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.