“I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world.”
What a declaration of intent for a writer! Making a “battering-ram” doesn’t sound all that dainty and domestic does it? Yet the writer who penned these words was the legendary Louisa May Alcott – author of the beloved Little Women – a book that’s still read and adored today by a new generation of girls.
But years before she set down her glorious tale of the March family in which she portrayed herself as the battering-ram-in-training Jo, Louisa penned potboilers. In order to earn money to support her poverty pinched family, Louisa began making her way in the “rough-and-tumble world” by writing “blood & thunder” tales. By penning these popular racy Gothic thrillers, she began discovering how to write fast-paced, exciting stories in which the women were anything but shrinking violets. Even as an apprentice, she turned the genre’s conventions on their head.
It’s always a treat and very valuable craft-wise, I’ve found, to read the earlier, lesser-known works of a writer you admire. You learn so much – and it’s fun to see the seeds of their later work sprinkled among their early prose. So when I came across a copy of Behind A Mask by Louisa at a garage sale, I snapped it up. A gathering of some of her Gothic stories with a great introductory essay, it’s been fun to read. A few highlights:
Louisa wrote high and low: Determined to help her family by pushing her pen, she didn’t shy away from genre fiction considered “low brow” by her supremely intellectual family. She had tons of ideas and a flair for drama and she put them to work.
Louisa submitted to contests: A pulp newspaper announced a $100 contest and feisty Louisa decided to throw her hat in the ring. She wrote a tale of love and revenge called “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” so enticing that she won the $100! She also earned the thrill of seeing her story in print.
Louisa faced rejection: It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the aspiring novelist. Some of Louisa’s stories were rejected, but she kept on writing. Eventually, editors began coming to her, asking if she could write a tale “by September” to meet a deadline.
Louisa persisted: Rejection wasn’t the only problem Louisa faced. She was forced to take a raft of menial jobs in order to help her family, which ate into her time and energy. But she kept writing, sending out stories, and improving her craft.
Our takeaways: Writing is writing. No matter what kind of words you pen, as long as you are writing, you’re learning and growing. Let’s not be too precious about the genres we’ll play in. By writing potboilers and using them to showcase her originality, Louisa was learning the tools of her trade and getting ready to write Little Women. Write on!
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