Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing bookends

So, my regard and esteem for Lester Dent and his creation, pulp superman Doc Savage, goes without saying. He's right up there with Walter Gibson and The Shadow, and Paul Ernst and The Avenger as far as ripping yarns go. Besides being a superstar among pulp writers, Dent also left behind an instructional legacy, known variously as his Master Fiction Plot, Pulp Fiction Master Plot, or Master Plot Formula. In a compact 1400-word treatise, Dent explains "exactly where to put everything" in a 6,000 word pulp story and asserts that no story of his written to these specifications ever failed to sell. You can find the full formula online various places, such as here and here, but here's the gist:

What exquisite minimalism - what a sense of clarity and purpose.  If you were churning these out by the briefcaseful for a penny a word, that kind of focus must have helped, I am sure. In any case, it worked for Dent, and we have a great pile of adventure tales as a result.

At the other end of the scale from Dent (sideways, not upwards into literature) we find Harry Stephen Keeler, the Dickens to Dent's Hemingway.

A contemporary of Dent, Keeler was mainly a mystery writer; although he did cut his eye teeth in the pulps as a writer and editor, his novels were published by mainstream houses. But what novels they were, routinely running to 500 or more pages, with complicated, surreal plots and scores of characters, and... well, here, take a look at a sample for yourself (courtesy of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society):
For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter's "Barr-Bag" which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of--in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel--or Suing Sophie!
I first encountered Keeler in Bill Prinzini's 1982 Gun in Cheek, a commentary on "alternative" mystery writers, and was captivated. His books are almost impossible to get: I can remember requesting one through interlibrary loan after I found it in the catalog of the University of Chicago library - one of my first legitimate uses of the internet ever - although web resources like the Keelerite Society are making it a bit easier. Each book is an investment, however - in time, effort, and maybe a little bit of your sanity.

Keeler called his technique of plotting webwork and like Dent, he left us the formula. Unlike Dent, his treatise The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction runs to about 23,000 words. You can read the whole thing here, but let me summarize it with just the first five figures, showing the development of a simple webwork plot:

And some explanation:
Now we may, thanks to the removal of the rigid space yardstick from the vertical extent of our diagram, picture our last diagram, which showed how Dr. Phineas Tanneyday bought a $10,000 Vindelinus for a nickel, a little more completely yet, thus [Figure 5] which shows the old incident n which is vitally turning off the careers of both the Vindelinus (A) and Dr. Tanneyday (B), being itself the resultant of two incidents, n-1 in the life of the Vindelinus and n-2 in the career of the Doctor. Let us say, in fact, that n-1 was where an auctioneer, ordered to dispose, at the best price, of the books in the library of an old ex-brewer, sold the Vindelinus (with several hundred other valueless volumes) to a second-hand dealer; had he not done so, the book might have continued to A'; i. e., to have gathered dust in his mansion or even to have been taken to Europe by the old man's widow who decided to go back to Germany to live.
As for incident n-2, Dr. Tanneyday may have been told that afternoon by a friend that some Greek or Italian nickel show in the polyglot district of Halsted near Madison needed an old man to take tickets in the afternoon, for which they would pay $7 a week, and he may have been hurrying over there to get-the position instead of drowsing (B-B'), as was his wont in the afternoons, in the reading room of the Public Library.
See? It's just that simple!

One of my goals this summer is to pull off a couple of those 6,000 word stories for practice - maybe one each in the "adventure, detective, western and war-air" genres that Dent himself lists. Perhaps after warming up with those, I could tackle a web-work novel, but that might be better left for NaNoWriMo.

It should be a piece of cake: I have the recipe.

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