Pulp Speed Flashes To The Present
Fourth Time Brought Forward
I wrote this post in 2014, then brought it forward again in 2015, and then again in 2019. Got a few questions about it, so figured after two years, one of which lasted forever, it couldn’t hurt on a slow Friday night to bring it back once more.
Not at all sure why this idea sort of hits me right. I think because it flies in the face of all the myths. A writer has to have all myths under control to even attempt this. So this post might just make you angry because it hits at belief systems I’m afraid.
The second reason I can’t shake this idea is because for all of my life I have idolized pulp writers. I used to study them and their lives. (And yet, even with all that knowledge, I still spent seven years in the rewriting to death trap. Go figure.)
Many, many of the great writers of the past that we still read and enjoy were pulp writers. And there are many pulp writers working today. More than you might imagine. (Remember, I wrote this in 2014)
Now, right here, before I get started, I’m going to repeat what I always say. No writer is the same as any other writer.
And most writers could never do what I am about to talk about.
Pulp Speed writing is a mind-set for writers who have cleared out damn never every myth and belief taught to them about writing by English teachers. A Pulp Speed writer loves to just tell stories, one right after another. So remember, no writer is the same as another writer. And if this hits you wrong, it might not be for you to even think about in any fashion.
But for others, this might just be the ticket to a bright new future, just to learn this is possible and happening.
There have been writers for as long as there have been stories that have had work ethics, meaning they spend a lot of time writing. In our modern world, we call writers who spend a lot of time producing new words “fast” writers.
But fast has nothing to do with it. Just a work ethic and a love of stories.
Dickens was one of the early great Pulp Writers. And there were many along the way before the turn of 1900. It was then that the “literary” group split from the “writing for the masses” group of writers.
To the literary group, their writing had to be important, something to struggle to read, and only be published in leather hardbound books.
The masses group of writers just wanted to tell stories that would entertain readers.
Around this split period of 1900, the pulp magazines were coming in, and with the pulp magazine expansion, stories were needed to fill the pages of the exploding pulp magazine field. And the writers who could write sellable stories quickly discovered they could become very rich writing for one or two cents per word.
Word production equaled money.
The pulp magazines lasted for over half a century. Each issue of every title contained many short stories and often a novel or two and sometimes serialized novels. Novels in those days ranged from 30,000 words to 50,000 words. 20,000 to 30,000 words was called a short novel. Short stories were under 20,000 words.
Novels that were in the pulps almost never made it out of the pulps. They lasted on the stands for one week or maybe two weeks or a month and were gone. A few pulp writers started their own publishing companies. One example is Burroughs, still around and publishing and licensing today. But most novels just stayed in the pulps until the late 1940s when the paperback form started to take off and novels were needed for that form.
Doc Savage was a pulp character created mostly by Lester Dent and his publisher under a magazine house name. Dent wrote 159 of the Doc Savage novels for the Doc Savage pulp magazine, among many other books under other names, including his own name. There was a novel from Dent in most issues of the monthly Doc Savage Magazine for a decade or more. You can still buy Doc Savage novels by Dent today.
Some pulp writers got so famous, they were some of the richest people in the country. One year in the 1940s, the pen name Max Brand had thirteen movies in production from his books. Some of you may even remember Max Brand’s Dr. Kildare from television. Either the first television series or the second.
But Dr. Kildare was also a movie series in the 1930s and 1940s and then a radio series before the two television series. (Bet you thought Max Brand was all westerns huh?)
By the way, the author behind Max Brand was Frederick Faust. Faust had a bunch of other prolific pen names besides Brand. For just one magazine group in the 1920s he wrote over a million words per year for the entire decade, on a typewriter. Plus other stories and novels for other magazines. (He did this after having a major heart attack and having heart issues until killed in WWII as a war correspondent.) He supposedly wrote well over 500 novels and even more short stories, and it is said that a book of his is reprinted today every week in one place or another. (not documented, just belief…)
I admire true storytellers such as Max Brand and Lester Dent who are still being read and enjoyed by millions well over a hundred years past when they started publishing.
When the pulps finally died in the late 1950s, Pulp Speed writers turned to paperbacks through the 1960s and 1970s and wrote everything a publisher wanted. There were lots and lots of Pulp Speed writers producing upwards of 30 novels a year if not more. And most books were under many pen names and across many genres. Novels in this time period were still in the 40,000 word range.
In the 1980s publishers started to artificially inflate the size of novels because of the publisher’s need to charge more for a paperback. Pulp Speed writers kept on. Numbers worked the category romance field, many worked westerns which had kept their smaller size.
And as normal, Pulp Speed writers worked across all genres. Fewer titles produced, but more words per book, so same production. Many Pulp Speed writers worked series novels for publishers during this period. And a lot of media novels.
But by the 1990s and early this century, most of the Pulp Speed writers had retired and very few new writers understood that Pulp Speed world was out there. It was almost impossible to understand when publishers limited a writer to one book per year. But some Pulp Speed writers still existed and worked through the period.
But now, with the advent of the indie world, Pulp Speed writers are coming back. It is possible again. And fun.
The golden age of fiction for readers has returned.
The crap rules the traditional publishers forced on writers are gone for writers smart enough to escape them. Just as with the pulp era, writers are free to write stories again at whatever pace they want to write. And readers are free to read what they want without some snobby person telling them it is good or bad.
The second pulp era is upon us.
How to Pick Up Speed In Your Writing
Well, since we all type about the same speed when writing, the way to pick up speed is to spend more time in the writing chair. However, to do that in this modern world takes a vast amount of getting rid of all the crap we were taught by non-writers.
And it takes a real love of telling stories and an ability to write one draft fiction. Rewriting kills Pulp Speed completely. None of the great Pulp Writers you read today and many of the great literary writers never rewrote anything. They told people they did starting in the 1970s and afterward when the rewriting craze started to hit, but they never did in reality.
Remember, to them words were money. One cent per word made them rich. The more words in sellable fiction, the richer they got.
Also, Pulp Speed writing takes a love of learning about writing and a love of learning how to keep improving on telling stories.
And once again, Pulp Speed thinking may not be right for you. In fact, chances are, it is not.
Or maybe you are the type of writer who just produces Pulp Speed amount of words, but never thinks about it. That’s fine as well. Don’t think about this.
So What Is Pulp Speed?
After discussion with a dozen writers about this, I’ve decided to just set the amounts like Warp Drive in Star Trek. (Remember, I wrote a lot of Star Trek novels in every series.)
Just as with Warp Drive in Star Trek, each level up gets factors more difficult.
Again, I am just setting these numbers from talking with other writers and studying history of what consisted good word counts in the pulp era for the successful writers.
PULP SPEED ONE
About 1,000,000 (1 million) original words per year. This averages to about 2,750 words a day for 365 days. (numbers rounded)
Or about 83,300 words per month. So if you do 3,000 words a day and over 84,000 words per month ON AVERAGE for a year, you are writing at PULP SPEED ONE. (if you take days off, then your daily word count has to go up on your writing days. Do your own math for your schedule.)
PULP SPEED TWO
1,200,000 words in a year. 100,000 words per month. Last month I hit PULP SPEED TWO, for the month, but the key is holding it for the year. The yearly total is the key. Average is the key.
And remember, that is about 3,400 words per day. If you can write 1,000 words average an hour, that’s 3.5 hours per day.
PULP SPEED THREE
1,400,000 words in a year. To hit this, you need to be about 120,000 words per month (rounded up) or about 4,000 words per day average. Again, at this level, the difficulty factor starts increasing. Maintaining gets more difficult on the engines to keep at this speed for an entire year. (Max Brand wrote at this pace for decades, not missing.)
PULP SPEED FOUR
1,600,000 words per year. That’s about 135,000 words per month or about 4,500 words per day without a day off.
PULP SPEED FIVE
1,800,000 words per year. About 150,000 words per month. 5,000 words per day without missing a day.
PULP SPEED SIX
2 million words and more per year. 170,000 words or so per month. About 5,500 words per day average.
The engines are shaking and Scotty is looking panicked.
But I know a few writers who did this through the traditional publishing crunch on writers in the early part of this century. It can be done. I did it during a few years myself, actually.
But if you think it can’t be done, ask yourself why? Why is your belief system telling you that?
Say you wanted to write for 8 hours per day for five days a week. (40 hours of writing. You know, like a work ethic.) This allows you to take the weekends off with your family. You write 1,000 words per hour. 8 hours is 8,000 words per writing day. 40,000 words per week.
So you do that, take two weeks off for a vacation. 50 weeks x 40,000 words per week = 2 million words.
Writers who write in these top speeds have a real work ethic with their writing and love to tell stories, one right after another.
As I said earlier, you need to have everything cleaned out of the myth side of the brain.
Pulp Speed Six is what a few full-time writers manage. Writers who work eight hours a day, five days per week, 50 weeks per year.
This is not for everyone. And you can’t just jump to these speeds, it takes time to work up to them. But it is possible once again for more than just a few in this new indie publishing reality.
Just remember, every writer has a different method, a different path. No one way is right for every writer. I am not saying anyone should attempt these speeds (hours writing). I just wanted to make sure the knowledge of these kinds of speeds were out there.
And once again bring the idea of Pulp Speed back to the present.
Always good to see this post again, Dean. I’m currently limping along at Pulp 2.
Nothing Limping about that, Harvey. (grin)
I have always loved this post, from the very first time you put it up. This concept probably did more for my writing career than any other single bit of advice out there. OK, maybe Heinlein’s Rules top it. A little. 😉
For the first time, I hit a million words in a calendar year in 2020. This year I’m aiming even higher; I’d like at least ONE month at Pulp Speed Five, and I want to shift my speed so I’m doing close to that pretty much every month. Not there yet. But this whole writing gig is a WIP.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading books *about* writing by old pulp writers. There’s a surprising amount of stuff on Kindle that dates back to the early decades of the 20th century, and I’m finding the writing advice given there to a) be very helpful today and b) mirror a lot of what Dean’s been saying here for the last decade. 😉
(Wonder if Dean and I read the same books now?!)
I figure these guys sustained careers for decades while writing a million+ words a year. If they can do it, I can do it too – and their advice feels far more relevant than the Writer’s Digest approved stuff I grew up on in the 80s and 90s, when authors were told they were doing a bad thing if they wrote more than a book a year.
Yup, my attitude for a lot of years now. A balance between productive and burn-out, which is why so many of the old pulp writers were so consistent. And yeah, the writing advice from those old 1920s to 1940s books was something. Hubbard had some great writing articles, Heinlein did his rules in that period, Lester Dent did his famous plot formula.
I think the only time in this indie world that I reached Pulp Speed Six was for one month where I was challenging myself to write four novels in a month, basically a novel a week. I hit the challenge and had a blast doing it. Went on for a fifth week for a fifty novel before a life event derailed me from continuing. I hit Pulp Speed Six for a few months in a row back in the old traditional publishing days when I ended up with five novels due the same month, all 80,000 to 100,000 word novels. Kris basically brought me food for weeks just to keep me alive. That is a crazy pace. I like coasting along at Pulphouse Speed two or three. I don’t burn out there.
Oh, incidentally – Dean, if you haven’t heard about Kindle Vella yet, might be worth checking out. It’s a new upcoming serial program they’re launching. It’s RIGHT up my alley – I already release chapters as written on one series for Patreon readers, so this just gives me another ‘chapter by chapter’ sales venue. (They do require we take down the Vella serial before compiling it as a long-form book for publication, so I’ll just leave the completed work on Vella a month or so and then publish.)
Kevin, I personally would run like hell from that. It is exclusive, make sure you read the amount of time and the details in the terms of service carefully. And the rights they are licensing. Extreme caution. It might turn out to be a viable channel if you can use it the way you suggest. But extreme caution.
Thank you for bringing this forward again. I had a conversation with some (casual, non-writer) where I mentioned the Great Novel Challenge. He was blown away by the thought someone could write SIX novels in a year. Astounded. Until I broke it down like you did. 1,000 words per hour. 3 hours per day. ~90,000 words per month.
There is something very interesting I noticed when I’m hitting the 3-5k/day goals in a story that I wondered if it was just me or other people experience it, too. The story flows easier, and I can get into the ‘what happens next’ frame of mind faster. When the writing is less than 1k, finding the words becomes harder as well. It’s almost as if there is a sweet spot, where I’m not stretching my mind to go too fast (more than 7k in a day for me) or too slow.
Thank you again for reminding us of what is possible. I book mark these so I can find them easily when I need to remind myself.
Kristi, that’s why big-name pros always claim in front of their readers that they spend a lot of time writing and do hundreds and hundreds of rewrites. It’s because the common reader knows all the writing myths as well.
And yes, I call it ground effect. That’s a term that basically means the resistance between the ground and an airplane when it is close to the ground, that air cushion between the ground and the plane. That’s what happens with writing as well. So much harder to start and stop than just get up in the air and fly along with the words.
The trinity of writing by Dean Wesley Smith:
Writing into the dark
If a writer could live by these three alone, then they sky would be the limit. I love this classic post.
Got that spot on the money, Philip. But I didn’t come up with any of it. Heinlein came up with his rules. I just sort of explained how they work for most professional writers. Most pros also cycle and write into the dark, but never claim it because it hurts sales with readers. I just observed how successful writers write with speed (meaning more time in the chair). I have to admit, I did copy the Star Trek Warp Drive to come up with the name Pulp Speed. So besides that one name, I didn’t come up with anything. Just observed and had the stupidity to put it out for writers. (grin)
I came to the site to look up the old Pulp Speed post, so this was very timely for me. With the Great Novel Challenge this year I will be at about 1/2 Pulp Speed One … which has been a challenge to maintain. The first four months were good, then I started to struggle and have really had to push to keep up the pace. Can’t really say ‘streak’, but that’s what I need.
I’d like to get to Pulp Speed One consistently. I have a lot of stories I want to tell! (Well, find out what happens in them for myself!)
Victoria, critical voice is creeping in, something got important. Step outside yourself and check in as to what is trying to stop you, then wipe it out and go have fun again.
Gotta say, this is the most important thing I ever read as an aspiring writer. Another site reposted this a few years ago, and it led me to this site. I say ‘aspiring’ writer, but I wasn’t actually thinking about it; I’d been steeped in the myths and thought I couldn’t even attempt to make a living as a writer, or even finish a book. Well, as soon as I read this post, something clicked, and I knew that I could achieve ‘pulp speed’ as a writer. And it’s been a blast. So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Thank you, Mr. Smith, for showing me how my dreams can come true.
Glen, thank you. But I am no more than a sign along a road. Sure, I can help you keep on the road and going the right way, but you do it all, you decide to travel the road. Keep it fun. When fiction writing isn’t fun, you are doing something wrong. And that is usually a myth or critical voice got in somehow. Without myths and critical voice, fiction writing is just a joy.
I love the whole Pulp Speed concept! I would be perfectly happy to consistently cruise at Pulp Speed One, but I’m not even close. Did a restart this year with a moderate goal of 360,000 words for the year (six books, give or take) since I hardly wrote a word in 2020. I’m right on track. Only missed a couple days since the start of 2021 so far. I was hoping I’d start getting ahead, though. I only need to average 1,000/day (roughly) and most days I can squeeze in around 2-3 hours in the chair. Alas, I can’t seem to bump up that hourly rate. I float up and down around the 300-500 words per hour range. For whatever reason, it seems like a hard ceiling I can’t break. If I could get up to the 1,000/hour, Pulp One would probably be a cinch.
The good news is, I feel pretty certain (barring any major life rolls) I’ll hit my 360,000-word goal, which will be a record-breaker for me.
Time how fast you write emails. If you write them faster than your fiction rate, you have a critical voice problem that is making fiction more important than an email to a friend or a business email. Should be the other way around. Fiction is just made up. It should be faster than emails.
Only critical voice or thinking fiction is too important will create those speeds.
“Time how fast you write emails. If you write them faster than your fiction rate, you have a critical voice problem that is making fiction more important than an email to a friend or a business email. Should be the other way around. Fiction is just made up. It should be faster than emails.”
Dean, this is pure gold. I’ll be quoting you.
Thanks. Just logical to me. Not sure why everyone doesn’t see it that way. Puzzling to me for years now.
Hi Dean, Thank you so very much for reporting this piece. I am going to be working towards Pulp Speed Two for a year. I really appreciate the time you take to write and put the courses, blogs and books out. You have bursted so many myths for me and I am making amazing progress following your work.
Thank you again
Keep it fun, Mo. Fiction writing is never work.
I just saw a little advertising piece on Facebook from Dean Koontz about his writing schedule. Gets up at 5 AM, walks the dog and other morning necessities, sits down at 6:30 or so and writes till 5 in the afternoon. Somehow he gets a lot of books written. Coincidence? 🙂
Yeah, and a bunch under pen names as well. At one point he had 12 pen names. Go figure.