Friday, July 19, 2013

Nancy Hansen asks IS THERE LIFE OUTSIDE PULP? in her latest column!

Is There Life Outside Pulp?

Sometimes I wonder about that. It seems like my New Pulp writing has taken over my life along with my entire way of thinking about how to write stories. But it was only just over three years ago now that I wrote for what I believed was a mainstream audience, and I have not forgotten those folks. Not everyone wants the pace of a story to be so frantic, or the plot so simple and straightforward. Nor is it always desirable to have characters that are larger than life, because they can be a bit daunting to read. So, whatever I’ve tried to write, I’ve blended what I know of mainstream fiction expectations with pulp pacing, and sort of came up with a hybrid creation. Now and then though, it’s a good idea to stick a few toes in other waters, and see what the rest of the world is up to.

There is most assuredly life outside the Pulposphere—in fact we are just a microcosm of the greater world of entertainment writing called fiction. So to limit yourself to just producing works of pulpy splendor is going to be… well, limiting. There’s no denying the loyal fandom down here in the bowels of indie publishing, but it’s rather an insular community. If you want to reach a larger audience—and who doesn’t?—then you have to pay attention to what they’re reading, watching, and yakking about out there. Best way to do that is put on the old common citizen disguise and go linger in the places where people gather to discuss what they’re interested in, whether that’s the local Starbucks, the library, your in-laws’ pool party, or Facebook. Rather than beating the drum for your own work, for a couple days, just lurk and see what kinds of things get people’s juices going. You might be surprised at what you see and hear.

Some things I’ve gleaned from my summer of introspection…

Game of Thrones on HBO is hot, hot, HOT! Since it’s based on a fantasy book series, that bodes well for me, because I live and breathe that stuff, in and outside of writing. I’m slightly ashamed to say I haven’t read the books (yet) because I have so little time outside of writing and editing for recreational reading these days. I have yet to see any of the series either, since not having cable TV at the farm makes viewing more complicated. What I have been able to glean from what little I’ve read about it, and what I’ve heard discussed, is that this is essentially a soap opera crossed with a heraldic lineage drama set in an imaginary medieval setting. But what fascinates me is that it has sucked in plenty of people who would not normally read a traditional fantasy tale—especially ones as lengthy as these are. The plots sound very complex and detailed; the backdrop lush and brooding. But Game of Thrones is all the rage right now, so someone is doing something right. George R. R. Martin is certainly making more money than I am.

Long books well over 400 pages are not unusual in fantasy fiction, as are multi-book series. I am mindful that while pulp has hard hitting, often linear plots and mainly one-off adventures for favorite characters, the major complaint I’ve heard is that the books are too lean. What I take from that feedback, and the success of Game Of Thrones, is that people do want all the details mixed in with the deviltry. See what you can learn in the outside world?

Movies or TV programs based on beloved, iconic fictional characters or worlds either seem to soar, or fall flat on their faces. Sadly, it seems to be more often the latter, as what translates to the screen doesn’t even half resemble the picture most fans had in mind. Most of the time that appears to be the fault of the studio for not putting someone in charge who actually understands what this beloved brainchild is supposed to be all about. Now and then, it’s an attempt at being ‘artsy’ or a failed way of updating the story to fit today’s far more diverse market. Then there’s budget concerns and lack of support by the people holding the purse strings, who likely don’t understand what made this property so esteemed in the first place, and don’t honestly give a rat’s ass either. It’s a dollars and cents thing, so you have to have Johnny Depp mugging away in there to get the general public to come. I think what you can take away from that is the notion that to sell to a bigger audience, you have to walk in two worlds—that of the casual viewer who is just looking for something worth seeing, and that of the rabid fan with all the pertinent details memorized. If the story is good, and it moves people without insulting those who know its past incarnations, the word will get around. A straightforward homage and you’re only going to attract those who understand the back story. Conversely, disrespect the past material, and you’re going to lose a good chunk of your potential fan base.

Word of mouth sells more viewing time than critical reviews. Keep that in mind when you write. What people who actually paid to be entertained think of what you’ve given them for their hard earned cash is far more important than what someone who makes a living criticizing the work of others has to say. I’ve seen many a movie that was critically panned that I’ve fallen enough in love with to buy my own copy. Something about them intrigued me. 

Reality TV. If ever there was an oxymoron, that’s it. C’mon, you think this stuff isn’t staged for those cameras? Television’s sole reason for existence is to entertain the masses and sell products to them via endless advertising while we’re all slack jawed and half-comatose. Even PBS does that, via their auctions, and the trendy lead-in infomercials about ‘corporate sponsorship’. Make no mistake though, lots of people watch this stuff, and get wound up in the ongoing sagas of winners and losers. I watch TV too, when I have access to one, but not reality shows, though I understand the reason behind their success. They’re cheap to put on, you don’t need people from the actor’s guild commanding high salaries, and there doesn’t have to be a lot of script writing. Unscripted = exciting because almost anything goes. So since reality TV seems to have garnered a loyal audience, we pulpsters can take something away from that. People enjoy being voyeurs into what they happily perceive as the offbeat everyday world of others. They want to see the double dealing, the dirty little secrets, and all the tension, tragedy, and travesty you can heap into an hour. Then they walk away feeling far better about their own lives.

Why is social networking so popular? Besides the original purpose, which was keeping in touch with family, friends, and likeminded folks who are best kept at a  distance, it’s become a bully pulpit for those with an axe to grind or a cause to promote. All you have to do is page through the posts that come across your news wall and you’re going to know a whole lot more about your social contacts than you ever would have learned outside the supposed anonymity of the internet. It’s a global metropolis out there, filled with sign wielding protestors between the random status updates and pictures of cats with cute captions. And then there are the debates, as Person B feels obligated to either rubberstamp or refute Person A’s staunch views, before all the friends and acquaintances jump into the fray. I’ve seen more than one free-for-all, knockdown/drag out flame war. It’s interesting, in the way that watching buffalo stampede off a cliff is interesting. Train wreck interesting. Lions running down gazelles interesting. Most days I feel like the Jane Goodall of Facebook, watching the creatures around me interact, but unwilling to interfere as they tear each other apart.

You can learn a lot of what folks care about from sitting back and noting the subjects that get them riled up. What they care about is very likely to translate into what they’d prefer to read. While you can’t please everybody, and I wouldn’t even think of trying, I can touch minds and hearts with what I choose as subject matter, based on what I see being kicked around. There’s no reason you can’t do that too.

That’s just a few ideas of where to look for a pulse of the public outside our own little New Pulp realm. I’m sure you can think of far better examples than I have. Bottom line here is; now and then, you need to get away from the basic pulp writing tenets and see what else is selling. It might just lead you to an idea that catches on. You can always dive back into our safe little woebegone world where all the heroes are strong and brave, and the villains are clear cut evil. Hopefully you’ll take with you some interesting new ideas and insight from the world outside of pulp.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So... Why Pulp? -Fish or Cut Bait!-NEW ON NEW PULP FICTION!

The above saying is an old axiom that has been often interpreted as a straight ‘either/or’ choice—you either do something or you don’t. My understanding of it though has always been from the business of a commercial fishing vessel. Somebody gets to fish; somebody else gets to prepare the bait. And if you can’t fish today, well you better make yourself useful elsewhere, because there’s no room aboard for slackers.

So it is with this indie writing life. If you want to be published and remain in the public eye, you’ve got to keep doing something that relates to writing—even when you can’t get near the keyboard, the ideas aren’t biting when you do, and your muse went on an extended vacation. Thinking about my recent shift in work ethic over the last couple of months is what spawned the idea for this week’s column.

If you read my last column, you know I’ve been going through a rough spell recently, with plenty of distractions in my personal life and doctor’s orders to get away from that keyboard and become more active. This new turmoil often makes it hard to actually sit down and write; even when the mood strikes me. I’ve been working out my angst in physical activities, which does help me sleep at night. Unfortunately that doesn’t get too many words on the page, though thank goodness, the ideas have kept coming. Since I also have an out-of–state family member who will be visiting over the next few weeks, and all sorts of activities going on while we prepare for my newest grandchild’s arrival, there’s a temptation to blow off writing for a while longer, and just tidy the house and garden.

Well, I can’t afford to think that way. Right now I am at the point where I have a couple of manuscript due dates coming up fast, so writing must be done, which adds even more pressure. I’ve got to at least strike some sort of balance between the different parts of my life. After slacking off a while to kind of rethink the process, I have regained my focus on writing as a career choice, and not just some hobby I can drop when the mood strikes and things around me become too chaotic.

I consider myself a professional author, and I have made commitments I intend to honor. Whenever I get behind in writing and editing, other people depending on me do too, and that’s just not fair to anyone. So after taking a few weeks to myself to recover my momentum, I had to acknowledge those deadlines looming. I am now hard at work again, having written close to 2,000 words of a 10,000 word limit short story that I plotted in advance, but just started Tuesday. Yay me! More importantly, the workmanlike attitude is back. I sat down the last two days and knocked out some writing (and editing) before I got much else done. It was good work too, though the muse was rusty at first and I had to really push myself to stick with it.

That’s what separates the dreamers from the doers, folks. I’m not making much money penning these tales, but I still want to write them. When you love what you do, the actual act of writing becomes its own reward. Not that I’m in any way averse to a big fat royalty check, or even some small skinny ones…

While I was distracted by the recent bedlam in my life, and uptight that I was having trouble just focusing long enough to get words on a page, there was one thing that remained heartening for me: The ideas never stopped coming. They might have slowed down a bit because my mind was just not as sharply perceptive of who or what might make a good character or plot device, but there were still things that tickled the muse. Believe me, they come from the strangest places, but I have learned over the years not to disregard even the most random thoughts, if they lead to speculating how they could be used in stories. Of the tales I have been weaving into books these last few years, many started as daydreams or prodding from that little inner voice that continually nags me to scribble something down. Invariably, when I start making notes, they become more detailed, and further concepts get suggested about those incidental imaginative fancies. Before you know it, you have another story all but written.

That’s the ‘cut bait’ part of writing. When you can’t find the time and incentive to pound the keys for lost hours, at least sit a few minutes and jot down all the crazy little ideas that popped into your head. If you see something in the newspaper or online that strikes a chord, think about how that can be used in a story. Draw a crude map of your last character’s world while waiting for a phone call, or research a place and time period that interests you instead of playing solitaire or trolling the social networks reading clever but redundant memes and cute cat signs. If you have the energy and brain cells to text someone 15 times an hour, you can make notes. Do it in text shorthand if you prefer—you’re the one who is going to be reading it.

Let me explain about how hilling potatoes gave me a great idea, and maybe you’ll understand what I’m getting at…

This spring I planted potatoes in my garden for the first time in many years. You cut potatoes into pieces leaving an eye or three on each, and bury them in a trench. Once they are a certain height, you have to hill them, which means drawing soil up around both sides of the plants, because they tend to get floppy. Potatoes form at the end of stolons—stringy runners attached to the main stems. Those new potatoes will stay above ground turning green skinned and unpalatable (and mildly poisonous) unless you keep them buried. The deeper the plant stems, the more potatoes you get.

Because we’ve had a lot of heat, humidity, and rain, and I often had my mother here and she can’t sit outdoors through that stuff, I could not get out to the garden like I wanted to. So I got behind on hilling potatoes. The weeds however did not take any inclement weather days off, and now my potato rows are buried in a forest of green leaves and greedy roots sucking away moisture and nutrients the crop needs to grow well. The soil became packed from all that pounding water, and even after hand pulling the tall, rank, unwanted growth, I was making very little progress in hilling. My regular garden hoe is an artist’s tool; thin stainless steel only six inches long and quite shallow. It’s great for cultivating around plants, but it really was slow at hilling, because it didn’t move much soil. The rake worked better, but it has teeth, so it was inefficient at hilling once the soil dried out. I decided I needed something bigger and beefier for working out there.

I needed the Mjolnir of hoes. So I bought the biggest, broadest, nastiest looking one I could find. It is technically a mason’s hoe for mixing concrete, and weighs twice as much as the standard garden issue. It’s also 4 inches longer and deeper, with a 12 gauge steel head, and a thick fiberglass handle. It’s a formidable tool that looks impressive, and it works like a charm, so it was worth every penny I paid, even though it was never intended to be used in a garden.

Wow, what a difference! With that big hoe I was getting as much done in 45 minutes as it had taken me an entire afternoon to do before. And while I was out there pulling weeds, dropping rocks in a bucket, and scooping lots of soil around the plants, my mind started to wander. I began thinking about how this tool was never meant for gardening, and how it seems so intimidating compared to my other garden implements. That lead to thoughts about how garden tools like pitchforks and mattocks could be used for defense. I remember reading about peasants equipped with long handled billhooks that were used to prune trees (Google them) fighting off all but the most sophisticated attackers. Those were precarious times, when trouble came unexpectedly out of the wild lands around the isolated little villages and farm cots. Looking up at the forest that edges my property, I imagined raiders streaming down the wooded hill, and me caught in the open with nothing but a big bladed hoe in my hands and a strong will to survive.

Suddenly I was a peasant in a field, working for a new liege lord, who had displaced my former sovereign. The dreary life of a farming serf doesn’t vary too much no matter who is actually in charge. On that bottom end of the food chain, the work is hard, the rewards few, the dangers many, and yet everyone needs to eat. I had to get this field done, and I had a new tool to help me—a hoe made from a pounded out bit of metal blade that had once been a weapon in the coup; a sword turned plowshare because it was too broken to bother reforging. There were better weapons aplenty for the lord’s soldiers, and one does not arm peasants—who might still be loyal to their former liege—with anything not dually useful for agriculture. Since I had sworn fealty to this present lord, I was given a new hoe, along with a plot of land to till for my own use and to raise a tithe for my parish.

What was overlooked however was that this particular hoe was remade from a formerly enchanted weapon, and I soon found out that it can warn me of danger. So when the barbarians attacked our land, as barbarians are wont to do, the blade of that hoe sang to me a song of warfare and bloodshed, as the sword it was remade from had to its former owner. As clumsy and untrained as I am, in my hands that hoe becomes a deadly weapon again. That day in the field, a simple peasant learned to defend herself through the guidance of an enchanter long since dead.

So out in my potato patch, a story was born. No, I haven’t written it yet, but I will. I did remember it when I came in for the night all sweaty, dirty, and exhausted; and I made sure I took the time write it down before I ate or showered, while the idea was fresh in my mind. That was definitely a ‘cut bait’ day, because other than those notes, I did no real writing.

The bottom line here is some actual fiction came out of that random thought stream. That shows my mind is still tuned into the idea of writing. Even when I can’t fish actively in the waters of creativity, I can chum them with little flights into that pulpy netherworld where interesting action tales are born.

You can do that too. Get past the idea that you can only create real stories at the keyboard or with pen and paper in hand. Let your mind wander around a bit. Maybe even go fishing. Fishing for stories worked for Hemingway after all, and he didn’t berate himself for taking time away from the typewriter to go live life to the fullest. You shouldn’t either.

I bet Ernie had plenty of ‘cut bait’ days.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

So Why Pulp? Life’s Little Wake Up Calls

This has been a tough spring for me. Actually the things that are interfering with my writing life started late in the winter. After somewhat financially over-extending ourselves to put in two furnaces and then buying an old four wheel drive dump truck with a plow that was supposed to keep the driveway clear, we had a 30” snow and then a series of equipment failures that wound up costing more than expected. My Pulp Ark funds got dipped into, and though the idea was to replace them, we could never quite catch up again. Then I got sick with something no one could quite identify, but sure was making me miserable. The copays on the extensive medical testing just about wiped out whatever spare cash we were able to cobble together. I was feeling pretty punky anyway, and hearing so many big and scary possibilities like cancer, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, and stroke, I decided traveling wasn’t a very good idea. So I reluctantly canceled the trip.

 I have been poked and prodded, tested and scanned, with no definitive results. When all was said and done, whatever it was cleared up on its own. The verdict was, some sort of a low level and lingering virus, likely more of a problem due to stress from not getting enough sleep and hunching over a keyboard most of the day. Not much showed up in the tests, but there were some physical symptoms like swollen glands and shortness of breath that could be observed while they lasted. There was one minor anomaly in the blood work, and the worst thing that showed up in the CT scan was my arthritic spine. The prescription was double the fish oil daily and get away from the blasted computer for a few hours to get up and get moving.

Easier said than done on the second part, when you consider how much writing and editing I have been doing the last three years. I’ve had to rearrange my entire day to allow for those hours away from the keyboard, and that meant cutting out a lot of the online time I was using for self promotion. Still, it sure beats feeling wobbly and tired most of the day after laying awake in discomfort half the night.

Those were my first two wake up calls of the season. The next one came on so subtly, I almost missed the warning signs. My mother turned 79 this year, and for someone her age, her health has been fairly good, with just a couple medications to correct blood pressure and cholesterol. She is a tiny little thing, spry and active, generally in good spirits, and looking forward to seeing a new great grandson late this summer. However, her memory is starting to deteriorate to the point where she can’t easily recall her own birth date, and will tell you the same thing she just said ten minutes before. She sometimes either forgets to eat, or forgot that she did eat, and consequently has trouble keeping her weight above 105 lbs. In a quiet room, without any conversation, she will stare blankly ahead, and it sometimes takes several calls or a tap on the shoulder to get her attention. On the phone or in a lively conversation, she is often vague and doesn’t follow what’s being said. It seems to come and go, but both family and medical providers have noted it. So we’re starting those dreaded talks about ongoing care, medical intervention vs. letting Nature take its course, and who gets to make critical decisions when she won’t be able to.

My mother doesn’t think she has a memory problem, but I know her well enough to understand that she does. Right now, she lives with my boys in the house they grew up in and the one where she came to restart her life after my dad’s sudden death almost 30 years ago. I have her here with me one to four times a week for a good chunk of the day. I call it mommy-sitting, and that sounds flippant, but that’s what it is. We don’t leave her unsupervised anymore because we’re afraid she will do something she shouldn’t and get hurt, and she has fears about being alone too long. While she is with me, I make sure she eats well, has someone to talk to, and something interesting to do or watch in my house and yard. My boys and daughter-in-law get a much-needed break from watching over her. It’s win-win for everyone.

Now what has all this got to do with writing? Well with everything going on, writing and editing has gotten harder for me. Even when I am alone and I sit down with the intention of getting some work done, I find it hard to concentrate. Most things I can put out of my mind long enough to get some work done, but this situation with my mother is eating at me. I treasure every moment we have left, and dread the inevitable downhill slide ahead. I can’t just let it go, and the agitation makes me irritable and antsy.

These days I spend a lot of time outdoors, in the yard and garden, doing physical labor that leaves me dog tired and able to sleep. Otherwise I’d be pacing the floor half the night, wondering how I’m going to make things work for everyone and wind up worn to a frazzle the next day. I’m also spending more time with family, because we make an impromptu celebration out of anything. I squeeze in writing whenever I can; on inclement days, or when it’s ridiculously hot out. It takes a lot of effort right now just to sit down at the PC and tune out the little voices in my head that whisper of grief and my own mortality, at least long enough to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. So I work in small increments compared to the long hours I had been putting in.

I’ve been through rough periods like this before and I’ve learned how to cope with them. As much as I urge everyone to write no matter what’s going on, I’m realistic enough to know that there are times you just can’t force the words out. If you make writing burdensome, it becomes an exercise in frustration that leaves you dreading the next session. Consequently I’ve scaled back my writing obligations wherever I can, though I have made some commitments I don’t want to back out of and I do have to just buckle down and get to them.

Along the way, I’ve given myself some slack—and it’s paying off. While I might not be getting much actual writing done, the odd ideas are still coming regularly, and I’ve been eagerly jotting them down. In the past, whenever life threw me a few too many curve balls, I learned to use whatever time I could spare to do some actual writing. Often the stories didn’t get much past a few paragraphs or novel ideas exceed several pages. That at least keeps the mindset going that writing is an important and necessary part of my day. I still manage to do some writing just about every day, even if it’s just a couple scribbled sentences in a note to myself.

Then there is the incentive thing, or what I call ‘the carrot that drives the horse’. I want to be able to support myself on my writing. Right now, that just isn’t happening. If it was, I’d likely be far more enthusiastic and dedicated to getting my behind in the chair and fingers on the keyboard. I have books and stories out there to promote, and I should be doing more of that, but I am just plain burned out with beating the drum for myself. I know I need to reach a wider audience than I have been in our insular little New Pulp community, because I’ve about saturated the existing market, and I’m not seeing an uptick in sales. Clearly something has to be done differently to find those eager new readers, because I can see that the kind of books I write are popular. The dark side of my mind wonders if it’s just because I’m not as good as those big name authors who have their complex novels turned into HBO series. The practical side of my nature insists that I’m laboring down here in obscurity, where even the polished diamonds don’t shine as brightly.

That’s been the most niggling concern on my mind lately when it comes to promoting what I do: Just how do I reach new audiences? I am never going to be content writing simply for the joy of it. Damn it; I want what I work so hard at to be read! It’s become clear to me that if I’m going to take all this time away from other things I should or could be doing and write, then I want to see some measurable results. That would go a long way toward breaking through that grim and murky feeling that I should chuck it all and spend the time with my family, cooking, or getting my house cleaned. Writing is a passion, but how much of it I do compared to how much time I devote to my mother before her memory is completely gone, or making sure I get out there and take care of the things I’ve planted, is a dynamic balance that I haven’t quite mastered in this brand new phase of life. As much as I love what I create at the keyboard, I can’t ignore the other important parts of my day. It will remain to be seen how things work themselves out.

In the meantime, I will write when I can, and whenever the spirit moves me. Never fear, I am nowhere near ready to give up, and neither should you. It may not be possible for most of us to support ourselves on our writing, but you still need to maintain a presence out there, and some sort of disciplined schedule for getting things done. I can’t stay up late at night like I used to. I can’t write when my mother is here and needs face time with me to keep her mind active. I can’t ignore family and give up other things that bring me peace, joy, and good health. To do all that would be crossing the line between enthusiasm and obsession. I need my writing time back, but tempered with wisdom, now that life has sent me a few little wake up calls.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Captain Midnight #0 Free Preview


Piloting a World War II dive-bomber, Captain Midnight—fighter pilot extraordinaire and expert inventor—hurtles out of a freak storm in the Bermuda Triangle and into the twenty-first century, where he’s in for more than one surprise as he enters the modern era! Collects the three stories from Dark Horse Presents #18–#20.
Joshua Williamson (Masks and MobstersVoodoo,Uncharted), Victor Ibáñez (Rat CatcherThe Spirit) and Pere Pérez (AquamanDetective Comics)!
Cover by Raymond Swanland!
Grab your decoder rings!

Dark Horse reimagines radio, television, and comics’
legendary hero in an all-new ongoing series!
“Dark Horse and writer Joshua Williamson are reaching a bit further back, pulling the titular Golden Age hero from his roots in World War II and post-war America into contemporary culture.”—Comic Book Resources

SO Why Pulp? Just Who Are We Writing For?

Saw a query online the other day from a writer wondering if an explicit sex scene should be included in a New Pulp tale. My gut reaction was; Sure, why not?—as long as it wasn’t gratuitous, didn’t detract from the plot, and gave the characters involved some sort of extra depth. Sex in a story is like any other human element you add; it either fits in seamlessly or it jumps up and down waving a NOTICE ME banner. I figured that was a no-brainer response, but I guess it’s not as simple as that, judging from some of the responses that came before and after mine.

I also read an email newsletter where one member asked if we’d ever written a scene so graphically violent and scary it was a bit disturbing. Yeah, I’ve done a few… So had a lot of others. All part of the game.

Talking about stuff like this is good because shared ideas and experiences help a writing community to grow close and sort of define itself. Now and then we all need some reassurance that what we’re doing is OK. At the time I got involved, it didn’t even dawn on me these topics might become as much of an in-depth exploration of styles as they did.

It became obvious as the discussion threads about the sex scene (there were two of them I know of) went on that there are two main camps of thought when it comes to what is OK to add to stories and what might be controversial: the overall readership pleasers and the mavericks who write from the gut. Not surprisingly, New Pulp seems to have more of the latter. I’m not going to take sides in this one, because I think both points of view are valid, depending on circumstances, and how things are handled. My own experiences tell me there’s no hard and fast rule for how far you can take an idea before it becomes uncomfortable to most people. Pulp has traditionally always been a pioneer in the edgier areas of fiction. It’s strictly a YMMV (Your Mileage Will Vary) in how violent, lurid, or kinky you can get and still sell well—let’s say about 50 shades of gray area worth.

That got me thinking though, where do I draw the lines?

In the past, I never gave too much thought to who I was writing for when I sat down to compose a tale, because I always wrote the kind of things I love to read. Most of what I enjoy reading or writing doesn’t have a lot of explicit anything, because I prefer a subtle approach, but I’ve been known to throw a shocker in now and then. My criteria in crafting a tale have always been to evoke an emotional response from the reader, because that keeps people turning pages. For me there’s a fine line between scenes that keep me reading because they are just so overwhelmingly riveting, and those that make me shut the cover and turn away in disgust. I have been told I have a dark side, based on some of the things I’ve written, and yet others might find my stuff too bland and long for something more radically avant-garde. Experience has taught me there’s an audience for everyone; it’s just a matter of finding those folks and then doing what you do best.

There are several deciding factors in what goes on every page I type. Am I happy with what I have here? Does it work for the story or do I need to push myself into more uncomfortable topic areas to make it better? What has the past response been? Where I used to just write to please myself, I now want to reach an audience, so my focus has changed. I have an eye on just who my readers will be as I am writing, because there is a certain level of appropriateness for every niche in the market. You don’t put certain scenes in a book being marketed for ‘all ages’ that can take place in one that is ‘adult only’ in content. I try and have a variety of offerings these days, so this is something I am consciously aware of as I write. Some publishers also prefer to keep their books on the PG 13 side, which means explicit language, sex, and gore have to be toned down. Don’t think that it makes for less of a story if you do decide to keep it mild rather than wild, because good writing will shine even when there’s nothing you wouldn’t share with your grandmother or read to your eight year old.

I hear arguments all the time that the readers shouldn’t dictate what we write. That’s something I can’t totally agree with, unless you’re just writing simply for the art of it. Readers are the people buying and recommending or panning what we write, and they’re a vital resource for that reason, if you ever plan to support yourself at least partially on your writing. Writing to a market was something the classic pulps did without remorse, churning out magazines filled with entertaining fare that was geared toward pleasing readers so that they’d come back for more. Ignoring what readers respond to because you need to do your own thing is going to cut down your sales over time.

While you will find like-minded individuals who will eat up every word you type, the majority of readers who become fans are going to balk if you suddenly change your style from, say, witty to gritty. I think this is where a lot of book ‘fails’ come from, because the writer has been inspired to do something totally different and the established fans are left wondering what the heck happened. Nobody likes to be stuck in a formulaic rut for decades, and we all want to stretch our wings and expand our offerings, but you do have to give a nod to the folks who built your readership. So yeah, go do something totally different, and then either sell it that way, or use a pen name. I make it plain when I put out something, who I believe the intended audience will be, so at least my publishers know from the get-go. I also ask who the target market is. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a projected readership; in fact it’s good business. I’m not a one-trick pony, and neither should you be, but I am sensitive to the fact that some people find hardcore violence and explicit sex in a book disagreeable and so I’m not going to ram that down their throats every chance I get. So do consider who will be reading something before you add or delete anything.

Where it gets hinky for me is in the very extreme frontiers of controversial topics. That’s where my inner censor goes to work overtime trying to sort out what I can comfortably write as opposed to what makes my skin crawl. Those of you who know me and have read some of my stuff would be shocked to see how much farther I can push it with splattering gore and the absolutely kinkiest pornographic scenes. Yeah, I’ve written porn on occasion, mainly to see how far I can stretch myself. It’s just not something I want to be known for, so for now it sits in files unread and unpublished—one of which I password protected so my kids wouldn’t find it by accident, and now some 20 years later I can’t recall what the password is! The one taboo I do have is writing anything that glorifies senseless violence and/or brutal sex as weapons used by the leading characters to dominate and subjugate others. That I am adamant about, because as pulp writer, I create heroes to be looked up to, even when they have feet of clay. The world we live in is full of hatred and intolerance taken to extremes by overly zealous people who have lost their humanity to some cause or other. When that occurs in one of my books, it happens for a reason, and I hold my heroic folks to a higher standard. They don’t rape women and burn babies just because the enemy did. That’s just me, but it’s how I write and I don’t feel the least bit constrained by it. Hate the bad dudes if you must, but aspire to be a better person than they ever will be.

So if you ask me, what you should or should not include in a story depends on how well you handle it and who will read it. Our pulp forebears had market censors to deal with that we don’t have to consider in this ‘anything goes’ age, but they got around them as much as possible. So don’t overly limit yourself, but do keep in mind, readers are a diverse group. Level with them from the get-go and you’ll never have to ask if this scene fits or if that one was uncomfortable. The folks who are best suited to enjoy your story will find it, and those who might not like a particular scene or three will at least be forewarned.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

So Why Pulp? Formula #40

What If We Didn’t Call It ‘Pulp’?

There’s been a bit of a debate going on lately amongst the rank and file of modern pulp writing enthusiasts as to whether the moniker ‘New Pulp’ is viable or possibly even a detriment to book sales. I find it kind of interesting, since some of the folks turning their backs on the term were the first to embrace it. Heck, New Pulp as an appellation was coined by a bunch of us sitting around in the after hours of a convention, not wanting to let go of that cozy camaraderie. Now they want to change the playing field on me.

I’ve sat out on this debate up until now, having my own turbulent thoughts on the subject, which I wanted to put in order before I made any kind of judgment call. So having mulled it over, my conclusions kind of follow that infamous line from Romeo and Juliet: A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet. And conversely, manure, no matter what you call it, still stinks. The bottom line is, the content sells, not the name. So if you’re putting out books you believe people really want to read, they’ll buy them as long as the price is reasonable, the format is accessible, and the stories are enjoyable. If the stories are terrible, the books aren’t going to sell, no matter what you label them. Before we start calling ourselves something else—like ‘genre fiction writers’—we’d better make sure we’re not wrapping up and re-gifting the same old holiday fruitcake in fancy new paper. You might fool a few people for a while, but the consumer public, which has the attention span of a gnat coupled with the memory of the most ponderous pachyderm, is not going to forget being lured into buying something that turns out to be yesterday’s leftovers, even on a silver plate with a fancy side garnish. Something has to change if we want upwardly mobile sales; something more important than what we call what we do.

Now let me say this up front, I am not here to chasten, vilify, or any way insult my New Pulp writing and publishing peers. Most of you are friends or at least friendly acquaintances, and I have the utmost respect for how hard you work at what you do. I’ve been very grateful to have been embraced as part of this indie community of authors creating action adventure stories with larger-than-life heroes and bringing them back to the reading public without Madison Avenue trendiness dictating what we offer. I’m proud of each and every one of you; you’re like part of my extended family. That said, I’m not going to mince words if I think we’re headed in the wrong direction. While I’ll acknowledge the sagging economy isn’t helping anyone, I don’t think the primary issue with dismal sales of New Pulp books has anything to do with what we call our work. We’ve missed a fundamental reason why sales aren’t moving out of the fanboy nostalgia/convention circuit into a more mainstream market. I’m going to put it bluntly—the average reader doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the pulp of yesteryear. They want stories that excite them today. The more you serve up what pulp used to be, the narrower and more pigeonholed your buying market becomes.

Now if you’ve got supportive sales and are happy and comfortable with a day job while doing this kind of writing or publishing as a spare time labor-of-love; then hey, more power to you! I totally understand, and I’d be the first one to cheer in your corner. I have tremendous respect for the grand pulp tradition that came before me. Some of those writers went on to make the big time, and others labored in obscurity behind house names and generic branding while feeding families and keeping body and soul together at a time when the world around them was reeling from economic hardships and the threat of war. Via their work, they all brought to life an inexpensive escape mechanism for a reading public that was inundated with daily bad news. But we have to realize, we live in a far different age than those pulp pioneers. This isn’t the 1940s anymore, because the world is far more accessible and diverse via all those electronic gadgets we’ve been snapping up over the last 70 years, and the overall education level of our readers has risen too. We can’t keep churning out the same old stories the same old way, and expect them to magically find a new audience. It doesn’t matter what you call the stuff you’re writing; what does matter is that readers enjoy it enough to start an underground grassroots buzz, so that others come looking for your work.

We’ve got to get readers excited enough to continue talking about what we sold them. The best way to do that is to pay attention to what they’re reading, watching, and discussing in popular entertainment, and write to that. If you take a hard look at what Classic Pulp accomplished, it had nothing to do with trying to fit some mold of what pulp should be. In those days, they were selling stories people wanted to read at that time, not trying to emulate styles and plots that worked three generations before. Oh, there was a lot of copycatting, but mostly to ride on the success of some lucky contemporary who hit a nerve with the buying public. If New Pulp, or Genre Fiction, or whatever the moniker-du-jour might be, is going to not only survive but thrive and endure, then we’d better start thinking about writing as a business that sells to a general audience. There might be niche markets for 78 RPM vinyl records, rotary dial phones, and 5-1/4 inch floppy disks, but you’re going to have to work super hard to make a living selling them.

Look, if I had all the answers to what makes people pay to read something, I’d be supporting myself writing. I’m not, at least not yet; but I have listened carefully to the feedback I’ve been getting. As a New Pulp insider, I can see where the problems are between what readers want and what we can afford to give them. We don’t have as much of an inexpensive product as our pulpy forebears did, because while the technology exists to make cheap paperless copies, not everyone who loves to read is on board with that yet. In the meantime, our dead tree and ink versions are a bit pricey—especially when indie companies are churning out something every month of the year. People tell me they don’t want to pay $15-$20 every six weeks for relatively short paperback books written by authors they aren’t familiar with. New Pulp books are most often soft cover and relatively lightweight on page count; both to keep the pace of the plot intense as well as the actual book price reasonably affordable. Yet there is a perceived value balance between purchase cost and length of the tale. Readers are telling me they’d like a bit more meat for what we’re charging, and I’ve been thinking hard about how that can be handled. No one has said a word about whether what I do is called ‘this’ kind of writing or ‘that’; they just want a good story that draws them in and lasts long enough to feel like what was paid was worthwhile. And if there is a sequel, they want to read it before they forget what happened in the first book. Eight months to a year seems to be the sweet zone for that.

Another thing I’ve been thinking heavily about is not competing with myself for readers. Because of recent health issues, I’ve had to slow down my writing pace and leave the keyboard to become more active, which means taking on less projects overall. I don’t see where my readership has suffered one way or another. I’d like to think that with the less hectic pace, the quality of my writing has improved. What it has done, is help me see the difference between being part of a multi-author anthology and a book of multiple short stories written solely by me. While my anthos haven’t caught on as well as my novels—mainly because I have a more regional following and people say they are confused as to what book is a sequel to another—the feedback I’m getting has been encouraging. Outside of my area, I’ve done far better in mixed author work, where my co-writers have some New Pulp notoriety that helps sell copies that contain one of my stories. There the reviews have been very positive. That tells me I am giving people what they want and expect in an interesting read. Once again, the fact that whatever I was involved in was or wasn’t called ‘New Pulp’ had little to do with it. Even when I’m writing to a protocol set by others, my own style tends to come through and I’ve slowly been adding fans. I’ve always insisted on writing the kind of stories I love to read, and that’s one of the things that seem to be working for me.

No, I don’t think what we call our writing is keeping us from reaching a broader market. If New Pulp wants to grow, it has to become what today’s reading public wants it to be. We called it ‘New Pulp’ because the basic underpinning is fast paced, action adventure stories that are reminiscent of the days of yore, when a ‘guilty read’ could chase away the troubles of the time. There’s plenty of need for escapism in this far too complex world, but not all of it has to hearken back to formulas that worked way back when. Maybe today’s reader wants more complex and vulnerable characters in either contemporary or genre comfortable settings with a plot that has unpredictable twists. Let’s give it to them then, and forget about what we’re calling it this year.