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