Dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer, author & founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate

Write your NaNoWriMo Novel Like a Classic Nancy Drew Volume — Part 2: Outlines

In the first part of this exploration of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s “Formula for Outlines,” comparisons are made with the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) goals of 50,000 words in 30 days.  

Here we will examine the evolution of the outlines supplied to ghostwriters for the seven decades in which the Stratemeyer Syndicate existed as an independent entity.

As indicated, the ghostwriters worked from outlines supplied by the Syndicate.  This was a congenial arrangement for several of the writers.  In 1980 during the lawsuit between Grosset & Dunlap vs. the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Simon & Schuster, Mildred Wirt Benson stated that:

The most trying part for me was the making of a detailed outline.

In a couple of cases, for her own books, she purchased outlines from other writers for an amount like $25.

Mildred Wirt Benson testified about making outlines for her own work.

Mildred Wirt Benson testified about making outlines for her own work.

The early outlines from the Syndicate were not very long, often two pages or a few pages of single-spaced typed material with very narrow margins.  The practice included making a master and a carbon copy. 

On the copy retained in the Syndicate offices they would mark when and to whom it was sent and the agreed-upon amount.  Occasionally Stratemeyer would sketch rough cover designs.

A typical brief two-page outline for the first Hardy Boys volume (1926).

A typical brief two-page outline for the first Hardy Boys volume (1926).

The ghostwriter was expected to return the outline with the manuscript.  On it they might mark the new characters added for the ongoing file for the series.  For some volumes a separate character sheet might be used.

A two-page character sheet for the Great Marvel series, volume 7, The City in the Clouds, has additional character names added to the bottom and back of the sheet by the writer.

A two-page character sheet for the Great Marvel series, volume 7, The City in the Clouds, has additional character names added to the bottom and back of the sheet by the writer.

After Edward died, the outlines used by his daughters as they continued the Syndicate operation were similar to Stratemeyer’s pattern.  However, they soon began a practice that lengthened them, exerting more control and leaving less flexibility for the writers.  These longer outlines soon had content broken down by chapter.  Some writers found this extra detail to be helpful but often it was considered to be too confining, making it a challenge to fit all of the supplied content in the available length of the manuscript.

First two pages of a four-page outline for the final volume (#9) of the Great Marvel series (1935) broken into 25 chapters.

First two pages of a four-page outline for the final volume (#9) of the Great Marvel series (1935) broken into 25 chapters.

In one case, Harriet Adams was unable to sent the entire outline for Nancy Drew #23, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (1946), to Mildred A. Wirt.  Instead it was sent in parts.  Fortunately, this did not affect adversely the submitted outline in the eyes of the Syndicate.  This seems to be an exception rather than a common practice.

Up through the mid-1950s, the most common Syndicate books were 25 chapters and roughly 210 printed pages.  The manuscript equivalent was about 160 pages (or 40,000 words).

First page of a two-page outline and the first page of a 176-page manuscript for a volume in a football series, Garry Grayson Hitting the Line (1929).

First page of a two-page outline and the first page of a 25-chapter, 176-page manuscript for a volume in a football series, Garry Grayson Hitting the Line (1929).

Starting in the mid-1950s most of the series shifted to a shorter format for new and revised stories with 20 chapters and 180 printed pages.

In time the outlines became very elaborate with one to six pages for each chapter.  Thus, it was not uncommon for an outline to be 20-40 pages for a 20-chapter book.

Two pages of a detailed outline for chapter 1 of a volume in the unpublished "Kellee Kawai" series from the 1960s.

Two pages of a detailed outline for chapter 1 of a volume in the unpublished “Kellee Kawai” series from the 1960s.

Before such a detailed outline could be produced, the Syndicate created a multipage “precis” that summarized the entire plot was written.  In some ways these were similar to the entire outlines of previous decades.

The outlines would contain both a main plot and a subplot that could be interwoven in an interesting way.  The main plot would comprise about 2/3 of the story while the subplot would be about 1/3.  The subplots could include educational material, such as history or legends.  They should be brought into the story about every third chapter.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate formula for outlines recommended a division of approximately 2/3 for the main plot and 1/3 for the educational subplot.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate formula for outlines recommended a division of approximately 2/3 for the main plot and 1/3 for the educational subplot.

The story could open with either subplot or main plot content but the first page must be intriguing to get the grab the reader’s attention so s/he will want to continue.

The third part (Wednesday Nov. 16) digs into the details of the Syndicate’s “Formula for Outlines,” including the types of cliffhanger chapter endings and the taboo topics for stories.

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Keeline

James D. Keeline has been researching Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate since 1988. He has written many dozens of articles and conference presentations on these topics and has several books in progress, including a Series Book Encyclopedia, a full biography of Edward Stratemeyer, and Stratemeyer Syndicate Ghostwriters. He has also edited and published several Stratemeyer texts in illustrated and annotated editions under the 24 Palmer Street Press imprint at Lulu.com.

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