“I Solve the Mystery of my Confessions” (by Bill Pippin)

Last week I posted about production changes in the publishing industry over the past few decades; this week author Bill Pippin talks about how he got his start, and what publishing was like from an author’s perspective several decades ago. Bill had stories in EQMM in 2010 and 2017, and we have a new story from him scheduled for 2019. He is the author of an historical narrative of Potter County, Pennsylvania, Wood Hick, Pigs-Ear & Murphy, and many short stories for other publications. For sixteen years, he also instructed new writers at the Long Ridge Writers Group.—Janet Hutchings

When I was about ten, inspired by stories I read and loved, I began making up my own stories. Until I was fifteen I wrote these stories down in notebooks. Then one day my dad saw a magazine ad for a Remington portable typewriter and sent away for it. Owning a typewriter had never entered my head, but maybe Dad was prescient. Presenting it to me in its businesslike gray case, he said simply, “A writer needs a typewriter.”

I quickly taught myself to hunt and peck. The professional looking result spurred me to invest in some Number 10 envelopes and send the manuscript to a magazine. I don’t recall which magazine, but I do remember the story being quickly rejected. Which somehow didn’t deter me.

I continued mailing my stories regularly to magazines I was familiar with: Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Argosy, Bluebook, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, any publication that published the sort of stories I loved to read and write: spine-tingling stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense.

Although my stories were consistently rejected, I kept writing and submitting them. Until, miraculously, a letter of acceptance came from a magazine called Savage. The editor offered me $75 for a blood-and-guts Western I’d sent him: “I’ll Live to Kill You, Ward Moolin.”

Did success go to my head? I was nineteen. I figured within six months—maybe sooner—my name would be a household word.

I wrote a plethora of stories after that—even a long novel. After reading that novel, one crusty literary agent wrote to inform me I’d broken some sort of record. He didn’t think anyone with so little to say could possibly write over 100,000 words saying it. It took a couple of years without another acceptance for me to decide I needed to take my writing in a new direction.

An ad in Writer’s Digest caught my eye: Modern Romances, owned by Dell Publishing, was hungry for confession stories. I’d never read any confession stories. I thought those confessions were true, made by loose women with a need to reveal their darkest secrets. I bought a copy of MR and read the first story. Then I wrote a similar story and sent it to MR.

Shockingly, it was rejected. Only this rejection slip wasn’t like others I’d received, saying my story didn’t suit their needs or whatever. A real person had actually typed it on a torn sliver of paper. I didn’t mind the strike-overs because the reader detailed what was wrong with my story. Why it didn’t work. What specifically it needed to make it work.

For example, I needed a sympathetic character the reader could identify with vicariously (I looked up vicariously in the dictionary); a central problem that wasn’t trite and led to strong conflict; believable obstacles that entangled the first-person narrator more deeply in her problem.

And a credible plot.

Thirteen MR rejections later, I zeroed in on that plot thing. I could do all the other stuff fairly well, I was being told, but when it came to plotting a story it was hit or miss. Mostly miss.

I bought a book called Writing the Confession Story by Dorothy Collett. The main thing about plotting, in her view, was having a compelling idea to structure the plot around. Dorothy Collett described the ten elements that comprised the typical confession story. Following her game plan, I wrote a story set in the deep South about a young woman whose lover is attacked by a lynch mob. Because of the young man’s background and other carefully planted plot details, the mob believes his illicit affair with the girl amounts to rape.

I sent the story off and a week later MR’s managing editor Dan Senseney shot me a telegram offering $350 for “The Fury of A Mob.” A telegram!

I got a little carried away in my euphoria. The next confession story I wrote was over twice as long. Again set in the deep South (I’d once lived in the Carolinas), it featured a teenage narrator whose abusive backwoods pap makes potent moonshine. After a shootout with the Feds, Pap goes crazy from lead poisoning, resulting from drinking his own swill, and his daughter lands her lover boy. MR sent me a check for $600 for “The First Touch of a Boy’s Lips.” Due to the excessive length, MR published the story as a two-part serial.

I still didn’t fully understand what I’d done to achieve this success. Both stories had strong plots, but what else? Over time it came to me: although my stories featured the requisite titillating romance, the engine that made them run was conflict. Conflict resulting from intrigue, mystery, and suspense. I’d written the sort of stories I loved in the form of confessions.

Still, my writing continued to be hit or miss for several years. I’d sell a confession story on occasion, always sending it to MR first. If MR rejected it, I sent it to True Confessions, True Story, then Secrets. Some stories wound up at obscure confession magazines further down the totem pole. I even sold an occasional story to a men’s magazine like Rascal or Jaguar, or a thriller to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. But I continued to rack up more rejections than acceptances. It was one thing to develop a strong plot, quite another to find a fresh idea for the next plot.

Even though I mostly wrote confessions, I still read stuff I loved: stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazines, mystery story anthologies and mystery novels. When I read John Godey’s crime novel, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome, I was captivated by its originality: a criminal has plastic surgery in prison, and the operation for a disfiguring cleft palate not only changes his appearance, it changes his personality.

Something clicked. In a blaze of inspiration I wrote a confession story about a man who marries a young woman with a severe cleft palate. His wife is attractive in other ways: she’s good-natured with an appealing personality, generous and affectionate. But that cleft palate is a bummer. The male narrator adores his wife and finally saves enough money to pay for an expensive operation that will make her face as lovely as the rest of her. But as a result of the successful surgery, men suddenly find the narrator’s wife desirable. She changes, grows vain, flirtatious, fickle, leading the narrator to cheat. “Marriage on the Rocks” sold to MR for $350.

If you’re thinking I plagiarized Godey’s novel, I beg to differ. What I did was isolate the essence of his idea and create my own plot around it. I used none of Godey’s actual words. “Marriage on the Rocks” bore no resemblance to The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome.

I began reading mystery stories and novels with my antenna out for additional plot ideas. I grew so confident in my ability to plot salable stories consistently, I quit my day-job. As a full-time writer, I needed to write a confession story a week and sell most of them. Not easy. I worked seven days a week. Working from an outline, I’d type the first draft, edit it, then my wife Zona would type the final draft. All on that Remington portable.

While Zona was typing, I’d search for a new idea. In my quest for a steady flow of plot ideas I read voraciously: Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns, various newspapers, and mysteries, loads of mysteries. John D. MacDonald, a master of the mystery genre, became my go-to writer. His female characters were vividly drawn and often I gave my male narrators traits similar to Travis McGee’s. Frequently MR published two of my stories in the same issue, one from a male POV, one from a female POV.

Alas, in the mid seventies the popularity of confession magazines faded. My heroes at Modern Romances, editor Henry Malmgreen and managing editor Dan Senseney, retired. Dell sold the iconic magazine to Macfadden Bartell. Since Macfadden Bartell paid on publication rather than on acceptance, I could no longer send a story out one week and receive a check the following week. For a freelance writer living hand to mouth, this was the kiss of death.

Needing a real job, I gravitated to advertising. I spent over twenty years writing advertising copy, working my way up to copy chief, creative director, vice-president. When I retired I started writing a memoir, then set it aside to write what I loved most—stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense. When you love your work, it’s not work.

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3 Responses to “I Solve the Mystery of my Confessions” (by Bill Pippin)

  1. NT Franklin says:

    Fascinating Bill.

  2. Like Bill, I sold a great many stories to the confession magazines (more than 350!), but I started writing for them in 1981, after pay rates had dropped and most confession magazines paid on publication. I was still writing for them when the last two confession magazines, True Confessions and True Story, published their final issues in July 2017. At the peak of their popularity, the confession magazines were a voracious market, open to new writers and providing a steady source of income for those of us able to turn stories out on a consistent basis.

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