What Writing Pulp Fiction Taught Me About the Craft
Writing pulp fiction for the young adult crowd left little time to worry about pleasing critics and made me a better, faster writer.
A few years back, before publisher Rot Gut Pulp took another direction, I spent two months writing pulp fiction. The experience was everything I wanted it to be.
My editor, Curt Sembello, was a drunkard with a cabin in Southeast Asia who forgot about the time difference and called me in the dark hours of the morning in fits of pique. He fired me thrice, fought with his staff on Twitter, and broke his arm trying to have sex in a hammock.
“More young adult pulp! It sells!” he cried, 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 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 writing differs from other short story writing. The reason is baked into the history of pulp fiction. 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 goodbye to intellectual property puts a pulpeteer in a different headspace than a novelist.
A writer should aim at the pulps first, then go to the slicks. It is easier to learn the fundamentals in writing for the pulps, and when you know these you won’t run dry after a flare. You get the bones and intestines of the profession in the pulps, the rouge you put on later. In the pulps you tell how it is done, and in the slicks you tell why. ”
-Albert Richard Wetjen
Nobody designed pulps 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 drills the teeth of the guy ahead of you.
Pulp is ephemeral. Pulp writers are not writing stories for posterity. There’s no expectation that people will read it one month after it’s published.
Pulp Helps Writers Let Go
It’s common for editors and agents to tell budding novelists their work needs structural and developmental change or doesn’t connect with them. After years of writing, this prospect can be so heartbreaking, writers are afraid to surrender 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 could not halt publication to call my editor over a sentence I wanted to change. I never saw 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 adverbs as long as the story clips along and entertains them. So, for the writer, 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.”
- Sometimes I churned out something great. Other times, it was lousy. If that were not the case for novelists, they might claim high ground over the pulps. Not so. If people hate it, find it offensive, 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 outrage from the high priests of social media. 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.
- BUT ONE CAVEAT: modern pulp fiction should dispense with the overt racism of its forebears. 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 use 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’s How to Write Pulp Fiction
- Plan to write three 6,000-word pulps over six months. This will get you into the rhythm of pulpeteering.
- Download The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot to understand pulp story structure. This pulp fiction template will teach you how to become a pulp fiction writer by writing 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 by design? 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 a piece of your soul 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.
Writing pulp fiction is fun and easy. What will happen at the end of three works of pulp fiction? 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.
CT Liotta is author of three pulps: Relic of the Damned!, Death in the City of Dreams, and Treason on the Barbary Coast! all available here for $0.99 from Amazon Kindle.
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