Pulp Speed Writers (Take Two)
A Post I Wrote in 2016…
Talks about the kind of writers who are or were Pulp Speed Writers. After yesterday’s post, I thought it would be worth bringing back as well. Answer a few questions.
Pulp Writers’ Abilities…
I got a great question today about some of the basics the really prolific pulp writers did to be so productive. And how to go about finding out about a lot of their styles.
How I have learned about so many of the older pulp writers is by reading books about them, often in their own words, reading books about the era, and just finding anything I could to read about the pulp writers of the 1920s to 1950s.
A great first book to start is Frank Gruber’s The Pulp Jungle. Oh, trust me, you will realize how little you have given to be a writer after reading that. Great stuff about other pulp writers. Lester Dent, Frederick Faust, and many others. (Frank Gruber was a great pulp writer as well.)
Also, I learned a lot about the pulp writers because I was lucky enough when I came into the field to be able meet and talk with numbers of them. (Yes, I am that old.)
And I also know some of the main modern pulp-speed writers as well.
So I got thinking after the question today about what all of the ones I have studied have in common that were very productive. What traits as writers they had similar because they were all very different men and women.
What do I mean by productive? Basically, writing above a million words a year for years and years and years. Good years and bad years.
It is the years and years and years part that is the big eliminator in this question. Often writers would have a few good years and then just vanish for one reason or another. We mostly don’t remember them.
The ones we do remember all seemed to keep the pace up for a decade or more. That created a body of work that, for the most part, has made it down through time. I have kept the pace up pretty solidly since 1993.
Every productive pulp writer I have studied had a few work patterns in common. And they all seemed to just take most of these in stride, as if doing anything else would be just foolhardy.
1… They did regular page counts or word counts every day.
Usually seven days a week. Very few of them took time off regularly.
Frederick Faust (Max Brand and other names) did 18 pages a day every day of the week without vacation, for decades. Even when traveling with his large family. (About 4500 hundred words per day.) He wrote his pages in the morning, then did horrid poetry that was his love in the afternoons. His poems did not count with his pages.
2… They never rewrote anything. Any of them. They fixed typos on the manuscript and that was it. (As one of them said and I can’t remember who, “They don’t pay you to rewrite.”)
3… They all treated their writing as part of who they were. It was never work, just part of what they did every day.
The Main Key
However, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that they all had one ability in common that most modern writers don’t have.
4… They just let go of finished stories.
Now, I know that sounds simple and somewhat silly, but it is the driving thing for all of these productive writers. Once a story was finished one draft and sold, it was gone. They always looked forward to the next story or novel.
They all had the natural ability to let go.
They typed at a decent pace on manual typewriters, they did one draft, they fixed typos, and they let the story go and moved on. No story had any more importance than any other story.
In my opinion, that is the hardest thing for writers to do, and most these days never attain it. But it is the secret to being extremely productive as a writer. Pulp-speed of a million words a year productive.
The enjoyment is in the writing of the story, the fun of the puzzle, the thrill of creating something. Once the story is over, they just move on to create a new story, have more fun with another puzzle, have another thrill of creating something.
Why this helps in production? Obvious first answer, at a writing speed of over a million words a year for years and years, you won’t remember older stories and you are producing so many, none of them much matter. Or have a difference from one to the other.
But I think it is more than that.
I think the really productive pulp-speed writers at a deep level don’t care about the finished product. They did the best they could while writing. That was all they could do, so they move on.
The lack of caring comes from the fact that real pulp-speed writers of any era love the process of writing. Some love it for the challenge, some love it for the creation, some love it for the fear. So when a story is finished, all the things they love about writing are done.
So they move on to the next story.
They just let go.
Very few modern writers have that ability. That’s why there are so few pulp-speed writers like me and so many writers who want to produce more but never seem to be able to.
Have fun with the writing. It is the first step to picking up production as a writer.
“Some love it for the challenge, some love it for the creation, some love it for the fear.” Exactly.
And on top of that, for me, the almost voyeuristic sense of looking-in on the characters’ story and the feeling of the keys moving beneath my fingers. (grin)
This is spot on. I consider myself a pulp speed writer and it’s amazing how some of my colleagues are amazed at how I’m able to put out so much quality work (I guess it’s quality. I don’t really know. All I know is that if I’m having a lot of fun writing it, then it’s quality). Others are somewhat baffled and look at me almost suspiciously. Others, who are usually authors who maybe put out one book per year tradtionally, will look at me almost with scorn. Who does he think he is publishing all those books and stories. Doesn’t he know you’re not supposed to do that? Certainly the publishers are frustrated with me. One editor at Thomas & Mercer actually said, “Poor Vince, he’s stretched himself too thin.” The agent followed up with, “Maybe you should slow down a little, take a break.” When I’m not writing new stories and novels, I feel utterly empty inside. At the same, I almost feel panicked when I don’t have something new going. It’s who I am, and how I live. I can be in the Amaozn Jungle (true story), and I will put in at least some kind of word count. I never take time off. Only if it’s a travel day, and even then I can work in the airport bar. In general I can do 2000-3000 word per day, and this is entirely part time, giving me time to workout for a couple hours a day, take a nap, etc. I suppose I can do more, but this is where I am at the moment.
Vincent, yeah, I learned early on that I flat don’t tell anyone what I do and how much I do. When I was working for traditional publishers back in the 1990s and early 2000s, none of them knew about the books I wrote under other names and for other publishers. They just knew I was there if they needed me. My agent was on over 95 book contracts for me and she never sold a one or read a one. I sold them all. She just handled all the scut work and details. Tell a beginning writer that and they are shocked, I say, shocked. They all think agents sold books.
I love and idolize the pulp greats. I read the Gruber book and it was worth the money it took me to get it.
I recently read an article by Robert Silverberg about his long stint as an erotica writer in the late 50s/early 60s. He said he wrote a 50,000 smut novel every single week. He treated it like a blue collar job. He worked an 8-hour day and took a break for lunch. He also used double-spaced manuscript pages as his daily quota to hit (can’t remember what the count is daily for him to hit 50k words). He also continued to write the sci-fi he’s known for. By pumping out those erotica books, he was literally able to buy a mansion.
Louis L’Amour is another one who was quite prolific. I watched an interview of him and he 100% wrote into the dark. Never outlined. He treated it like a method actor. Got into the heads of his characters and saw what they wanted to do. People are surprised by this because his books have so many historical details but L’Amour said he essentially read history books for fun and vacationed out west, so those details naturally worked their way into stories.
Yup, both Silverberg and L’Amour were great pulp writers. Bob is still with us and doing fine. Another great pulp writer who is still doing great is Lawrence Block. Block, Silverberg, Mike Resnick all wrote those early erotica books. Along with numbers of others. Marion Zimmer Bradley even wrote a few. Harlan was an editor at one of the houses as well in Chicago for a short time. He only wrote one. Budrys took his spot when Harlan went to California. Budrys never wrote any. Malzberg wrote some as well. There is an amazing book on the time and all those houses. I used to own hundreds of those books, many signed by Bob and a few others. Just tracking which pen name is who under which publishing house is great fun.
Great story out there about Lawrence Block writing a novel in single weekend. When Otto Penzler asked him how this was even possible, he responded, “The problem was finding what to do with the rest of my time.” I love that. Block was also an early adaptor to indie publishing also…
Yup, say you can write a 1,000 words an hour, clean one draft with a five minute break each hour. (That’s my schedule at my slowest.)
So I want to write a novel in a weekend starting Friday at noon and ending Sunday at midnight. 60 hours total available.
50,000 word novel equals 50 hours.
5 hours sleep Friday and 5 hours sleep Saturday night, eat on breaks and at the computer (which sadly, I have done more times on book deadlines than I care to think about.)
Easy and very possible and wouldn’t even set any records.
And if you have a myth that you can’t type that many hours because you would run out of things to say or need to “recharge” or some silliness, those are myths that need to be cleared out real quick.
I even have a book called “How to Write a Novel in Five Days While Traveling.” I did it and showed how it was done while playing cards with my buddies here in Vegas about five years ago. Great fun. I wrote the novel and I also wrote the nonfiction book on how to do it. All while traveling.
I’m so glad you keep bringing these forward. I’ve been following your blog off and on for several years now, and every time I see one of these, I have a different response. The first time I was blown away but super skeptical. I’ve seen it several times now, and each time, it makes more sense! I may not ever be a pulp speed writer but I’ve got enough myths killed to appreciate it. And without being at all pulp speed, I’ve put out more stories in the last 18 months than in the last ten years put together. Thanks for the refresh!
Sounds to me like you are doing fine. Cleaning out myths for all of us is a slow, slow process. Keep it fun.
Here’s a book you may or may not know about. It is available as a Kindle edition.
Fugate, Francis L. and Roberta B.,
Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner
New York, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1980
Using the mountain of personal papers, journals, notebooks and scraps of paper, coctail napkins, matchbook covers and Lord knows what else that Erle Stanley Gardner left behind, the authors try to explain his phenomenal success. A fascinating insight to the man, but I’m not sure how practical the advice is for writers. Still, it’s well worth reading.
Fun read, I agree. Worthless for writers because the authors brought all the myths to the book and fought against the truth to the point it was worthless to writers, but fun for ESG fans.
I really enjoyed the book.
The value to writers is mostly in the appendices, which might prove useful for plotters and outliners.
My key takeaway from it was something that Gardner called the “The Murderer’s Ladder,” and the advice to plot out the murder moment-by-moment from the murderer’s point of view before revealing it to the reader out of order from the detective’s point of view.
That was an ah-ha moment for me.
Brilliant insights into the pulp mindset. There’s always been something very blue collar about the pulp work ethic that I’ve always found appealing. These guys weren’t academics writing in a crystal garret. They were everyday joes banging out stories for rent money. There used to be a great audio recording on YouTube of Harlan Ellison talking about living and writing in New York City during the tail end of the pulp era, and all the crazy shit he had to do to make ends meet, like the time he stole a typewriter from the bullpen of an editor who owed him money and ran several blocks to pawn it.
I think part of the reason the old pulp guys never gave a story a second thought is because each story was once and done. the medium was so disposable in those days. The cheap pulp magazines were designed to be read once and then thrown away. They didn’t know fans would hang onto them and collect them. They didn’t foresee the coming of paperbacks, which would reprint many of them. And more than a few of those writers would be absolutely mystified as to why someone would want to read their old stories today. Nowadays we know better. We can sell a story over and over again, to the point where, even if we don’t remember writing it, we should at least have a record of writing it. Because the Internet never forgets.
Anyway, good stuff as always. I want to track down a copy of The Pulp Jungle. My local library system doesn’t have a copy, Abebooks doesn’t have it, and copies of it are going for $150-$850 on ebay. But I will find it and read it. I did find Gruber’s 11 point formula for writing mystery shorts. I love stuff like that. It’s fun trying to adapt it to different genres. Here’s the link: https://www.speedcitysistersincrime.org/frank-grubers-11-point-formula-for-mystery-short-stories.html
Keep on pulpin’.
This is an instant All- Time Favorite. Awesome post.