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Topic of the Night: Pulp Writers’ Abilities

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 book about them 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.

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.

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.

Work Patterns

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.)

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 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 them 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 writers have that ability. That’s why there are so few pulp-speed writers 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.


  • Jim Johnson

    I think one of the challenges we have now as modern pulp writers publishing electronically is that it’s not enough to just love writing. You can’t write a story and post it and then move on to the next one. You need a decent cover and effective blurb copy in order to sell that story.

    Thanks for the insights, Dean. I’ll have to go search for a copy of Gruber’s book.

    • dwsmith

      Jim, book covers are creative and I love doing them. And actually, I have a blast in the creative nature of this changing world with sales. Now granted, I don’t do all the heavy lifting, that’s what the fine folks at WMG do. But I love the fun of finding new cash streams and doing covers. It’s all attitude in my opinion. I have a very, very, very clear memory of just a decade ago when I wasn’t allowed any input into what happened with my work besides who I sold it to. New world is a creative place if you approach it that way.

    • Stephen

      Yes, b/c indie writers spend a lot of time promoting, answering questions about their work, forced in a sense to relive it on blog tours and interviews etc. I’ve really pulled back 90% on promotion and I’m just focusing on production now. It does have the side benefit of letting me forget about a story just move on. Going back to a story or novel is like a dog returning to his vomit. LOL

      • dwsmith

        LOL, Stephen. I like that saying. I wish other writers would realize that. Would make releasing a ton easier. (grin)

  • Paul V. Cwiakala

    Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ll definitely check it out. ^_^

    I love hearing about the old pulp writers and their processes, the more I’ve read your blog over the last few years the more I’ve felt that THAT is what I want to be. Like Heinlein’s Rules, these are four very simple ideas that are each incredibly hard to follow.

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    …some love it for the creation…

    That’s the one I relate to! The experience of creating – characters, a world, events, a story – is a thrill for me. And you are so right: that thrill only exists while I am creating. When the story is finished…that means I’m not writing it, so no thrill. I have to start the next one, if I want the thrill. And I do.

    Now, I’m nowhere near the speed of a pulp writer. But honestly, I’m not really worrying about speed. Right now my focus is on having fun and making sure I get BIC every day. Obsessing about word counts isn’t productive. Writing every day makes the word count pile up very nicely.

  • Ellen Russell

    Hi Dean – Thanks for the article on pulp fiction writers. That was fascinating. They were a hard working, productive group of writers. I looked up some of the writers you mentioned and found something called “The Lester Dent Pulp Master Fiction Plot” at this website:
    It is Lester Dent’s formula for writing a 6000 word pulp story. Very cool. Thank you.

    • dwsmith

      Ellen, on the lecture tab above I have an entire lecture on that Master Plot and also Lester Dent was the person who basically changed modern storytelling with the creation of teams around a main character. I’m doing an entire online six-week workshop on the aspects of teams in modern fiction and how to do them. Lester Dent was an amazing person.

    • Stephen Mertz

      I once wrote a story, “The Lizard Men of Blood River,” (collected in my book, “The King of Horror) which has been reprinted several times and strictly adheres to Lester Dent’s “Master Plot” that Ellen refers to. The pulp writers who transcended the genre like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler & Ray Bradbury re-wrote plenty.

      • dwsmith

        Not really, Stephen. Not until their later years after they had slowed down and gotten famous. When the started, they never did. Sorry.

  • S.E. Gordon

    Wow, thank you for expanding on your earlier points. Your advice is helping, and I feel like I’m just beginning to hit my stride. Ryoki Inoue, a great pulp writer from Brazil (and world record holder), once said that the prolific process comes down to three things: organization, discipline, and hard work. The concept of willingness or need to let go adds clarity to what it is to be a prolific author.

    I’m also just beginning to integrate the benefits of top-down design. Something as simple as picking a title before jumping in has led me to abandon rewrites altogether. That, and the understanding that it can be done, that it should be done, in order to stay in the creative side of your brain.

    I’ve clicked the Submit button on Amazon many times, with many more works waiting in the wings. It’s the last 6 that I’ve produced with this mindset that means the most to me. I’m getting there, even those they are a bunch of silly words organized on a page.

    Thank you, Dean Wesley Smith, for at very least, opening my eyes.

  • Stefon Mears

    I love Pulp Jungle. I’ll have to re-read it sometime soon. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something Gruber wrote in that book: “No editor has ever contributed anything to my writing. No editor has ever *taught* me anything.” (Emphasis his)

    I also recently picked up Secrets of The World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner. I look forward to reading it.

    Great post, Dean. Thanks for that.

    • dwsmith

      Stefon, yup, I love that quote from Gruber. I remember when I read it the first time just sitting back and wondering if he was right for me and he was, completely. I have learned the business and the craft from a lot of places, but never from editors.

  • James M. Six

    Thanks for this, Dean, especially #4. I realize now that one of my major problems in writing has been the desire to keep playing with my older stories rather than letting them go and writing something else. I enjoyed the mental games but I wasn’t producing new stories. “Letting go” might be the key I needed.

    Also, for those waiting to get a copy of Pulp Jungle, I found this online article with a little bit of the book summarized to give you a taste:

  • Ken

    Hey Dean,

    I have to say that I think you are totally on the money with the write and forget. It’s something that I have had from the beginning and there’s always a tug of war inside me between what I figure is how I think things should be (I should care more) and the fact that I don’t really overthink publishing books so much.

    It’s lead to a lot of work published and I’m proud of that achievement.

    Also, I really like the ‘just part of my routine’ thing. When I’m not in the middle of a life roll and am focused on producing something, it does become something of a daily ritual. I find getting straight out of bed and hitting the book and finishing it is like having breakfast. It’s not something I do consistently (life calls), but it is something I do regularly. That ‘part of the daily routine’ comment is spot on in my experience.

    Thanks for another great post!