The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom

ABC of AuthorshipOne of the Project 24 books I mentioned the other day was The ABC of Authorship (1938) by Ursula Bloom – and, just as I couldn’t resist buying it, equally I couldn’t resist immediately reading it. For sound advice in 2017, it’s pretty useless – as a glimpse into the world of writing in the 1930s, it’s great fun.

I say ‘writing’, but I should clarify that she is chiefly concerned with only one small corner of authorship. While she does devote a chapter to novels at the end, and airily passes by poetry in a handful of sentences, this book is chiefly concerned with stories in small magazines. That alone dates it. There was a proliferation of small magazines in the early twentieth century, both regional and national, and they were happy hunting ground for the budding author. Bloom devotes a lot of The ABC of Authorship in advising how best to approach these – down to individual magazines, and whether they would prefer (say) a story about a dashing hero or a domestic scene. I imagine it was fairly useful advice in 1938 – though the editors of those magazines may have been inundated with a certain sort of story.

Let’s be clear who Bloom was and the sort of market she’s talking about. She is apparently in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific author ever – and wrote (gulp) over 500. I’ve read three of them, all novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Essex – she had various pseudonyms, and wrote under her own name too – and they were witty and enjoyable, and pretty good examples of light middlebrow fare. Under other names, and when writing for magazines, I think she favoured writing a little to the south of middlebrow – though certainly not racy. But she is certainly well placed to talk about getting stuff out there – she seems, as far as this book shows, to have written stories and serials every day, as well as those hundreds of novels.

She kicks off with a chapter called ‘Let’s Have a Look at Yourself’ – essentially saying “are you aware that you actually have to do something?” From here, we get chapters on how to find a plot (including, amusingly, plagiarising straight from plays you see), the business side of Fleet Street, writing features (she apparently once dictated 1000 words about a European queen over the phone), writing articles, writing serials, and the vagaries of the Editorial Mind. This last is mostly about editors being real people too – but also advising that you buy all the small magazines out there, make notes as to their contents, and know when styles changed. Thus you may impress editors.

She scatters examples throughout – some that she has had published, some suggestions, and one that appears to be ripped off from Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage – and they occasionally make for entertaining reading. While a lot of her advice is practicable and doubtless useful to those who bought this book in 1938, it’s hard not to smile at some of the things that she thinks make for good inspiration. Her original thoughts include writing an article on ‘Look to your future’, or a piece called ‘Don’t be Lonely’. She advises that any serial, if lagging, can be livened up with a bull that’s got loose.

My favourite gosh-haven’t-times-changed moment came when she advised that you could always make money with ‘informative verse’, adding ‘I have taken household tips from magazines and have set them into two-line verses, for which there has never been any difficulty in the way of a sale’. Imagine finding any editor in the world who’d give you good money for the examples she offers:

The perfect gent knows it’s a sin
To tuck his napkin ‘neath his chin.

A heinous friend I had, called Nelly;
She used a spoon when eating jelly!

What should you not do? I mentioned that she wasn’t racy – I perhaps didn’t go far enough. Amongst other things, she advises not writing about adultery, the Royal Family, or having lost a child.

It’s hard not to warm to Bloom in this book – I hope it’s clear that I’m smiling rather than sneering. She is so positive, so encouraging, and clearly extremely successful. I sincerely hope that lots of young writers found her advice got them on their way to writing careers. She couldn’t have known the window into the past that she’d be providing 80 years later, or how much this man in 2017 would enjoy the book.

5 thoughts on “The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom

  • May 18, 2017 at 12:49 pm
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    This is a lovely post – you do the book justice. It’s funny to think of this as dated, and yet there are so many books of an older age that simply aren’t. Maybe the approach to writing has shifted, but the end product is still as entertaining now as ever? Or maybe we only treasure those books that are timeless (by Dickens, Austen etc etc) and there are literally hundreds of thousands that we’ve been happy to forget about.

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  • May 18, 2017 at 7:40 pm
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    I enjoyed that review. Nice of her to share her knowledge with other writers at the time.

    I recently read her first memoir, Youth at the Gate, as an ebook. I found it immensely engaging, as well as heartbreaking, as she lived through the fear-filled days of WWI. That was before she became a prolific author. Though written in 1959, it felt immediate in the telling. Highly recommended.

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  • May 18, 2017 at 8:16 pm
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    What a warm-spirited, affectionate review. I can well believe that in the 1930s, it was possible to ‘borrow’ ideas with impunity because there would be so few ways of discovering their true source. I’m sure everybody must have done it. I particularly hooted at the idea of ‘instructional verse’ – I occasionally work on magazines and let me tell you, the readers are not shy about penning verses and sending them to the editor.
    I’m sharing this on Twitter and Facebook. Nice to find your blog.

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  • May 18, 2017 at 9:12 pm
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    Poor old Nelly,
    who ate jelly,
    and ate it with a spoon.
    Why that’s not right,
    I’m not sure quite,
    but so saith the tune.

    ..sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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