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Harriet Halliday Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Harriet Halliday Renaud
On the Hook

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

In 1962, the California Writers’ Club invited my mother to deliver one of several talks she gave on the short story. She had been researcher, writer, reviewer and editor for Time, Newsweek, and other major U.S. publications. As a freelance writer, her short stories appeared in many of the top national magazines.

The talk she gave, “Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story,” was in several parts. You can find Part 1 and a more complete introduction, here and Part 2 here.


Part 3 follows.


In Part 2, H. H. Renaud asked the question: Why do writers who give talks so often “account for their own success in terms of ‘luck,’ the fact that they ‘got in’ when the industry was new, or when short stories were ‘the thing,’ which they no longer are supposed to be?” Renaud suggests that the speaker’s impulse, in large part, “is a gracious one: I think it is the speaker’s wish to get the writers in the audience off the hook.”




Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story (Part 3)

Harriet Halliday Renaud


When Irene Donelson [President, California Writers Club] phoned to ask me to speak this evening, she said she particularly wanted someone to speak on the short story, and so I think I have finally come to the point now—instant story or no instant story—to anyhow talk about the short story and give you the case history of one of mine, because it is not unrelated to what I’ve been talking about.

Some years back, while I was working with my right hand on a prospectus for a Ph.D. thesis, I wrote with my left hand (the left hand being the dreamer) a long short story which I titled STEP INTO MY PARLOR, and sent to the Ladies’ Home Journal. This story came back in three weeks with a two-page letter.

*       *        *

Well, I read that letter and I re-read that letter, and I sat down at my typewriter and what I did first was burst into tears. What I did next was take the story along with that letter and showed them both to all my friends and relations within a radius of 3000 miles, and their verdict was unanimous. They agreed to a man that the story was adorable in every detail, and that Journal editors were insensitive, commercial, illiterate slobs, and maybe even immoral. I then sent that story, in its pristine, adorable form to all the other magazines that might conceivably be interested, and from everywhere it came back wearing a standard rejection slip, with no comment of any kind.

At this point, other matters intervened, both academic and personal, and STEP INTO MY PARLOR went into my filing cabinet, and was forgotten. I wrote other things, acquired a baby, I went back to school. Then Prof. Mark Schorer liked something else I had written well enough to send it to his own agent, and when that sold, and I had an agent working for me again, I bethought me of that old story of mine and pulled it out.

Well, I fixed it a little bit here, and I re-wrote it there, and I polished up the lovable old professor all my friends had liked so well, and I took a quotation out of a book of poems I’d given my husband one Christmas, and I put a new title on it: IS IT NOT TIME? and I sent it to my agent, who sent it back and said it was too long.

I then cut two pages, in severe shock over each line I took out, sent it to my agent again, and this time she sent it to the Journal, which sent it back saying they remembered it very well from the first time, when it had come to them under a different title, and they thought it was improved, but… And they voiced most of the same objections they’d had before, in a much less complimentary tone.

My agent then sent the story to all the other magazines, and from them came nothing but the kind of silence that lurks in standard rejection slips.

There didn’t seem to me to be much point in continuing to pursue all those editors who were clearly devoid of taste and perception, and I turned my mind to a series of non-fiction articles on careers for women, and then, not entirely planned, to babies.

Which took care of any kind of writing for quite awhile. Until one day I realized that although I had perfectly good and apparent reasons for not writing—one almost 1½, one almost 2½, one almost 6½, and one thirty almost something and ½—I couldn’t see how anything very much was going to change in that situation. Of course, in time almost 1½ would get to be almost 2½, and almost 2½ would get to be 3½, and almost 6½ would get to be almost 7½, and I would get to be a den mother—but as I sighted down the long, long months, none of this seemed to add up to any better a writing situation than I had right then.

Now, that vision of my unchanging, unpublished future frightened me, and I stayed so frightened that later that same day I sat down at my typewriter, and on the floor, one at each foot, I put 1½ and 2½, bribed to silence of a kind with crayons, coloring books, cookies, bottles of fruit juice, seven balls, two boxes of tinker toys, 21 plastic cars, and 68 stuffed animals. And I knew I had twenty uninterrupted minutes for sure, and twenty-five if I was lucky, and I took IS IT NOT TIME? out of my filing cabinet, and started in.

*       *        *

Desperation is a great leveler, and the first thing it levels is vanity. This time I read all those letters from the Journal as though they had come down on stone from Mt. Sinai. And this time I opened my receptive ear, and I listened, and the message came through because I let it.

And I went to work, I threw away six pages of the beginning, sixteen absolutely incandescent remarks, three college chums, and lo, the lovable old professor. I put two new sentences on the beginning, started in from there with what had been the middle of the other draft, added some more of the mother, subtracted a little about the landlord—and then put 1½ and 2½ down for naps.

After three days of this slashing and patching, I had something that read to me like a long Western Union telegram, but I had to admit the story line showed through a lot clearer. I kept at it, finished it, retyped it, and sent it myself to the Journal. (I was by this time without an agent again because mine had retired to spend the money her husband had earned writing the bestseller, By Love Possessed.)

I couldn't see how the Journal could turn down that manuscript which I’d honed to their very own specifications—but the Journal did. It was much better, they said, much, but somehow not for them. They were sorry, and wouldn’t I try them again with something else?

I had only one place to turn to now, and that is where I turned—back to the old rejection slips. And among them I found an old note from the time when my agent had handled that story, and it was a two-line letter saying that the Saturday Evening Post had shown a mild interest in the story but had found it much too long to consider seriously.

And so I started in on that manuscript again, with the Post in mind, and I re-wrote the beginning and I threw away all of the landlord and added some more of the zany psychology, and one rainy day I put the babies in the car and I let them push the manuscript through the slot in the post office, and that story was then on its way to the Post.

I knew no one on the Post, and no one on the Post knew me, and everyone knows it’s one of the toughest markets there is. Also, only a week before, I had heard a Post fiction writer tell a group of graduate students on the Berkeley campus that he’d never known the Post to buy an unsolicited short story that came in through the slush pile.

But in something under three weeks, I heard from the Post, and they did buy that story, without reservations of any kind—except they changed the title to THE FACTS OF LOVE, and it was a million-to-one shot that came through. But the point I hope I am making is that breaking the system always is—and no two people do it the same way. And just because it’s very very hard is no excuse for not doing it.

I should confess before I stop that I never did have any ingredients for an instant short story—except the ones I’ve been talking about. The ingredients for the successful, new style short story are the same as they’ve always been down through the ages, from the olden times down to now. And these ingredients are talent, inventiveness, a quality of warm perpetual emotion coupled with cold analysis, flexibility, stamina, the willingness to work very very hard—and the ability to keep oneself—on the hook.


#        #       #



Harriet Halliday Renaud’s “The Facts of Love,” the short story featured in her talk above, can be found in Scene4 at 2014/0414/harriethallidayrenaud0414.html 


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Harriet Halliday Renaud was a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor from 1935 to 2016, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar.
For more of her writings, check the Archives 

Lissa Tyler Renaud - Scene4 Magazine

Lissa Tyler Renaud, Ph.D. is director of InterArts Training (1985- ). She was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge), and Editor of Critical Stages webjournal 2007-14. She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist in the U.S., Asia, Europe, Russia, Mexico. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2018 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine





July 2018

Volume 19 Issue 2

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