What Pulp Has Taught Me About Writing
Churning out young adult pulp leaves little time to worry about pleasing critics. The ghost of Stratemeyer smiles.
I’m in the middle of a five-story contract for neo-pulp publisher Rot Gut Pulp. The experience has been everything I’ve wanted it to be. My editor, Curt Sembello, is a drunkard who lives overseas, forgets about the time change, and calls me in fits of pique. He’s fired me thrice, fights with his staff on Twitter, and broke his arm trying to have sex with a ladyfriend in a hammock.
“More young adult pulp!” he cries, as if pointing a trawler into a sea full of fish. And so, a man ill-equipped to edit anything YA and a writer who writes formulaic pulp have found a measure of success outside the parameters of either genre.
Everybody should try writing pulp fiction. As it did in the ’30s and ’40s, learning and practicing the method makes for better, more efficient writing.
Pulp mags paid authors upfront to work fast and write in volume. Some writers, like Upton Sinclair, wrote 8,000 words a day. He used multiple pen names to publish several stories at once in the same magazine.
Most authors signed away all rights to their work for a flat fee. Writing fast, editing fast, and saying good-bye to intellectual property puts a pulpeteer in a different headspace than a novelist.
Pulps aren’t designed to teach forever-lessons, to guide readers about life challenges, or to act as a vehicle to express the author’s most intimate feelings. Instead, Pulp shorts have always existed as downscale entertainment. They’re the stuff that kills a half-hour while the dentist finishes with the guy ahead of you.
Pulp is also ephemeral. Pulp writers are not writing stories for posterity. There’s no expectation that people will read it one month after it’s published.
Writing pulp helps writers let go. It’s common for editors and agents to tell budding novelists their work doesn’t connect or needs structural and developmental change. After years of work, this prospect can be so heartbreaking that writers are afraid to surrender their works to submission.
Pulp fiction does not carry emotional investment. Good writers are passionate. Pulp teaches writers how to be dispassionate while creating a good product. Compared to writing a novel:
- A pulp writer can’t be a stickler for detail and quality and ruminate all day like Kafka on placing a comma. I can’t halt publication and call my editor over a sentence I want to change. I have yet to see interest, readership or reviews decline.
- Pulp readers are in it for fun. They like good writing, but they’re not grammarians. They don’t care about “filter words” or “-ly adverbs” as long as the story clips along and entertains them. For a writer, pulp’s a good place to train oneself to write in active voice, without filter words or adverbs. Mistakes cost less.
- There’s no time for writers to fall in love with characters. Some writers talk about how their characters walk with them through life like friends — but having “summer camp” friends can work as well as having “eternal friends,” and is better in this case.
- Sometimes I churn out something great. Other times, it’s lousy. If that were not the case for novelists, they might claim high ground over the pulps. Not so.
- If people hate it, are hurt by it, or if it flops, I’m two stories down the road by the time I hear about it and too engrossed in getting the next story out to care. Slow writers reflect and digest criticism of their work. On social media, this leads to navel-gazing, guilt and self-doubt. Writing pulp leaves little time for self-doubt while allowing room to hone speed and technical craft.
- There’s little need to consider the high priests of social media outrage as it relates to a pulp writer’s work. Pulp is incautious and low-brow. The literature police may rail against it, but so, too, do churches rail against pornography to the same end. HOWEVER:
- Neo-pulp should dispense with the overt racism of its forbears. Pulps from the ’40s are full of ridiculous racial stereotypes — especially the “yellow menace” of World War II. Neo-pulp writers are myopic to replace them with other races. “Evil races” have never proved accurate. From a technical standpoint, they debase the story. There are plenty of pulps I like when I look past the racism of their day. I’d rather say, “there are plenty of pulps I like” without having to perform a hermeneutic interpretation and add a qualifier.
So you want to write a neo-pulp and see where it takes you? There’s never been a better time to do it, or a better excuse to self-publish a few shorts on Amazon. After all, you’re doing this for practice, not to make money or rack up sales figures. You’re unlikely to end up with either, and that’s okay.
Here are ideas to get you into a pulp frame of mind.
- Plan to write three 6,000-word pulps over six months. This will get you into the rhythm of pulpeteering.
- Download Lester Dent’s pulp style guide. It will teach you how to write a 6,000-word pulp.
- For a twist, use a random title generator and, like Val Lewton, prepare a story based on it.
- Now: Outline. Spend one hour outlining by plugging ideas into a formula. It makes writing 6,000 words easy. You know where you’re going, what you’re doing every step of the way, and where it ends. This is critical when time is money. You are not writing as a meditative practice. Keep a close eye on the word count as you write and adhere to it.
- Don’t revise until you’ve written the whole story.
- Now that it’s written, kill one of your darlings. Is your hero a chubby woman? Make her thin. Is he gay? Straightwash him. Pretend you have a horrible, cigar-smoking editor in a blue suit that’s making you do it before Sunday’s deadline. Why? Because being able to give up your favorite ideas to put a story on shelves takes practice, and it could well happen to you in the future.
- In this exercise, don’t hire an editor — you’ll never earn back the money you spend. Run your work through Pro Writing Aid or a similar computer editor to catch major flaws and let the rest of the flaws go. You won’t need developmental editing if you stick to the formula.
- Slap a Canva cover on it, vomit it onto Smashwords or Kindle Direct Press. Price it at $0.99 and write the next one.
What will happen at the end of three pulps? You’ll find yourself better able to write fast, forgo noble ideas, ignore critics and accept bad sales numbers. Those are all important to any writing career as you forge ahead to the next book or story.