as soon as the task became pointless. Once you knew you were going to return a story, why give it any more time? Send it back, and move on to the next.

But I couldn’t do that. I too had been engaged to send these stories back where they came from, but instead of a form rejection slip, I had to provide an elaborate explanation of why the story didn’t work, along with some insincere flattery designed to encourage future submissions, accompanied to be sure by future reading fees. I didn’t have to know a lot about the story to do this, and I didn’t need to read it carefully, but I had to skim it sufficiently to bat out a few hundred words about it.

And sometimes, of course, I did have to read the thing attentively, not merely to figure out how to reject it but to determine if rejection was in fact warranted. Although our familiarity with the work bred no end of contempt, not all of our fee clients were entirely without talent. Now and then one came upon a nice turn of phrase, a smattering of engaging dialogue, a promising plot situation. This was hardly ever enough to make the story one I’d pass up the chain to the pro man, but it forced me to pay attention to the thing, noting what worked and what didn’t.

A wonderful education. Nowadays only a handful of publications will even look at unagented manuscripts, and I suppose that makes it hard for new writers, but when was it ever easy? The greater loss, I suspect, is to the men and women who might otherwise be employed reading the slush.

Of course I wasn’t just reading the fee submissions. I had sold my first story, “You Can’t Lose,” to Manhunt, and while that did not make me a mystery writer overnight, it certainly pointed me in that direction. I’d read a fair amount of crime fiction over the years, but now I began reading with purpose and direction.

There was a shop on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street that sold back-date magazines, with a huge stock of Manhunt and its imitators priced at two for 25 cents. Even on my wages I could afford to buy every copy I could find, and I took them home and read them cover to cover. I bought used paperbacks, too, and whenever I discovered a writer I liked I would read me way through his works.

Trapped_magI suppose what I was doing was analytical, but I wasn’t consciously taking the stories and novels apart to see what made them tick. I was just reading—and by so doing, I suspect I was unconsciously synthesizing all of what I read, so that I could know intuitively what did or didn’t make a story.

It might seem like a busman’s holiday—read unpublishable crap all day, then read published fiction nights and weekends. But while my reading was not without purpose, there was nothing dogged about it. The writers I enjoyed—too many to mention, or even to recall, but I know that I worked my way through all of Fredric Brown and David Alexander, and a good five years of Manhunt stories—were the ones I kept reading. I quit reading the writers I didn’t care for.

And, unlike our fee clients, I didn’t have to write them a letter when I was done.

When it came to finding new authors to read, all I had to do was pay attention. The office was a small and gossipy place, with half a dozen of us seated at desks. Scott and Sid were in their private offices, and I worked there for several months before I even caught a glimpse of Scott, but plenty of business got done in my hearing. The conversation in the room—and at lunch—was about the business, and about books and writers.

It was an education.

And it was also an apprenticeship, because when I wasn’t reading I was apt to be writing. Sid had signed me to an agency contract, and whenever I wrote a story I passed it up to Henry Morrison or Jim Bohan, and with few exceptions the stories I wrote were submitted to magazines. Manhunt was hard to hit, but W. W. Scott bought a batch of stories from me for his alternating bimonthlies, Trapped and Guilty. He paid a cent and a half a word, and the stories he passed on went to Pontiac Publications, where the rate was a cent a word. Just about everything sold sooner or later, and a night’s work would bring me $25 or $35 or $50. Many of the pulp stories reissued a few years ago as One Night Stands & Lost Weekends were written during those very nights and weekends.

And then there were the assignments. Now and then an editor would call our office; he was up against a deadline and had unfilled pages in his next issue. Or he had an idea and needed someone to write it for him. Could one of Scott’s clients deliver the goods, and do so in a hurry?

There was rarely any need to interrupt some client with a phone call, not with a couple of eager writers sitting there in the office. Could I write 2,000 words about a really bad Nazi for Ted Hecht at Stanley Publications? A couple of hours in the library and a stint at the typewriter yielded “Reinhard Heydrich, Blond Beast of the SS.” That brought $75, and got Sheldon Lord a byline, as I didn’t feel a need to put my own name on the thing.

I went on to write another six or eight pieces for Ted Hecht. They ran in magazines with titles like All Man and Real Men’s Stories and Man’s Bloody Guts, and sometimes got reprinted a year or two later in another of the company’s magazines. Sometimes Hecht called with an idea, which is how I came to write a piece on the 1934 wreck of the SS Morro Castle. Sometimes the idea was mine, and that led to “She Doesn’t Want You” (about lesbian prostitutes) and “Let’s Legalize Marijuana!” (about, duh, legalizing marijuana).

One article I wrote was purportedly a personal experience piece, “by C. O. Jones as told to Sheldon Lord.” It became “C. C. Jones” by the time it got into print, suggesting that Hecht or one of his cohorts knew as much gutter Spanish as I did.

One of the more curious assignments came from W. W. Scott, of Trapped and Guilty. (The magazines were identical, with the same writers producing the same kinds of stories, and the same cover art. Yet Guilty consistently outsold its stable mate. Go know.)

W. W. Scott also edited another pair of alternating bimonthlies, True Medic Stories and Real Medic Stories. These were essentially confession magazines with a medical orientation, and most of the stories involved nurses, even as the magazine’s audience was presumed to consist of nurses and nurse wannabes. But at least one story in each issue was told from the point of view of a male doctor, and he wasn’t getting enough of those. An assignment came in, and the sum on offer, as I recall, was $200, which was a whole lot better than a cent and a half a word. I grabbed it.

Nowadays, in the world of Google and Wikipedia, I could have done the whole thing without enlisting a partner. But an Antioch friend, Duck Buchanan, was working in the field of medical research, so I proposed that he help me develop a story line in return for a fourth of the proceeds. Together we dreamed up a plot in which an arrogant surgeon almost loses a patient by overlooking some phenomenon outside his area of expertise.

I don’t remember the details, but it seems to me the operation in question was a sigmoid resection, whatever that is. I do recall, word for word, the opening line: “My name is Brad Havilland. I’m forty-two years old, and I’m the best bowel surgeon in the state.”

Makes you want to keep reading, doesn’t it?

W. W. Scott liked it just fine. I’m not sure which magazine it wound up in, Real or True. Nor do I recall what title it bore. Duck and I always referred to it as “Pain in the Ass.”

I started working for Scott Meredith in August of 1957, and stayed through the following May. Sometime that spring I’d decided to return to Antioch in the fall, and was in fact appointed to edit the college newspaper.

I’m pretty sure my return owed less to a desire for a degree, or the intellectual stimulation of the classroom, than for fear that I’d be drafted into the army. The same desire to maintain my deferment had already led me to enroll as a matriculated student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where I signed up for three writing courses—a workshop in the novel, an advanced non-fiction class, and a radio and TV writing course.

I must have been out of my mind. I stopped going to the radio-TV class almost immediately, when I realized that the textbook would have us following a format—audio on one side of the page, video on the other—that nobody had used in ten or 15 years. I went to the novel workshop long enough to write 30 pages of a mystery that owed a lot to Fredric Brown’s The Fabulous Clipjoint, and to realize I didn’t know what I was doing, and was well advised to stop doing it. The non-fiction class was written by a terribly nice old fellow who wrote biographies of composers published by Louisiana University Press, and I actually went to that class and turned in work, because it was work I was doing anyway—those “Lemmings Ate My Sister” articles I was knocking out for Ted Hecht. “This is really good work,” the professor would say, “but I don’t see how you can expect to market it.” I was careful not to tell him he’d erred twice in a single sentence; the stuff wasn’t good, and I’d already gotten paid for it.

Wonderful. All day long I read amateur crap at the office, and a couple of nights a week I went up to Columbia and sat there while people read amateur crap out loud. What was I thinking?

Never mind. For nine or ten months I spent five days a week on the 18th floor at 580 Fifth Avenue, and by the time I left I was a professional writer.

When I started writing about my time at SMLA, I saw soon enough that it was going to spill over into two columns. It’s now filled three, and there’s material I wouldn’t want to leave out. Tune in next issue for what I promise you will be the last walk down this particular stretch of “Memory Lane.”

End of Part Three

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #123.

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