Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wordcraft -- Writing advice from a barbarian

In her memoir of Robert E. Howard, Novalyne Price Ellis details an amazing amount of writing advice from the creator of Conan. In honor of June’s annual Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, the closest place to a home town for him, I’ve combed the memoir and selections of his letters and stories for continuing advice from the master. Answers to the interview questions are taken verbatim from Howard’s writings or conversations, as reported by Ms. Ellis, but not always in the context that was intended.

I understand you’re a writer, Mr. Howard.

Yeah, that’s right. I write for the pulps.

How did you get started?

At the age of fifteen, having never seen a writer, a poet, a publisher or a magazine editor, and having only the vaguest ideas of procedure, I began working on the profession I had chosen.

Given your unfamiliarity of the business, how did you choose writing as a profession?

I tried a lot of other jobs and I didn’t like ‘em. I worked on a farm and that was no good at all, but clerking in a store is about the worst job you can have. So I decided the only way I could get out of working for a living was to start writing.

Isn’t writing work?

Well, not by the sweat of your brow at any rate. You can stay at home. All you have to contend with is a typewriter and it just puts down what you want it to.

Was there something in your environment that encouraged you to be a writer?

It seems to me that many writers, by virtue of environments of culture, art and education, slip into writing because of their environments. I became a writer in spite of my environments. Understand, I am not criticizing those environments. They were good, solid and worthy. The fact that they were not conducive to literature and art is nothing in their disfavor. Never the less, it is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign and alien to the people among whom one’s lot is cast.

I understand your first story appeared in a school publication. Did you enjoy school?

I hated school.

Why was that? You seem like someone who would have been a good student.

It wasn’t the work I minded. . . .What I hated was the confinement -- the clock- like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered himself or herself in authority over me, with the right to questions my actions and interfere with my thoughts.

What advice do you have for other writers?

I don’t usually give advice.

Perhaps you could at least tell us something about the way you write. For instance, when you start to write a story, do you start with a character or an idea for a plot?

(Appearing to relent) Mostly with a character, I suppose. I’ve got a character going now. . . That Conan’s the damnedest bastard I ever saw. He gets himself into all kinds of scrapes.

So, do you carry on a conversation with him, getting to know him?

I sure don’t try to give advice when he tells me all that junk. I just sit back and listen.

Speaking of listening, I’ve heard that some of your neighbors aren’t always happy about the noise when you read your stories aloud as you write. Has anyone ever complained to you?

I was out working on my car (and) while I was working, like a fool, I was talking, trying to figure out something about a yarn I was stuck on. I wasn’t talking too loud, but I got to a place where ol’ Conan was fighting, and I said, “Fool. Dog of hell. Die!” About that time, a timid little voice said, “Robert, is your mother home?”

What do you say when people ask how you come up with characters such as Conan?

(I) always say, “He’s a combination of a lot of people I have known.”. . . (But) to tell the truth, I don’t know how a man gets a character for a story, anymore than I know how he falls in love. . . I doubt any writer knows for sure where his characters come from.

At this point Howard looked pointedly at his watch and rose, impatient to return to his typewriter. But I hope to secure a promise of another interview for next Wednesday.

(Quotations from One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis and Howard’s letters quoted in The Best of Robert E. Howard, vol. 1, published by DelRey Books.

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