Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 7

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 28, 2017

Now we’ve gone over how you write a pulp-style short story, but what do you do with it once you are done? And what if you want to write a novel or novella? Or what about a serial? Does any of this still apply?

The short answers are: If it’s good enough, you sell it. Write it. That too. Yes, it still applies.

Let’s start with talking about long-form fiction.

What About Writing a Novel or Novella?

I’m not much of a long-form pulp veteran, so I defer I defer to the brilliance of others I trust who tell me that while it’s not entirely straightforward, the Lester Dent pulp structure can be used just fine in writing longer-form fiction. Obviously, the quarters will be several chapters long. While in a short story, you barely have room for an action scene in every quarter. In a novel, those are simply going to be the most major scenes. There’s a lot more stuff to fill in. You’ve got room for more characters, more character development, subplots, and of course more action scenes.

Pulpy Character Arcs

In a novel, you can have a real character arc. It’s not the most classically pulpy thing to do, but it’s good writing. A basic character arc is about a characters internal change. This is way beyond the scope here, but you can work in their character arc this way:

  • P1: The character is going after their original (false / lesser) goal / belief.
  • P2: They are still sticking to their original core, but they make accommodations for a truer, better, nobler, belief / goal.
  • P3: They are going along with this new change for now, but they still expect to go back to their old ways once the current crisis is over. They aren’t yet ready to sacrifice what they thought they always wanted for this New Thing.
  • P4: They fully commit to change and sacrifice their old goal for this nobler one, and it is this decision that allows them to do what has to be done to be victorious against the villain. Often, in the end, they discover that by sacrificing their old goal for the “better” goal, they actually obtain both.
  • Alternate P4: While pulp heroes will generally make arc progress through the story, other characters may regress at P4, betraying their newfound belief and returning to their old ways. The character will likely betray the hero as well, for some classic drama action! Plus, it draws a sharper contrast between the hero and the villains. And, in the end, those who finally commit to “the right” often get both rewards, while those who regressed often end up with neither.

While Star Wars (A New Hope) was really more Luke’s story, Han Solo has a classic character arc here. He starts out purely mercenary, and what he wants and needs more than anything else is money to pay off a debt. This goal is frustrated when the planet he was supposed to deliver passengers to gets destroyed. He’s content to lay low and escape on his own, but Luke uses Han’s goal (make lots of money) to perform a rescue mission, where he starts warming up to these people and caring a little about them, even if he doesn’t yet consider them friends. During the rescue (part 3), amidst the yelling and everything, he really does start feeling something for the Princess and Luke, even inviting Luke to join him. But he still wants his money. However, in the fourth part, after obtaining his original goal, he risks it all to go back and save his friends, allowing Luke that critical moment to destroy the Death Star. He ends the movie having achieved both the money and friendship.

Han’s story doesn’t fit exactly within the quarter structure… he doesn’t even appear until the second quarter. But his four-part arc is layered into the rest of the larger story, and his final commitment dovetails perfectly into the climax, making the climax all that more powerful. The point is – if you have multiple major characters, they can all have their own arcs which layer into the 4-quarter structure.

Subplots, Minor Characters, and Keeping the Pulp Novel Moving

Subplots can have their own 4-quarter structure nested inside the main story arc. In fact, Michael Moorcock offered advice for when you have the main character(s) in such deep trouble you can’t think of a way out: “When in doubt, descend into a minor character.” Use them to assist in the escape.

Moorcock also recommended coming up with a significant event every 4 pages (2000 words – about the size of a scene). That keeps the pulp pace going, and prevents things from getting too stale. You can look at this as a cycle of events and actions leading to the end of each quarter.

Some more advice from Moorcock on writing a pulp novel (in a very short period of time):

“What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. … In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power”. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.

“Very often it’s something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits — nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.

“So you don’t have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.”

How about Serial Fiction?

When a lot of people think pulp stories, they think serialized fiction. There are definitely some famous stories that have come out of that, but during the height of the pulp era, it seems like serialized fiction wasn’t all that common.

Today, it can be hard to sell serialized stories, but that’s certainly no reason not to try! It’s definitely worth experimenting. There are a whole lot of additional advice for writing serials that I’m not going to address here, because I’m not the expert. But as I understand it, each episode should be something of a self-contained story within the arc. As such, the Lester Dent structure can be applied to every episode’s story. It can and should be applied to the arc as a whole.

How Do You Sell Pulp Stories?

There are a few small venues & publishers specializing in the “pulp flavor.” More every year, lately. But they come and go, and usually do not pay “pro” rates. Yet. We can hope.

The “pulp” stamp hasn’t been completely rescued from its usage as a term of derision yet. I suspect that a few years and a few financial successes that proudly accept that label will change that. A lot of people have labored for years trying to help make that happen, and while the fight has returned with renewed vigor and gained some traction over the last year, who knows what will happen.

The real twist in the whole story goes back to Part 2 of this series… what is contemporary pulp? We apply it like it’s a genre or an aesthetic, and there are some stylistic approaches that we can take as writers. However, the end product isn’t primarily a “pulp story.” It’s “a story.” Maybe with some pulpy goodness aficionados will appreciate, but my own goal is to take advantage of the pulp aesthetic in order to tell better stories that readers will enjoy.

I sold my first full-on pulp story (at least the one where I was trying to embrace the style & approach) to an anthology that was not at all pulp-oriented. I’m far from alone in this. Some of the stories that are for selected for these pulp-oriented magazines and anthologies were often not written with an intent to be “pulp” in the first place, either. They are just stories that happen to fit the editors opinion of what a “pulp story” should be.

In my opinion, this is as it should be. A true victory in the “pulp revolution” is just a victory for all of genre fiction. It’s all about getting more stories out there that, like pulp, appeal to the common man, not just the jaded enthusiasts of a particular genre. Write a fun, gripping story, and then there are no limits to your market. So go forth, submit the stories, and never mind one bit about whether they want “pulp” or not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is they have stories that will appeal to their readership.

Finally,  the modern world of indie publishing is the pulp era on steroids. While it takes some time, effort, and money, it’s easier than ever to self-publish. The pulps were cheap. Digital is cheaper.  And print-on-demand, while not cheaper than pulp, greatly reduces the inventory risk.  So there is always the option of going at it alone, and selling directly to your audience. And there’s the option of putting together your own anthology or magazine with a pulp theme, and asking other authors to submit. That’s not a cheap or easy option, but it’s one that, just like the old pulps, can help define the marketplace.

Seriously… What’s Next?

The next and final article in this series goes over some final bits of advice. This is almost entirely writing advice from pulp writers and editors, mostly but not exclusively from the pulp era. I’ve found that in spite of years and the changes in language, style, and the marketplace, almost everything is applicable today.

With the final article, I’ll also update the articles to have a full series of links. In the meantime, you can find all of the articles under the pulp topic category.

Go forth, write, read, and have fun!

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: Read the First Comment



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