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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.

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: 6 Comments to Read