Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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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?”

Links to the series:

How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 5 Comments to Read