That’s It! The first submission period for the inaugural edition of Firewords Quarterly has closed. It closed a couple of weeks back, but I’ve just caught up reading the last of the submissions assigned to me.
It’s been a complete eye opener being on the other side of the fence. There’s a great sense of responsibility that bears down on you. The responsibility to Firewords Quarterly in only accepting stories that genuinely warranted publication. There’s the responsibility to the submitting writers. Reading all work in an open and honest manner, and giving honest feedback.
Rejections are inevitable. The majority of submissions will end up being rejected at any publication. The reasons for rejections? Well, I can’t list them all, but in this post I’m going to talk about the Stock Concept. But one important point of note before we begin, and it’s vitally important. Any comments I make regarding my experiences with Firewords are my own personal opinions. They in no way reflect the views of the owner, or any other editor. Now we’ve got that sorted let’s talk about…
The Stock Concept
What do I mean by the stock concept? Anything that’s been done countless times before. Here’s a few off the top of my head, and some of which we’ve seen at Firewords:
· The best-man forgetting the wedding rings on the big day
· Characters that don’t know they’re dead until the ‘twist’ at the end of the story
· The ghostly house that seems to have a life of its own
· The killer prostitute – throw in a caring punter and an aggressive pimp too
· The boxer paid to throw the fight
· A young girl nervous and afraid to tell her overly strict parents she’s pregnant
Hopefully, you get the idea. So they should be avoided at all costs right? Well, not exactly. They need to be handled with care. You – as the writer – need something unique. It could be a unique setting, an unusual character, something that gives your ‘stock concept’ story an edge over anything similar.
Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is a great example. It’s littered with stock concepts. Vampires have been with us in literature for a long time. King’s vampires obey all the usual rules: sunlight kills them, a stake through the heart kills them, a familiar protects the ‘master’ through the daylight hours, the master vampire sleeps in his coffin, holy water burns the undead, etc, etc. However, King replaced the mystery shrouded gothic castle with the ramshackle house shrouded in urban myth. He put his vampires on your doorstep and he set his story in the present day. The first part of that book sets up character and setting. King does that to put you in the world of the everyday, with characters you know or you can relate to, because they’re the people in your town. King did something different with a stock concept, and he sold a lot of books in the process.
Watch the film 28 Days Later. The film draws a lot from John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. The man eating plants were replaced with zombies, a classic horror monster, but instead of the lurching lumbering zombies of old we were introduced to the fast and agile running zombie. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland did something different with a stock concept, and a film that cost approx. $8M to make raked in almost $85M at the box office.
Probably the best example of recent times has been GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). There are many stock fantasy elements in this highly entertaining saga: Numerous prophecies, a magic wall to keep the bad guys out, dashing princes and beautiful princesses and the list goes ever on. But Martin took those stock items and literally tore the rule book up. Fantasy before Martin was pretty linear. Good guys were good, and the bad guys were bad. Sure the good guy would have difficulties and adventures aplenty, but they’d pull through in the end. Not in ASOIAF. Good guys – as in main characters – die. The most dashing knight of all is gay. Characters evolve and some that were most definitely ‘bad’ become ‘good’ or at least inhabit some grey middle ground. Martin took a whole genre – that had become very predictable - and he rode rough shod over it and re-invented the genre in the process.
So if you want to tackle stock concepts / themes, or ideas, go right ahead but push the envelope and take some risks. Dream big! Playing safe will likely lead to a rejection slip irrespective of the publication you send the work to.
That’s it for now.
I was rummaging around my old computer files when I stumbled across this little picture. It’s the work of a great graphic artist by the name of Bryan Riolo. He’s a talented writer too who tends to stay in the fantasy / horror genre with occasional forays into everyday drama.
The picture above was pulled together quickly, for free, and as a complete surprise to me. It’s a depiction of a prose scene written by yours truly showing the meeting of two beings of pure light. The smaller point of light “Graykin” is about to be transformed into human form and sent to Earth to investigate the disappearance of a Troll from a travelling circus.
It was a key scene from a chapter that I wrote for a Round Robin story.
Everyone know what a Round Robin story is?
For those who don’t think of it as a writing relay race. One writer kicks off the story, and then the next writer starts where the last writer finished. This is not a collection of themed / similar stories. This is one story being told by numerous writers.
They are great fun to do.
It’s also a really good creative and collaborative exercise. It’s advisable to agree a few ground rules before you start such as:
Genre – straight drama, fantasy, crime, sci-fi. It needs to be a genre everyone is comfortable with, or willing to tackle for the first time.
Order of writing – This is important. The first writer has it hard. That was Bryan’s job and he did a fantastic job. The first writer has to set the tone. They need to leave threads that the other writers can pick up. The trick is to not make those threads too obvious, so if the next writer doesn’t use all of the available threads the unused ones blend into the background, literally as background info, without reading like unexplained plot threads. I’ve gone back and read Bryan’s first chapter and it’s only now some four or five years later that I can see what he did was exceptional. I always knew it was good, but had I been more experienced in this writing malarkey I would have been even more impressed. He gave us so many characters to play with, and yet it didn’t feel cluttered. It really was the work of a writer firing on all cylinders.
I was a coward I volunteered for the second chapter which is an easy one. I couldn’t resist reading my early efforts after finding Bryan’s picture. I did ok. I held my own in some tough company considering I’d only written one short story at that point. It’s funny looking back. Bryan’s chapter was entirely set in Florida. So I decided to start my chapter in the far depths of space, and bring my characters into Bryan’s Florida setting. I have no idea what I was on. But hey, it worked.
The other writers who have it hard are the ones responsible for the finishing stages; pulling all the threads together to ensure a cohesive story. All of the writers have the issue of continuing the threads but the final writer has to draw them all together. Not easy.
Style – If your natural writing style is verbose, and you like to drop in the occasional word that will have the reader running to the dictionary you’re going to have to tone it down. The story won’t work if it’s obvious that the chapters are clearly written by different writers. The change in writing style will jar with the reader. A well written Round Robin story should be seamless from one writer to the next. You have to be style neutral while avoiding bland. It isn’t easy, but the creative challenge is rewarding
Handover Points – Define them up front. We had a really fun agreement in place. Each chapter had to end on a cliff-hanger. One of our heroes in peril or deadly danger. It was great writing the chapter because you could write the next writer into an absolute corner and you didn’t have to worry about the resolution. Yeah, I do have a wicked side. But it was good for the next writer too. They didn’t have to think about how to start their chapter. They could kick off straight into an action scene. It made it easy to get the pen moving.
Plot – This is a difficult one. If you completely plot out the whole group of chapters you’ll lose a lot of the sheer blind fun and creativity out of a Round Robin exercise. However, you can’t ignore it either or you’ll end up with an incoherent mess. The current writer, the previous writer, the upcoming writer, and the Editor need to keep talking.
Our project never got finished for reasons too long to go into here, but if you’re a writer who knows a bunch of other writers I’d recommend a Round Robin challenge any day.
I’d gladly do one again post completion of the Project 13 collaboration.
Anybody out there thinking that it’s just a game or not something a serious writer would consider…think again. Anyone read Windhaven by GRRM & Lisa Tuttle? It started life as a Round Robin story. There are many other examples of published Round Robin works out there so dismiss it at your peril.
You’ll also find that the interaction with other writers improves your solo work.
In an earlier post I mentioned that I free write as opposed to plotting my stories. I write in that way for the sole reason that it works for me.
However, not all writers work in this way, some very successful writers plot. The photograph above shows a single page from J K Rowling’s plot notes for one of The Harry Potter novels.
I’m not sure if you can read all the text. I don’t think it matters, because you can see how the process works. JK was mapping out her characters, character interactions with other characters, and character interactions with events etc.
When Chris Chibnall was writing the truly excellent TV Drama Broadchurch he whiteboarded. It’s the same approach as JK utilised except a whiteboard was used.
I’ve heard of other writers utilising post-it pads and having a plot wall. A timeline is placed on the wall, and key plot points / character events are scribbled on the individual post-it notes which are then placed at the appropriate point of the time-line.
All of the above methods are variants of a particular type of plotting. They give the writer a visual aid to refer back to so they can keep track of the story. It’s very easy to get lost in a large or even small but complex novel. These methods allow the writer to stay focused.
Below I’m re-producing the Lester Dent Pulp Fiction Master plot. Please don’t switch off at the mention of Lester’s name, or don’t run away at the mention of those words pulp fiction. Sure Lester wrote pulp fiction. I’ve read many of his novels. Some are good while others are not so good. However, all of Lester’s stories have one thing in common…they sold!!!
The other reason that I don’t want you to run away is because you can adapt Lester’s Master Plot to pretty much anything. Here it is exactly as Lester wrote it:
The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot
This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.
No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.
The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.
Here's how it starts:
1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO
One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.
A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?
If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.
Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.
Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods. The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.
Here, again one might get too bizarre.
Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.
Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.
The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.
Here's the second instalment of the master plot.
Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:
FIRST 1500 WORDS
1--First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with.
2--The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3--Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4--Hero's endeavours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
5--Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?
At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.
Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?
SECOND 1500 WORDS
1--Shovel more grief onto the hero.
2--Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
3--Another physical conflict.
4--A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.
NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE?
Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud?
Is the hero getting it in the neck?
Is the second part logical?
DON'T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show them. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.
When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass
pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.
BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.
THIRD 1500 WORDS
1--Shovel the grief onto the hero.
2--Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
3--A physical conflict.
4--A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.
DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?
These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.
These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.
The idea is to avoid monotony.
Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and
feel the action.
Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.
Trees, wind, scenery and water.
THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
FOURTH 1500 WORDS
1--Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
2--Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
3--The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
4--The mysteries remaining--one big one held over to this point will help grip interest--are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
5--Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
6--The snapper, the punch line to end it.
HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line?
The MENACE held out to the last?
Everything been explained?
It all happen logically?
Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
The reason I’ve always loved the above is that it’s adaptable to almost anything. Maybe you want to write a thriller with a central blackmail element. Take out the word murder at the beginning and replace it with blackmail. Now read it all again. Sure you might have to adapt other parts but you have a template nonetheless.
Maybe you’re writing an everyday drama about a struggling relationship. Remember that part about Eloise. Maybe Eloise is another woman in a love triangle. The protagonist tracks her down to tackle her head on. The protagonist believes she has persuaded Eloise to stay out of the picture, to not interfere / destroy her current relationship. Lester’s three rings on the tail then become a subsequent find by the protagonist showing that Eloise isn’t out of the picture, or maybe the find indicates that there was more than just the affair that there’s something else – some mystery - about this underhand tryst.
The above is me just pointing out how flexible Lester’s master plot actually is.
Have you read George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire novels? If you have think about the individual character stories. Each character has highs and lows, desperate highs and lows. Isn’t that what Lester is advocating for the hero in his master plot. No, I’m not for one minute saying that GRRM utilised Lester’s approach. I am pointing out that the master plot is good structure that can be utilised to pretty much all longer works – from novellas upwards – irrespective of story type or genre.
Michael Moorcock is one successful author who has openly acknowledged the use of Lester’s master plot in the production of his novels. His advice to aspiring authors is to do the same.
It’s also worth comparing the master plot to films that follow the classic three act structure. You might be shocked by how closely the main protagonist’s journey aligns to the master plot.
It might seem surprising to find a self confessed free writer waxing lyrical about plotting. The truth is that any aspiring writer should embrace different techniques. It’s the only way to find out what works for you, and what doesn’t. I’ve successfully free written short stories, and a single one act play. On the two occasions that I’ve tried to free write a screenplay I’ve met with abject failure. The next time I’m up for tackling a feature length script I’ll be plotting. I’ll be using the methods described above or variations of the above.
I hope this has been of some use. If anyone has any other methods for plotting that I’ve not covered please let me know. I’m happy to add to this blog, or do a separate post.
M J Wolfson - That's me.