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.