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the 'improbable' variety of tale..."
- Edgar Rice Burroughs to Thomas Metcalf, 1912.
If youíve written a good story, donít lose faith in it if it does not sell -- but first be positive that it really is a good story.... Even now, I often have a difficult time finding publishers for my latest books. I get lots of rejections.
When I first started in to write, I was sort of ashamed of it as an occupation for a big, strong, healthy man, so I kept it a secret. No one helped me. No one knew what I was doing -- not even my closest friends. Now Iíve come to the conclusion that writing is a Ďpretty niceí way to make a living.
There is a vast difference between seeing life and living life. I believe I have done the latter. In fact I donít think I could have written much if I hadnít. (ERB had served in the US Cavalry in Arizona, been a gold miner in Oregon, a policeman in Salt Lake City, a cowboy in Idaho...) [But]...It is necessary for nearly all of us to acquire part of our Ďexperienceí second hand. Yet this should never be permitted to overshadow the greater art of imagination.
Plots are in the air. All you have to do is to reach out and take them. But first you must learn to know what plots are, and grab them; not the similar-looking, but the utterly different, incident germs.Ē
I want to write of distant places, but Iíve never traveled and they tell me one should never attempt to write about lands he has never seen. Well, most of my stories are laid in Africa, and Iíve never been there.
Donít drive the story to a predetermined finish, just because thatís the way it came to you. Let your plot go where it will. If it goes in the wrong direction, you can always pull it back. On the other hand, you may stumble on a far better climax than the one you first thought of. Donít get the idea that youíre through with a basic plot when youíve written one story from it. Keep it and sprout another -- or three or four. Itís easy!
Get the habit of work and quit being an ďinspirationalĒ author -- which is merely another name for a loafer. Donít wait for ideas to come. Go after them. Donít write every now and then. Write every day, if only for a little while. Be a worker, not a poseur. The only real ďliterary peopleĒ are those who work at it. Those who make good are the ones who keep so busy that they have no time to show off.
I resolved to give my imagination free rein. the result was the Martian stories, stories of the Moon, and of the Earthís core. I had a lot of fun inventing the different languages -- those in use among the apes, the people of Mars, and of the Moon.
Unless you yourself , can get genuinely interested in a story, how can you hope to interest others in it?
Things should not be too easy for your hero. He must fight to win, and the better the fighting the more appreciated is the winning.
If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor. Play the long shots. Itís better, of course, to write one good script than a hundred poor ones, but usually you must write a hundred poor ones before you can do one good one.
When you write a story, remember that you are undertaking to entertain several million people. You wouldnít go before an audience of fifty with a poorly prepared speech. Why ďdash offĒ your message to millions?
When a professional diver enters the water there is no splash -- just a clean-cut cleaving of the water. Thatís the way you should slip into your story; no fussing, no fooling around, no labored explanation.
The first thing in the morning, I go over what Iíve written the day before, correcting it. Iíd advise the beginner not to waste too much time changing a word here and there but to see what he can do to make the plot better. Polish that rather than merely the form.
A rocket looks pretty going up, but no one watches the stick come down. Let your climax and finish be simultaneous. If Harry breaks an arm rescuing the heiress, donít tell how his arm became healed. Heís got the girl, and thatís all we care about.
[One firm ERB rule: He would read no oneís manuscript, not even his own relatives.]
All great writers were once where you are now. Perhaps some day youíll be where they now are.
Life would be much simpler if there were not so many rules. I imagine I have broken every rule of English grammar several thousand times and being at heart a purist, I should be desolated if I was aware of it, but as I do not know a single one of these rules, I am saved much mental anguish.
'We are, all of us, creatures of habit, and when the seeming necessity for schooling ourselves in new ways ceases to exist, we fall naturally and easily into the manner and customs which long usage has implanted ineradicably within us.'"
...although I hate work, I am discontented and unhappy when I am loafing, being cursed by that thing which I so often deplore in my stories -- subservience to that hardest of all task masters, Time.
The story on which I am now working (That Damn Dude/The Brass Heart/Terrible Tenderfoot/Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County), is a modern Western, located on a dude ranch in Arizona. ... There are a couple of reasons why this story may have value in addition to whatever entertainment qualities are inherent in it. In the first place, my early experience and inclinations were such that I should have written Westerns exclusively. For some time during my youth I worked as cow puncher, afterward I soldiered in the 7th United States Cavalry in Arizona, and later still I ran a store in a cattle country in Idaho.
I think that it is rather necessary these days, as it always has been to create a lovable, or at least an interesting character around which to weave your story. That is, if you intend to continue writing and keep your public interested. An a main character with serial possibilities is a good idea. Remember, the public is becoming more and more serial-minded. (i.e. comic strip, radio, movies). ... I believe too, that the leading character or characters of a story should have a romantic setting or go through romantic adventures...mild or hair-raising ones...if you wish to hold your readers. But be the adventures mild or wild they should be romantic. ... Romance isnít dead...never was dead...and never will be dead as long as man exists! We need it, so we will always demand it!...
(Tarzan) was just a character that happened to catch the publicís fancy; interest in him grew until it astonished me. As a boy I love the story of Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, and I love, too, the boy Mowgli in Kiplingís ďJungle Books.Ē I suppose Tarzan was the result of those early loves. Perhaps the fact that I lived in Chicago and yet hated cities and crowds of people made me sense, my escape from unpleasant reality. Perhaps that is the reason for his success with modern readers. Maybe he takes them, too, away from humdrum reality. Mrs. Burroughs calls me a low-brow. I guess I am, but then so are the most of us, arenít we? Perhaps that is another reason why Tarzan appeals to the mass of people rather than to a select few.Ē
My sales dropped off considerably during the depression, as the sales of most books did, because few people had the price of a book but almost everyone had a radio and the radio offers excellent entertainment. Who knows but what future generations may cease reading books altogether and take for their mental amusement the screen, radio and television? Itís a changing world. ....the writer has become too nebulous a personality today...screen and radio stars have taken his place. This is because the starsí faces are kept constantly before the public. My face and the faces of other authors are not kept before the public...probably for the very good reason that we, as a rule, are not beautiful to look at. Today it is the exteriors and externals that count, not ideas that come out of oneís head.
I have no illusions of the literary value of my books, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave my readers the best that my ability permitted.
I find that a considerable part of my work in writing fiction has nothing whatsoever to do with fiction. It is based upon the belief that highly imaginative fiction, such as I write, demands the retention of a youthful and elastic mind, to achieve which one of my principal aims in life is to keep my body physically fit and my mind responsive to a diversity of simple stimuli.
For me, temperance is essential to good work. Simple amusements are the most desirable, and so far I have successfully avoided the acquisition of any sort of a hobby. My own observation leads me to believe that a single hobby is too narrowing an influence for a fiction writer and I should rather suggest the greater value of an interest in many things. I find that it is better to have a little knowledge of many things than an expert knowledge of one...
The fiction writer should read most anything but fiction. He should be able to find entertainment in every form of sport...he should enjoy a variety of games and other activities that keep his mind young and supple.
The fiction writer to whom I refer should be what my two sons call monkey-minded -- that is, have the tendency to caper erratically through the forest of human knowledge, swinging form tree to tree, tasting the fruits of many.
(The fiction writer)...would not take either himself or his work too seriously. Except for purposes of entertainment, I consider fiction, like drama, an absolute unessential. I would not look to any fiction writer, living or dead, for guidance upon any subject, and, therefore, if he does not entertain, he is a total loss.
The man who takes himself and his work too seriously is certain to attempt something for which he is not fitted, with the result that he soon loses whatever following he may have created, or if he is a beginner, he never achieves any such following.
The reader has a right to expect entertainment and relaxation...He does not wish to think...the fiction writer who wishes to be a success should leave teaching to qualified teachers and attend strictly to his business of entertaining.
I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.
Publicity is essential to success...(but)... I have no patience whatsoever with the man who does a rude, unkindly or discourteous thing for the purpose of obtaining publicity...who begs or buys publicity...who makes a fool of himself in order to obtain it. It is perfectly proper for your publishers to buy publicity for you. That is their business, not yours.
I was not writing because of any urge to write nor for any particular love of writing. I was writing because I had a wife and two babies . . . . I loathed poverty and I would have liked to put my hands on the party who said that poverty is an honorable estate. It is an indication of inefficiency and nothing more. There is nothing honorable or fine about it.
I consider him (J. Allen St. John) one of the greatest illustrators in the United States, and he is as fine a man as he is an artist. -- ERB 1937
ERB used many methods for producing stories: "I have written longhand and had my work copied by a typist, I have typed my manuscripts personally; I have dictated them to a secretary; and I have used the Ediphone (purchased in the early '20s). Voice writing makes few demands upon the energy...the greatest advantage lies in the speed...I can easily double my output... I can choose my own time for dictating without encroaching on the time of another...." In all methods, he stressed it was necessary to check the manuscript carefully after it was typed; errors were always present, but he had found that fewer corrections were needed when a manuscript was transcribed from a voice recording.
I find that it rests me to take a little vacation from the highly imaginative occasionally and write some other sort of yarn, as I believe that I come back to my own particular class of fiction refreshed and with a new view point thereafter.
I hope you will like THE BANDIT OF HELL'S BEND, now running in Argosy-All Story, which is one of my vacation stories. It ought to be reasonably logical, or as nearly so as my style of fiction ordinarily is, since I soldiered in Arizona in the 7th Cavalry a great many years ago, and was a cow puncher in Idaho before that. However, styles change in cow punchers as in other things, and the puncher of the movies is not at all the sort of person I knew in Idaho and Arizona thirty years ago.
- -ERB letter to Maurice B. Gardner, Sept. 12, 1924
I was much interested in your letter of October 11. You may rest assured that I do not want to get Tarzan into politics. If you will analize the story to which you take exception, you will discover that my star villain is not a good Red, but an ambitious criminal whose purpose is to use the backing of the USSR to achieve his own selfish ends.
You will also appreciate that I must have a villain, and inasmuch as the Soviet government does not protect my rights in Russia and permits the pirating of my books without royalty payment to me, I might as well hop onto Russia as anyone else because the sale of my books in that country brings me no income.
--- ERB letter to Lester Anderson October 14, 1933
The surface of Mars was formerly physically identical with the earth, and, as similar conditions doubtless still prevail on both planets, there is no reason to question a like evolutionary development of fauna from identical life spores. Clouds, winds, snow and marshes that astronomers have discovered on Mars indicate an atmosphere. Vast reclamation schemes by means of intermediate aqueducts presuppose that there are rational inhabitants high``ly developed in engineering and agriculture, and naturally suggest further considerable culture.
The enormous waste spaces on the planet, combined with our knowledge of human nature, postulate nomadic, war-like, predatory border tribes. The constant battle for survival has rendered the Martian merciless almost to cruelty, and ages of military service against the apaches of the Martian deserts have made him loyal, just, fearless, and self-reliant. I visualize the Martian of the dominant race in Mars as distinctly of human type, with strong features and intelligent expression, a large chest and slightly less pronounced muscular development than ours, owing to the rarer air and lower force of gravity on Mars. The Martian might fairly resemble the intellectual spiritual composite of Spencer, Caesar, de Lesseps, and Geronimo.
So many people have written that I was a failure in business before I began writing that most people take it for granted the statement's true. Contrary to public belief I never was fired from a job. If Sears, Roebuck & Co. records go back far enough, I'll bet they show I was a good departmental manager for them.
--ERB Chicago Daily Times, 1939
I work just the same as any manufacturer . Sometimes I get disgusted with myself. When you've written a book about a character and told all yo can about him and then have to write about twenty more it gets to be a chore. I'd rather write along different lines... historical novels, for instance, but I've been typed! ... I guess I've always wished I could do the things Tarzan does, but now it's to late in life....
--ERB Honolulu Advertiser, 1940
The less I know about a thing the better I can write about it. -- ERB
Somewhere along the line I went to Idaho and punched cows. I greatly enjoyed that experience, as there were no bathtubs in Idaho at that time. I recall having gone as long as three weeks when on a round-up without taking off my boots and stetson. I wore Mexican spurs inlaid with silver; they had enormous rowels and were equipped with dumbbells. When I walked across a floor, rowels dragged behind and the dumbbells clattered; you could have heard me coming for a city block. Boy! was I proud!
After leaving Orchard Lake (Michigan Military Academy), I enlisted in the 7th U.S. Cavalry and was sent to Fort Grant, Arizona, where I chased Apaches, but never caught up with them. After that, some more cow punching; a storekeeper in Pocatello, Idaho; a policeman in Salt Lake City; gold mining in Idaho and Oregon; various clerical jobs in Chicago; department manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co.; and, finally, Tarzan of the Apes.
--ERB in an Autobiographic Note in Amazing Stories, June, 1941
On March 19, 1950, alone in his home after reading the Sunday comics in bed, Edgar Rice Burroughs died. By then he had written ninety-one novels, twenty-six of which were about Tarzan. The man whose books have sold hundreds of millions of copies in over thirty languages once said "I write to escape ... to escape poverty".
Edgar Rice Burroughs Still Lives
With the Author of Tarzan -- Glenn B. Gravatt Writerís Monthly, December, 1926 An Interview with Edgar Rice Burroughs In Which He Frankly Discusses His Methods and Gives Sound Advice
Romance Isnít Dead by Oliver Poole Writersí Markets and Methods, March, 1938 -- An interview with the author of Tarzan.
ERB letter to The Red Book Magazine, July 27, 1927
ERB letter to Blue Book Magazine, June 13, 1930
ERB letter to Collierís The National Weekly, June 30, 1930
Entertainment is Fictionís Purpose, Writerís Digest, June 1930
Master of Adventure, Richard Lupoff
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