Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Grimoire: Now releasing on August 1st. He really, really means it this time.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 24, 2017

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar will be available at a 10% discount the first week, and Cleve promises it will never, ever, ever be available for sale at a discount ever again on Steam.

Yes, I know. I’m contributing to his mad market gamble here, adding to his signal. I really do hope that the game:

#1 – Releases someday. Soon would be awesome. Before some of the people who have paid crowdfunding money for it (or the creator) die of old age would be, you know, good.

#2 – Is worth the 20 years of development time and endless overhauls that went into it.

I think #1 is in the realm of possibility. #2… well, that’s impossible, but barring that, I at least hope it’s a lot of fun and well worth playing. That’s achievable. From reports of the “superdemo,” it’s… pretty complicated. That’s not a virtue, but hopefully the full release (whenever that happens) eases players into it, and it’s an indicator of depth. This is a game for hardcore fans, after all. Not that I’ll probably see the complete depth of the game. I expect that this will be one of those games I play for 30 hours or so and never finish, but of course I’ll hope for better. I can’t wait to hear reports from the people who actually beat this giant mega-RPG.

Assuming, again, it actually releases. Someday. I guess it’s time to set up the thermometers in Hell once more, and start taking bets.

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar on Steam


Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Happily Super-Heroic. And… Pulpy.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 21, 2017

For everyone complaining about how tired they are of the superhero movies… I’m happily part of the problem. I’m not tired of them, mainly because Hollywood has finally been hit enough times with the clue-bat over the decades that they are finally learning how to make them. We’re finally seeing good, interesting superhero movies that are nevertheless distinct from each other.

Disney’s Marvel movies are leading the pack with the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” stuff. Duh.  These films are fun spectacles, and the creators have learned to play with the formula so that they stay fresh. They’ve figured things out. They may forget again, as often happens, but for now they have demonstrated competence in what made the superhero comics tick (something many comics creators today seem to have forgotten).

I haven’t been quite so impressed with some other offerings. The Netflix licensed shows have been a mixed bag for me, even though they take place in the same universe. They want to tell darker, grittier, streetwise stories that are more about drama and less about the superheroics. I’m down with that, and  and they seem to be circling around the right idea sometimes. The other superhero shoes on network TV have been hit-or-miss for me… and too often I’m okay with giving them a miss.  Sony’s superhero films (licensed from Marvel) have been another mixed bag. I didn’t bother watching any of the recent Fantastic Four films, but I’ve mostly enjoyed the Spider-Man and X-Men films (we’ll just pretend X-Men 3 never happened. Days of Future Past sort of retconned it anyway, which would have made it my favorite X-Men film for that alone…)

The DC comics movies — except for a few of the older non-DCU films (Nolan’s Dark Knight series, and RED) — have disappointed me. Until now. Wonder Woman really kicked butt. I want more like that, please. I have heard that WB/DC is abandoning the grimdark / gritty concept of their cinematic universe for something a lot more… well, like Wonder Woman. I’m happy about that. AFAICT, that whole concept seems to have been based on Zack Snyder’s relatively faithful adaptation of Watchmen. But Watchmen was basically the anti-super-hero book… fresh and interesting at its time, but only because of what it stood in balance with. It was a good one-shot, not the basis for an entire pantheon of films (or comics).

I thought Wonder Woman would be my favorite superhero film of the year, but Spider-Man: Homecoming surprised me. A lot. I wasn’t too interested in yet another reboot of the franchise, but this one blew away all of its predecessors. It had outstanding attention to detail, interesting characters, and the villain (The Vulture) ended up being one of the best of the superhero big-screen films. I guess Marvel / Disney was intent on schooling Sony how it is supposed to be done.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 disappointed me only in comparison to the original, which I’ve seen maybe four times and loved it every single time. The sequel was really, really good… but a little shy of awesome. In another year, it could have been the best, but it didn’t thrill me as much as Wonder Woman or Spider-Man. Then there’s Logan. My wife didn’t like it. I did. But for me, it was kinda like Watchmen… a fascinating change of pace in comparison to what else is out there, and a dark, hard-edged yet touching end for Hugh Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine… and probably Patrick Stewart’s final turn as Professor Xavier. It was a different kind of way to send them off, and I don’t know if it would have been my first choice. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I hoped I would.

So what is it about these superhero stories (the good ones, at least)? If you guessed that my answer had something to do with “pulp,” give yourself a gold star. 🙂  Here’s a fantastic quote from Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman:

Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

If you want to know why Wonder Woman is so awesome, this is it. And if you want to know why I’m suddenly interested in Patty Jenkins as a director, that’s why. This is what I want in my world now. This is why I’ve been so excited about the Pulp Revolution and Superversive stuff. These things are OKAY!

It’s okay to just have good, clean fun.

It’s okay to have heroes. They don’t need to be torn down.

It’s okay to aspire to lofty goals. It is not hypocrisy to fall short.

There’s nothing inherently superior about being “realistic.”

This is sort of the underlying current I take away from the better shows, and from the pulp movement. There’s this wonderful moment in Homecoming that really symbolizes the core of the superhero story for me. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler… it’s just a moment when Peter has been invited to enjoy a night of fun with friends and his romantic interest who is sitting by the pool in a bathing suit. You can see his expression on longing on his face… this is his big chance at fun and happiness for a night. But instead, he chooses to suit up, piss off his mentor, and subject himself to a night of getting his butt kicked by bad guys… because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

This is probably what bugged me so much about about Zack Snyder’s superhero films. They were all the Watchmen. They ran counter to all of these points (even, to some degree, the “realistic” one). It was all about second-guessing heroism. In fact, that seemed to be the theme of Man of Steel: “Having super powers sucks. Don’t be a hero, you’ll always do more harm than good. Don’t even try because you’ll fail.” Gah! Forget that. I want stories full of action, adventure, excitement, and FUN. I want over-the-top awesomeness with gun-happy mutant raccoons and legions of ninjas. I want heroes who are still human on the inside, who fail all the time, but keep trying because they are heroes and that’s what heroes do, at the end of the day.

Considering how these movies keep dominating the box office year after year (man, who would have thought that would happen? So glad I’ve lived to see this day…) and show no sign that I can tell of slowing down, I’d say I’m not alone. There is power in these kinds of stories.

Filed Under: Movies, Pulp - Comments: Comments are off for this article

High-End Video Card Shortage: Caused by Cryptocurrency Mining?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 19, 2017

This is news to me. Apparently over the last couple of months, high-end video cards (like the NVidia 1070 and 1080) became scarce and their price inflated. Why? Mainly because the extremely powerful GPUs can be used to mine cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, which has skyrocketed in price.

PC World: AMD, Nvidia coin mining graphics cards appear as gaming GPU shortage intensifies

This both intrigues and frustrates me. Frustrates, because it impacts me as a gamer and with my day job. As a gamer and game developer, this will slow the adoption of the high-end VR-capable cards.  And with my day job, it’s going to make sourcing these a bit slower and more expensive. *Grumble grumble*. It’s going to be a frustrating year or two until this bubble pops.

However, this fascinates me because this is full-on cyberpunk fantasy that we could only barely imagine back in its heyday. Cryptocurrency… a cryptographically-protected, decentralized, extra-governmental, hard-to-track method of exchange? Using super-high-end graphics processors to perform the intense calculations necessary to perform the validations on transactions in a massive distributed-economic system? As the line from William Gibson’s short story, “Burning Chrome” goes, “The street finds its own uses for things.” Especially when there’s money in it.

Okay. Cyberpunk was never really a happy place, anyway. And the equivalents of my 1070 card are selling for what the 1080s sold for when I bought it. Ah, well. If you were waiting to jump in on the more powerful cards, you may want to wait a while longer, at least until Etherium starts topping out in price.

Filed Under: Tech - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Quick Take: Heroes of the Monkey Tavern

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 17, 2017

I’m back from vacation, and up to my eyeballs in tasks. But I still spend a little bit of time staying sane playing games when I can. I put in a few hours into Heroes of the Monkey Tavern, a PC game I can only categorize as a “Casual Dungeon Crawler” in the Dungeon Master / Eye of the Beholder / Legend of Grimrock style. You move a group of characters along approximately ten foot squares in the four cardinal directions. It’s true 3D, so the movement is smooth and you stand in place and look up and down and at an angle (if you are into that kind of thing), but otherwise… it’s a flat grid-based dungeon with real-time gameplay.

It’s pretty. It’s simple. It’s pretty simple. Also pretty short, or so I’ve heard. I haven’t beat it yet, but from the rumblings I’ve heard, it represents maybe 6-10 hours of gameplay, depending on how extensively one hunts down the secrets. In about three hours of play I’ve cleared three levels and am on level four of eight. I once talked about the equivalent of “short story” RPGs. This would be an example.

Character creation is quick and dirty. For each of your four characters, you choose a portrait and a class, and assign around three extra points to your character attributes. You don’t even get to name your characters… they are referred to by their class name in-game. Leveling up is automatic, with characters gaining new abilities based on their class. Your own interaction with character upgrades is limited to equipment and occasionally choosing who will read a book that will beef up their attributes a point. Characters do level up at different rates, so a warrior will often be a level above the priest or “elementalist.”

Unlike similar games, the old “Eye of the Beholder Two-Step” (AKA “Square Dancing”) is not really an option in combat. Once a monster is active, saving is impossible, and once you are in melee, you will automatically take damage if you move. Once combat is joined, its really about efficient attack orders and resource usage.

The combat encounters (so far) are limited, and there are new monsters on every level that have their own special abilities you have to adapt to. Once I finally found a bow, I was able to engage in limited ranged attacks, doing a small amount of damage before melee was joined. That helps get an “edge” in the fight, but the damage is small enough that I haven’t been able to avoid melee altogether.

There is no non-combat interaction with creatures, and no economy that I’ve seen. So there’s not much point in carting around obsolete equipment.

Those may sound like serious limitations… and they are… but the point is to streamline the experience and reduce the learning curve. The developer was going for a quick and easy fix for your dungeon-crawling cravings, rather than a deep RPG experience. In that respect, they succeeded. The emphasis is on a few limited, interesting combat encounters, traps, and puzzles. That’s the game.

It’s not bad. I’ve enjoyed it so far. I mean, I’ve got a drive full of massive RPGs spanning decades that I need to play, so I really don’t NEED a little game like this in my life. It’s RPG junk food. But sometimes, that’s just what I am in the mood for: something I can snack on, and play in tiny 15-minute increments without having to spend much time figuring out what quest I’m on, re-learning how to use more advanced abilities, or anything like that.

Anyway, if you want to check it out:  Heroes of the Monkey Tavern on Steam.

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Hell stays hot. Lions not lying down with lambs. Grimoire fails to launch again.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 11, 2017

Somehow I believed that with the countdown and the big announcement “7-7-2017” visual in the game description and everything, maybe Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar would actually launch this time. For reals. After 23 years. I have friends who have played the “superdemo,” so I know something exists.

But seriously, release has been imminent on this thing since at least 1998, so… yeah. Back to the vaporware pile. I’d like to believe that this was simply a bump or and misfire and we’ll see the full game appear in a couple of days… But seriously, folks.  This wouldn’t be the first missed date, and it’s been years. Decades, even.

So… we’ll see.

Oh, and to really help bring the history home here… Filip Pepe posted this gem from 1997 as a reminder. Let’s see… in 1997, I was barely 3 years out of college and in into my first job as a video game developer.

Now … clearly the developer is putting all his eggs in one basket, has a perfectionist streak, and is banking on this one title to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Maybe that will work out for him. Maybe it’s an ingenious marketing plan. But I sure don’t think I could do that. The winning strategy I keep seeing is simply to remain prolific (a big problem with me) and create regular, frequent products of sufficient quality. Yeah, it’s a slower-burn way to go, and on the vanishingly small chance that a single product hits a home-run, it might limit the chance that it’s a runaway hit. Or not… (thinking of Minecraft… that had nothing to help it become the runaway hit it became. )

But do you really want to spend decades trying to become a one-hit wonder?

But if you look at history… the “masterpieces” most remembered of the great artists of history were almost always samples of a much, much larger body of work. We tend to forget that these masters were ultra-prolific, pretend those masterpieces were all they ever created, and selectively ignore everything else they produced over their career.




Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

My Novel Has a Publisher

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 10, 2017

So… maybe you remember back in October when I decided that in spite of an insane work schedule, I finally committed to the NaNoWriMo thing. After a bunch of short stories, it was time for me to start working on novels.

I failed. Duh. But only in the strictest sense. I finished the draft at the end of December, took some time off to write more short stories, and then went back and worked on the second draft. I’m actually working on the third draft now. And I’ve committed to writing at least one more novel this year, in addition to lots of short stories.

The novel was based on on RPG concept I’ve been working on for… way too frickin’ long. One that predates Frayed Knights.

But I am pleased to announce that the novel (title to be announced shortly) is being published by Immortal Works Press. It’s still early, so I don’t have a release date yet, but if we can stay on track through the pipeline, we’re looking at sometime in early 2018 or so. The pipeline is the fun part. There is a ton of work to do, and I’m happy to have Immortal Works as a partner on this.

Anyway, more details coming soon. I can’t wait to share.

Filed Under: Books - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

Hell Hath Frozen Over… Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar Launches

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 7, 2017

If you are an old-school computer RPG fan… you already know about this. You’ve known about it for years. Maybe decades.

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is finally launching. 

This is a Wizardry 7-like title that probably holds the vaporware championship title. Duke Nukem Forever was its closest competition. Hopefully it will prove a better title than DNF. It boasts 600 hours of gameplay, which tells me two things:

#1 – It had better not be boring, because that would be a waste of hundreds of unplayed hours.

#2 – Regression-testing 600 hours of gameplay, at even 40 hours a week, would have taken MONTHS every single time. Ugh.

Anyway….  I guess we’ll all finally be able to check out the masterpiece that’s been in development longer than some RPG fans have been alive in a matter of hours. I’m looking forward to it, and not just out of morbid curiosity. I honestly hope it’s a fantastic game.

Filed Under: Game Announcements - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

The Inherent Superiority of Text-Based Walkthroughs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 6, 2017

I’m stuck in a game. Let’s say it’s an RPG. A big ol’ 50 hour RPG. I’m stuck because I don’t know what I need to do to activate a major quest about halfway through. Drat.

In the old days, what would I do?

I’d find a text walkthrough. I’d do a search. I find what I’m looking for. I go, “Oh, yeah, duh! I forgot to return the Horn of Odin to the priest in Allstar.” After 4 minutes of searching, I’m done and on my way.

In our new modern world of YouTube based walkthroughs what do I do?

Hmmm… this guy has 14 hour-long walkthroughs. Let’s pick one in the middle. Let’s watch and jump around. 20 minutes later, I decide it’s probably not the right one, so I go to an earlier one. Another 15 minutes before I try a later one. Okay, great, I spend 30 minutes on that one, AND I get a handful of other plot points and so forth spoiled for me until I FINALLY find the piece I’m looking for.

Why, oh why, are these video walkthroughs the thing now?

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

Creativity on Demand

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 5, 2017

In the tech industry, there was an old joke dating back at least from the 1970s or 1980s about how “if it wasn’t for trade shows, we’d never get anything done.” Of course, it was funny because it wasn’t such a joke. In many companies, there’s a tremendous surge of productivity leading up to showing a product to the public. It’s probably second only to an official release. Small deadlines (milestones) on the way help to guide progress so it’s not a crazy mess at the end, but the big ones that scare us are the ones that keep us going.

I’ve noted that my best progress as an indie game developer has also come from having semi-hard (but achievable) deadlines. Putting a stake in the ground… and being serious about them… is a big deal, and makes a tremendous difference. The trick is that I have to be really committed to the deadline. Simply saying, “My goal is to have this level and this feature completed by the end of the month” is just the start of it. If I end there, and it’s a remotely aggressive goal, then I won’t make it.

But does it apply to creative industries, really? The “creativity on demand” thing is a weird one. Somehow I’ve been programmed since childhood to believe in this idea that the creative muse is this ephemeral, random thing. When it hits, it  hits, and you’d best record it and save it, because it might be a while before it hits again. With this concept, the idea of doing anything creative on a deadline is ridiculous. I figured I was lucky to have been blessed with some creativity, so I didn’t usually have to wait all that long to get jolted with ideas. (Amusingly, they often struck when I was bored, which I strive to avoid…)

Some years ago, though, I noticed that when preparing for my weekly RPG sessions, I’d struggle to get an idea for the next adventure. Really struggle. I’d do the same things I’d used to do, but my attention would wander and nothing would come. As time dwindled and I found myself facing only three hours before people would show up, I’d get desperate. I’d open up a blank document and start writing what happened last adventure, and then my vague idea of what was supposed to happen next time (I did have *some* kind of plan, after all). I found that the process of putting words to paper focused my attention, and that plus the deadline of people coming to play and me needing to have a game prepared forced me to put my brain in a creative mode.

In years of running games, I don’t think I ever had a session where this process failed me. Yet it scared me. Every time.

This blog has been the same thing. And yeah, not every article has been a wonder of creativity and insight. I apologize for those times I repeat myself and say very little of worth. But I try. And after years of doing this, I’ve gotten used to facing the blank page on my computer and wondering, “What do I say?” It still freaks me out a bit, but I’ve made my peace with it.

In a class with Toni Weisskopf, she spoke about how many writers needed the deadlines to be creative. Not all, she noted. Some authors do crumble under the pressure, and she has to treat them differently. Some are either incredibly self-motivated or have a high commitment to their own internal deadlines. Most, however, really need the deadline staring them in the face. It helps.

That suggests strongly that creativity is something that can be “on demand” from most people. I also believe the most creative part of the brain is the part that keeps coming up with excuses and distractions to avoid the hard work of a creative enterprise. You have to corner it, scare it, and convince it that there is no escape. No, you can’t putter around with another project (go away, idea fairy!). No, you can’t check Facebook or the news or continue your Netflix binge. You have to hit this deadline or there will be Hell to pay… you will be humiliated, or whatever.

And then… it seems the brain finally gets the clue and starts doing its job. On demand. On schedule, if you worked it out correctly.

I’ve recently had a couple of experiences with writing like that. I committed myself to a very short deadline (and in the most recent case, I was slammed by the day job to a pretty epic level… not the sort of week you want to commit to ANYTHING). While I had to ask for a couple of days of extension on one, I pulled it off, having no idea beforehand what I was going to write. It works.

Now, I’m not going to claim that what I created were masterpieces or anything like that, or even My Best Work Ever. I honestly don’t know and can’t tell, this close to it, but I figure they were okay. The important thing is that if I hadn’t committed, the week would have come and gone, and I’d have had nothing to show for it. Instead, I have something which I believe is of some worth. Maybe not a lot of worth, but still infinitely superior to Nothing At All.

Creativity can be summoned on demand, by deadline. Try it! You only have that Nothing to lose.

Filed Under: Game Development, General, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Heading Off on Vacation

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 4, 2017

Happy 4th of July! For those not in the United States, that’s … just a date, I suppose. But it applies.  May it be an awesome day!

Part of my day will be spent in the air, heading off to France for a long-overdue vacation.

If you read these posts enough, you know that the day job has been a little bit insane. In a “right kind of problems to have” kind of way, but they are still problems. As such, I have not been able to devote the kind of attention I’d like to… anything else, really. It’s kind of a wonder I managed to get anything else done.

Anyway… I’m going to be blogging and chatting and tweeting and everything from the Old World for the next week or so. I’m going to be hanging out with my friend and fellow game designer Charles Clerc, of OlderBytes.com. Speaking of which, if you are a fan of old-school Might & Magic games, check out his RPG, “Swords & Sorcery: Underworld.

Most days, I should be around to respond to comments & whatnot. Just not in a super-timely manner…

Have a fantastic week!


Filed Under: Rampant Games - Comments: Comments are off for this article

How to Write Pulp Fiction for Fun and Profit – Part 8

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 29, 2017

This is the final part of my article series on writing pulp fiction. You know everything I do on the subject now. Seriously… I’m not that smart. I have co-taught this class with people who have a lot more experience and knowledge than I do. I’m more of the zealous newly-converted.

As much as has been covered here, the final take-away is this: There’s no magic here. There never was. It’s just hard work and craft and a particular style of story. The stories that we now recognize as classics were once just stories, paid for at a standard rate of a penny a word, and were just one of many largely forgotten works by extremely prolific, hard-working writers.

Go back and read the stories. Learn what they were really like, not what modern critics paint them to be. Maybe some seem quaint, or the language seems weird,  or the science is laughable today, but if you are looking for some lost gems of genre fiction, there are tons to be discovered. Too many modern stories seem to try too hard to be “about” anything except entertainment. Going back to the old pulp stories, or to this new surge in stories that are emulating (consciously or not) the classic pulp style with action-oriented, tightly-written, and entertaining yarns, I find my joy of reading rekindled.

That’s not to say that that a pulp story should only be about entertainment.  And after all, the best entertainment is thought provoking. But entertainment remains the primary purpose. If a story fails at that, it is worthless to me. If it succeeds wonderfully at that, everything else is delicious gravy.

I figured I’d follow up with some great bits of advice I’ve discovered from the pulpists of the past. Most of the advice is as useful today as it was when it was printed.

Words From People Who Actually Knew What They Were Talking About

“The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”  – Raymond Chandler

“No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.” – Edgar Rice Burroughs

“What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.” – Dashiell Hammett

“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” – Raymond Chandler

“I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere… It’s a job of work, like being a plumber or an electrician.” – Harlan Ellison

“It is not necessary to stage a gun battle from start to finish, with a murder or a killing in every other paragraph. You can keep it alive and moving, when sympathy is once aroused, by tension and suspense, through dialogue or other form of plot development, when action is absent. Action in one form or another is, however, pretty generally in demand.” – Joe Shaw

“[Do] not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.” – Raymond Chandler

“We must have a good, fast opening.  Smack us within the first paragraph.  Get our interest aroused.  Don’t tell us about the general geographic situation or the atmospheric conditions.  Don’t describe the hero’s physique, or the kind of pants he wears.  Start something!” — John Byrne

“Heart interest and human emotion are the special requirements. Stories should be strongly melodramatic, the characters should be very real and appealing, and situations should deal with the poignant phases [of the events].” – Roger Terrill

“Menace must be so strong that the reader following the hero vicariously is really frightened lest he can’t extricate himself. Villains who are mere thugs are taboo; they must be resourceful, diabolic. Motives and actions may stretch plausibility, but must always seem possible. Heroes must be of such colorful nature that the reader easily identifies himself with them and wants to follow along. Action must be very vivid, with such great detail that the emotion of fear is heightened. Not action merely to advance the plot, but to serve an emotional purpose.” – Carson W. Mowre

“Be honest with the reader” – Raymond Chandler

“No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.” – Edgar Rice Burroughs

And finally, my favorite quote from Leigh Brackett:

“Space opera, as every reader doubtless knows, is a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure. Over the decades, brilliant and talented new writers appear, receiving great acclaim, and each and every one of them can be expected to write at least one article stating flatly that the day of space opera is over and done, thank goodness, and that henceforth these crude tales of interplanetary nonsense will be replaced by whatever type of story that writer happens to favor — closet dramas, psychological dramas, sex dramas, etc., but by God important dramas, containing nothing but Big Thinks. Ten years later, the writer in question may or may not still be around, but the space opera can be found right where it always was, sturdily driving its dark trade in heroes.” ― Leigh Brackett

Special Thanks

I’ve had several people provide me with advice and input for both the class and my article series here. I want to thank David Boop, David West, Leigh Saunders, Bryce Beattie (editor of StoryHack), and P. Alexander (editor of Cirsova) for their help. Check out their books!

What’s Next?



And as always, 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

Filed Under: Books, Pulp, Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: Comments are off for this article

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

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

    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.
    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!

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: Comments are off for this article

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.


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.

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

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:


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.


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?


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.


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.

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: 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.

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: Comments are off for this article

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