Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 6

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2017

Now we are set to dive into outlining and writing at least a 6000 word story. If you have been following this article series from the beginning, then you’ve covered the foundations and may be ready to get cracking at drawing up an outline or just jumping into writing the thing. Today, we’re delving into the details of Lester Dent’s “Master Plot” formula / structure. Dent, better known as Kenneth Robeson and author of the Doc Savage novels, was an extremely prolific writer. For many years, he wrote a novel every month for Doc Savage magazine, averaging about 60,000 words each. The guy was a pulp machine. There are worse authors to emulate.

Yesterday, we talked about general advice that he filled in during the discussion of his “Master Plot” formula. This time, we’re talking about the specifics of what goes into each quarter. There’s plenty of room for variation here, particularly as he was addressing crime and adventure stories, but the core of it provides room for infinite stories. Now, some of this is my own interpretation, colored by discussions with writers who use this structure. So be sure and go back to the Dent’s original and see if you get other ideas of where to go with it.

The First Quarter

  1. Start out with a compelling hook. We talked about that yesterday.
  2. Introduce all principal characters
    In a short story, there are probably just three characters… the main character, the villain, and the sidekick / romantic interest. The villain may not be directly introduced at this point yet, but their presence should be felt!
  3. The Hero tries to solve the problem.
    Depending on the size of the story, the main character’s problem isn’t directly related to the main storyline. But the character’s efforts to resolve it should lead them on a collision course with the villain and the main plot. For example, the hero may have a problem with his space ship’s engines, and needs to pull in for repair. But in order to get the parts, he gets involved with some shady characters at the starbase… you get the idea.Another critical part here is that the main character should be a person of action. They shouldn’t be “pondering” … they should be acting (or reacting) to their problem.
  4. Hint at the major conflict
    While the initial problem might not be the main conflict, the bigger issue should be introduced in this first quarter, at least in part.
  5. The Hero’s efforts lead to a direct physical conflict (or action sequence)
    In a good pulp story, the end of this quarter will end in an action sequence… and the hero will have been directly responsible for either causing it or being caught up in it.
  6. PLOT TWIST at the end of this quarter
    This is the big reveal that the hero’s efforts are not going to go smoothly, and there are bigger issues afoot. Or the character’s failure to solve the problem may have made things worse. Whatever the case, the main character was going in one direction before now, and will have to veer off-course from here on out to deal with higher stakes.

The Second Quarter

  1. ESCALATION!
    The second quarter is where everything gets bigger, the risks grow larger, the danger more intense, and the threat becomes bigger than it seems.
  2. The Mystery Grows
    The mystery grows even as the bigger plot (and greater stakes) begin to be revealed. Pieces of the villain’s plan may revealed here, but each answer at this point should create one or two new questions.
  3. The hero should seem in over his or her head.
    The hero is clearly out of his or her league here, but it doesn’t matter. This person is a hero! They take action anyway! Which means, of course…
  4. Quarter Finishes up with another Conflict / Action Scene!
    This should be a big one, possibly even overshadowing the one at the end of quarter 3 (but not the climax).
  5. End with Another SURPRISE TWIST!
    For best results, this should be a significant reversal where the hero discovers they were going about nearly everything all wrong, but this big reveal finally gives them a real direction to go on the offensive.

The Third Quarter

  1. Escalate, Escalate, Escalate!
    Yeah, that escalation from quarter 2? Double it. The hero is facing bigger peril than ever. Crap is getting real!
  2. The Hero makes some (apparent) real headway!
    Yes, the main character finally has a real plan and just has to face some impossible odds to make it happen. And it looks like it’s all going to work! We’re kicking butt here!
  3. End with a big action scene!
    This is almost always a full-on physical conflict here, even in more cerebral pulp stories. In fact, it could almost be the climactic final battle right here… except… something is not quite right.
  4. PLOT TWIST – Apparent Failure / Loss Failure.
    The plot twist here is that the hero seems to lose, or suffers a setback from which there is no apparent recovery. Something like: This wasn’t just a failure, but dismal, royally messed up, woulda-been-better-off-not-even-trying failure. This might be a failure snatched from the jaws of victory. Maybe the hero’s Big Solution was the villain’s plan all along. The emperor knew about the attack on the shield generator down on the moon, is capturing all the allies, and oh, the Death Star is fully operational!
  5. The fourth quarter ends with the main character in a miserable place.
    In fact, you could probably end the story here for a really nasty downer of a story here. Theme: Don’t even try.

The Fourth Quarter

  1. Opens with the hero in in deep doo-doo.
    He’s been framed for the murder he was trying to solve. She put her faith in her best friend who then betrayed her. It’s really looking like it’s curtains for our protagonist. EXCEPT…
  2. The hero makes one last-ditch effort, which succeeds!
    This must be through the protagonist’s OWN EFFORT! They have to rescue themselves and turn the tables on the villain. Now you can have a new climactic action scene, or this can be the continuation of the conflict at the end of quarter 3, with the hero proving to be not quite down-and-out. But even though this story may be a team effort and the other allies are playing key roles to assist, the final battle needs to be in the hands of the main character. This was her story, all along.
  3. Mystery solved, villain is vanquished
    Somewhere along the line in this quarter, the last of the Big Questions propelling the mystery have to be answered. The villain must be resoundingly defeated. Even if the main villain gets away, he must be leave the scene in shame with his plans thwarted (like Darth Vader escaping alone when the Death Star was destroyed). Maybe there’s a loose thread or too left open for sequels, but otherwise… make sure the reader feels satisfied and rewarded.
  4. BUT… THERE IS A SURPRISE TWIST AT THE END!
    We’re not done with plot twists, yet. Maybe the villain not as expected (“It’s Mr. Withers, owner of the amusement park!”). Maybe the treasure is kind of a dud. Things should be satisfying, but it’s not quite a “pat” ending, at least not fully expected. There’s always a catch.
  5. A “snapper” at the end.
    This might be a third-party validation (“He’s dead, Jim”), a punchline, or something else that gives the reader a warm fuzzy feeling that yes, indeed, the story is done and the end was satisfactory, and everyone’s moving on. The original Star Trek series was kind of notorious about this at the end of every episode. Ending with a lame joke may be a bit dated, but this is still a key part of the resolution. You need some voice of authority to confirm that the show is over, and it’s time to go home. Whew!

Summing It All Up, and What Comes Next

Whew! Six articles in, now we’ve covered pretty much all you need to know about writing a pulp short story. After all this, you may be thinking that this is a ton to keep track of… and you wouldn’t wrong. Like everything else, it comes down to practice. Lots of practice. Fortunately, there’s the whole “fun” part of the title. This stuff is fun to write. That makes practice enjoyable.

So what comes next? Next time I will talk specifically about creating long-form stories… novel and novella-length stories and the tricks to doing it. And now that you are writing pulp stories and having so much fun at it, maybe you’d like to sell them, too? I’ll be talking about the tricks to selling pulp stories now that the age of the pulp magazine is long over.

After that, we’ll finish up with some additional words of advice from the pulp writers and editors of the era. While the language and markets may be a bit dated, the advice is timeless.

So… go forth and pulp it up!


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment



How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 5

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2017

Okay. To sum things up so far: We talked about what pulp fiction really was during its day, what people talk about when they are discussing contemporary pulp, a little bit about Lester Dent’s formula and brainstorming, and developing pulp-style plots and characters. That’s a lot of info. Now we’re going to drill down a little deeper into Lester Dent’s advice and story structure.

Lester Dent Story Structure

If you aren’t familiar with story structure… well, it’s a huge topic, but the gist is that a story that fills a conventional structure is considered “well-formed” and feels “right” to most readers. Most readers aren’t aware of it. Many writers create well-structured stories without even being aware of it, instinctively going with what “feels right.” If a reader is diving into a story and the structure feels off… they often won’t complete it. It will feel confusing and unless they already like and trust the author, they’ll likely put the book down and never pick it up again.

You can kind of look at it like sentence structure. Those of us from an older generation in the U.S. can remember diagramming sentences. It’s kind of the same thing. Take this sentence: “When he got to the concert, he discovered he had left his tickets at home on the coffee table.” I can actually rephrase the sentence in structured ways, perhaps with a couple of word substitutions, and it still works. But if I throw the words together in a jumbled way, it is very hard to parse any meaning out of it: “To discovered on the coffee had home when got table the on he he he tickets at left concert his.”

Story structure works the same way. There are several structures, and they don’t all work equally well for every story, and sometimes they need to be tweaked (or maybe even ignored entirely). Many authors have their own variations, as do cultures. In the end, a good structure can be a valuable tool for building or analyzing a plot, and helping you figure out what’s wrong, yet remains loose enough that it allows infinite variety without feeling too “formulaic.”

Lester Dent’s “Master Plot” is an early version of story structure, which he himself admitted wasn’t appropriate for all kinds of stories. It’s a fairly broad, generalized structure, which means it actually nearly inside some other structures, like the 5-act story structure, 7-point plot, Save the Cat, etc. I have added my own variations and looser interpretations of areas, but I find it works pretty well. As originally stated, it’s intended for short stories of around 6000 words, but I know authors who have used it for everything from larger flash stories to novels well over 100k words in length.

Lester Dent breaks stories into four quarters. Ideally, you should have a good idea of your story length to begin with. Literally quarter that up. If it’s a 6000 word story, then you have four quarters of approximately 1500 words each. If it’s a 1000-word flash piece, your quarters will be 250 words each, and a 60,000-word novel will have 15,000 word quarters.

“But Jay, how do I know how long my story should be?” Practice, really, but then the quarters also provide you with a handy roadmap. If you are shooting for a 5000 word short story and you find your first quarter is going way over 1250 words, then you’ve got a pretty good clue that you need to either 1) pare down your concept a bit, or 2) you are taking way too long to get to the point of the story. It’s nice to know either of those earlier rather than later. After a little bit of experience, it’s easier, and you can also get a feel for things even earlier, and know halfway through the quarter when you need to tighten things up or if you have some breathing room.

At the end of each quarter except the last one, your hero should be in a heap of trouble… worse than the trouble he or she was in at the end of the last quarter, or at the beginning of the story. Here’s a little tip: If you can’t figure out how your hero is going to get out of the problem you’ve put them in, chances are your readers won’t either. However, you have the advantage of retroactively giving them the one key or trick they need to escape in an earlier part of the story. 🙂

Lester Dent’s Checklist for Every Quarter

In Lester Dent’s formula, he repeats very similar versions of the same advice for every quarter. This isn’t too dissimilar from any modern writing advice, although it’s definitely pulp-centric. To quote Dent:

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

Think of this as your are writing, and as you go back for edits / rewrites.

  1. Should have Menace (Peril).
    Ramp up the pressure in every quarter. Is there menace to the hero? Does it grow like a black cloud in quarter 2? Is it getting even blacker in quarter 3? Has it held out to the very last moment in quarter 4? Make sure the reader feels like the hero is in peril, and both the danger and the stakes just keep getting bigger as the story unfolds.
  2. Have Suspense (Mystery).
    Introduce questions in the reader’s mind from the outset, and the mysteries grow bigger even as some are solved as the story progresses. Finally, somewhere around the climax (sometimes the resolution) in the fourth quarter, the last big questions are revealed.
  3. Add minor twists and unexpected surprises
    About once per page (every 500-750 words or so, pulp magazine style), add something that plays with the reader’s expectations. This encourages them to wake up and keep paying attention. He suggests being “gently misleading.” This is kind of like the horror movie trope where the cat jumps out and surprises the frightened hero or heroine (and the viewer). Except… don’t do that. It’s so overused it has become trite. Anyway, the point is, this isn’t a major plot twist (although I think the major twist at the end of the quarter counts towards this quota!), its more of the occasional plot curve-ball to keep things interesting.
  4. Show, don’t tell.
    This is basic advice for all fiction writers. I’ll just repeat Dent’s words here: “DON’T TELL ABOUT IT! Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.
  5. Use multiple senses
    Another piece of basic writing advice that I screw up as much as everyone. Dent mentions it in passing, but comments on using all the senses to build atmosphere… and to remember descriptions of the surroundings. Your job may not be so much of painting a picture with your words, as using those words to engage the readers’ imaginations so they can paint their own pictures… and have it match the action.
  6. Each action scene/conflict should be different.
    Dent calls for physical action in every quarter, which might not be appropriate for every genre, even in pulp. However, SOME physical action is likely desirable for in almost every story… engaging that kinematic sense, and it may be a race to the airport in a romance, or a non-life-threatening physical test or something.  Anyway, when you have multiple action scenes, keep them varied and distinct from each other. Dent says, “These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once. The idea is to avoid monotony.
  7. Economy of words.
    Or as he says, “The secret all all writing is to make every word count!” Each scene should develop character and/or advance the plot. If it isn’t, it should be revised or removed. Keep your writing tight, especially in pulp stories.
  8. Proceed logically!
    Dent reiterates this several times, without much explanation about the alternative. I’ve seen articles by pulp editors demanding the same thing. My take is that you don’t want to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Don’t have ninjas appearing out of nowhere for no other reason than it is time for another action scene. Justify it. Make sure everything has an explanation, even if it isn’t spelled out to the reader.
  9. Keep the action flowing
    BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS,” Dent says. My take is a little different. I feel you absolutely need to pace things and have some breathers between the action scenes to avoid reader fatigue and allow emotions to find a base, especially in a longer story. Just remember that this is a pulp story. It’s action-oriented.

The HOOK!

I’m saving the quarter-by-quarter breakdown for the next post, but the very first part of the very first quarter is important enough to warrant its own section. I’m talking about the hook. You can find tons of advice on writing a good hook on the Internet and in books on writing. The hook is that whole “economy of words” on steroids. There’s a school of thought about “In Medias Res” – that you should start with action. This may not be the best advice out there, because starting with a gunfight or an explosion is pretty meaningless to a reader. Is the explosion good or bad? What does it impact? Why should they care?

Your goal with the hook is to intrigue the reader to get them reading the rest of the page… probably 2-3 paragraphs. The goal with the first page is to get them to read the first scene or two… probably the first chapter in a novel, or the first quarter of a 6,000 word story. And from there, your goal will be to get them to read the whole story. So focus on that very first sentence, and that very first paragraph.

Dent distills it down to this:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.

Dent mentions three things here:  The protagonist (the hero), the protagonist’s immediate problem, and the hint of a mystery or menace that the hero is getting set on a collision course with. I’d suggest here that setting is also critical within the first paragraph, probably by the second sentence, so the reader is rooted in the story. Mood should also be established early on.

That’s a lot of work for the first couple of sentences! With a novel-sized work, there’s a bit more room to work with, but the opening hook still has to be there.

Next Time

Next time, we’re going to drill down into what Dent suggests happening in every single quarter.


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: Read the First Comment



How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 4

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2017

Hopefully you’ve brainstormed some cool ideas for your pulp adventure, and you are ready to commit it to paper! Now, whether you are a heavy plotter / planner, or write by the seat of your pants, you’ll need a good jumping-off point and you’ll probably want some kind of idea of where you are going.

Now, sometimes writers start with a cool character concept or two, and think up a plot to match the character. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s usually some honing and adjusting to make sure the two are a good fit for each other. This applies to your hero, your POV character (they might not be the same), and your villain.

Anyway, I usually start with a plot idea, so I’ll start with that here:

Plots that Punch!

We’ll invoke Uncle Lester for this. We’re going to be following a pretty familiar structure here, and we can’t be just another genre story. We have to fill it with surprises and unusual elements that will intrigue and excite the reader. Here’s what Dent calls for:

1. “A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE”

On the surface, this sounds pretty specific for a crime story, but let’s look at the broader concept. What he’s really calling for is an unusual challenge and mystery right at the outset. A strange murder is a wonderful way to begin, but it’s not the only way. We want a mystery here that makes the reader say, “Woah, that’s weird. What the heck is going on here?”

Of course, if that’s the key point here, the payoff for the reader is for you to explain it in some way, with something more than “yeah, that’s weird.” Maybe you can’t explain how, but you can explain why.  If the entire world experiences an earthquake all at once… well, maybe the “how” is a little far-fetched technobabble, but the reader should at least find our who is responsible and how things can be resolved.

Another variation: While the implication here is that the villain is responsible, that doesn’t need to be the case. The villain could be simply taking advantage of the situation. That’s an advanced twist, but be careful that you don’t skip the reader’s payoff entirely with this variation. If the entire planet is encased in a metal shell one morning, and the villain is taking advantage of the chaos, you still need to explain what the heck is going on before the end of the story.

2. “A DIFFERENT THING FOR THE VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING”

What is the villain’s goal? Make it weird and interesting! Even if the end motivation is something like “money” (ho-hum), the details or the way she’s going about it should be unusual. Remember the movie Die Hard? They are after money, pure and simple, but they misdirect both the authorities and the audience until the halfway point. And then the way they are obtaining that money is unusual and clever, with the bearer bonds and a plan to live on the interest in a place with no extradition agreement.

That’s pretty much how you do it. There are countless other examples. Again, the point is… engage the reader’s interest. What is the bad guy up to? WHY is he doing this? Why is he hunting down all of the Suck-Ems Brand Baby Pacifiers in the greater Chicago area?

3. “A DIFFERENT LOCALE”

Did you think of any exotic locations during your brainstorming? In a short story, you should have at least one exotic setting where you paint a picture in the reader’s head with your prose. That, or some seriously cool and unusual focal elements within the setting that draw the reader’s attention and makes them feel like they are on a voyage. In a novel, you may have more than one, and you’ll get to spend a lot more time there.

A rural setting may seem exotic to a city-dwelling reader, or vice versa, but you should have something truly unique about it to make it stand out. It shouldn’t be just any city… it should be a specific city, with lots of whatever makes it unique in the world. How “exotic” it is may be dependent on genre. A space station might be exotic in a spy thriller or a romance novel, but it’s pretty ho-hum in a science fiction novel. A generic “alien world” might not be that interesting in an SF novel either, but one with the weird properties of the worlds in the movie Interstellar, and suddenly its really interesting.

4. “A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO”

The hero is in trouble from page 1. Ideally paragraph 1. Give them a problem they have to solve which will (eventually) propel them into direct conflict with the villain. In a very short story, this menace might be directly related to the villain’s efforts. In a longer story, the menace may start out unrelated, but it sets a collision course, and it is going to increase as the story progresses.

5. BONUS – A Time Crunch

This isn’t from Lester Dent’s formula, but it’s a solid one from the likes of Michael Moorcock and many others… there should be some kind of time crunch. This provides a built-in ramping up of tension and the stress. Or as Moorcock states:

“Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”

You can do this several ways, either directly or implied. A literal deadline until a particular event–like an execution, an enemy attack, a bomb going off, whatever–works great! A direct race is another classic approach, when the hero and villain are in direct competition for the same prize. A hybrid between these two approaches is an indirect race, although it’s harder to handle well. This is kind of a “racing progress bars” kind of thing… the villain’s evil is growing and the hero has to stop it.

Mixing Plot and Character

The “Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett once explained:

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”

You’ve got two (and probably three) major characters to consider in most short stories. In a novel, you may have a few more. The key characters are:

The Hero: This is the protagonist, and I use “hero” to mean “heroine” just as easily. Ultimately, this is the one person who can make a difference. In pulp stories, this character is often larger than life! Ever notice how Indiana Jones never loses his hat? That’s the pulp hero.

The Villain: Also larger than life. Sometimes, the villain represents the the hero taken to a negative extreme, or they represent the reverse of the hero. The important thing is that the villain must be significantly more powerful than the hero. The villain could literally be bigger and stronger, or they can command greater resources, or they have all the money and good looks and popularity, or whatever. In a good story, the hero should be at a significant disadvantage against the villain from the get-go. In a pulp story, feel free to take that disadvantage way over-the-top, Bambi vs. Godzilla style.

The Ally / Sidekick / Love Interest: This is usually a more down-to-earth character that grounds and acts as a mirror for the hero. To quote Michael Moorcock again:

“There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on.”

Characters that Stick

So how do you make a good character for a pulp story? Especially in a short story, you don’t have a lot of time to introduce them to the reader. Some authors go to great lengths creating their characters and making sure that they fully understand them, their background, what their favorite brand of toothpaste is, etc. And that’s AWESOME… but for me, my characters often don’t appear to me fully formed. They reveal themselves to me as I write. But I have to start somewhere, and my job is to help make them “stick” in the mind of the reader (simultaneously making them “stick” and develop in my own mind).

Here are a few tricks from past and present writers to help make that happen.  I’m going to talk about tags, traits, names, and superpowers, and how you mix ’em up.

TAGS – Tags are something physical to make a character stand out and be immediately identifiable. They can be something noteworthy about the character, or maybe a prop they are always carrying around with them… something like that. It should be something unique for this story. It should also be something that is relevant to that character’s personality or role.

Use tags whenever a character appears for the first time in a scene. This acts as a shortcut for the reader to immediately think of that character and distinguish her from everyone else.

Examples: A silver-headed walking cane, a jagged scar across their lips, a “bronze giant” of a man, clammy hands, sensuous movements, inhumanly graceful.

TRAITS – I use this here to mean the characteristics that the character embodies – vices, virtues, and stuff in-between. This is the core of your character’s personality. Let your descriptions of these characters suggest these traits. Make sure there are opportunities for them to demonstrate these traits.

Examples: Honor, loyalty, compassion, ambition, avarice, lust, cheerfulness, cunning, laziness, bravery, cowardice, foolhardiness.

NAMES – Just what it says on the tin. A common rule of thumb is to pick names that begin with different letters and sound as different as possible, to help avoid reader confusion.

SUPERPOWERS – This may or may not be a literal super power, depending on genre. Instead, this is some specialty that this character does better than anyone else in this story. In Lester Dent’s earlier Doc Savage adventures, Savage surrounded himself by a cadre of individuals who were in the top of their field in one area, and usually extremely competent in at least one other skill besides (except Doc Savage himself).

Examples: Strength, fist-fighting, marksmanship, piloting, driving, lockpicking, figuring out puzzles, detective work, wealth, beauty, fame, law, running.

Now, for each of your important characters (usually those with a name), give them at least a tag, one (or more) traits, and if they actually play a plot role, a superpower. For a short story with one-off characters, you may only need a couple of traits for the hero and the villain. For novels, maybe a few more are in order.

Mixing and Matching Character Elements

The obvious approach is to make sure the tag, traits, and superpower all suggest each other and resonate well together. However, sometimes characters burst to life in my mind when these elements don’t naturally work together, as I discover the relationship between these apparently contradictory elements. How is a character who embodies honesty an expert at picking locks?

A hero will often have a  dominant positive trait, and a less powerful negative trait. The story will hinge upon them overcoming their negative trait to win the day.

Alternately, give the hero two positive traits, and bring those into conflict. For example, the hero’s traits may be Loyalty and Compassion. Will he choose to betray those who put their faith in him in order to save an innocent life?

A villain with a dominant negative trait plus a positive trait makes for an interesting character. The positive trait gives them some humanity and a bit of sympathy from the reader. Yes, they are still a villain and must be stopped, but they are now two-dimensional.

Another interesting trick is that most positive traits, if taken to the extreme, can turn into negative traits. Love can turn to obsession, ambition into greed, etc. A villain with a negative trait that represents an extreme version of the hero’s positive trait can make for an extremely compelling story.

Putting it all together

Okay, at this point, you should have the core elements of a plot picked out, a bunch of cool ideas that might make it into the story, and your key characters defined well enough to begin outlining or writing. At this point, your brain is probably coming up with all kinds of interesting connections and relationships between all of these, because that’s how the human brain works. We want to find patterns and relationships. So do your readers.

What’s missing at this point is STRUCTURE. That’s what the next two parts of this series will be discussing.


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 3

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 22, 2017

We’ve now talked about the real history of the pulps, and what “contemporary pulp” means. I’ll assume here that this sounds awesome to you, and you want to write stories like this. At this point, if you are a veteran storyteller, you’ve got all you really need. But if you want some additional nuts-and-bolts tips from veteran pulp writers (subject to contemporary interpretation), read on!

Now we get to the meat of things. If you are a beginner, a lot of this may be eye opening and can really help your writing. Hopefully you are already used to drinking from the firehose of information. For more experienced writers, I hope you’ll find plenty of bits you can incorporate to help you tell a more pulp-ish story, as well as a lens that can help you tighten up your work.

How to Use This Stuff

I’ve picked these up from several sources, but primarily Lester Dent and Michael Moorcock. I consider this a set of tools for the ol’ writing toolbox, all calibrated for telling pulp-style stories and writing relatively quickly. The big pulp writers of the  era all had enormous throughput, after all. Heavyweight tools would not be appropriate.

None of this is a replacement for craft. You’ve still got to put in your time and your practice. However, if you are new to things like story structure, this will help you put together a “well-formed story” that meets reader expectations and leaves them feeling satisfied.  It will give you a checklist of things to include, and tricks to employ to improve your tale. This is not a “Mad Libs” fill-in-the-blank formula. This is a set of tools, and you still have to learn to use them.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, and nothing here should be considered set in stone.  I can’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but I’ve had fun learning to use it so far, and it’s really helped me. And it’s fun. Remember the “fun” part? Pulp should be fun.

The Cardinal Rule and the Rule of Cool

There is one cardinal rule of pulp (and really, all fiction writing). Gunny Highway in the movie “Heartbreak Ridge” says it best:

The flip side of the “never bore the reader”  rule is the Rule of Cool: if you make it awesome and exciting enough, your readers may be more forgiving when you screw up. If you’ve never really been bugged by the an ancient temple in the 1930s having photo-sensitive technology capable of detecting a break in the beam of light, or wondered how the hell Indiana Jones managed to hide on a German U-Boat through an entire trip up the Mediterranean Sea… or if that did bug you but you loved Raiders of the Lost Ark anyway… then that’s the Rule of Cool in action.

You can’t really force the Rule of Cool on the reader – it’s subjective. Just remember: This is pulp. It’s okay to go over-the-top. Keep it fun, keep it active, keep it exciting, and try and do the best you can. Harry Dresden riding zombie T-Rex Sue into battle can cover a multitude of sins.

The Master Plot Formula

I am going to be referencing the Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot a lot here.  Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson) was an extremely prolific and successful pulp writer, who by request put his “secrets” down on paper. Rather than print the whole article out here, I’m going to just link to it here:

Paper-Dragon.com: The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot

A more complete version (with a longer introduction) can be found here.

There. Now you know all my secrets. Go forth and pulp!

Well, okay. There’s a lot more that can be said about it.  Now, this formula is geared towards stories in the 6000 word range. I’ve talked to people who have said they’ve used it for flash fiction all the way up to novels well over 100k words. I’ve retroactively used it to analyze some of the better pulp stories of the past, and while there are plenty of variations, they follow pretty similar patterns. I expect most of these writers were NOT consciously applying Lester Dent’s formula (they probably didn’t even know it existed), but the patterns he identified were simply the elements of storytelling that worked on a universal level. He perhaps got a bit more specific than he had to, or missed a common element or two, but the core of it is simple, straightforward, and still works just as well today as it did in the 1920s.

Getting the Ball Rolling by Brainstorming

You can skip this part if you already have a good idea of what you are going to write. I haven’t always done this, but I’ve found that taking a few minutes beforehand and brainstorming really helps get the creative pump going, generates some great ideas, reduces my stress, and gets me really excited for the task ahead. This can work if you have no ideas at all, or if you already have some idea of what to write (maybe because the theme was dictated to you).

Brainstorm. Jot ideas on paper (or onto your screen). Dump concepts, props, tropes, conflict ideas or just cool stuff that support your key theme or mood. Action scenes. Snippets of dialog. Cool imagery. Ways to torture your protagonist. Weird word associations (“Luke Skywalker on a skateboard!”  “Your mummy wore combat boots”). Don’t self-edit.

You may not use these ideas for this story, but you can always save and use them for your next one. As you start solidifying your characters and your story (more on that in the next part), and as you do any research on some of these, you can add ideas to the list.

I’d recommend spending about 10-20 minutes just getting your cool ideas down. If you are like me, the first five minutes are probably not the most creative. As you keep going and throwing ideas around and writing them down, hopefully your brain will get the idea and start having fun with it. You may want to take more time to generate ideas for a novel. When you are done, mark some of the coolest ideas or the ones that work the best together. Turn this into a list. Later, if you do a little bit of research on some of these and learn cool details, you may have additional items to add to the list. None of this is written in stone, but it can be a crib sheet for you as you outline or write.

Michael Moorcock created lists of story elements and imagery when he was writing novels in three to five days. He said writers following his example should create, “…lists of things you’re going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: ‘Right, Stormbringer [a novel in the Elric series]: swords; shields; horns”, and so on.” He continued, “You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.”

Regardless, the pump should now be primed. You have some ideas, maybe a list of cool elements to potentially include in your story. Your brain is in a creative mood. Now it’s time to start nailing down the details, Lester Dent style.

Next Time

Next time, we’re going to talk about using Dent’s formula to come up with plot and character, as well as shortcuts for developing characters.


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment



How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 21, 2017

Last time, we discussed what pulp fiction really was. It’s not what many people assume it is. The very breadth of what came out during the pulp era could make it easy at this point to simply throw one’s hands in the air and say, “So pulp fiction is just genre fiction!” and be done with it. I don’t know that this is the wrong response.

But we’re going to engage in our own little fiction here and try to come up with our own ideas of what might differentiate the pulp fiction of that era from today’s genre fic. There’s always an attitude that the modern represents progress over the past, and I don’t know that the progress has really been that one-sided. There are some convincing arguments to the contrary, and I’m not going to go into those here. I’ll simply point to the success of some of the most pulpy science fiction movie series of the post-pulp era: Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy. Sometimes the way forward can only be found by taking a few steps back.

So if we assume there is a such thing as “modern pulp,” what would it mean?

Indie Publishing is the Pulp Era on Steroids

Every few years, there has been a push for some kind of “pulp revival.” As far as I can tell, these things have never really gone anywhere as a movement. Arguably, they haven’t really gone away, either. Traditionally, things peter out when the money and energy required to sustain it exceed the enthusiasm.

Fortunately, the “indie revolution” of the last few years have changed things. Not entirely… talking to publishers of recent pulp-style magazines, both money and enthusiasm are still absolutely required, but perhaps not to the crippling level they once were. Digital distribution is even cheaper than pulp paper. Typesetting is much easier with modern tools. Print-on-demand eliminates costly speculative print runs.

The pulps were all about bringing stories to the masses as cheaply as possible. Today, we’re living in the pulp era on steroids. Anyone who thinks it would have been cool to be a pulp writer back in the day should rejoice at the opportunities right now. We’ve got it better now than the pulpists could have imagined.

Welcome to the world of new pulp. But what does that mean?

Pulp Fiction – Pulp = ???

So now that printing cheap magazines on acidic, cheap pulp paper is no longer a thing, what do we mean by “modern pulp fiction?”

If you ask five different fans what “modern pulp” means, you’ll probably get at least six answers. They all look back on the pulp-era stories, compare them to today’s offerings, and come up with different differentiating factors (besides the obvious language and time frame differences). You’ve got a spectrum from that reaction I mentioned at top that it’s just “modern genre fiction,” to pastiche stories that could have existed side-by-side with actual pulps of the era, to literal sequels or new stories of the pulp heroes, to ultra-kitschy homage / parodies, to embracing certain aspects or trends from the pulp era, to rejecting and subverting certain aspects of pulp stories of the era.

My best advice is to come up with your own ideas by reading the actual stories. Too often, I fear the ideas of what pulp was are based more upon magazine covers, movie posters, and imagination than actual pulp stories.  But even so, every author, every editor, every magazine, and every decade adds their own ‘special sauce’ to the formula. What do Raymond Chandler and H. P. Lovecraft have in common?

Still, those embracing the pulp revival / revolution / new pulp / etc. have their own ideas for what makes pulp fiction tick in comparison to modern fiction. You can look at the general trends and tropes and say, “This was a really common feature back then, but then it became rare.” Some groups have picked out just a handful of very specific elements, while others go for a more general aesthetic for modern stories. The latter is much harder to pin down, but I prefer it as it offers a broader scope.

I’ll quote P. Alexander, editor of Hugo-nominated Cirsova Magazine, here, in regards to the “Pulp Revolution” or #PulpRev, as he described (as opposed to defined) it:

We are not using the pulps to recapture kitsch; we are not using the pulps as a trope-mine. What we are doing is going back to some of the exemplary authors from that period and using them as a starting point. Not to ape them, but because we love them – we love the stories they told, the characters they brought to life, and the vivid colors in which they painted the exciting futures and worlds of the unknown.

We are not hell bent on re-inhabiting the past; we are using it as a launching point to go off in new directions. We do not ignore nor do we deny the influence of writers who are not from the pulp eras.

“New Pulp” publisher Pro Se Productions states:

New Pulp is fiction written with the same sensibilities, beats of storytelling, patterns of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original Pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists, and publishers. New stories with either completely original characters or new tales of established characters from Pulp past.

Misha Burnett has posted some notes on a “Pulp Revival Manifesto” citing his own view of what creates the “pulp aesthetic” for modern works:

There are some characteristics that everyone who uses the term (and it seems to be gaining ground day by day) seems to agree on: action-oriented storytelling, protagonists with a clear moral compass, an element of romance in both the classical sense of decisive action as well as the modern sense of interpersonal passion, and an unapologetic view of violence as the proper tool for overcoming evil.

Or I’ll just let best-selling novelist Larry Correia describe himself:

I’m proud to be a pulp writer. I don’t write books with themes or hidden meanings. A gun is a gun and werewolves are not a symbol of feminist liberation. Most normal writers are in the same boat. We don’t have literati pretensions of smug superiority. We write to get paid, and the more entertaining we are, the more we get paid.

It is my feeling that while there are variations (and plenty of arguments) between different schools of thoughts, they are not generally incompatible. We can argue over the exact mix of chocolate-vs.-peanut-butter, but in the end, we all still get some wonderful chocolate-peanut-butter goodness.

Pulp Characteristics

Personally, I lean towards more modern storytelling that adopts the pulp aesthetic. These are my own ideas of what makes a modern “pulp” story, but I’ve borrowed much of it from others (including those quoted above) who have tried to characterize the pulp aesthetic in modern stories:

  • Action-Oriented Storytelling: Even going back to some of the more cerebral and character-driven pulp stories, there is still a significant emphasis on external action. Chases, survival, sneaking, fight scenes, disasters, deadly traps, escapes… these are part of almost all pulp stories, classic and modern.
  • Exploration / Lurid Spectacle: Pulp often takes place in exotic locations with unique situations, described in vivid detail by the authors. A pulp story should transport the reader to a place out of the ordinary.
  • Passionate, Decisive Heroes: Pulp heroes usually have a clear sense of right and wrong, and should be people (or creatures) of  action. They don’t waste much time navel-gazing. They aren’t passive. While they might (and often should) experience self-doubt, ultimately the actions that match their ethical worldview prove to be the right ones. Note that these might not be in line with the author’s or reader’s worldview. Conan’s code of ethics is entirely alien to mine, but I love reading about him because he doesn’t fart around. When the time comes to act, he explodes with primal, uncompromising (and usually violent) activity.
  • Emphasis on Entertainment and Solid Plotting: The primary goal of a pulp story is to entertain. The plot should be logical, and for its many twists and bends should still be clear and logical to the reader. While there may be messages buried inside a pulp story, they are completely secondary to the necessity of it being a rousing yarn.
  • Optimistic Worldview: Contrary to some uninformed yet strangely popular beliefs, the settings in pulp stories were not usually rosy and optimistic places. Certainly not Utopian, with rare exceptions. Most of the time, they were either analogous to our own world, full of good and evil, or they were oppressive and / or dangerous worlds. However, the worldview of the story itself (though perhaps not the main character) was generally optimistic. The good and the light prevails, love conquers all, and evil eventually gets its comeuppance. H.P. Lovecraft is not available for comment on this one.
  • Uses Style, Structures, & Methodology of the Pulp Era: This is my catch-all dodge. But if a story is written as a straight-up implementation of the Lester Dent formula, it’s hard to argue that it can’t count as “pulpy.”

For modern examples of pulp-style heroes, think of comic-book superheroes, Indiana Jones, or the main characters from the original Star Wars trilogy. Now, hopefully obviously, stories don’t necessarily have to exemplify every single one of these characteristics to qualify as “pulp.” And some writers whose stories nail all of these characteristics might be aghast if you called their stories “pulp.” Pity. But if you are looking to write something pulpy, this list might be a decent jumping-off point.

But especially now in the era of indie publishing, there are no “pulp police” in authority to state what is and isn’t pulp. It’s up to you, your editors / publishers, and your readers. Personally, I like variety.

What’s the Big Deal?

The classic pulpists learned their trade the hard way, in a highly competitive environment. The industry changed in the 1950s and kept changing, and some of their hard-won lessons were at least partly forgotten. Now that ecosystem has changed again. Bottom line–what worked then still works today. The details and technology may have changed, but a good story is still a good story. And the “secret of success” for the master pulpsters are still valid today, especially in the indie field. But if you look at some of the top-selling authors (even in the romance field)… they tend to follow the Lester Dent formula. Arguably, they write pulp. And they write a lot of it.

Going to more specifics… after the pulp era, science fiction suffered a decline in readership, to the point where it has become something of a niche. There are lots of arguments over the whys and hows of it, but as I implied in the intro, the success of big-ticket SF movies suggests there’s a hungry potential audience out there, but the industry is catering to only a tiny niche. I have nothing against serving a niche, mind you, but I think a huge potential is out there to grow the science fiction audience, and the potential is named PULP.

Another suggestion: Boys are giving up on reading at a higher rate today than in the past. Why? That’s a subject of a great deal of debate, but about ten years ago there was a major anomaly that shook things up… Harry Potter. More boys read it than girls, and boys reported that they’d never read books for fun before UNTIL Harry Potter. Why? Maybe because of those magic words: “For fun.” Maybe we need more fun literature geared for boys and young men. Pulp can help fill that bill.

Was Harry Potter pulp? I never thought of it that way, but hey… you decide. And also, how do we help kids FIND the fun stories that they’ll enjoy reading? That’s a whole ‘nother story, and I really don’t know how that one ends.

I think the time is ripe for pulp to make a comeback… although one could argue it already has. It doesn’t matter to me either way. My bottom line is that I want to create the kind of stories that inspired me, and continue to inspire me now. Go pulp!

Next Time

Now we’ve discussed what pulp is, and what it can mean in the modern world. Next time, we’ll go over expectations, preparations, and some basic concepts.


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 4 Comments to Read



How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 20, 2017

Some folks have asked that I post my notes from the presentations I’ve done on writing pulp fiction. Now, I don’t pretend to be the expert on the subject. That’s why I grab a veteran modern-pulpist partner on these things… I figure between the two of us we might be able answer most questions.

My plan with this series is to introduce you to pulp and suggest a couple of ways to approach writing it, derived from advice from classic and modern “pulp writers.” The idea is that you’ll understand what it was (and even more importantly, what it wasn’t), develop some ideas about what “modern pulp” means, how to write it, and how to sell it.

Today, I want to talk about the pulp era, which pretty much ran from the late 1890s through the 1950s, so we know about the origin of term and have some clues what it really means. But first, I’ll explain why I’m fascinated by ’em.

Introduction – Pulp and Me!

As far as my own love of pulp, I grew up reading it. I didn’t know what it was at the time… they were merely reprints in anthologies. I had no idea these SF & F classics had their origin in the pulps. But as much as I enjoyed Tolkien, my preferred fantasy was Robert E. Howard. I discovered paperbacks about someone named “Doc Savage” and ate them up. My first encounter with something resembling the “real pulps” was reading a friend’s magazine circa 1980 (I have no idea when the magazine was published). I thought it was a comic book at first, given the cover and the paper. However, it was a magazine of short fiction. The story I remember most clearly in that issue was a reprint of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider, which to this day remains my favorite Lovecraft story.

As I began putting real effort into improving my writing chops and submitting stories for publication, I struggled with the usual challenges of rejections and wondering what I was doing wrong. At some point,  I decided to go back to my own roots and my passion for story, which meant a healthy dose of the old pulps. Besides reading more of these old classics (and not-so-classics), I studied Dent’s methodology and advice from other writers of the era. I decided to try an experiment and see if Dent’s old formula still worked. I went all in, even using another old “plot generator” book (Plotto, by William Wallace Cook, published in 1928) to generate the central conflict.

It was a really fun experiment. But would it sell?

I sent the story in, and received an acceptance the following day. It probably spoiled me forever. But it also made me think “Hey, maybe these pulp writers really did know what we’re doing!” It also meant it wasn’t just me and my love of “vintage” SF & F…  while styles, language, and technology changes, a good story is still a good story. Since then, even if I’m not writing a straight-up “modern pulp” style of story, I still borrow liberally from the pulp bag o’ tricks. It works. It helps me write stronger stories.

I’m still far from being an expert, but I’m enjoying the learning process. I’ve had six stories published in about the last six months, and my first novel is currently in submission.  I’m making some money writing (enough to pay for me to attend some local conferences), and I’m enjoying the hell out of all of this. That’s success in my book.

So What Was Pulp?

Now that you’ve suffered through me talking about how the pulps influenced my tastes and my writing, let’s talk about what we really mean when we talk about “pulp.” There are a lot of other places that explain the history better than I will here. I recommend the Wikipedia Page, an article on the “Golden Age of Pulps,”  and the essay “So What Is Pulp Anyway?

But assuming you skipped all that, the short version is that the pulp magazines were an early version of mass-market fiction. The pulps were printed on very cheap paper made from wood pulp, resembling the kind of paper you’d find in comic books today. The paper was usually not even trimmed, so the bound pages were a little bit jagged. The covers were lurid, often action-oriented, and occasionally had little to do with the story they advertised. But they intrigued potential customers who wanted to know what was going on in the picture. And so… ta-da!

For fiction, the only other significant game in town were the “slicks,” higher-quality magazines that tended to cater to a more elite audience. Better Homes & Gardens, Vanity Fair, that kind of thing. They had a larger circulation than most pulps, and generally paid more, but their audience wasn’t into adventure fiction. While the occasional science fiction or “weird” piece might appear in their pages, it wasn’t their thing. That was the domain of the pulps… fiction for the working-class. They were cheap, they were plentiful, and they provided a wonderful escape from the day-to-day drudgery.

So… for genre fiction… it was largely the pulps or nothing. We didn’t have the kind of publishing marketplace like we have now, with mass-market paperbacks and so forth. The novels that were published were often reprints from the magazines, distributed for a short period of time, and then out of print forever. For a genre writer, the pulps were the market for fiction, with occasional opportunities with the slicks (but usually not with genre fiction).

As far as what the pulp stories were like… well, they were all over the board. You can point to some general trends that changed over time, what was more popular when, and some styles and aesthetics that were more popular than others in the approximately 60-year history of the magazines. But there aren’t many definitive characteristics you can pin on the stories that don’t have plenty of counterexamples.

The Pulp Writers

Some of the more famous pulp stories included: The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, The Long Goodbye, Red Harvest, Conan, Strangers on a Train, Cthulhu, and of course Doc Savage. Some of the more famous pulp authors include: Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Catherine L. Moore, Phillip K Dick, Raymond Chandler, Merriem Modell, Ray Bradbury, Seabury Quinn, and many others. MANY. I’m missing some big names on this list. Seriously, any of the authors of classic genre fiction during the early to mid 20th century were likely pulp authors.

The biggest and most successful pulp authors of the era were prolific, with a solid work ethic and a willingness to be flexible. The evidence suggests there’s a strong causal relationship there. The writers who could crank out stories of reasonable quality could sell to several different markets (sometimes under different pen names), and were paid by word count. Occasionally, they’d get new opportunities, one of the highest-paying being screenplays. But ultimately, it came down to skill and work ethic.

In my opinion, the boom in genre fiction and literature as a source of entertainment, combined with the fierce competition both between the magazines and for publication, really refined the quality of fiction during this time. A lot of the “rules” we take for granted today in writing … or maybe don’t fully understand… evolved during this era.

Myths of the Pulp Era

People use “pulp” as a derogatory term meaning low-quality fiction. But reading through the actual pulps… I personally disagree. We have a ton of classics that shaped their genres that came from the pulps. While I’ve read my share of bad stuff, there’s plenty of great stuff to be found in those pages (digitized… I don’t dare read the vintage pulps I own!). Yes, they may be out of style today, especially when they speak of the “distant future” of the 1990s. But as stories, they hold up just fine.

There’s a myth out there that the “pulp writers” graduated to better markets as their skills improved. From what I’ve been able to learn, that’s not really the case. The markets actually evolved… which sadly spelled death for the pulps in the long run, but rising media like television and comics were competing for the same entertainment niche and that death was perhaps inevitable. The top pulp writers were already positioned to take advantage of the new markets and opportunities.

People accuse the pulps of workmanlike prose lacking in literary language. To them, I say, read Raymond Chandler. It may not be poetic, but it’s brilliant and evocative as hell. He was far from the only one. Oh, and a lot of the pulps also published poetry. My feeling is that this complaint… where it holds any water at all… is really a complaint about the audience and what they wanted to read, and that the authors dared provide them what they wanted.

Then there’s the myth that the pulps were by men, for men (and boys). While there is some truth in that, there were pulps oriented more towards women, and there were plenty of successful and popular female writers in that era. As to the persistent myth that Catherine Moore used the penname C.L. Moore to disguise that she was a woman: That wasn’t pressure from the fans. That was external pressure. She had a respectable job during the Great Depression, and didn’t want her boss or coworkers to know she wrote science fiction, because that would be absolutely scandalous.

Learning More

Okay. So now when you hear someone use the term “pulp,” you know kinda-sorta what it means in the historical context. But even defining “pulp stories” as “those that appeared in the pulp magazines” is pretty broad. This is part of what makes comparing modern stories to the pulps so difficult. Everybody sees different things, and holds up different stories as their best examples of the pulp era.

To me, that’s actually pretty awesome. In a lot of ways, we’re actually talking about the whole origin of today’s “genre fiction.” To a degree, what we now think of as genre came out of the marketing efforts of the pulp magazines to differentiate themselves from each other.

The best way to get acquainted is through reading the actual pulp stories of the era. One of my favorite sites is the Pulp Magazine Archive. You can also find links at the Pulp Magazines Project. Paizo published several pulp collections a few years back. There are also several collections available on Amazon. I’ve picked up a few vintage magazines through E-Bay, which is good if you want an actual physical edition for your collection, but their age makes them very delicate, and probably not suitable for reading without special care.

When people go back and read the actual pulp stories, instead of just what other people think of the pulps, they are often surprised. Sometimes, they weren’t expecting the quality of some of the offerings, or maybe the style isn’t what they expected. But often, its just because there are some fantastic and engrossing stories that hold up well today, and yet have been all but completely forgotten.

Next Time

Next time, I will talk about the modern efforts to embrace the pulp style or aesthetic. What makes a modern “pulp story?”

 


Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 4 Comments to Read



Finally Played Multiplayer Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 15, 2017

I haven’t played Star Trek: Bridge Crew in over a week. With all the Fyrecon stuff and the late work nights, I just didn’t have time to devote to flying a mission. My minimal skills degraded, and I forgot a few things.

So naturally, I wanted to dive into the deep end and play multiplayer.

In spite of two n00bs, and one guy who sounded drunk, the mission was a resounding success. The player acting as captain had been playing a lot of the game over the last couple of weeks, and knew what he was doing. We actually managed to avoid combat entirely through stealth, which caused him to apologize to the player at tactical at the end of the mission.

I was at the helm, and it was pretty rough at first, because #1 – I’d only run the helm during the the tutorial and to try and save the mission from the AI helmsman’s terrible piloting, and #2 – I hadn’t played the game in a week and I’d forgotten some basic things like… you know… how to go to warp. Oops.

Fortunately, the game is designed so that your tasks are pretty straightforward. Doing your job isn’t hard. Doing it efficiently and well is a bigger challenge. And coordinating with three other players, in virtual reality, is where things really get interesting. Trying to keep your detection signature low while evading enemy ships is more of a challenge when the engineer suddenly gives your engines full power, and your quiet crawling pace at full speed suddenly shoots up… as does your “noise.”

Really, the multiplayer and the roles are exactly as I anticipated. It’s fun… some of the most fun I’ve had in a Virtual Reality game so far.  It’s a little funny how you have all this fancy Virtual Reality environment around you, and you spend most of your time staring at a control console.  However, VR gives your team a presence that’s pretty amazing. The other players seem to be in the room with you. I could turn around and see the captain in his chair. That’s where his voice appeared to be emanating. Joining the group in the ready room, I could turn to the person I am talking to and wave. I could point out something on the viewscreen.

I’ve never been a fan of force feedback. It always seemed artificial to me. But in VR, when my controls shuddered in my hands as the ship around me took damage from weird environmental effects, it seemed much more natural. It’s the difference between “here’s what’s happening on a screen” versus “here’s what’s happening to me.”

The teamwork requirement feels spot-on. The developers were worried that the Captain’s role would be superfluous, and took steps to address it. I think they nailed it. There’s definitely something to be said for the individual stations to anticipate orders and take initiative. But overall, someone in the Captain’s chair coordinating things, and having a by-design better picture of everything going on, really makes a huge difference. It’s very fun how everyone quickly settles into the roles.

So… I have plenty to look forward to. I can’t judge the game based on a single multiplayer experience, but my impressions so far remain very positive. I’d say Star Trek: Bridge Crew is one of the first “must play” games for VR.


Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Fyrecon After-Action Report

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 12, 2017

The first-ever Fyrecon took place this weekend, in Layton UT. As usual, I didn’t take pictures … partly because I forgot, and partly because my phone is literally out of space, even after I’ve removed every app except two tiny critical ones, after the last few Android updates). Technically I have room for about six or seven shots, so I have to send them to myself immediately and then delete them… anyway.  I’m making a short story long here.

The conference was three days long… although the first day was shorter than the rest. I’ll point out Scott Taylor’s review (with photos!), and add my own thoughts.

I attended two master classes… one by veteran best-selling author, teacher, and head judge of the Writers of the Future Contest David Farland (AKA David Wolverton), and another by Toni Weisskopf, publisher of Baen Books. When the opportunity comes to get some instruction from industry veterans of this caliber, I jumped on it. I wasn’t disappointed.

David Farland’s class was on the business of writing. He shared a bunch of success stories and cautionary tales, and provided tons of tips on how to structure finances, manage rights and revenue streams, and how to avoid some petty scary pitfalls in the business. His approach was rooted in his experience as a veteran of the traditional publishing industry, but he is also a fan of indie publishing. I came out of the class with several pages of notes, and a lot of stuff to think about more seriously than I had before.

Toni Weisskopf’s master class was much more about the craft of writing. She entitled it “What’s Missing?”, and much of the discussion was on storytelling, and what elements are missing or poorly done in many of the manuscripts she encounters. While little of it was new, she went into a lot of detail appropriate for an intermediate-level audience… which was most of us. When the Editor-in-Chief of a major SF/F publisher tells you about the kinds of things your peers keep getting wrong, it’s wise to take notes. I took plenty of them. Interestingly enough, she used David Farland’s recent article, Why You Only Got an Honorable Mention, as a guide for the first hour.

I participated on two panels: “The Future of Steampunk and Cyberpunk,” and “Why Writing and Art Contests are Important.” The Steampunk / Cyberpunk one was a lot of fun… I was the token cyberpunk author (although I’ve published more steampunk stories). Hey, I was into cyberpunk a long time before I got into steampunk! Dan Willis was the token mainstream author (although he’s published indie, too). It was largely just a chat between panelists and audience members, which worked great. One interesting point that Dan brought out was that as far as mainstream publishers are concerned, steampunk HAS no future… which is entirely to the benefit of the indies, who can profitably occupy that niche. I spoke a little bit about “Post-Cyberpunk”, which is kind of funny, since it’s kind of a deconstruction of cyberpunk, which itself was kind of a deconstruction of traditional science fiction, bringing us around full-circle… almost. Both still move away from the “change only one thing” trope of “hard” SF, which is far more believable in the modern world.

For the writing contest panel, David Farland naturally had a ton of advice, as he’s the head judge of the biggest SF/F contest in the world right now, and he got his career started by literally studying writing contests and training himself how to win them. I was kind of in the “just happy to be here” position as last year’s DragonComet 1st place winner, but I’d like to think I had a couple of contributions to the discussion.

I also taught a two-hour workshop entitled, “Writing Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit,” all about writing pulp-style fiction. Unfortunately, my partner in crime in this presentation, David West, had a family emergency and couldn’t be there. Bryce Beattie, editor of StoryHack, graciously offered to step in, and we had a small but very enthusiastic audience… including one author who could have taught the class herself. We turned it into an interactive group workshop and had a lot of fun.

Besides all this, I enjoyed a three-hour mini-storytelling festival, classes on author branding, uses of tropes, finding your voice, and the short story market. I got to network with a bunch of great authors and illustrators. As often happens, sometimes the most useful bits of advice and information come from informal chats.

Overall, it was a great conference. It was more geared towards professional development than Life, the Universe, and Everything… which is also an excellent conference.  Sadly, attendance wasn’t quite up to LtUE’s current levels… but LtUE has a good thirty+ years of growth to get to that point. I’d like to think both conferences can happily coexist and do well. I had a great time and learned a lot, so it was a total win for me.


Filed Under: Events - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Virtual Reality: Nope, I’m Still Not Jaded

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 9, 2017

I’ve picked up a few VR games via bundles lately, which means that now half the games in my VR library I haven’t played yet.  If it’s anything like the rest of my Steam library, I expect that trend to continue. That means there’s always something new for me to play. It might not be something GOOD, but at least it’s new, right? I may not have time for a full-on Star Trek: Bridge Crew mission or an in-depth adventure game in virtual reality, or a cargo run in Elite: Dangerous, but I can hop into a quick little action game.

And so I played a new game (Cargo Cult: Shoot ‘n Loot VR), and really… it’s about the equivalent of a mobile game. It’s spectacular only by the gaming standards of the previous century. But it’s in VR. And apparently, I am not yet jaded, because I still had lots of fun and went “woah!” a couple of times, all Neo-like.

As a non-VR game, it would be pretty pedestrian. And… yeah, to some degree, these mechanics are about like the Space Invaders / Galaxian games of the early 1980s. Different theme, different mechanics, a different “secret sauce,” but there are many games doing something similar… some better, some worse. But I still say “woah!” because I’m that kid in the arcade again encountering a new machine full of promises of a cool new experience.

And that’s why I think VR is a game-changer (oh, man, I feel slimy using that term). There have been several of those… the rise of internet gaming, mobile gaming, digital distribution becoming mainstream, etc. They don’t typically replace what’s come before, though. They may compete with what came before, but rarely replace it.

With VR–at least for me–everything old is new again, and it’s pretty dang cool. It can and will compete for the same gaming dollar. But the VR experience is far more fundamentally different from that of other games. Even playing the same game with VR enabled or disabled is a night-and-day difference. I don’t really see it replacing other game types.

But I’m digging the difference.


Filed Under: Virtual Reality - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Crafting VR Multiplayer in Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 6, 2017

I love cooperative multiplayer games. That said, I often avoid them, simply because I have such a weird schedule and got burned out trying to coordinate times with friends back when I was doing the MMO thing, and had too many bad experiences with pick-up groups. However, it still fascinates me. Especially as a game developer who can craft a virtual world that supports (or breaks) multiplayer interaction… how do you do it? I think a lot of us have played games (maybe a lot of games) where the game seemed to actively encourage you to play solo in a cooperative game… but with chat.

The folks who made Star Trek: Bridge Crew spent a lot of time trying to make the roles interdependent to force a level of cooperation. I don’t know how well it panned out yet (been a busy few days), but in theory it looks pretty cool.

Gamasutra: Fostering VR Teamwork in 4-Player Star Trek: Bridge Crew


Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment



Fyrecon Workshop: Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 5, 2017

David J. West and I are at it again–sharing how to write modern pulp-style stories! The workshop is part of Fyrecon, and is for beginning and intermediate writers.

We’ll cover:

What was pulp fiction?

What is modern “pulp-style” fiction?

Why write it?

How do you write it? (We’ll spend most of our time on this question!)

How do you sell it?

I know of at least two pulp-style magazines (StoryHack and Cirsova) that are or will be accepting submissions this month, so this is an awesome chance to jump-start your efforts and get submitting!

While we’ll be going a little more in-depth in some areas than the presentation we did at the LUW Spring Conference, this is a hands-on workshop. Come prepared to write / outline, with a laptop or a pad of paper or however you prefer to write. Our goal is to have you get started on a story this weekend you can finish and submit the following week.

We’ll also be covering how to apply these skills to novel-writing.  Because pulp is too awesome to be contained by a mere 6000 words!

WHAT IS FYRECON?   Fyrecon at Weber State University in Layton, Utah from Thursday, June 8th through Saturday, June 10th. Register here if you want to come and haven’t registered already!

WHEN AND WHERE IS THIS WORKSHOP?  “Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit” starts at 5:30 PM on Friday, June 9th, in room 306, Building D3.

At Fyrecon, you’ll find tons of workshops, panels, discussions, and classes covering writing, illustrating, filmmaking, even oral storytelling and more. There’ll be plenty of stuff for all skill levels. I look forward to seeing you there!

 


Filed Under: Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment



StoryHack Meets Funding Goal, and Cirsova #7 Open for Submissions

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 1, 2017

Great stuff for modern pulp writers and pulp readers…

First of all, StoryHack has met its funding goal for issue #1. The story doesn’t end there, but if nothing else… it means the magazine is happening. At least one more issue. 😀  There are five days left to sign up as an early backer / preorder / get a paper copy. Anyway, congrats to StoryHack.

Kickstarter: StoryHack Issue #1 – 5 Days Remaining

If you haven’t grabbed the free (digital) issue #0 yet, hey, go for it! I’m not sure if the price is going to go up after the Kickstarter is over.

In other news… Cirsova Magazine of Heroic Science Fiction and Fantasy is now open for submissions for the next issue(s). In theory, the window is open until mid-July, but last time they closed the window early. This is for sure for issue #7 (Issue #6 will be out soon…), but could be for additional issues beyond that.

 


Filed Under: Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Quick Take: Star Trek Bridge Crew

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 31, 2017

Many years ago, my wife won a free pass to a cool starship group experience. This was back before things like escape rooms were a thing, but it was a similar (but more expensive) idea. A big ol’ trailer was set up as the bridge of a starship, everyone was given a tunic and instructions on how to play their role, and you got to go on a space adventure reminiscent of Star Trek. It was hella fun. But… if it hadn’t been for the free pass… it would also have been hella expensive. Okay, maybe not as expensive as taking the whole group out to an amusement park for a day (and definitely not as expensive as buying a VIVE VR set), but still not something you can afford to do on a whim.

A little closer to home, there’s the Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator. Sort of the same idea, but for a LAN party. I’ve had licenses for this thing forever, but I’ve only ever played the demo in a group. Of course, in the end, it’s just a bunch of laptops in a LAN party, maybe with a big screen set up as main view screen. Cool, but it’s kind of an event. And of course, it is its own thing… reminiscent of Star Trek, but from a legally safe distance.

Enter Star Trek: Bridge Crew. It’s what both of these experiences were, but taking advantage of Virtual Reality, internet play, and of course, the official Star Trek license. And from what I was able to play in about an hour and a half (solo), it’s really cool. I can’t wait to try it “for real” in multiplayer.

The beginning is … breathtaking. Seriously. It starts you in a shuttlecraft with a lot more window than usually seen in Star Trek, and you are circling around the NX-1787 Aegis docked at a space station. Suddenly, that extended Enterprise flyby scene from Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t seem so bad. This serves as the main menu, where you can customize your virtual avatar and select your game. I guess I’m not totally jaded yet, because I still feel like I could just hang out in that virtual reality shuttle for a while and just enjoy the flyby.

You can play the game with a regular game controller (XBox compatible for the PC), but it’s really designed for hand-based controllers.  They act as your avatar’s hands. you move and rotate your hand to what you are going to touch, and pull the trigger to activate it. Other controller functions allow you to bring up a label overlay for your system, or bring up an order menu or a game menu.

There is a tutorial where you can learn each of the four available stations. These are helm, tactical, engineering, and of course the captain. The helm is for flying the ship in local space, and for navigating with impulse and warp engines. The tactical station is for managing shield and weapon systems, targeting, and performing scans. The engineer gets to manage power systems (including some simple but dangerous power-rerouting if need be), and repair crews. There are also some “floating” tasks that any of these three stations have access to (whoever isn’t swamped at the moment), including using the transporters and system intrusion (basically cyber-warfare…).

The captain has access to an overview of all of this, but little direct control. Instead, the captain gets an interface to give everyone else orders, change the main viewscreen, answer hails, and get the “big picture” from Starfleet with all the objectives and subtasks. Sometimes there are contradictory objectives or objectives with time limits, so it may not be possible to do everything… and the captain has to make the hard decisions. The captain can also temporarily take control of a station manned by an AI crewmember.

At the beginning of a mission, you do get to enjoy sitting in a space camera position, getting a fun view of ships and planets fly by with customary voice-overs. Maybe that’s only for the first campaign mission, but it’s cool. The game primarily takes place aboard the NX-1787 Aegis. The uniforms and virtual set are clearly inspired by the rebooted movie series, lacking only the overblown lens flares.  There are other AI characters aboard the bridge who serve an informational role (and make the bridge look less bare with only four active / human characters). In the campaign missions, they have designated dialog at certain points in the script.

As a huge added bonus, at higher levels you gain access to the bridge of the NCC-1701 Enterprise from the original TV series. It sounds like they went through extreme lengths to emulate the actual bridge from the series… to the point that it’s mostly colored buttons without labels. Fortunately, you can activate an overlay that only you can see to help you figure out what to do. I haven’t unlocked it yet, but it does look like it’s more complicated to fly, so it’s best to get used to the more user-friendly systems on the Aegis first.

I only had time for the full tutorial and the first campaign mission in solo mode, so I can only guess as to what’s in store later. Beyond the campaign there are “further adventures” that are supposed to be dynamically generated scenarios. I can’t wait to play it multiplayer with friends, but sadly, it’s still early enough that I don’t have many friends with VR systems. Fortunately, the game is cross-platform compatible via UPlay, which means Oculus, Vive, and Playstation VR players can all play together. This is kinda huge, in my mind.

From what I can see, this is pretty much a casual social game. I am totally okay with that! I think this was the right direction. I wish players could scale their personal difficulty a little, but this is not a game for hardcore gamers to show off their expertise. It’s mainly about managing more-or-less straightforward tasks, sometimes with a little creativity (especially in the case of the engineer). In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Every one of your jobs could be automated,” and that’s pretty much the case. It’s like playing Rock Band with everyone on medium difficulty. You play your role, and if everyone does a good job, you win the mission and max out the score. Yay!

Because of the limitations of VR, everything is done by pushing virtual buttons or moving sliders around on virtual consoles. Or grabbing virtual throttles and shoving them forward. Moving forward under impulse power or warp drive is effectively the same … it’s simply a few seconds of break time (although it may give the engineer more time to get systems repaired). The game really takes you from activity to busy activity. It’s much less a simulator than a social game.

As to how it plays in multiplayer, I guess I’ll find out soon.  My first solo mission was plenty of fun trying to do everything at once as a captain with an AI crew that could only follow basic instructions, and I’ll probably have to resort to pick-up games with strangers, but I think the real fun comes from playing with friends. I think there’s a TON of opportunity to expand the game, but with the multiplayer focus, they have to be free upgrades, a single inexpensive bundle, or purely cosmetic upgrades. Anything else risks fragmenting the player base.

But there’s a very real chance that when people look back at the “killer apps” that drove sales in the early days of VR, this game may be near the top of the list. I mean, just fulfilling the fantasy of being aboard the Enterprise — or a similar but authentic Star Trek equivalent — would do it, especially when you can share the experience with others.  I wish I could stand up and just walk around the ship, of course. That would be useless in the context of the game, but cool. But for what it is, and what it does…  it’s just cool.  I’m trying to be objective about the game, but I have to resist the urge to giggle or squee because I’M IN AN EPISODE OF STAR TREK, YA’LL! That’s the point, and from what I can see so far, it succeeds.


Filed Under: Casual Games, Impressions, Virtual Reality - Comments: Be the First to Comment



Game Development: Getting the Basics Right

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 29, 2017

Galaga - an old classic with basics done beautifully rightI should know better playing games that come in a “shovelware” bundle. They are published by indies now, but the same thing was true in the early days of the CD-ROM revolution in the 90s, when bundlers would throw a half-dozen or more lackluster titles on a CD for $15 or less. Actually, I do know better, and I don’t care. Sometimes you learn more from bad examples than from good ones.

In many of these cases, my first impression was, “Wow! This looks really good!” The content seemed to be pretty high quality, at least at the beginning. Sometimes that impression persisted. I don’t know if they depended heavily on off-the-shelf content, nor do I care. I may know what engine the game was made with, which might have made development easier, but again… that’s only a matter of curiosity for me.

What I keep seeing, over and over again, is that the game gets the basics wrong.  The game might have nice graphics, an interesting concept, reasonably decent voice-over work, but it’s all for naught if there are crippling problems with the gameplay. Like, say, a permanent “weapon upgrade” that makes a gun harder to use effectively, and you can’t switch back.  Or bad collision detection… always a favorite. I don’t care about the occasional visual anomaly, but if I’m supposed to hit something important and don’t, or if I shouldn’t have hit something important and do, repeatedly.  Really obvious game balance issues. Poor or missing feedback for player actions. Bad or misleading instructions. Stuff that should be easy to fix.

I’m not sure what the problem is, other than that today’s tools make it possible for inexperienced developers to produce with more ambitious projects. That’s a good thing, but this is one of the side effects. All I can really do is urge game developers to PLAY MORE GAMES. Not just their favorites.  Go back to the basics and play some of the old titles of yesteryear and see what made them tick. See if you can figure out why they succeeded or why they failed. The cool thing about these older games is that their limited technology meant there wasn’t much to obscure the basics.

Play the classics. Play the games inspired by the classics. Play some lesser-known titles. Play some games outside your preferred genre or platform. If you are making a casual game, play some hardcore titles, and vice versa. Get an instinctive feel for what works and what doesn’t, and what downright pisses you off. Don’t make those mistakes. Always remember, if you are going to err, err on the side of the player and of ease of use.


Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: Be the First to Comment



RPG Design: Being the Bad Guy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 25, 2017

When Tyranny was announced, I wasn’t interested. I’m still not. As much as I want to play all the games, my cup is definitely overflowing right now, and the concept didn’t thrill me. Actually, it left me cold. It seems I wasn’t the only one.

Rock Paper Shotgun: The Fall of Tyranny

This is me: A guy who still plays retro RPGs, who loved Pillars of Eternity, and who loved the Vampire the Masquerade games (both of ’em!). Meaning: I’m okay with dark. I’m more than okay with old-school. I read the original pitch for Tyranny, and I thought, “This does not sound at all fun to me. I guess I’m not the target market. Oh, well.”

While RPS may have beat it into the ground, there may be some life left in that old horse, so I’m going to beat it some more. Let’s talk about playing and identifying with bad guys.

Here’s the thing… if you identify with true evil, seek psychiatric help.

If on the other hand, you are talking about a “fight the system” kind of bad guy along the lines of Han Solo or the Serenity crew, or the bad guys who fight worse guys, like the Punisher type of extreme vigilantism (pretending you’ll never make a mistake), that’s something else. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a bad-ass. The idea of rebelliousness as a virtue is ingrained in U.S. culture. Robin Hood wasn’t just a mere bandit… he was fighting against an oppressive regime and restoring property stolen by the true villains who happened to have the law on their side. And he did it with style. While an outlaw, he was an ethical hero. James Bond is basically an assassin, complete with a government-issued license to kill… and he often does some less-than-squeaky-clean actions on his missions. But he does so in an effort to protect queen & country from some truly monstrous evil that would hurt a lot of people.

I love reading, watching, or playing these kinds of characters. In D&D, my favorite class is a rogue (and thief before that). Yes, sometimes these guys have to choose the lesser of two evils, and maybe they even embrace the lesser evils. But they are still heroic. They have their qualms and their lines that they won’t cross. While they might be labeled as “bad guys,” down deep they are really the good guys. Or at least the best-we-can-manage-on-short-notice guys.

That’s a world of difference from fantasizing about being an SS trooper doing Hitler’s bidding, or committing torture or hurting innocents. As a designer or writer or game master, I have to partly put myself in the heads of true villains like that, and it’s not comfortable. I hope it never is. It’s where I may have to go to create a good experience, but it’s not something I’d explore for my own entertainment.

I hope this is the take-away companies learn from this. Because I still want to play the bad guy. I just want to play the right kind of bad guy.


Filed Under: Design, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



My Fyrecon Schedule

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 23, 2017

I’m gonna be at Fyrecon in a couple of weeks, ya’ll!

Click here for Fyrecon registration, if you are interested in attending.

As far as my presentation schedule is concerned, I’ll be a panelist / instructor at the following sessions:

The Future of Steampunk and Cyberpunk – 2:30 PM Friday, June 9th – Bldg D2, Room 301 (Panel Room 3)

Writing Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit (2-hour workshop) – 5:30 PM Friday, June 9th – Bldg D3, Room 306

Why Writing and Art Contests are Important – 10:30 AM Saturday, June 10th – Bldg D2, Room 110 (Panel Room 1)

I will also be at the Sibyl’s Scriptorium Awards ceremony on Thursday at 5:30 PM – 7:20 PM. This is a free event for anyone who wants to show up… no Fyrecon registration necessary. I’m not sure what area that’ll be in.

 


Filed Under: Books, Events, Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment



« previous top