Bill Gulick earned his living from freelance writing, except for a brief period when his brother-in-law talked him into a shopper newspaper partnership. He hadn’t completed his college education because he reasoned that if he had a degree to fall back on, he probably wouldn’t get much writing done. He did admit, however, that his creative writing courses set him on the right trail.
“Foster Harris (at the University of Oklahoma) would read your manuscript and critique it,” he said. “He would really slash it apart and might say ‘You have a good story here, but unfortunately, it doesn’t start until page six so throw the first five pages away and write a couple of lead-in sentences, and begin your story.’ Or, ‘You’ve described a beautiful sunset here. Why don’t you cut that and put in an asterisk saying that anyone who’s never seen a sunset can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and we’ll send the description. Otherwise, it has nothing to do with the story.’”
Harris would also quote an old Chinese philosopher who said, ‘The wheel has thirty spokes, but its utility lies in the emptiness of its hub.’ Gulick recalled how the instructor would smirk at the class, his pipe bobbing up and down as he nodded his head. “And people would leave the class wondering what he meant. It took me a long time to understand that no matter what you do with words, it’s the feeling that those words convey what’s important. You can write almost the same words, one way or another, and with one writer the words are wooden and dead, but with another the words are very much alive.”
There are basic elements to writing scenes, plots and general mechanics of the story that writers would do well to learn, he said. He recommended taking an advanced course in English grammar, as he did, because learning to diagram a sentence was not only fun but it helped him analyze his work.
Gulick suffered a mild form of polio when he was 29, which left the muscles in his left hand partially restricted, ending any chance he had to play professional baseball. But he was able to overcome sufficiently to write before he began selling to the pulps. Within several years he progressed to better paying markets including Adventure, Argosy and Bluebook.
The former Kansas farm boy spent nine months in Greenwich Village during 1943-44, where he was close to his magazine sources. There he met Kermit Selby, a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers magazines. He told Gulick that he needed an agent, and introduced him to Nancy Parker. “She took me on through the mail and I was with her from 1941 until 1950. She got me into Liberty and I was a regular to the magazine. On the strength of being there and contributing a couple of stories a month at $750 each, I took my bride to New York to live.” The Gulicks arrived in New York just as the magazine was undergoing a drastic change in an attempt to remain solvent.
“I never sold them another story,” he said, “so it was back to the pulps. Gulick then wrote a story of the Oregon Trail, aiming it at The Saturday Evening Post, but his wife wasn’t happy with the ending and persuaded him to change it. The result was increasing the wordage by ten thousand. The writer was then sure the magazine would reject his story and he agonized over it through the Christmas holidays when their funds were running low. The story did sell for $750, however, and he was invited to meet with the Post’s editor.
Gulick considered the invitation akin to meeting the queen of England, and was asked to write a serial about the Pacific Northwest. So, as soon as Gullick arrived home, he began researching The Bend of the Snake. The long historical piece was subsequently rejected by the magazine because it contained too much history. But soon it sold to Houghton Mifflin and, retitled Bend of the River, was adapted to film by Universal Studios in 1950. With his first novel out of the way, he began writing another historical piece that was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.
(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and continued next week . . .)