“The Manuscript Factory” by L. Ron Hubbard

Currently, I’m reading Writers of the Future, Volume 29. In it, Dave Farland included L. Ron Hubbard’s article titled, “The Manuscript Factory.” In this article, he discusses writing in business terms, which I’m only beginning to comprehend. I found the article so interesting that I wanted to write up a report on it to share with others.

“Yes, you and I are both factories,” Hubbard writes. “With the steam hissing and the chimneys belching and the machinery clanging. We manufacture manuscripts, we sell stable product, we are quite respectable in our business. The big names of the field are nothing more than the name of Standard Oil on gasoline, Ford on a car, or Browning on a machine gun.”

I’d never considered stories as “products,” but that is entirely true. What more can I ask for than to have readers want to gobble up, or consume, my stories? And, as Hubbard points out, “Even the laborer who finds his chief pleasure in his work tries to sell services or products for the best price he can get.” I mean, how often do we dream about getting paid for doing something we love to do? So, why not get down into the bolts and gears and figure out how to make the most for what I love to do? Not only that, but Hubbard makes a very important point: if I focus too much on quantity in order to make gains, my quality will inevitably suffer. He does not advocate sacrificing art for profit. No, he promotes balance–find a quantity that cultivates profit and my artistic nature.

He breaks it down into numbers, showing the ratio of words written per genre to cents per word earned. What did he discover? That he sold the most adventure stories, but he earned the most per word in detective stories. What did that mean? That even though he enjoyed writing both, he focused more heavily or producing detective stories. As a result, he could write fewer, more carefully crafted words for his detective stories (and occasionally other genres for diversity), and earn more than he did before.

This concept struck me especially hard because I’m struggling to sell right now. I know it’s a normal part of being a writer, it seems it’s always either ‘feast or famine,’ but I’m new at this so the famine is a bit terrifying. Consequently, I’ve been driving myself to produce. “More words!” The tiny overseer in my head screams at me, spitting in my eye (not physically possible, but it feels that way).

Having only one sell thus far, I’m certainly  not in Hubbard’s position when inventorying. Adventure? That’s none. Western? None. Detective? Zip. Fantasy? Wait… nope, nada. But, I realized that if I take a step backward in Hubbard’s process, I came up with an interesting picture.

Each day for the last six months, I’ve pounded away on my computer. I have no lack of ideas–but the words. Oh, the words! Just one gets turned around in my head–he misses the exit and has to take the overpass then he’s stuck on the stupid beltway for the next 15 miles, and the next 10,000 words follow him. Of course, they all end up in a horrendous traffic jam with a gridlock that spans into the next week. In short, I’m face down and drooling on my keyboard, all my creative juices burned up and my engine seized.

So, here’s my math:

In the last year, I’ve written three science fiction short stories and sold one. I’m working on another science fiction short story, of which I’ve written 3,000 words in 4 hours and another, of which I’ve developed an entire outline and need only a day to write it. I’ve burned out on one sci-fi that I wasn’t writing very seriously anyway.

On the other hand, I’ve written three fantasy short stories (one took a week, one took a month and needs a serious overhaul, and the last took six months) and three fantasy flash fiction stories (2-3 hours each). I’ve sold none. I’ve attempted to write four other fantasy stories and burned out on all four as well as a novel 22,000 words in.

Conclusion? I suck at writing fantasy.

“But fantasy is so popular right now! And it’s easy,” the little overseer says.

Well, Hubbard has something to say about that too: “If you write insincerely, if you think the lowest pulp can be written insincerely and still sell, then you’re in for trouble unless your luck is terribly good. And luck rarely strikes twice.”

Insincerity. I’ve been writing fantasy not because I love writing fantasy, but because I think I can just spit it out and sell it. Who cares about the exit, just bash through the guardrail and, voila!

But, “as soon as you start turning out stories which you do not respect,” and I read this as if Hubbard stands in front of me shaking a warning finger, “…as soon as you start turning them out wholesale over a period of time, as soon as your wordage gets out of control, then look for lean years.” He even goes so far as to say, poking me in the chest, “When the target for our unworthy efforts is taken down, we discover that we are unable to write anything else.” In short, writing by “it sells” and “it’s easy” will ruin you. It’s ruining me.

So, what has the last six months been for me then? A lesson. Hubbard sagely observes, “Man is not paid for the amount of work in labor-hours, he is paid for the quality of that work.” (That should be writer proverb.) And, as he points out, quality is determined by knowledge, ability, and sincerity.

The article goes on to discuss elements like supply and demand (aw, editors…), organization and equipment, raw materials (research!), type of work (reconciling preferred writing with available markets), agents, advertising (agents and reputation), quality control (in Hubbard’s words, “If you can’t write that day, for God’s sakes don’t write.”), and product improvement.

I’m sure farther down my writing road, I’ll read this article again and realize I need to perform another writing audit. Maybe the section on “raw materials,” maybe the part on “product improvement,” maybe just to remind myself of what I’m doing right.  But for now, what I’ve learned is this. Writing fantasy is fun. It’s different. It demands a different sort of creativity from me. But it’s only a break from what I love to write. All I have to do is look at my track record–perhaps not cents per word, but words per minute–and know that science fiction flows from me in ways that fantasy can’t, yet. Does that mean I’ve given up on fantasy? Absolutely not! But, perhaps it means that I should spend more of my precious writing hours, which come few and sometimes far between with three kids, on writing what I like, and thus what I write best, and thus what will sell easiest.

And thus and thus… so say we all.

Amen.

Now, back to my stories.

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