Thursday, August 16, 2012

So... Why Pulp: Five Things I’ve Learned From Writing New Pulp

It’s hard to believe that this is my 20th column for the New Pulp site. Almost eight months ago, on December 22, 2011, my initial post went live. Wow—where does the time go?

Even more amazing are all the changes in my life since I started writing New Pulp specifically, just fewer than two and a half years ago. Besides the obvious—I actually got published!—it’s been a real climate shift in not only how I write, but how often and for what reasons. I have gone from closeting myself away now and then as an idea struck me to walling myself off in the center of chaos daily so that I can work on whatever is the hot project du jour. I’ve never written this consistently, or this well. Being a New Pulp writer has altered the way I feel about my craft, and it’s all for the better.

Now, I make a big distinction between Classic Pulp and New Pulp on purpose. While both were/are meant to be fast paced adventure entertainment fiction for the masses, and they follow a similar format, there’s one major difference. The writers of yesteryear were cranking out as much as they could as quickly as possible because they were looking to get paid and support themselves and families. I am sure that most of them loved writing, but the impetus to be prolific was to keep body and soul together. So content and artistry was not as important as hitting that deadline so that you could get on to the next project. It’s a different field today, where many of us write as a passion and pay homage to the stories we love while paying the bills via some other means of income. I’m not saying nobody in the New Pulp field is supporting themselves on her or his writing ability, but it’s not the general rule. We’re here because we’re square pegs in a round hole publishing world and we can’t find a mainstream market for our preferred style of fiction. This entire New Pulp wave is more about passion for the craft than feeding the hungry horde at home.

So the first thing I learned about writing New Pulp is there is no way I am going to get rich and famous doing this. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, but it does require an attitude adjustment.

I’m still here because I enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve always devoured interesting books and I’ve been a storyteller most of my life. Writing is something that just comes naturally to me; it’s like breathing. I can’t imagine not writing. But writers need a widespread and appreciative audience in order to feed the muse, and to do that you have to get into print and be distributed outside your small circle of family and friends. Down at this level, publishers are small enterprises run out of homes and most of them exist as online entities with shoestring budgets. The corporate office might be someone’s den or garage. They don’t have the marketing forces of the big publishers, with their posh surroundings, hefty budgets, and glitzy ad campaigns. It’s really a team effort to get the word out that we are valid and alive down here in this subterranean plane of endeavor.

All my visions of locking myself in my lonely garret for sleepless weeks on end to produce a novel a year went out the window. I now realize that if I don’t get my face out there on a semi-regular basis and hawk my wares, no one is going to know who the heck I am or what I write. Just because I am a writer, doesn’t mean I won’t be asked to help edit or spread the word. There are no prima-donnas in New Pulp; we all wear multiple hats.

So my second lesson was that I can’t just write and then rest on my laurels waiting for accolades. I am a partner with the publishers I write for in marketing my own books as well as those of others. No divas need apply.

Editing is something that I always felt belonged to experts—as if editors were some kind of specialized creation of the Universe. I had seen anthologies where known authors compiled and oversaw the entire process, but that seemed to me to be something only the very elite and trustworthy ever got asked to do. So you can imagine my shock when I got a battlefield promotion into the editorial staff of first a magazine and then books. I’m now Assistant Editor for Pro Se Press, and it’s a position I never would have imagined taking on several years ago. Editing is something I would do as a favor for friends; but to handle a manuscript of someone I don’t know, one that is destined to be in print soon, is like being asked to care for a newborn child. You make a wrong move and you’ve destroyed something someone labored to bring to life. Happily, I find I enjoy working with other writers, and the laid back and high touch attention I can give to each manuscript hearkens back to the days when editors had more interest in making an author’s words sing than what the bottom line figures show. It is a challenge at times, and I’ve had to pull my hair out over a few projects—especially when deadlines are whisper-close and things aren’t coming together. Yet every experience I’ve had so far as an editor has brought some really interesting insights. I have writers now that come to me for advice, like they think I actually know what I’m doing! Some days I even believe I do.

The third lesson was about not being as apprehensive in trying new things or taking on extra responsibilities. I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself through writing-related projects like editing, speaking on panels, writing columns, and doing podcasts.

One of the hardest things I had to adjust to in writing New Pulp was maintaining the pace of stories. I stumbled into this as a wannabe mainstream fantasy writer. Fantasy is a very wide and all encompassing story genre whose main tenet is worlds based on some sort of magical or occult system. It’s an adaptable and hearty species that easily crossbreeds with others around it. Most mainstream fantasy books are far larger than New Pulp ones and the stories unfold much slower. It’s also a genre that thrives on epic ongoing series, of which my first love, Sword & Sorcery, is especially known for.

Unfortunately mainstream fantasy short stories are a fairly dead market now, outside of specific anthologies. It seemed almost impossible to break in anywhere, and so I stopped writing short stories altogether and concentrated on novels. I had a book finished and was shopping it around with mediocre responses while I was writing the sequel. A dear friend suggested I might want to split the first one up and try to get smaller books published, but I flat refused. That story was not going under the knife!

So I get to this New Pulp part of the world, and not only are the books far shorter but the writers are far more prolific than I was. I was delighted that the companies actually print short stories in magazines and collections that I might have a shot being published in! I had to relearn how to write in order to fit in, so I took a lot of my archived shorts out of mothballs, read through them, rewrote sections that seemed dull or pointless, and with a kiss goodbye, sent them off. That novel I left on the back burner. No way was I chopping up my baby! It took me four years to write, and I’d done countless revisions as it was.

And then… someone asked if I had a book. I said yeah, but it’s not really pulp and it’s pretty big. He still wanted to see it anyway, so I sent a synopsis, and set to work rereading it. At that point I had been reading and writing pulp stories for months, and I knew the company was moving toward accepting novels—just not anywhere as long as my book. After all that intensity and fast pacing in the short stories, I could now see the problem with my own weighty tome. The concept was fine, and some passages really sang, but a lot of it was overblown and plodding, full of lengthy narrative exposition where nothing exciting happened. In fact, found it boring as heck! So I did what I swore I would never do—I lopped the thing into rough thirds and started to rewrite the first part. I kept everything that sounded good and pulpy, dumped the stuff that lost my attention, and gave it a fresh new title. That became FORTUNE’S PAWN, which remained Pro Se’s best selling novel for some months. That one book taught me more about writing New Pulp than anything else I’ve done.

The fourth lesson was to understand who you are writing for, as well as what you love to write, and combine the two ideals. Pulp audiences have a specific taste for stories with high action and adventure without a lot of fluff—but then, so do a lot of people who don’t read pulp. There are no sacred cows or untouchable manuscripts. If you want to sell books, you have to please the audience that is going to read them. What the readers want is more important than what you think they should be getting from you. Listen to them!

My writing life has evolved over the last couple years from something I did on occasion when the spirit moved me to a craft I practice almost every day. I had a lot of original material that I created over the past 20 years to draw from, and I’ve had no problem coming up with even more, because I park myself in front of that keyboard regularly to get words on a page. My reputation as an author I take seriously, so I don’t goof off and miss too many deadlines and I always turn out the best material I know how to create. I try and stay ahead on projects because I don’t know what else might come up. If I’m not writing it’s because I purposely chose to take a day off or something else important is going on.

Because of that workmanlike attitude, I am now at the point where other New Pulp writers and publishers are approaching me to be involved in projects they’ve developed. That, my friends, is the ultimate compliment; and one I am ever grateful for. By taking on additional work I am expanding my repertoire as well as my ability to reach new readers. I still tend to pick and choose my projects by the same criteria, which is asking myself: Do I enjoy this kind of writing? Will I do well with it? Do I have the time to make the deadline? Those projects that I feel confident with, I will take on, and I have. If something needs to be altered, or I am asked for a rewrite, I do it their way without whining. I never forget that being published is a privilege and an honor, not an entitlement.

Lesson number five was the hardest one to learn. A professional attitude means settling in to work even when you don’t feel like it and giving each project you agree to your best effort. You can’t be all things to all people, but you need to at least please the folks who buy your stuff as well as meeting deadlines for your publisher in a timely fashion. Then my friend, you will have something to show at the end of each day, week, month, and year, other than files full of unfulfilled dreams.

Here’s to a long and happy writing life for all of us!


  1. Writing pulp is incredibly liberating, in a way, and I'm glad you've had such an enjoyable experience! I keep seeing things online about a "new wave" of pulp, but a wave implies a phenomenon that will end at some point, and I'd rather pulp was a prolonged form, enjoyed by many for a long time! Still, here's to all the New Pulp writers :-)

  2. Great Column, Nancy! And Icy, I agree that ' wave' is the wrong word. It's one of the reasons many of us refer to ourselves as The New Pulp Movement. Movement denotes something ongoing and also typically something that evolves. Others have used the terms 'Renaissance' and 'Revolution' in regards to New Pulp as well!

  3. As usual, Nancy, your column provides tons of insight! It conveys good advice for veteran authors and novice writers. Thanks for the useful tips!


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