We’re not talking cookbooks here.
Pot-Boilers, far from collections of recipes, are quickly written stories of, sometimes, dubious quality that are sold cheaply. The name comes from the idea that writers cranked these out to meet their regular expenses, or “keep the pot boiling”, as it were. You might be familiar with them as “pulp fiction” or the somewhat more modern “airport novel“.
The old “pulp fiction” which I’m most familiar with is science-fiction or detective fiction that was written for cheap magazines and dime novels. Any number of great characters started in some variation of these “literary” works. And, while there may not have been a recipe, per se, there certainly have been formulas for this kind of genre fiction. One of the most famous is the Lester Dent method, called the Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. You might not recognize the name, but Lester Dent is the creator of Doc Savage, one of the pulp era’s most well known heroes. His work inspired many others, including Michael Moorcock who created the infamous Elric of Melniboné, among other brilliant characters and works. In fact, Moorcock had his own method, largely derived from the Lester Dent method, which you can find here: How To Write A Book In Three Days.
The method is relatively straight forward and Moorcock outlines it quite well thusly;
“First, he says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”
Actually, the full Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot is a little bit more complex than that, but, really, that formula sums it up pretty well.
So, there’s the secret to your writing success. No need to spend big bucks on a writing course or to get your MFA in Creative Writing, just follow the Lester Dent method to success! (And, if you think it’s not possible, just follow the link to his Wikipedia entry at the top of this post. He was quite successful cranking out this “low brow” pulp fiction!)
Seriously, I hope that’s provided a bit of inspiration to you to get writing. What have you got to lose?