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SPIDER >> ESSAYS >> TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The Spider TM & © Argosy Communications, Inc.
Tools of Our Trade
By Rogers Terrill

The editor-in-chief of Popular Publications buys stories, articles, and fillers for 26 magazines. Given here is some clinical advice to help you write the kind of material Rogers Terrill wants to buy. Rates are one cent a word on acceptance for beginners; and higher for top flight producers.


EVERY week or so a young chap fresh out of college comes into our office and wants someone to tell him how to write. He's interested in putting words together; the chances are he's had good marks in college English; and he wants to get quickly launched on the heart-breaking, glamorous career of writing fiction stories for the great American public.

After years of talking to these boys--of seeing them start out with all the cocky confidence of youth on a road which too often leads to an associate editorship on some second-rate magazine--I know very well that the kindest possible treatment for these young hopefuls would be a definite and prompt discouragement.

I find, though, that young authors are hard to discourage. So, instead of doing my Christian duty, I usually try--God help me--to tell them the very few actual facts I've learned about pulp writing.


*   *   *

ANY person, to become a writer, must have three accomplishments:

    1--a knack for using words
    2--a dramatic sense
    3--and--something entirely different--a sense of story.

All three of these accomplishments may, I firmly believe, be acquired, to a satisfactory degree, through hard work and intelligent application.

Since this is, by request, aimed primarily at beginning writers, let's try to analyze these three qualities.

A knack with words doesn't, of course, mean the mere ability to write grammatically correct, high-sounding English. It is the sense which tells the writer that a sentence, though correct, lacks punch. It is a knack of changing sentence structure in such a way as to place the proper emphasis in the proper place. It is the feeling that of three or four possible adjectives, all with similar meanings, only one will adequately fill a certain specific need.

It takes into consideration the sound of the words you choose, as well as their appearance in print; and, if a writer is really tops, it means a sense of word rhythm which automatically eliminates awkward, rambling sentences and vaguely-put phrases.

Granted then that you can or have developed a proper sense of word value, the next thing you have to go after is a strongly developed dramatic sense.

Recently a friend of mine told me that he thought he had discovered a very promising new writer, and asked if I would be good enough to criticize the young lady's first manuscript. I read the story and found that she had an amazingly good word sense. She had a charming, easy-to-read style, and her writing carried a sort of vivid, personal warmth and color. She chose as her subject, however, an unhappy young man who was trying to discover some meaning in life through his efforts at a paint-brush interpretation of the old Dutch masters. There was no smallest crumb of drama in the entire 5,000 words of her manuscript, and though some finished writer might conceivably spin a finely dramatic, moving tale with no better subject matter, this young lady was distinctly out of her depth.

This story is, I'll grant youj a rather extreme example of a beginner's inability to grasp dramatic value.

In the opposite extreme is the frequent tendency of beginning writers to strive too vigorously for dramatic effect.

A story which reached my desk recently began something like this:

    Tom Jones dodged the swing of the murderer's axe and dived for his feet, well aware that at any instant his flight through air might be rudely ended by the smashing blow of that bloody weapon. He landed heavily, and there was a sickening stab of pain in his left shoulder as his arms encircled the madman's ankles. Already handicapped by his long fast and by the madman's superhuman strength, he almost resigned himself to death. But Tom had somehow lived through more than one waterfront browl in the horrible months just past. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his injured shoulder, he ...

Do you think anyone in the world would be interested in reading such over-dramatized copy ? Believe it or not, it's a pretty fair sample of the average manuscript picked at random from any editor's slush pile.

As a contrast to these two unskillful extremes, consider the clever handling of dramatic buildup in the opening to a story which we printed in a recent issue of Detective Tales.

    It was dark on Canal Street. The New York section, so crowded and alive during the day, was deserted and bleak on this winter midnight. Stores and loft buildings and warehouses crowded like hostile giants with blind, black eyes for windows. There was a shiver in the air beyond that produced by January cold.
    Steve Bishop walked slowly in the bleak dimness. His lips were tight around his cigarette. His feet made little sound in a light, fresh snow. An oblong light crossed his path from the all-night restaurant of fat Dave Singer. As he passed, Dave opened the door.
    "'Lo, Steve," he said. "Cold night."
    Steve nodded, thinking about a cup of Dave's coffee and deciding not to bother.
    "Somebody murdered?" said Dave. "You after a story? Jeez. You reporters--"
    "Nobody murdered as far as I know," said Steve, reporter on the New York Globe. "No news. So I'm down here making some. You know--human interest. What goes on in the business sections after dark ..."
    "Plenty goes on," said Dave sagely. "But I hope for your sake you don't stumble onto any of it. Stuff happens around here to curl your hair, sometimes."
    "That's why I'm roaming," nodded Steve. He went on.
    From the Hudson came the hoot of a tugboat. Up the street rumbled an enormous van, starting at night for a long overland trip. Around the corner ahead of him lurched a man's figure.
    Steve stepped a little faster. It was the first figure he'd seen for minutes. And it looked as though there might be material in it ...
    The man was bare-headed and without an overcoat, for one thing. That was odd. He staggered badly, blindly, as he lurched toward Steve. That was another queer thing.
    The reeling figure ahead drew near the circle of white cast by a street light. It came out of dimness. Steve was within twenty feet of him now. He heard gasping, whimpering moans coming from the man's lips, and saw blood on a chalky face. Why, the man was hurt! He was ...
    His eyes. There was something the matter with his eyes. Something hideously wrong!
    Steve Bishop's hoarse cry rang out at last, over the rumble of the great van receding down the street. For now he had seen that awful, chalky face in full light. Now the man was so close that every terrible detail was revealed.
    Something wrong with his eyes? He had no eyes.

This example of professional, competent writing serves our purpose doubly well, since it illustrates not only an intelligent handling of dramatic values but is, moreover, a fairly good example of the drama which lies in words.

Consider the opening paragraph. The author, secure in his writing ability, has done a dangerous thing. He has devoted an entire paragraph of fifty-four words to a description of a New York City street on a winter night. You can find a dozen better qualified writing authorities who will tell you that such a procedure is one sure way of losing your reader before he even gets into your story. I'll leave it to you, however if, in this instance, the paragraph quoted above doesn't win your interest and make you want to read more of this story. This effect, you'll notice upon analysis, is obtained almost entirely through a fine appreciation of word values.


*   *   *

NOW for the third tool which must find its way into the kit bag of every successful author--the sense of story.

A writer may have a fine appreciation of word values, he may know the elements of good drama, but unless he is able to create a rounded, satisfactory plot he will sell few stories and collect many rejection slips.

Let's take as our example another story which may serve to illustrate two points. Let's take as our first version of this story a plot form which, though it has sufficient dramatic values, does not possess a sufficiently well rounded plot and will, therefore, in all likelihood find an eventual resting place in some harassed author's wastebasket.

I have purposely chosen a subject which, without skilled handling, would carry the further handicap of an out-moded, old-fashioned character and situation.

    Rusty is an old prospector returning from his last gold hunt in the hills to the valley ranch where his daughter and son-in-law are eking out a hazardous living from a run-down, two-bit spread.
    Rusty, at the opening of the story, is torn between mixed emotions. He has finally found the gold which will enable him to settle down to a life of ease on his daughter's spread, without being the burden which he has always refused to become. Instead, he will be able to stock the ranch with new cattle, to buy his daughter the pretty things he's always wanted her to have, and to give his son-in-law the start in life he's always wanted to.

Opposed to the satisfaction of this long hoped for accomplishment is the knowledge that his burro, with whom he has wandered the hills for years, is dying of old age. Rusty is aghast at the thought that the beast may not live to reach the green ranch pastures where he had hoped to retire him.

So far, we have an adequate opening situation with sufficient dramatic value, though the story up to this point is by no means an outstandingly promising one.

From here on, we'll follow the thread of the story without a sufficiently well rounded plot structure.

    Rusty, we'll say, hears shots as he climbs the last foothill. Leaving the burro behind, he climbs to the top and sees that his ranchhouse objective has been attacked by masked riders. Horrified, he takes to the concealment of some handily placed undergrowth and, through three pages of over-dramatized copy, finally makes his way to the ranchhouse, only to fall into the hands of the villains as he is about to dash in to the assistance of his beleaguered relatives.
    The daughter and son-in-law, seeing his plight, rush bravely but very foolishly out to save him through some more pages of high dramatics.
    In the climax, the burro, who it develops was carrying a package of dynamite sticks which the author neglected to mention, staggers into the group of villains, gets into the way of a stray bullet—and dies gloriously, sending the villains to kingdom come.

I wouldn't even go so far as to say that such a story, granted that it was written with some degree of skill, might not eventually find a market. The chances, however, would be pretty heavy against it. Let us now consider the same opening situation, with the plot developed as it was in a story which recently came to my desk and which won a quick check for its author--despite the fact that it was the first desert rat—burro story that we'd bought in a good five years.

    In this acceptable version, the author early establishes the fact that Rusty had attempted sometime before, to dispense with the load the burro was carrying but that the burro, accustomed to carrying Rusty's belongings through the years, had refused to go on without his pack.

I am not at all familiar with the behavior habits of burros, but whether or not a living burro would conceivably behave in this manner is relatively unimportant, provided the author presents his case with sufficient skill to make you believe without question that this burro did just that in this particular instance.

    Unable to discard the entire pack, Rusty has instead removed individual articles at various times during the day's journey until about the only thing remaining is a box of dynamite sticks, concerning which his daughter has often gently kidded him.
    He has laboriously lettered the word dynamite on this box, and the object of his daughter's gentle fun-making is the fact that he has never dotted the "i".
    As Rusty and the burro approach the crest of the last foothill, Rusty is amazed to meet his son-in-law riding hell bent on a lathered horse across the ridge. It seems that a large neighboring rancher--previously established as a former suitor for the daughter's hand--has become of late openly hostile to the small-spread ranchers, and, as a final act of persecution, has dammed the stream upon which the small-spread ranchers depend for their sustenance, and in which, incidentally, Rusty had hoped to water his faltering, four-footed pal.
    The son-in-law tells Rusty that the small-spread ranchers are finally organizing and that he is on his way to join them in a desperate attack on the newly erected dam.
    The son-in-law rides on, and Rusty, stumbling on over the hilltop ahead of his burro, has the misfortune to fall into the hands of the range hog and his gun hirelings.
    The dam is close by and the range hog, knowing of the attack that is to come, drags him there to--make sport of the father of the girl who spurned him.
    Rusty, seeing the well fortified state of the dam and the number of gunmen collected by the range hog, is horrified by the fate which inevitably awaits the small-spread ranchers--and is made still more unhappy by the sudden appearance of his wobbly burro who, having followed him, collapses in the muddy pool which is all that is left of the all important stream.
    The animal's head is just above the muddy water and the villain makes a game of shooting the animal. Rusty begs for a chance to send a mercy bullet into the wounded, suffering beast. Covered and harmless, they grant his wish, and--you guess--he dot the "i" in dynamite.

Result: The sale to a modern magazine of the oldest of all back standbys--a desert rat story!


*   *   *

CAN a writer, then, having in some way obtained these three tools of his trade, sit down at once and write successful stories? The answer, of course, is no--no more so, in fact, than a carpenter's apprentice, having bought himself a full set of tools, can set out and build himself a house.

You must learn to handle your knowledge of drama in such a way that through it you win your reader's interest at the opening of your story. I have shown you the hard way that an accomplished writer chose, with the hope of convincing you right at the start that almost any opening, if it employs a skillful use of your dramatic sense, can turn the trick. But your opening, though important, is after all only the foundation of the story you are building. Let's take, to illustrate our point, a story which we recently purchased for Dime Western. As a fine example of the subjective type of story opening, I'll give you the first few paragraphs verbatim before going on with the plot structure.

    Phil Burchard rode away from the Slash A ranch house with a white line of fury about his mouth corners, and that familiar, frustrated anger, which had gathered almost uncontrollable force with the years, seething within him. It was fury against the bitter poverty he had always known; against his father whom he held responsible for it.
    It was Ben Burchard's mildness—his peaceful, non-fighting ways—which had let their more aggressive neighbors whittle them down to a two-bit spread.
    And there was a stubbornness in Ben Burchard, too, which had tried to impose the same qualities on his son. He was such a fanatic about law and order and the peaceful ways of doing things that Phil had never even been allowed to wear a six-gun--was supposed not even to know how to use one. He had been forced to stick on that miserable, tumble-down ranch, without ever having a chance to follow his dreams, without even having a chance to make enough money to be able to ask the girl he loved to marry him.

Up to this point the author has skillfully won our interest in his lead character. He has developed a definite situation, and--since he has stressed the father's peace-loving nature--he has whetted our appetite for the opposite extreme of physical conflict which, we are pretty sure, will follow. This is a danger spot in any story. The reader is now thoroughly conversant with the character and the situation, and any further elaboration must inevitably bore him. The author of this particular story wasted no more time, but threw his hero into immediate conflict.

    Riding across the range, he finds a tough, greedy neighbor rancher fencing in a waterhole which belongs to the hero and his dad. There's a verbal argument which goes no further because the hero is unarmed.
    The father still counsels a peaceful handling of the situation; but the boy, overwraught and furious, gets the gun with which he has secretly practiced, rides into town, and, under thoroughly justifiable circumstances, has a shoot-out with the neighbor, killing him.

The hero has broken loose, as the reader hoped he would, and has tried violence as a cure for his troubles.

    The father accepts the gun duel with better grace than our hero had expected, but does say with a sort of kind repression that violence only begets violence and that their former annoyances will no doubt seem small compared with the trouble they'll be in for now.

By using this brief dialogue between father and son, the author covers an awkward transition, avoids what might well have been a dangerous lag in the story, and forecasts not only further physical conflict to come, but also a continuance of the basic controversy between peace and violence.

    The violence develops quickly when the dead neighbor's much tougher brother arrives on the scene with a following of gun riders, determined to avenge his brother's death and wipe out the hero's small spread.

At this point the most dangerous spots in the story have been successfully passed. The yarn builds rapidly from that point through a succession of conflict incidents to a climax scene wherein the hero, hopelessly outnumbered, is facing death alone in the cowtown street.

    At this point, the father--a man of peace who had during the story never carried a gun--appears beside the hero, and with an amazing show of gunmanship, helps his son to rout the neighbor's hired gunhands.
    And the son learns to his chagrin that his father is a once-famous gunman who, having tried violence, had long since learned that the ways of peace are best.

Thus, in his last few paragraphs, the author not only solves the hero's physical conflict, but solves the controversy between opposing creeds of peace and violence.

The author, in this story, has made skillful use of the writer's three major tools. Through his builder's skill he has, with these tools, given the reader a dramatic, interest-holding opening; he has avoided the pitfalls of awkward transition between opening and story development; he has eliminated all non-essentials from his structure; and he has finished his story with a climax which not only solves the hero's immediate problem but which brings to a conclusion the thematic counterplot which ran as a secondary conflict throughout the story.

You'll notice, incidentally, that outstanding stories have this form of dual plot structure. It is not, by any means, a necessity in selling pulp fiction--but it often marks the difference between an adequate tale and a "must yes" feature.


The preceding was first published in the 1939 Writers' Year Book, published annually in March by Writer's Digest.