Pulp for Kids?

I respect the work ethic and powers of the pulp authors. From Lester Dent, to Michael Moorcock, a lot of stories I deeply respect were written by men who had a formula for their skeleton, a deadline, and the objective of churning out prose as quickly as possible. The king of Pulp in my imagination is Burroughs, whose John Carter of Mars stories form a founding stone in my concept of manly storycraft.

I recall hearing (and will not look it up because I don’t want the myth, if it be a myth, to be dispelled) that Rudyard Kipling heard Burroughs had made a crass, marketable pastiche of his Jungle Book, namely Tarzan. Kipling responded by saying he respected the hustle.

I, too, respect the hustle. And right now, thanks to the internet and specifically Amazon, we are enjoying a Pulp Renaissance. The intersection of ebooks, email lists, and Amazon’s marketing algorithm have made it possible for a passable storyteller to at once hone his craft also and make a decent living through sheer volume of output.

But this recipe just doesn’t translate to Kids’ books. Kids want full color illustrations. Parents want physical media to hand their kids. Print on Demand means we can (as I have) dodge around the New York spinsters who gatekeep kids books, but Print on Demand paperbacks cost twice as much as the products made by Authorized presses.

But what if there was a way for children’s stories to participate in the Pulp Renaissance? Well, I think there is. I’m not going to spoil it, because the idea came from another man and would be disrespectful to let the cat out of the bag before we go to market. Feel free to speculate in the comments, though, as I’m sure it’s not the only way and I’d love to see what other people come up with.

The purpose of this post is not to figure out how to make kids’ pulp possible. The purpose of this post is, assuming kids’ pulp is possible, to create and test a formula for cranking out bedtime stories like a madman on crack whilst remaining both sane and crack-free.

Let’s establish our objectives.

Our Objectives

  1. We must to be able to make multiple bedtime stories a day. Kids’ stories range from 500-1000 words. I can do 2K a words a day easy and 10K words a day if I’m inspired, and this is with a day job. Moorcock did 20-30K words in his pulp days. Multiple stories gives us several advantages. With a larger collection of stories we can throw out duds and let the best shine. Or we can build up a backlog and take a short vacation after a frenetic month or two.
    To accomplish objective one, we need a solid skeleton. We need to clearly understand how many words we have to play with, how many sections they are divided into, and what they must accomplish. I refer you back to the previous link on Lester Dent’s formula to see what this looks like in practice.
  2. The stories must be at minimum entertaining to the children. I have multiple objectives. I want to feed my own children and pay my bills. That means the stories should sell something whether it be books of stories or toys of characters and props. I want to uphold Western Civilization. That means the stories should inculcate virtue.
    All of these goals are for naught if the children do not love the stories. If they walk away because of a sales pitch, someone else will sell them toys. If they walk away because I moralize, someone else will sow the seeds of their character. Always and forever the prime directive of the story, to spin a good yarn, must take precedence.
    Again, this is an area where Lester Dent’s formula excels. It knows what its audience wants, and it lays out how to get it.
  3. The stories should optimally be entertaining to the parents. My target market is a father who is being pressed to read a bedtime story to his four-year-old boy. He’s just got home from work, he’s tired, he’s annoyed, he just wants to tuck the kid in so he can get some rest. I want the story to be first of all short, so he gets through it in 3-5 minutes and gets to his football game. But I also want it to catch his interest so he begins to look forward to story time. When his kid begs for a Jump the Shark plush, or the blessed sword Arthur takes into battle against the Night Mare, I want dad to be chuckle with delight at the thought of getting this gift for his kid.
    If he groans in annoyance, but still takes out his credit card, I’m okay with this outcome because I still get to feed my kid. But frankly, if he starts to love the story so much that he maybe starts doing the funny voices, and starts spending more time with his kid, and really gets into it, that’s our top outcome.
  4. The Stories should feature characters and props that are iconic, recognizable, and make good toys and pictures. Partly because I want to get paid, and partly because I want a Merlin the Rabbit action figure to sit on my monitor.
  5. The Stories should not be sanitized, but acknowledge Evil and cultivate Virtue. To quote C. S. Lewis, “Since it is so likely [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter, but darker… Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”
Flash Gordon Homage by Logic-Monkey

A Bit of Research

My own story book, Jump the Shark, takes about five minutes to read. It has about 500 words. This makes sense: a court stenographer has to be able to transcribe 300 words per minute, which makes that about the top speed normal humans talk and listen, and when you are telling a story, you go slower and pause.

I dug out a couple of books of 5-minute bedtime stories last night and counted words and looked for patters. Here is what I found with the stories I preferred (I will not say liked, as they are too sanitary and trite for my tastes):

  • The stories took up about 16 pages, with 15 of these having text and images, and one page being dedicated to a full-page illustration.
  • Each page of text had about 50 words, for a 750 word average story length. The illustrations were more lush and refined than my own illustrations (which makes sense; Disney’s illustrators illustrate as their day job), but tended to be more background and do less work to actually carry the story with the exception of the single full page splash.
  • Each page was a beat. Like a paragraph or a chapter, it had a single central thing that happened, though that single thing often accomplished multiple goals.
  • Beats came in different lengths, which were used to govern pacing. An important event would occupy (relatively) huge 60 word beat, and two quick, 35 word beats would precede it. Like two quick jabs before delivering a full-body roundhouse kick.
  • After a 1-2-punch, there was generally one or two average-length beats. A pacing ‘rest’ if you will.
  • The final 1-2-punch, the climax, had a very long beat (70 words!) for the punch, and then was followed by a single 70-word beat for the denoument.
  • The full-page illustration came not in the climax, but at a point of inflection. In general, the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ (term used loosely because the stories are super sanitized) are pursuing separate, but conflicting objectives for the first part of the story. At the point of inflection, the conflict becomes impossible to ignore, and the hero turns to confront the villain. This is immediately followed by the climax.
  • The 1-2 in the 1-2-punch tended to take the form of a sequel. 1 was the character’s emotional or mental reaction to a previous event, 2 was the character choosing a course of action and pursuing it, and then the punch is the point of impact of that choice.

In fact, lets make that 1-2-punch a formal structure. And let’s make the formula a separate blog post so we can dispense with this preamble when referencing it.

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