Monday, August 29, 2016

Utican Writes 300 Stories in 20 Months

Free time continues to be at a premium for me as August moves on into September and I've had little of it to spend writing or working on this blog. Until things settle down I'll try and present  a few old articles from my collection. This week I've transcribed a profile from the May 25, 1947 issue of MacDonald's hometown newspaper, The Utica Observer-Dispatch. The MacDonald family was, at the time, living in an apartment on State Street, the same residence that John returned home to when he left the military after the war. The family had just come back from a winter's stay in Texas and had purchased their first house in nearby Clinton, just off the campus of Hamilton College, and were preparing to move in.

I've added a few footnotes to the text for clarification.

Maj. John D MacDonald has killed 250 men but the deaths are all on paper.

He plotted them deliberately, executed them vigorously, and let the corpses fall in the most logical spots. Then he went on with his stories.

In the past 20 months MacDonald has ground out 300 in a typewriter marathon which New York agents say is more than remarkable when it is considered that MacDonald, who now resides at 1109 State and soon will move to his new home on College Hill, hadn't written a commercial in his life until he got busy with paper and typewriter in the fall of 1945.

The yarns, which have divided themselves into short shorts, short stories and novelettes, flow from the author's typewriter with remarkable speed. He can turn out an average story of 5,000 words in one evening, although he prefers to take a day or two to complete a manuscript.

This month's Cosmopolitan carries his work, "The Pay-Off." His stories appeared earlier in the year in Liberty, Esquire and The Blue Book, and he's written a steady stream of yarns for Shadow Mystery, Black Mask, Dime Detective and Adventure. Another of his short shorts in scheduled to appear soon in Collier's. It's called "A Measure of Intelligence." [1]

The Writer's Digest, the little magazine that authors buy for tips on the profession, invited MacDonald to write an article telling them how he does it.

He finished the piece this past week calling it, "Can This Be Technique?" In it he unfolds his credo on story production. [2]

"I maintain," he observed, "that first of all you've got to tell a story. If you get enough of them on paper some of them are bound to result in sales, and in writing them you also learn what not to do when you turn out the next one."

All of MacDonald's stories have not sold, but 70 of them have. That's considered some sort of record in the opinion of other writers who have struggled along for years before they managed to sell anything. MacDonald thinks that 40 more of those first 300 will sell.

"The balance," he confided, "the other 190, I've put away very quietly in an old box under the daybed in the study so I may use the reverse side for scrap paper." [3]

MacDonald. who was with the "Cloak and Dagger" men in India during the war where he had flown the hump eight times and eaten a great many banquets with high ranking Chinese officers, got a little tired of writing just straight letters home to his wife. So, one of the last letters he wrote he put in story form. When he got back to the states his wife met him at Camp Dix and told him she had sent the story letter to Story Magazine. She handed him a check. This was in September 1945.

"I kicked the idea around in my mind for a while," MacDonald said "and then started turning out stories. I wrote the first one on October 15 of that year." [4]

MacDonald plugged along for nearly three months without selling any of his stories.

"I couldn't understand why they all came back so fast," he remembers.

Then, all of a sudden at the beginning of last year, the stories began to sell. Into the first yarns MacDonald poured his experiences in India. His months in the Orient provided him with authentic background. He had watched Indian natives toss their dead babies into the Jumna River, where they were devoured by giant turtles. He had covered the terrain in the Kunming area of China and hunted dog deer on the border of the jungle.

He'd written quite a number of stories in which India, Burma and China figured before one editor suggested that “it might be well for you to take your pith helmet off and give us a different locale."

When MacDonald returned from India he was appointed executive secretary of the Tax Research Bureau in the Chamber of Commerce Building.

He had been five years in the Army but he was well qualified for the research position. He had attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University and the Harvard School of Business Administration. Before entering the Army he was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland, NY.

The executive did his writing at night but last summer he resigned to devote his entire time to writing. With his wife and son, Pen, he went to Texas this past winter where he continued to write and mail his manuscripts to his New York agent.

The couple and their son returned three weeks ago. Last week MacDonald bought the house formerly occupied by Coach Prettyman of Hamilton near the top of College Hill. He plans to move there from his State Street apartment some time in July.

The writer believes that local backgrounds, with familiar people as the characters, are just as interesting as any story laid in some far off land. His story in Cosmopolitan employs a problem in municipal government. His first Liberty story, which appeared in January, had a golf course for its locale. It was called "A Hole in None." The second story bought by Esquire had a familiar ring. It's entitled "North on the Parkway."

MacDonald feels that the ultimate secret in story writing is to draw your main character strong enough so that you feel you know him well, so when he is thrown up against an unusual situation he'll carry the plot line along himself.

The writer suggests that the "unusual" situations be obtained from the newspapers.

"You pick up any newspaper and you'll find them," he said. "The situations in themselves may not be too unusual but just put yourself or your character into them and they take on a different light."

In writing fiction for the "slicks," those magazines with the smooth paper, MacDonald tries to select a conflict that is more everyday.

"The character has to be more believable than the dashing gents you create for the pulps," he concluded. "But the line between the two classes of fiction is very thin. I've written stories for the slicks and sold them to the pulps. It works the other way around. That thing in Cosmopolitan, I wrote for the pulps and look where it landed."

[1] MacDonald's first sale to Collier's took place a full two years after this article was written. It was the short story "Looie Follows Me." "A Measure of Intelligence" does not seem to have been published anywhere and there is no record of it in the MacDonald Collection Finding Guide.

[2] "Can This Be Technique?" was either rejected or pulled by MacDonald and was never published. The original manuscript resides in the MacDonald Collection.

[3]  The manuscripts for these early rejected stories were eventually burned by MacDonald and his son Johnny at their Piseco Lake camp.

[4] According to JDM's own records, the short story "The Game" was finished on October 8 of that year, making it, perhaps, the first story -- as a writer -- that MacDonald ever completed.

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