Thursday, May 10, 2012

So... Why Pulp: Shakin’ Your Groove Thang…


You know how it is, you get into a comfortable groove with writing or whatever it is you do in the pulp world, and it just feels kind of… well, not effortless maybe, but comfortably routine. You sit down at the keyboard or drawing table and think about what you’re going to do, and pretty much the mind goes on autopilot as the words or images start to flow. And baby, that’s a beautiful thing, no doubt about it.

Whatever works on a daily basis is one of the reasons those of us in the pulp world turn out such an amazing amount of material. Some of us are generalists, some like me have very specific tastes; but it’s so much easier to work day in and day out in that secure zone where we know what the characters and settings will be like. Most times it’s just a matter of getting the names and the finer details right. Oh there’s skill involved in telling or illustrating any good story, but by the time you have a few things in print, you should have a pretty darn good idea of how to do what you do. Pulp thrives on plot formulas and stock characters, and it’s the action that moves the tale along anyway. So the big source of tension over, “Holy hand grenades, how am I going to pull this off?” is generally gone, usually replaced by a workmanlike attitude of ‘get ‘er done’ and some complacency about the actual output. Crushing deadlines can cause a lot of angst and sleepless nights on their own, but that’s more about scheduling than the challenge of the piece. It’s a good place to be, where you’re comfortable with what you do.

It’s a dangerous place to be as well! Having a well worn groove can lead to getting into a rut, where all you seem to do is the same old thing, the same old way. Now and then, you’re going to need a change of pace; a chance to break out and tackle an entirely new project. If you don’t, you’re going to get stale, and like a low budget TV show, that cowboy is going ride around that same clump of cactus in every chase. The same old Nazis are going to attack from that blasted zeppelin again. The heroine is going to pull out her ray gun and it will misfire for the umpteenth time. Yeah, it happens. We depend on what we know well and repeat ourselves.

Sometimes you need to break out and do something different. I mean really different, like write in a genre you’ve never tried. Spread your creative wings and see what’s around the next bend, or over the mountains. Do a little exploring. Get yourself in dangerous circumstances where you have no idea where you are going or even why.

I’m probably the world’s worst example of that kind of diversity. I learned my craft with that old adage about ‘write what you know’ engraved on my brain. It’s very limiting for me, because I’m not well traveled, I have always lived in the same area of the country, and until I had the internet at my disposal, I really didn’t know much outside my own little insular world. Introverts might make great poets, but the kind of action adventure tales that make good pulp often demand specific time frames and exotic locales. Now I came into writing as primarily a fantasy fan, and when I say fantasy, I’m talking epic/heroic high fantasy—the wonderful sword & sorcery quest tales that make me stay up late at night turning pages and sighing wistfully for a magical life I’ll never experience. So yeah, it’s understandable that after reading so much of that stuff, I’d wind up writing it too. I resonate with the characters and worlds those stories lay out as well as the mindset of readers who gobble them up. I like to think I write them well. But that’s not all I can write, or all I should write either. And here’s why: Some folks don’t read or enjoy fantasy. Yeah, I’m missing entire potential audiences by painting myself as a one-pattern writer.

Now, there’s some ongoing discussion in various quarters as to whether pulp is a totally separate genre or a blanket style that can encompass many genres. I’m not going to argue it with you here, though I do think it is a distinct style of writing. I’ve been able to successfully modify my mainstream work to qualify as New Pulp. All pulp has a strong and diverse fan base because the stories have run the gamut in covering so many genres. The uniting factor seems to be the fast pacing and high action. I’ve found I can write that way quite easily, but the kind of fantasy I usually author is just one small niche in that huge encompassing world of pulp. So if I want to be known as a New Pulp writer rather than simply a fantasy writer, I’d better diversify too. And oh yes, I have.

I can’t get too specific with my examples here, because many of these works have yet to come out, and I owe the publishers the opportunity to announce them. But I have stuck my toes in other genres.

It all started with The Silver Pentacle, something edgy I created for an ongoing short story series. It is a big mash up of genres like science fiction, horror, time traveling, mythology, a bit of steam punk, and whatever else I could shoehorn in there. It’s set in a post apocalyptic world and is still technically fantasy, but it’s creeping into a lot of other story dimensions. It has been challenging to write! I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to integrate everything. I have juxtaposed prehistoric creatures in a world with plasma cannons and pulse rifles, various eras of sea going vessels, mechanized war robots, genetic mutations and environmental upheaval caused by long term radiation exposure, pirates with an airship and a civil war era iron clad, roaming undead, Atlantean merfolk, super beings with distinct elemental powers, forgotten gods and goddesses, walk-ons by resurrected historical figures… the list could go on. Not the easiest stories I’ve ever written, I’ve only completed three of them so far, and the first one debuted in Pro Se Presents #2. It was a departure from the norm for me that I’m glad I took, because it wet my thirst for more interesting destinations with my writing.

I got involved in charity tome based on a talented youngster’s superhero and arch villain creations. I am not a big comic book or superhero fan per se, but I love writing, and using my talent for a worthy cause really appeals to me—so much so that I wound up doing a 30,000 word young adult story based on two characters, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Not as much research with this one as resurrecting my own childhood, where stacks of bundled comic books from the town dump whiled away the summer vacation hours and gave an already avid reader something new to peruse. I had never pictured myself writing costumed superheroes and villains before taking on that challenge, and it had been a while since I had written anything for the younger set. Looking forward to when that collection comes out. Would I do another superhero story? That’s a good possibility, with the right project.

I got involved in an ongoing project to write new adventures for old public domain pulp characters that have kind of fallen by the wayside. There was a list of open possibilities and I picked several that sounded as if I could master them. That is where it became very apparent to me that there really wasn’t a lot epic fantasy in traditional pulp, though the stories or characters who would qualify for that genre are very much beloved to the point of being continually resurrected in novels, anthologies, comics, and movies. Of the two tales I’ve completed so far, one qualifies solidly as a western—something I have never written or read, though I have watched and enjoyed. That took a lot of research, because there was jargon and information in the original material I had no idea how to interpret. Many times I had the feeling I was so out of my league that the first person to read it was going to scoff at my lack of knowledge. Since this had to be done as close to the original pulp author’s design as possible it was a bit nail biting for me, and there were days I had to force myself not to walk away from the keyboard in disgust. Still, once I was finished, I was quite proud of my tale. I’ve heard no complaints from the editor so far…

The second story I wrote for that project is in my final editing stages before I send it off. Once again, way out of my league, a period-set action adventure with a specific type of character. Not as much research on this one as trying to get the well-known original author’s voice just right. Following in hallowed footsteps is daunting at times, but I’m glad I took the challenge, because the story I created makes me feel proud to have continued a pulp legacy. It very much resembles the adventures of a far better known pulp character by the same author, and since that work is tied up in other copyrighted franchises, this is likely as close as I’ll get to doing anything above the fan fiction level with that sort of character.

Speaking of challenges, sometimes they land in your lap. I was suddenly ‘gifted’ one day with the opening paragraphs of what was to be a private eye story. The idea was for me to build on that. Now I don’t generally read mysteries, PI stories, or cop dramas, but I have watched a few. I initially said no, I’m not really interested, because at the time, I had a lot on my plate as far as unfinished projects with comfortably close deadlines that I didn’t want to push back, as well as some impromptu editing jobs. I don’t write well when I’m rushed and I know that if I am going to write outside my comfort zone, I have got to do plenty of research. Most PI series are written first person and set in bigger metropolitan areas with lots of crime and mean, gritty streets; and I’m a country girl in a rural area who likes to write third person most of the time. I felt pretty certain I couldn’t pull it off, though my unconscious mind was saying, “Maybe…if,” at the same time. So once I had turned the project down, I had no pressure on me when I started thinking about how I could modify the setting to some place I do know well, like say—modern day Southern New England. Hey, Robert B. Parker made Jesse Stone work in a small and corrupt Massachusetts town, and Connecticut—my home stomping grounds—has plenty interesting places and situations to work with. Around the same time, I sat in silent witness to a discussion by some other authors about how you just can’t write a good PI mystery story in this age of electronic devices. Well that was the final straw, and so I got right to work to disprove all of that. The Keener Eye series will be debuting later this year in Pro Se Presents; I’ve written two so far and a third story has been gradually plotting itself out in my head. Once again, I am way out of my normal groove and doing something I would not have dreamed of tackling a few years back.

Writing pulp tends to do that to you. It’s much harder to cross genre lines successfully in the market-driven, branding world of mainstream fiction than it is in New Pulp, where there is just so much to choose from in any publisher’s listing. The point I am making here is you’re better not to be known as a one trick pony like I have been. Challenge yourself, get out of that groove before it becomes a rut, and you won’t be typecast as that writer or artist who does only X, Y, or Z. Once you show yourself to be willing and able to shake off that label, more offers and opportunities will come. Pulp readers have varied tastes and publishers want to cater to that, so those of us who work on the books have to be just as disparate in what we offer up. And in all honesty, challenging work keeps your mind fresh. If this New Pulp ever gets dull for me, I might as well go get a boring and better paying job somewhere else.

Now go write something… different!

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