So Your Self-Published Novel is Just Sitting There

by James Scott Bell

Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

Heard from a writer the other day who is frustrated that his two novels are sitting somewhere near the bottom of the Sea of Amazon, with nary a fish swimming by. He wondered if he should even bother writing another.

You know what I told him? Be thankful you’re not trying to break through back in 1934!

Yes, the Great Depression and the era of the pulps. You think you’ve got it hard? How about all those writers wearing out their fingers on manual typewriters, hoping to sell a story for a penny a word? How about the ones who pulled their life savings so they could move to New York for as long as the money lasted and make the rounds of the publishing offices?

Let me introduce you to one of them. His name was Frank Gruber. He was a successful pulp writer, then came out to Hollywood to write for the studios. In the 1950s he hit it big as a TV writer for Westerns. In1967 Gruber published The Pulp Jungle, a memoir of his time trying to break into that market. He moved to New York in July of 1934 with a plan to get published within six months.

My physical assets consisted of one portable Remington typewriter and my wardrobe which, aside from what I was wearing, fit very comfortably into one medium size suitcase. I had sixty dollars in cash, but paid out ten dollars and fifty cents of it for a week’s rent in advance at the Forty-fourth Street Hotel. I squandered another ten dollars over the long weekend, so that on Tuesday morning, when I went out to size up the pulp jungle I had approximately forty dollars.

I had one thing else … the will to succeed.

Because money was tight, Gruber ate a lot of “tomato soup” at the Automat (these were popular in the city, like cafeterias, where you put money in a slot to open a window that held a sandwich or whatever). Hot water for tea was free. So what a lot of people did back then was get a bowl for soup, fill it with hot water, pick up some cracker packs (free), sit down at a table and pour half a bottle of ketchup into the water. Voila! Tomato soup. There were days when this is all Gruber ate.

During his first five months Gruber completed forty stories.

All were rejected.

It was desperation time. Then Gruber got a call from an editor who liked him, but hadn’t bought his detective fiction. He asked Gruber to try a Western. So he wrote two stories and submitted them. Then he got a call from an editor he’d pestered, who knew Gruber was a fast writer. The editor said they needed an adventure story the next day to fill out the magazine. Could he do 5500 words overnight? Of course, Gruber said, without any idea of character or plot.

Twelve hours later, at eight in the morning on a Saturday (when the story was due) he had the 5500 words, but no time for corrections. He took the pages to the offices himself.

Then didn’t hear anything.

He went back on Tuesday to see if they had rejected it. The editor said, “Oh, sorry, we forgot to call you. We pay on Friday. Can you give me another story for next month?”

Then the two Westerns he’d submitted earlier sold for a grand total of $34.

He was in!

But this was just the beginning. Even a successful pulp writer (who was writing for a living) was usually just a step or two ahead of the landlord. They had to keep producing, keep selling.

I poured it on in 1940, producing more than eight hundred thousand words. The more I wrote, the more I had to write. I was making commitments all over town and I had to deliver.

This was a common theme among the pulpsters. Gruber tells about a writer named George Bruce who used to throw parties in his small Brooklyn apartment. One night the place was jammed with thirty-plus people. At ten o’clock Bruce announced he had a 12,000 word story due the following morning. He went to a corner where his typewriter was and pounded it for four hours, ignoring the party swirling around him. At two o’clock in the morning he announced he was finished and poured himself a glass of gin.

Gruber also got to know perhaps the most prolific author of all time. His name was Frederick Faust, but you know him by his most famous pen name, Max Brand. When Gruber met him they were in Hollywood working at Warner Bros. Studios. Faust had, by that time, written and published approximately forty-five million words.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

When Gruber asked him how on earth he did it, Faust asked Gruber if he could write fourteen pages in one day. Gruber said he’d certainly done so (fourteen pages is about 4,000 words), but had also gone two or three weeks without writing a line.

That was the secret, Faust said. He wrote fourteen pages a day, every day, “come rain or shine, come mood or no.”

That works out to one and a half million words a year.

The really remarkable thing about Fred Faust’s output was that he was the “biggest drinker” Gruber ever met. Faust would put away a thermos of whiskey during his morning writing hours. His lunch would be washed down by several more drinks. “When he went home at five-thirty,” Gruber writes, “he had a light supper and then settled down to his serious drinking.”

Faust was one of those extremely rare individuals who could drink like that every night and still operate in the morning. I do not recommend this method.

I do, however, recommend Faust’s seriousness about a quota. I’m a piker compared to guys like Faust and Erle Stanley Gardner. I aim for 6,000 words a week! But I can tell you my yearly output for the last 15 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet. This is the most important writing advice I know. [My best year, by the way, was 2010 – 347,768 words.]

So here’s my message for you if you’re tempted to pull a woe-is-me:

  • Your pulp forbears would shake their heads at how good you’ve got it. You can publish yourself and to a virtually unlimited market! Without cost! They would have thought that possibility was science fiction back in ’34.
  • If you don’t write to a quota, they’d have no sympathy for you.
  • If you don’t pay at least some attention to the market, they’d think you were daft.
  • If you don’t try to get better at your craft, they’d tell you you’d be better off as a plumber, and the sooner the better.
  • If you want to make it, they’d tell you to keep working, because the work never stops.

I wrote a little book some time ago called Self-Publishing Attack! In it are my five “absolutely unbreakable laws” for self-publishing success. While some of the technical items have changed since I published it four years ago, the laws that make up my system remain unalterable.

And the last law is: Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Are you prepared to do that?

If you are, then somewhere Frank Gruber is smiling.

[NOTE: Gruber would be pleased as pulp to know that his signature series character from the 1930s is still around, in both digital and print. I refer to Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia.]

So what do you think of Frank Gruber’s Depression-era work ethic? Still valid today?

29 thoughts on “So Your Self-Published Novel is Just Sitting There

  1. It is indeed a challenge, but the will to succeed is what keeps me writing. I simply refuse to sit idly by and wait for success. “Never never ever give up” was the advice from late PM Winston Churchill 🙂

  2. Six thousand words a week. Awesome! And I thought my 3K was impressive. Last year I wrote 250K, but I didn’t have much time for family or anything else. 🙂 This year looks like less since I only have about a 100K at this point.

    This is excellent advice, and I’m going to create a spreadsheet to keep up with how much I write. The above was for books completed–that’s how I keep up with it now. I really want to thank you and all the writers at TKZ for the work you pour into this blog. I read others but this one is the only one I read every day. You have taught me and encouraged me.

  3. Not only inspirational post but also a great read. I read more about Faust just now. He also had a heart attack at 30 and suffered from heart disease the rest of his life, which ended when he became a war correspondent in WWII and got killed by shrapnel at a mere 52 years of age. Quite a remarkable life.

    • In The Pulp Jungle, Gruber mentions that he and fellow writer Steve Fisher felt partly responsible for encouraging Faust to go chase the war…they were halfway joking. But Faust took it seriously. Of course, they were greatly saddened by his death. And pop culture lost probably another 50 Max Brand Westerns.

  4. Jim, great post. Just the kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants I need to overcome all the excuses I can so easily find. It all comes down to priority and motivation.

    Gruber’s work ethic was amazing. And, yes, it’s still valid today.

    Thanks for helping recharge our batteries (Every ready. Ever determined) for the coming week.

    • The old wisdom wasn’t so bad, was it? Work hard. Don’t complain. Bounce back.

      And speaking of recharging the batteries, I emphasize again (as I do in the video) that I take one day off per week. It really helps. Though I can be caught cheating from time to time!

  5. Wow! Great story. I write a lot of words a day for other people, but finding time for my own stuff is the struggle. I’ve started doing weekend retreats as often as I can afford them. I can pound out 20,000 words between late Friday afternoon and Sunday lunch if there are no kids, no internet, and I bring food that doesn’t need to be cooked — and a lot of caffeine. Only way I’ve been able to get time for my fiction. I can edit in short snippets of time, but I can’t write that way.
    I appreciate their drive. You do what you gotta do.

    • Lisa, your method is what works for you. There’s actually a lot to commend in that pour-it-on approach. It definitely keeps you in flow. You could do nanowrimo in three weekends!

  6. I had to go look up Gruber’s info. Since you mentioned he wrote for TV westerns, I wondered why his name didn’t sound familiar since I teethed on westerns. But it looks like he was writing in the era of westerns just before I began watching. Very productive life.

  7. Very inspiring post! Gruber’s work ethic is still valid today, especially with the incredible opportunities we writers have to put our work before a world wide audience.

    It took a lot of hours for me to draft my last novel, because I’d developed the bad habit of editing as I drafted over the course of several years. I can almost see the pulp writers shaking their heads at my mixing writing and editing modes. You’ve also advised to draft first and edit later. I know, bad Dale, no biscuit.

    On my latest book, the second in a new series, I’m breaking that habit by writing without editing, and my word count is already increasing minute by minute, hour by hour. Will it need to be edited? Absolutely. But the thing is, so did the previous novel, despite my tinkering as I wrote it. Lesson learned, at long last.

    • What a valuable lesson that is, Dale! “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” THEN fix it. Although I have to say that Dean Koontz does it the opposite way. He makes each page perfect before moving on. That way would drive me mad, but I guess Dean’s done all right with it. Of course, he writes 70 hours a week … no kids ….

  8. Great post, as usual! I’d come to this realization recently myself. When I started out, those many years ago when we logged progress in page count, not words, I wrote 20-25 pages a day and thought anything less was slacking off. And this was while working full time. Now, with 60+ books under my belt, I had backed waaaay off, to maybe 1500 words a day. Then two great opportunities hit at the same time, on top of an already contracted book, and I found myself writing three different books…at once. I really wasn’t sure I could do it, but I found a process that worked, and thankfully the 3 books are all very different. Am I working longer? Of course. But I’m also reminding myself I can still do it, and now your post has me thinking “So, why stop when these are done??”

    Thanks. I think. 😉

  9. Great inspirational post. Thank you. With all the options to publish today, is there anyone producing like Gruber or Faust? And back to Self Publishing Attack!

  10. Since last November I’ve written 2 short novels. This morning I was feeling like a champ. Reading about Gruber, Faust, and I’m sure others, I guess I need to work harder.
    It is an honor to be trudging down the same mean streets that these great writers did.

  11. Good piece, Jim. Those of us who have a foothold or more in the new pulp arena are inspired by those pulp pioneers of the past. There’s several stories of Walter Gibson, who penned all those “novel-length” stories about the Shadow, would keep a separate story going in three or four typewriters. he’d get stuck on one then switch to another machine and tale.

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